White Port Lemon Juice: Let’s Raise a Glass To a Drink That Lives On

I wanted to say something positive about this weekend’s format change at New York radio station WPLJ (95.5 FM).

Many radio fans in New York are feeling a little sad over the end of the 48-year run for pop/rock music there. They’re not happy with radio conglomerate Cumulus for selling it to Educational Media Foundation (EMF), which will convert the station to religious programming under its K-Love network.

Much of the nostalgia among New York radio fans, it should be noted, centers on the fondly remembered rock format of the 1970s and less on the format of the last two decades, which was pop/rock for suburban housewives.

That sounds snarky and demeaning. It’s not. WPLJ delivered a carefully planned and entirely legitimate mix of music whose core target audience was women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who wanted something fun, upbeat, still rock-ish, but not too noisy. No rap, no “sleepy elevator music.”

It wasn’t an especially sexy format. You didn’t hear it pulsing out of the car next to you at a stoplight. It rarely made a big splash in the ratings. But it had a loyal audience that advertisers loved. It made money.

Then radio listenership started changing, thanks to competition from streaming, personal devices, social media, etc.

Under Cumulus, which is known more for attention to the bottom line than for passion about radio, it eventually became more valuable as a saleable asset than as an ongoing radio station.

Cumulus has arranged for it to go out with a lot of fanfare, but it’s going out just the same, and another chapter in New York radio history closes.

In the service of the aforementioned positivity, however, I would like to note that not everything about 95.5 FM is going away.

EMF is retaining, at least for starters, the WPLJ call letters.

Yippee.

Because “WPLJ” is another whole piece of American cultural history.

The letters stand for White Port Lemon Juice, an adult beverage popular in California in the early 1950s.

As the name suggests, it was a combination of white port wine and lemon juice, often the less expensive sort of white port. This created what one might call an affordable mixed drink, said to have roots in Mexican circles.

While beverage experts might have a more detailed and sophisticated explanation of its appeal, there seems to be a general consensus that the tartness of the lemon juice cut the sweetness of the wine, making it more palatable for those having more than one.

Whatever its origin and demographic, it was a favorite drink of four men who met in late 1954 or early 1955 at the Golden Dragon Club in Salinas, Calif., some 10 miles from Fort Ord.

Three of the men — Jim Dunbar, Orvis Lee Teamer and Henry Shufford — were soldiers stationed at Fort Ord. The fourth, Luther McDaniels, was not.

All four were, however, singers. All four also had gospel backgrounds, and they began harmonizing in the vocal group style of the day — at first with gospel tunes, later adding secular material.

They eventually made their way to Ray Dobard’s Music City recording studio in Berkeley. Dobard also had started the Music City label, and he signed the group, who called themselves the Four Deuces.

As for what they would record, Dobard liked a love song McDaniels had written about the drink he enjoyed and had introduced to the others.

“W-P-L-J.”

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As songs go, it falls somewhere below “Stardust” or “Over the Rainbow.”

F’rinstance:

“You take the bottle, you take the can / You shake it up fine, you get a real good wine.”

“I went to the store when they opened the door / I said please please please gimme some more.”

Maybe the most interesting part here is that lemon juice came in a can?

In any case, McDaniels and the group acceded to standard practice of the day and gave label owner Dobard a co-writing credit. The song was released as Music City 790, and while it never made the national charts, it was a hit around California. In fact, it became Music City’s biggest hit.

Okay, that’s a relative term. But the song circulated enough to be picked up by winemaker Italian Swiss Colony. That sounds like a nice score, except Daniels later said that no one in the group ever saw a penny from anyone for anything.

Welcome to the 1950s indy R&B world.

The Four Deuces had one more release on Music City, “Down It Went.” Yes, it was a sequel and no, it didn’t go anywhere. Neither, in the end, did the Four Deuces, though McDaniels would soldier on as Lord Luther, a beloved California showman for many years.

The Four Deuces also left a mark of their own.

In 1970, Frank Zappa picked up “W-P-L-J” for the Mothers of Invention’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich album. Zappa was a major fan of ’50s R&B vocal groups — the Mothers cut a whole album in that style, Ruben and the Jets — and it’s easy to see where this tune would fascinate him.

At just about the same time, on the other side of the continent, New York’s WABC-FM was looking to drop its “Love” format and rebrand itself as a station that featured album tracks rather than the traditional single releases.

As the story goes, ABC President of FM Programming Allen Shaw wanted the call letters WRIF, but an FCC clerical screwup gave them instead to the former WXYZ in Detroit.

So Shaw had to find a new candidate in a hurry. He saw the Mothers of Invention track and apparently figured that would be a cool association with a hip album-oriented group. On Valentine’s Day 1971, WABC-FM became WPLJ.

And still will be. When K-Love joins the New York airwaves at 95.5 FM as WPLJ, it will be perpetuating a lovely homage to a cheap high of the 1950s.

If the K-Love audience doesn’t know, which is okay, let’s have faith that somewhere, the late Luther McDaniels and the Four Deuces are raising a glass.

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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