Porky Chedwick: Pittsburgh Pioneer

Sunday, 02 March 2014 05:24 PM Written by 

It seems almost stunning that Porky Chedwick, who died Sunday morning, passed just after appearing at Henry DeLuca's final Roots of Rock and Roll concert last week, and less than a year after the passing of another local radio icon: Terry Lee. There will be plenty written over the next month or so about the man, memories of his days on the radio and his undeniable place as one more Pittsburgher who made a difference in American music, along with Jimmy Beaumont, Billy Eckstine, Erroll Garner, The Del-Vikings and so many others.

He was part of a very tiny group of broadcasting pioneers, white disc jockeys in the South, the West Coast and in the east, who took Rhythm and Blues being marketed to the African-American audience and presented it to a local audience heavy on white teenagers. For him, it began in 1948, three years before Alan Freed—who has always gotten disproportionate credit—began doing the same thing in Ohio. Fortunately for Porky, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acknowledges his achievements.

It didn't stop there, of course. His penchant for digging out and playing older records included vintage R&B and gospel music, the beginnings of the enduring phenomenon we now know as Oldies.

Bizarre as it might seem today, what he did made a lot of white adults in Western Pennsylvania very, very nervous back early on, in a time when the idea of white teenagers enjoying the same R&B enjoyed by black kids was too much for some parents. Fears Porky and his music were subverting their ideas and potentially corrupting their kids were real, at least for a while.

He began at WHOD in Homestead, which later became the now-iconic WAMO (also home base to pioneering African-American DJ Mary Dudley). Porky and WAMO would be joined at the hip for decades to come.

Eventually his name graced over a dozen of Oldies albums (none using that term), with titles describing them as "Dusty Discs," "Dusties," and "Golden Goodies" remain treasured in the region and beyond.  "Oldies But Goodies" was another disc jockey's idea.

In later decades Porky persevered through health issues that might have forced others to quit, one being including a non-malignant brain tumor. He occasionally returned to the mike and after some time in Sarasota, Florida, him and his wife Jeanie relocated to Brookline. The honors came. Why the Pittsburgh Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did not choose to induct him with promoter Rich Engler this year is a debate for another time. So is the Senator John Heinz History Center's ongoing, clueless indifference to this region's music history. Those debates need to happen.

On another level, maybe institutional indifference pales alongside the reality of Pittsburgh's grassroots reputation for never forgetting its own. It's why those who make a mark here, who capture the hearts of the region, remain remembered and beloved even if those achievements came decades earlier. Being so willing to look back and celebrate at its past puzzles many from outside the area. I think remembering the Porkys, the Slim Bryants, Walt Harpers and others explains and defines part of this the region's resiliency, an incontrovertible sense the past is indeed prologue.

Porky made a difference. Even younger generations not alive when he ruled the airwaves know the name and at least some of what it means. And little wonder, The mark he left on this region's culture is lasting and permanent, as is his impact on the history of rock as we know it. Time will only solidify his memory. Around these parts, it always does.

By all means, mourn his passing. But celebrate and remember him as he was, with the music he played. This clip includes one of his early themes, along with an example of that early music: Tiny Bradshaw's "Walk That Mess," from 1951.

Here are a few more clips, some posted on a previous entry I did marking his 95th birthday.

One of several Porky themes:

A Sarasota TV station's 2011 tribute:

Porky's 2011 thank you to his fans

No, Bossman.  Thank you.

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