By Jim Botticelli, Creator of Dirty Old Boston
In Dirty Old Boston, WMEX-AM was the only station for kids. WBZ and later WRKO were richer and more powerful, but this little station located right outside Kenmore Square launched in 1934 and kept on keeping on. Legend has it that Billie Holiday was broadcast remotely for audiences at home from an unspecified Boston Nightclub. The smart money is on the old Hi Hat in the South End, in the days when South End jazz clubs were commonplace.
The Beautiful and Sad Billie Holiday
In 1941, noted jazz scholar Nat Hentoff, author of "Boston Boy: Growing Up With Jazz and other Rebellious Passions", launched his first jazz show on WMEX, giving listeners nearly a decade of listening before heading to New York where he became a widely respected author, reporter, reviewer and critic of all things Jazz.
Keyboardist John Kiley, Fenway Park organist from 1954-1989, performed live on WMEX in the 40s and 50s, playing audience call-in favorites by request, live, on the spot, earning him a stellar rep and a gig any keyboardist would salivate to sequester.
In 1957, following an ownership change, WMEX changed to a rock-and-roll format, one of the first in the US to do so, and began airing the now legendary Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg, whose nightly rock-and-roll broadcasts on 1600 WBOS were already very popular. Ginsburg got a boost from Revere rocker Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon who recorded Arnie a legendary theme song.
With other personalities such as Emperor Fenway, Melvin X Melvin and Dandy Dan Donovan, the station was the go-to for Boston youth. Ginsburg frequently ran record hops in Legion halls and community centers for local high-schoolers and famously created the "Ginsburger" for sponsor Adventure Car Hop.
In 1967, the popular WRKO went Top-40, but in Dirty Old Boston, WMEX was the real deal. For example in later 1967 while 'RKO aired the Doors "Light My Fire" 45 edition, 'MEX played the album version, complete with Ray Manzarek's organ solo.
This endeared music enthusiasts to the station and until the advent of Underground FM radio and the rebirth of WBCN in 1968, WMEX was king.
In the late 60s, WMEX received a power upgrade to 50,000 watts daytime, still with 5000 watts at night. Station engineers had to constantly adjust the phasing network as tides in the Neponset River would wreak havoc on the station's directional pattern. However, the saltwater marsh area provided the station with an excellent coastal signal. While the night signal could not be heard clearly inland at many Boston suburban locations (especially in the growing and affluent western and southwestern suburbs), the station's nighttime transmissions were heard very clearly in Boston's neighborhoods and working class North Shore areas like Lynn
Lynn Lynn, City of Sin, You Never Go Out The Way You Came In
The saltwater path nighttime transmissions also reached up Nova Scotia and Labrador, gaining the station a wider audience.
By the late 60s, WMEX, lacking the nighttime 50K watts, had a tough time competing with WRKO which had 24 hour juice. WBZ veteran DJ Dick Summer was able to introduce an expanded playlist featuring Progressive Rock album cuts, and eschew the still-dominant Top-40 mentality, by that time the laughing stock of the Hipoisie. WMEX abandoned all Top-40 pretenses in 1975.
Dick Summer, hosting the "Subway" Show on WBZ before arriving at WMEX
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WMEX had a resurgence in the 1970s when it started playing disco around 1972, long before it hit the mainstream. When WXKS (aka KISS 108) switched to disco around 1978, WMEX was forced to change to a talk format.
WMEX was an amazing station, partly because it was independently owned (unlike Westinghouse WBZ, CBS WEEI, Plough WCOP, Herald-Traveler WHDH and RKO-General WNAC/WRKO). This allowed them the freedom to have Nat Hentoff do a jazz show in the pre-rock days, and allowed owner Mac Richmond to go all rock and roll in 1957, (true…one of the first in the nation). He hired Arnie Ginsburg (who already did a popular nightly rock and roll show on small foreign language station WBOS 1600) and was smart enough to program a two-way telephone talk show (again one of the first in the nation) after 10PM when the kids were in bed, expanding his audience. That host was Jerry Williams. WMEX’s strongest signal was always in the Boston neighborhoods….your could tell when they put a contest winner on the air…..the strongest Boston accents you ever heard! Mac Richmond was a control freak and—reportedly—had an abrasive personality, but he kept the signal challenged WMEX one of Boston’s leading stations for many years.
The WMEX Billy Holiday broadcast was done live from Storyville, a jazz club located at the Hotel Buckminster in 1951. Nat Hentoff introduced the program. There are several commercial records issued of the broadcast. Here’s the back story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Rare_Live_Recording_of_Billie_Holiday
Back in my college days I hung with the engineer that worked the night shift helped him out at times at the Neponset site. I remember he used to have the panic button for the 10 sec delay if anything the FCC might not want could be cut
I think that the WMEX frequency was 1510, not 1600 as stated above.
WCOP was popular before MEX took over. WooWoo DJ’d a record hop at Devine School in Randolph. When I was stationed in VA. Beach in 1965-1967 I could get Dick Summer on my transistor standing watch at Midnight to 4:00 AM to get a little bit of home
I could receive WMEX all the way up the coast in Sabattus, Maine in the ’60’s on my Channel Master transistor radio! Toot toot!
Where can I get a copy of the picture of WMEX at the top of this page?
I grew up during WMEX’s “Second Wave” with Ron Robin in the morning, John H Garabedian in the afternoons and Bud Ballou in the evenings. True it was hard to get it at night up in NH but by then we’d switch over to WKBW out of Buffalo like the rest of the east coast
WORC In Worcester played rock before MEX.But you could get Mex on car radios at night in Worcester county, at least in Shrewsbury we could.Great cruising tunes by WooWoo.
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