Most Of the World Has Never Heard of This Radio Show. After 55 Years, I Will Miss It.
When your favorite radio show has been on the air for almost 55 years, I suppose it sounds ungrateful to say you don’t want it to end.
Tough. I don’t.
It’s not, however, my call.
On March 28, 1963, Fordham University students Tom Luciani and Joe Marchesani launched The Time Capsule Show on WFUV, Fordham’s public radio station. It was an hour long, once a week, and it featured rhythm and blues vocal group music from the 1950s.
Since then the show has had several hosts. It went off for a spell. It finally morphed into The Group Harmony Review, which for the past 20 years or so has been hosted by Dan Romanello.
Two weeks ago, Dan announced that March 4 — Saturday night/Sunday morning, midnight-2 a.m. — would be his final broadcast.
WFUV General Manager Chuck Singleton, who praised Romanello as “a national treasure,” hasn’t announced what will fill that timeslot going forward. Devotees hope it will be the same music, but that’s a long shot, because the truth is that there just aren’t that many of us devotees still listening to shows like this on the radio.
A patchwork of mostly student-hosted shows with widely varying content back in 1963, WFUV today has a format: triple-A (adult album alternative), also sometimes called Americana. It has professional deejays through the week and some specialty shows on weekends.
The Group Harmony Review, dearly as I have loved it, is a dilemma for a programmer. It doesn’t really feed into the station’s regular programming and its audience, to be painfully frank, is getting old.
So you can’t blame WFUV if it looks elsewhere, and the truth is that it kept presenting 1950s rhythm and blues long after it was dropped by virtually every other commercial and non-commercial station in the country.
That said, I’ll still miss the show, much the way I’ve missed beloved pets. You’re thankful for the good years, you have wonderful memories, and there’s still that empty spot in the corner.
It could be argued, correctly, that losing this radio show doesn’t mean losing the music. Almost any song you heard on The Group Harmony Review, you can punch up on YouTube.
But YouTube, or your iPod, or your CD or vinyl collection, can’t present a song the way a good radio host plays it.
Frank Sinatra used to talk about this on stage. A good host picks out music he or she and the listener will both enjoy. It makes each song an exhilarating surprise, turning music into a shared experience with the gratifying sense that someone else hears and loves the same things you do.
That’s true whether the host is playing Kendrick Lamar, Beethoven, the Del Vikings, Jason Aldean or Ella Fitzgerald. When you love the music yourself, you can tell which hosts really like it and which ones are playing it because it’s a job, like stocking cans of peas on a supermarket shelf.
Around New York, where I live, we’ve lost several of those singular hosts just recently. Jonathan Schwartz is gone from WNYC. At WFUV, Vin Scelsa retired and Rich Conaty died. The radio is a bit more barren for it.
The original Time Capsule Show on WFUV wound down around 1978 when Luciani and Marchesani, now long since graduated and into their real lives, ran out of the time and energy to do it every week.
The late Rich Adcock did a more eclectic ’50s show for a while. When he left, Bill Shibilski recruited George Tompkins — a major Time Capsule fan who had done his own show on WARY-FM — to help revive the show on WFUV.
Shibilski’s idea was to have a team of hosts, so no one would have to do a show every week — which, as any radio host knows, requires about 20 times more work than it might seem.
Luciani and Marchesani were arm-twisted into coming back for periodic spots, and Tompkins also brought in several major record collectors, including Neil Hirsch, Sal Mondrone and the late Bob Galgano.
Romanello also joined that group, and Bobby Lesczak filled in for a time.
The rotation worked nicely for more than a decade. The show ran for three hours on Saturday afternoon, and became a gathering spot for artists. One afternoon the wonderful Wrens, a Bronx group from the ’50s, reunited to sing live on the show.
But the show faced a creeping problem, not of its own making. When Luciani and Marchesani began playing 1950s vocal group records, those records were only 5–10 years old, like playing tracks today from 2010. By the year 2000 the same music was 40–50 years old, with a correspondingly aging audience that was dwindling because its members were moving, or moving on, or dying.
WFUV cut the show to two hours. Several hosts had already dropped out for various reasons, and by 2000, when the show had been shifted to the midnight slot, Romanello was flying solo.
He’s been doing it ever since, and two weeks ago he announced he was finally hanging it up. He’s loved it, he said, but he’s got grandkids and it’s time to do other things.
You can’t blame him. He’s been at WFUV almost 35 years, an unpaid volunteer keeping the music alive on the air. About all that’s left is to wonder whether he will end his last show with “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” by the Flamingos.
In the broader picture, you hope that the 55 years of this radio show have helped give 1950s rhythm and blues vocal group music some of the respect for which it has always had to battle.
Some time ago it got stuck with the tag “doo-wop,” which wouldn’t be bad if it connoted harmony syllables with a hint of self-aware fun, but instead has come to suggest frivolous throwaway novelty music, like five guys in matching suits chanting “Sh-Boom” over and over.
“Sh-Boom” is actually a pretty clever song, but the point is that vocal group music of the 1950s, predominantly though not exclusively sung by black artists, too often gets written off as just another of the fads rock ’n’ roll has embraced for one dance and discarded.
It’s true not all of it is timeless. But for the harmony singing alone, it has often been lovely and, yes, sophisticated. Listen to the Moonglows, the Ravens, the Platters or the Five Keys.
If part of the sound was young groups like the Teenagers, just as much was grownups who were talented professional singers with wonderfully distinctive voices.
The best of the 1950s vocal groups belong in the permanent American songbook alongside the best of Broadway, jazz, country, blues, gospel, R&B and Golden Age popular standards.
In this digital age, happily, you can still hear those groups. Sirius XM’s Cool Bobby B does three hours every Sunday night. There are local shows and dozens of streamed shows, mostly collectors playing their own music just because they love it.
Vintage Group Harmony Review shows are also available, because Tompkins has posted several years worth on the website www.vocalgroupharmony.com, alongside hundreds of smart shows from Marv Goldberg and others.
I’m delighted about this, both for myself and because it keeps the music out there.
There will just be one less good thing on Saturday nights.