May 12, 1952: Sabby, Symphony Sid and WBMS
May 12 was the start of busy week for Norman Furman, the general manager at Boston’s WHEE radio, 1090 on the AM dial. The owners wanted a new sound, and Furman went to work on that immediately upon his April arrival. On May 12, he had some results.
First, a new deejay was starting that day. Sabby Lewis, the man who personified Boston jazz in the 1940s, would host a one-hour show, six days a week, in the early evening. (Find more on Lewis here, here and here.) “He will be,” announced the Boston Chronicle, “the first colored band leader disc jockey ever in Boston.” Neither the Chronicle nor anyone else said Lewis was the first African-American deejay. He wasn’t. That was Eddy Petty at WVOM. But hiring Lewis demonstrated that Furman, who introduced all-black programming to WLIB in New York City, intended to bring more of that programming to WHEE.
During the week of May 12, the station changed its call letters to WBMS, for “World’s Best Music Station,” its original call when the station first went on the air in 1947. The Boston newspapers carried the announcement on May 19.
Furman’s third endeavor for May 12 involved his old friend from New York, Sidney Tarnopol, better known to the radio world as Symphony Sid Torin. Sid was touring the northeast with a show called Jazz Unlimited, which was in for a week at the Hi-Hat. Sid was emcee, and the band included J.J. Johnson on trombone, Phil Urso on tenor, Milt Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. To promote the show, Symphony Sid did a stint as a guest deejay on a station in each city, and hosted remote broadcasts from the clubs where they appeared. Sid’s first guest shot on WBMS was on May 12.
Call it an audition if you like, but not long after the Jazz Unlimited tour, Symphony Sid joined the staff of WBMS. This was a hiring of huge importance. Symphony Sid, the “all-night, all-frantic one,” was a leading figure in jazz radio in New York, and nationally known through his broadcasts from Birdland on WJZ. He was not on the radio in 1952, however; he had been blacklisted in New York after being charged with possession of marijuana in 1949. Torin became a significant presence on Boston radio between 1952 and 1957.
Torin had his daily show, Interlude in Jazz, and a Saturday show, Brother Sid’s Gospel Hour. But WBMS was a day-timer—a station that ended its broadcast day at sunset—and these hours limited the size of the audience. As a result, Torin became a two-station deejay, working out of the WBMS studios by day, and starting in November 1952, broadcasting from the Hi-Hat by night over WCOP-AM. It was Sid who dubbed the Hi-Hat at Mass Ave and Columbus “the Jazz Corner of Boston,” a play on his calling Birdland at Broadway and 52nd “the Jazz Corner of the World.” (Fire closed the Hi-Hat in December 1955, and Torin moved his late evening show to WMEX shortly thereafter.)
In late 1954 Ken Malden switched stations, moving his R&B playlist from WVDA-AM to WBMS. With Ken Malden, Sabby Lewis, and Symphony Sid as deejays, WBMS was playing more jazz, and more black music in general, than any other Boston station.
The Furman regime ended in 1957 when the station went up for sale. Sabby Lewis left sometime in the spring. Furman moved to New York station WEVD, and in August Torin joined him there. In September, Bartell Broadcasting completed its purchase of WBMS and changed its call letters to WILD. Ken Malden stayed on as deejay and program director until 1960, when he headed south to Miami’s WGBS.
The heyday of WBMS coincided with the ascent of modern jazz in Boston, and you can still hear bits of the sountrack of those years, through broadcasts of Symphony Sid’s Hi-Hat shows that were eventually released on CD—of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, to name two.
I can’t think of anything better to hear today than Lester Young playing his own tune, “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid.”