The Troy Street Observer

Dec 20: Norm Nathan’s Sounds in the Night

Norm Nathan, born on this date in 1925, hosted Sounds in the Night, a jazz program on Boston’s WHDH-AM, from 1956 to 1968. Each weeknight, from 11:30 to 5:30, Nathan would spin records and interview guests.

Photo of Norm Nathan
Norm Nathan, 1960

Nathan started in radio in 1944, but it wasn’t until he arrived at WMEX in 1952 that he played a jazz record on the air. His own shows were mundane, but he could play better music when he filled in for Nat Hentoff as host of Jazz Album. Nathan was out of radio for a time after WMEX, and was hired at WHDH in 1956.

Nathan was supposed to play easy-listening pop music through the overnight hours, but he began slipping jazz records into the mix, and night owls started listening. He added more jazz and found more listeners, especially among the college crowd. Eventually he had the show he wanted, or close to it. In 1958, Basie supplied a suitable theme song, “Midnite Blue.”

Describing his show, Nathan told Metronome in 1960: “It’s basically middle of the road. I play Basie, Ellington, the (Four) Freshmen, Christy, Sinatra, the Hi-Lo’s, Garner, Jamal, Red Garland, Brubeck, Miles. And it seems to attract both jazz fans and those listeners whose tastes are several notches above rock and roll, but not necessarily geared to jazz. You could say that the basic philosophy of Sounds in the Night is to gather as large an audience as possible without sacrificing musical integrity.”

Nathan played records, but he was also a perceptive interviewer, and performers often stepped off stage at Storyville or Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike and went straight to the WHDH studios in Park Square. Lennie Sogoloff told me: “Norm Nathan had a great show, and often when we’d close the club at one, I’d grab the artist and we’d head down and get on the show. Once Buddy Rich and I stayed until about dawn. We didn’t start back to the club for his car until 5:00 in the morning. It was good exposure. We always took advantage of that free advertising.”

Among those Nathan interviewed were Louis Armstrong, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Horace Silver, Sarah Vaughan, and one world-famous jazzman who kept nipping on a bottle of vodka through the interview, to no good effect.

By 1968, Nathan was the last of those popular Boston jazz DJs with radio homes on the AM band still active. The others—Hentoff, Speed Anderson, Bob Martin, Ken Malden, John McLellan, Symphony Sid Torin—were in other cities or out of radio. That year, WHDH ended his run when it reassigned him to an afternoon show, a slot during which he couldn’t play jazz. That’s when Nathan’s persona as the droll and sometimes wacky humorist took shape.

Nathan moved to WEEI in 1974, then to WRKO, and finally in 1984 to WBZ, where he again found a home on the overnights, with a popular weekend talk show that he continued until his death in 1996.

Only one thing to play here, “Midnite Blue,” in remembrance of late-night jazz on the radio and the local voices who played it. As the song ends, don’t forget to add Nathan’s signoff: “Bye-bye, Old Sport.”

Share:

Comments

  1. Norm Nathan and his amazing radio show,
    “Sounds In The Night guided me home so many nights when I was in grad school in Boston in the 60s.

    At least 4 nights out of the week rather than staying home to study, I would find my way into Paul’s Mall or the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street in Boston to watch and listen to Carmen McRae, Miles Davis, Errol Garner and so many others…and life was good…
    no, it was better than good.

    Sometimes I had a date who I was introducing to the world of jazz, and many other times I’d find a table for myself, or at the bar and nurse a beer for the evening…and then leave a good tip for the bartender or waitress…
    and then head home to Dorchester or go to a job I had as a residential counselor I had at Longview Farm in Walpole.

    But it was the ride home when I’d get into my car, tune into ‘HDH and hope to catch the opening to Sounds In The Night; and when it was done Norm would just take me home…to a home I never knew, and life was good… nah…it was better than good.

    A number of years later I used to provide consultation and training programs in the creative arts of music, poetry and drama throughout Massachusetts, and there often would be other trainers with special areas
    of expertise.

    I remember the most wondrous moment was meeting with other presenters at one of these gigs, and one day it was Norm Nathan, who was providing programs of recorded music to help build communities.

    There he was across the able from me, I reached over to shake his hand and I remember telling him how grateful I was for how he guided me home not only to my house, but to other worlds that he introduced me to that I could and would share with others.

    It was the howl of the wolf in the night that I still remember and cherish about loving life to the fullest in the community
    of other listeners, and guests on his show. He had such an easy way of teaching us about being kind to one another, and celebrating all those many sounds in the night that still echo within us.

    Thanks, Norm from a seanchie named Red Dog.

    peace

  2. I too remember the beginning of “Sounds in The Night”, and I’d give my eye teeth for a copy of that opening sound track, with Basie playing, and the sounds recorded in a railroad freight yard.

    If there is anyone who has a tape of those sounds, that would cut me a copy of them, I’d be happier than words can describe.

  3. I worked the night shift at Polaroid in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1958 – every night at 11:00 pm I’d listen to WHDH – the program would begin with a steam engine giving two toots on the whistle (signifying ‘when standing start’ followed by a dog’s answering wail, with the train’s slow start: Count Basie’s Midnight Blues would begin a few seconds later, and then Norm Nathan’s voice would come in saying, ‘Hello old sport, welcome to sounds in the night.”; Midnight Blues would usually segue to Dinah Washington’s “What A Difference A Day Makes”.

    GOD, how I miss that program. . . but the worst program was the end, when the morning replacement took over. Its was a rude awakening when the end of ‘Sounds In The Night’s tail end of midnight blues’ was replaced by WHDH’s morning replacement.

    How many people remember what I said and feel the same way?

    • Thank you, Ed, for recreating the opening minutes of Sounds in the Night. I have been looking for tapes of the show but so far I’ve had no luck. I’m sure some exist, recorded at home by a jazz enthusiast like yourself, and they’re sitting in a box in a closet somewhere in metro Boston. Norm was one of Boston radio’s good guys, and your post is a fine honor to his memory. Thanks for dropping by.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *