These last two weeks, I’ve jumped into a new teaching job. I’m teaching college writing to seniors at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mississippi. I’m beat! A week of training. Everything is online, multiple programs to learn, new building, schedule. I’ve just completed my first week of classes (School starts in August in MS, but we get out in May), and I adore my students. Every single one. So fun to be back in the classroom.
But, not a second to spare for Jan.
In part, because as I was learning this new place and readying to meet students, I was also writing a new essay about my dad Dick Denham and his radio days for an anthology to be published this winter by Hippocampus magazine, an excellent online creative nonfiction journal. I don’t know yet if the essay has been accepted for Air: A Radio Anthology, but I’m so glad I finally wrote this. Most of you don’t know that in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s my dad was a Washington D.C. disc jockey at WINX, artist rep and promoter at Columbia Records, and program director at WRC/NBC. Here’s the first section of the essay and some fun photos.
In 1955, my father Dick Denham walked into United Broadcasting headquarters in Washington D.C. and said, “I want to be a radio personality.” He was 24 years old.
Fresh out of the service, a bleak but mercifully short stint in the Air Force after his National Guard unit was activated in 1952, he’d been pumping gas and working the floor at an upscale men’s clothing store in Arlington, Virginia, among other jobs, and dreaming of being on the air.
Dad grew up on radio. Born in 1931 in Washington D.C., his young years were filled with the music, comedy, serial programming, sports, and newscasts of radio’s heyday. He was an only child and listened to the radio constantly. The Harry James show was an immediate favorite. He listened to comedians Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Jack Benny. To singers like Eddie Fisher who rose to the top on the heels of Harry James. To The Shadow, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and The Green Hornet. At ten, he sat listening to a Washington Redskins game when the broadcast was interrupted with the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dickie Denham ran into the kitchen, crying out to his mother, “Who’s Pearl Harbor? She’s been attacked!” He sat enraptured by Arch McDonald’s play-by-play of the Washington Senators games. By the time he’s a young man stationed in Newfoundland, he is missing his music something terrible. Particularly Willis Conover’s jazz show broadcasted world-wide on the Armed Forces radio network. Dad thought, I could lose all this, and started recording Conover’s show so he could listen to his beloved jazz at will. He and his buddies used the tapes to create their own shows on base.
If you asked him, he’d tell you the arrow through his heart called music happened from the very start. Richard Marvin Denham was born to Marvin and Genevieve Denham, a childless couple in their 30’s, living in the D.C. metropolitan area. Little Dickie’s arrival was unplanned, and he spent much of his young life alone or with many of his older relatives, women mostly, I’ve heard about my whole life: Aunt Addie, Nanny Denham, Aunt JuJu. Marvin Denham was the boy wonder salesman at Lambert’s, a Hudson dealership. When Dickie came along, the family lived in a lovely white house with green trim and shingles in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Then the depression wiped it all out. The little family of three was forced to live with Genevieve’s parents on Kenyon Street near the NW entrance of the National Zoo.
Music saved Dickie’s life. He fell in love with percussion first. In elementary school, he was invited to lead the student body into assembly, beating the toy drum he’d been gifted by his mother. He graduated to a small drum set, but as my father tells it now, his mother feared her only son would become one of those bebop drummers like Gene Krupka whom read about in the Star. Dad chuckles, saying, “If she’d ever read about Dizzy, I may never have played the trumpet!”
The Kenyon Street gang, dad and his buddies, all went home after school and listened to the 6 pm Lone Ranger episode, and then, the music program, which for a while was Harry James. This school-aged boy was fascinated by the sounds, the rhythms, the trumpet, his love of the instrument cemented. Someone gave him a phony tin, three-valve trumpet as a gift and soon he’d be found in the evenings on the stair landing, holding the thing up to his tiny sliver of a mouth, pretending he was Harry James and blowing. He’d put 78 RPM records of James’ orchestra on the family’s tiny crank record player there on the landing and play along to the Two O’clock Jump. Only he wasn’t making a sound.
It was during these years on Kenyon Street when Genevieve bought my dad his first trumpet, an ornate Conn, from a fellow in the Navy band. Enthusiasm quickly turned to the cold, hard reality of playing the thing. Dick was surprised when he picked it up, put it to his lips, and couldn’t play like Harry James. He started to practice.
I never knew my dad to be a trumpet player, though that original Conn has remained in my family all these years. When I was growing up, it was the drums. Just as he’d done as a boy on that stairway landing, Dad set up a beet red and sparkly drum set—a Christmas gift from my mother—in the basement rec room of our Rockville, Maryland cul-de-sac ranch and played along to his jazz records for hours. I’d join him and sit in the hanging wicker chair next to my mom’s heavy old writing desk and swing as he played, listening to the beat, the melodies, watch his body keeping time, the swagger in shoulders and neck and head of a person who is inside the music. “The difference,” he tells me today, “is that I was really playing those drums!”
He lived for music and it was everywhere. As a paperboy for the The Evening Star, he had one customer in the Cavalier Apartments, a woman, who played her records nonstop. She’d open the door, and hearing the fascinating Two O’clock Jump, Dad would stick around in the foyer long after she closed it just to listen longer.
At some point, Dick began taking trumpet lessons with a pit musician at the Capitol Theater. Every Saturday, he and his friend Herbert Berger went backstage to take lessons. When he was 16, he auditioned for the Redskins Marching Band and spent three years travelling all over for games.
Here’s the story I love imagining best: Dad, a lanky, dark-haired, quiet high schooler with a wide, bright smile, traipsing around the city at night in his trench coat, playing pickup gigs, in quartets, pop and standards. The nights he’d be out so late, he’d head to a girl’s apartment, a friend, to sleep on her family’s couch. He’d wake early, take the bus back to Kenyon Street in time to wash up and change before heading back to school.
He wasn’t the best of students, but his teachers loved him, the self-professed class clown. “Without my great relationships with them, I may not have graduated,” he believes now. It wasn’t for lack of trying or smarts; my dad suffered Dyslexia, a disorder in those days teachers and administrators knew little about. In college at George Washington, he found little purpose, was bored. The Dyslexia made it all the harder.
But his ear was good. His love of the music, bottomless. He could play along to anything. Listen and figure it out. He played this way until the auditions began to outdo him; he couldn’t read the music. That old demon Dyslexia. Dad stopped playing when he went into the service.
In D.C. after the Korean war, playing wasn’t on his mind anymore: he was working multiple jobs and listening to music. He saved for a car.
“Nat the Cat Battin’at Ya” (Battonatcha) was a local disc jockey, a sportscaster, and a regular customer at the gas station where Dad worked. He’d pull up in his big red car, the black call letters of a radio station on both sides, and Dad noticed. At this time, Nat the Cat (Nat Albright) was recreating the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games in the studio at WOOK and putting these recordings on the air. He had the crowd noises, the calls, the hit . . . “You’d swear you were listening to the original,” Dad says. “And he was doing it all with crude tools.”
Dad told Nat how he was interested in broadcasting, and soon Albright was handing my dad UPI wire to read aloud as he pumped the gas. One day Nat said, “You’re ready” and made the appointment for Dad to interview at WINX, a fledgling station in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Owner Richard Eaton sat behind the big desk looking at my young, handsome, gregarious father, who’d just walked in and said, “I want to be a radio personality.”
“I like the way you just said that,” Eaton told my father. “I just bought a radio station for my son. You can start Monday.”