Recalling hockey's radio days and a mystery song

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By Stu Hackel

With the most important hockey story today apparently being Sean Avery getting busted for shoving a cop, which is barely a hockey story at all, the dog days of summer have officially settled in. So it's safe to go somewhere else for our ruminations.

This post was inspired by the news that a giant of jazz, Frank Foster, had passed away in late July. Now, you're saying, "What does that have to do with hockey?" Just be patient; I'll get there. For me, it has more to do with hockey than Sean Avery's arrest.

I irrevocably fell in love with hockey in the early 1960s, decades before the internet, mobile devices on which one could watch NHL games, and cable or satellite TV to bring the Center Ice package into my home. There was nothing like that. There were hardly any televised games at all. In New York, we got one game a week on Saturday night (over Channel 9 with the great Win Elliot doing play-by-play) and not very much hockey news in the local papers. In fact, the New York newspapers were shut down by a strike from December 1962 to the end of March 1963. The radio became the best place to find out what was going on in hockey.

Every Rangers game, except the ones on TV, was on the radio, with Jim Gordon (another great announcer) doing them on WCBS. But at the outset of the 1963-64 season, the Rangers had no deal for radio broadcasts, so we were down to one televised game a week. By the end of the season, the Rangers returned over WHN and, if I recall correctly, they only aired the last six minutes of the first and second periods and all of the third. That forced me to really accelerate my search for hockey on the radio and explore what I could hear elsewhere.

Every night for the next few years, instead of doing my homework, I holed up in my room gently twisting the dial of the clock radio on my desk, eternally battling static and competing AM radio signals that drifted in and out, hoping to pull in a game from somewhere, anywhere. That white plastic radio with the dark clock face and silver sweeping hands was my doorway to the hockey world. It didn't take long for me to locate the Toronto broadcasts of the Maple Leafs and, from Montreal, those of  the Canadiens which could be found in both English and French -- not that I understood much of what was happening in French, but the magnificent Rene Lecavalier sounded so engaged that between his call of the game action, the noise of the crowd and hearing the PA announcements, the game wasn't impossible to follow.

Sometimes, I could get the Bruins from WBZ in Boston (I still remember their jingle "WBZ, Radio One-Oh-Three"), but it was hard to hear because the signal wasn't especially strong. Sporadically, if the sun, planets and stars lined up correctly, I could pull in the Red Wings over WJR, but at 760 AM, they were right next to WABC 770, which was as powerful a radio station as there was in the '60s, both their signal and their Top 40 format. In the battle of the Bruces -- the Red Wings' Bruce Martyn vs. WABC's "Cousin" Bruce Morrow -- Cousin Brucie usually won out, to my dismay. Only once do I recall being able to receive WMAQ and the great Lloyd Petit broadcasting the Black Hawks. That station was at 670 AM, butt-up against WNBC at 660.

I didn't stop at the NHL. I'd listen to anything and everything I could find. An Allen Cup playoff game between two teams I never heard of with players I never knew? My ear was glued to the speaker. And like many hockey fans everywhere, I'd always seek out WOWO in Ft. Wayne to hear the indestructible Bob Chase do the Komets games in the IHL.

By then, I was no longer a Rangers fan as much as a hockey fan. The sport had lots more to offer than a non-playoff team that couldn't be depended upon for their full games on the radio. And, just as importantly, they had traded my favorite player, Gump Worsley, to Montreal. But Gump got hurt in his eighth game for the Canadiens in 1963 and subsequently lost his job to Charlie Hodge. He was shipped to the AHL Quebec Aces to play himself back into shape, which for Gump was some variation of round. The best way to find out how he was doing with the Aces was listening to the Baltimore Clippers games on WBAL, which came in loud and clear. The Clippers were the Rangers' farm team in the early '60s and their announcers, Jim West and George Taylor, were quite good, but so blatently over-the-top pro-Clippers that to this day my brother and I still imitate their calls: "Oh, oh! Here comes Hershey down the ice! Get back! Look out!! Oh, no, they scored." I grew to expect that from minor league announcers, but I still cringe when I hear overt partisanship on an NHL game broadcast.

Without question, the best announcing came out of Canada. CBM in Montreal and CBL from Toronto would simulcast the TV audio of those clubs' Saturday Hockey Night In Canada home games and produce their own broadcasts of the Leafs' and Habs' road games every Sunday. These stations were part of CBC's network and if for some cosmic reason the signals weren't coming in strong, I'd try to find CBA out of the Maritimes, which always aired one of the games.

I learned an awful lot about hockey from the legendary announcers on those broadcasts: the pioneering Foster Hewitt, up in the gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens, with his distinctive pinched voice and his much-copied style of delivery -- his voice rising or falling with the intensity of play -- and his son Bill, who sounded so much like Foster to me that they were almost indistinguishable. Then there was the greatest of them all, Danny Gallivan who, perched on the Montreal Forum catwalk, perfected Foster's style. Gallivan's descriptions were even more colorful and his voice was so commanding that I couldn't imagine anyone ever topping him. So far no one has.

There are lots of examples of Danny calling games on YouTube, but here are highlights of a Habs-Leafs playoff game much later (from 1979, alongside his equally great partner Dick Irvin and ex-NHLer Gerry Pinder) that illustrates his work.

All these radio men had a profound impact on my understanding of hockey -- only playing the game taught me more.  Among them, none was more influential than those on the Saturday and Sunday night CBC broadcasts.

And here is where Frank Foster comes in.

At the conclusion of every one of those Sunday CBC Radio network games, as the closing credits were read by the broadcast's host, a song played under his voice. It wasn't the Hockey Night In Canada theme music or any of those stirring, marching band songs that most sports broadcasts of the time used, but a great jazz composition played by a quintet, or maybe a sextet, in hard-bop style. I loved it as much as I loved listening to Danny or the Hewitts. If hockey was like any music, it was most like jazz, with its free flow and improvisation within a structure. To me, that song was part of the game and its riffs stuck in my head all week until the following Sunday when I'd hear it again.

I had absolutely no idea what this song's title was, who the musicians were, who composed it, anything. All I knew was that it had been recorded live at a jazz club because sometimes the engineer would let the track play to its conclusion before the next show started -- which was Cross-Country Checkup, a national phone-in show that is still on the CBC -- and you'd hear the applause in the club after the last note. I had to get a copy of this song. But not knowing the title or the artists, that wasn't going to happen. It's not the only time I've wanted a song I couldn't identify, but that one was right on top of my mystery list.

Then, in the later '60s, the song disappeared from the Radio Canada broadcasts. I don't mind telling you I was pissed off. The broadcasts didn't seem complete without it.

Let's fast forward. About 15 years later, in the early 1980s, I was a Saturday night disc jockey on a community station in central Missouri and one summer evening I was pulling records for my show when the DJ on the air played one with that old familiar riff. The sound surged like an electric current right to my brain. It wasn't the same recording; this was a big band version, but it was that song. I rushed into the studio and begged to see the LP cover. It was the Count Basie Orchestra. The LP was called The Chairman of the Board and the song was called "Blues in Hoss' Flat." A deep and amazed relief washed over me and I felt like someone who had completed a long journey with no map who accidentally stumbled upon where he'd set out to go.

I had been a fan of Basie since I was a little kid and it turned out that Frank Foster, who played tenor sax in Basie's band, wrote the song in the late-'50s, around the time I started appreciating them. Basie's band went though a number of phases over the five decades of its lifespan and this version was called "The Atomic Band" for its powerful work. Foster did lots of composing and arranging for Basie. In the 1980's, after Basie died, he'd take over as the Basie band's leader.

Now, in retrospect, I don't know why I didn't recognize this song when I first heard it on CBC because it was in a film I sat through twice in 1961, The Errand Boy starring Jerry Lewis. There's a famous scene in that movie in which Lewis pantomimes being the boss of a corporation and that original Basie recording is the soundtrack.

And if that looks and sounds familiar to you, it might be because you saw it copied note for note, gesture for gesture, on The Family Guy.

But I didn't remember the film scene or the song being part of it. Only when seeing it decades later did I connect The Errand Boy with that Sunday night closing theme.

I've never discovered who did the version I heard over Radio Canada in the '60s. I've always guessed it was by a Canadian combo, probably from a live recording that CBC made of a performance it aired and not a commercial release because I've searched for every version of "Blues in Hoss' Flat"  that I can find and I've never come across it.

So now Frank Foster is gone. He had a lifetime of accomplishments, including being a full-time college professor, an honorary doctorate, and winning Grammys and the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award. He was involved in the Jazz Foundation of America's effort to provide relief to elderly jazz and blues musicians who were victimized by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He played on all those great 1950s Basie records, most of which I now have in my collection, and was a major figure in jazz on his own afterward.

Composing "Blues In Hoss' Flat" may not be considered as significant as some those other things, but it's pretty special to me. That tune meant the end of the Sunday night hockey radio broadcast. Maybe that's why I always end my posts with a song.