WDUQ's 'Rhythm, Sweet & Hot' Lives! An Appreciation

Friday, 24 June 2011 07:54 AM Written by 



With the impending, sad end of WDUQ as the jazz entity it was on July 1, the outcry from fans of station's jazz programming not only here but from a fan base extending nationwide, was intense. I'll have more to say on that next week. Along with the general distress, many dreaded the possible loss of Rhythm, Sweet and Hot, the Saturday night WDUQ big band show hosted by Mike Plaskett and Dale Abraham.  As of yesterday, Essential Public Media, DUQ's new owners, announced the show, RS&H for short, will continue as part of their on-air jazz lineup.

To many, the Big Band Era may be far in the past, but on RS&H it absolutely thrives. Plaskett and Abraham, longtime collectors of vintage 78 rpm recordings, play a mix of jazz, swing and sweet music from the 20's through the 50's.  For the record, "sweet" refers to what were once called Sweet Bands, softer, more mellow and commercial than Benny Goodman or Count Basie (think Guy Lombardo).  What isn't in Plaskett's or Abraham's own collections, they get from vinyl LP or CD reissues. That includes reissues of transcriptions, radio airchecks and live recordings, where the bands often played hotter than they did in a sterile recording studio.

RS&H isn't limited to orchestral fare. You're likely to hear great vocalists, Lee Wiley, The Boswell Sisters, the Pied Pipers, Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, Kay Starr, Sinatra, Anita O'Day or Jo Stafford.  One night they played a rare 1940's pop record by longtime KDKA radio DJ Art Pallan, from his days as a singer.  Small group swing shows up often. It's routine to hear the gypsy jazz of guitarist Django Reinhardt, jazz violinist Joe Venuti, the Joe Mooney Quartet or the John Kirby Sextet.  They've even played "Wunnerful! Wunnerful!" satirist Stan Freberg's lacerating, jarringly authentic 1957 spoof of Lawrence Welk, a record that at the time, had Welk calling his attorneys.

If this music is new to you, Mike and Dale are the perfect guides. They banter, illuminate and entertain all at once and as someone who writes pop music history for a general audience, I can tell you that's not easy to do.  They add context and tell stories. And if you don't like what Dale plays, Mike has something else coming and vice versa.  I consider myself reasonably well versed in big bands, especially swing music. But I learn something every time I listen to these guys, and enjoy it at the same time.  You can learn or just savor music recorded live, no overdubs, no electronic pitch correction. That's the beauty of it. 

This clip from one of the stations who run the show, is a good sample.

This is RS&H's 30th anniversary.  It began in 1980 at WQED-FM, teaming Plaskett with legendary Big Band collector/authority Ken Crawford, often fondly recalled by Mike and Dale. They moved to DUQ in 1981 when QED went all-classical.  Saturday night big band fare became an institution at the station between the late Len Hendry's "Let's Dance" program and RS&H.

It became a local institution, one syndicated to other stations around the country.  The like-minded Abraham produced the show. When Crawford died in 2006 at age 80, he filled the open slot, preserving the show's engaging multi-generational feel.

The digital age may rule, but not only is analog music not dead, vinyl LPs, dismissed as archaic technology, are so popular today both small boutique labels and some major labels have limited vinyl releases. New turntables feature USB connections, so music on vinyl music can be burned to computer drives, iPod, etc. 

You can think of RS&H in the same way. Pittsburgh, after all, is home to both Jerry's Records (45s, LPs) and Whistlin' Willie's (78s)  in the same Squirrel Hill building. So it's not really surprising that RS&H originates from here.  The show is nostalgia, yet it's not.  It's educational, but fun.  More importantly, it preserves part of America's musical culture that for those with open minds of any age, is every bit as relevant and compelling today as it was then.  

And for those of us who thought we'd be hearing the show's traditional closing theme, "Up a Lazy River" for the last time tomorrow night, it's gratifying to know that won't be the case.

As Plaskett himself might say, "hrr-aaaayyy!"

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