The Troy Street Observer

Sabby, Symphony Sid and WBMS

Photo of Symphony Sid
Charlie Parker called him “Symphonic Sidney”

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.

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May 1: “Look Alive and Dig the Jive” With Ken Malden

Photo of Ken Malden
Ken Malden at the WVDA microphone, 1953-54

WBMS disc jockey and WILD program director Ken Malden died in Miami on May 1, 2009. Malden was a part of that long-ago scene when jazz was broadcast on commercial stations on the AM dial.

Ken Malden started in Boston radio in the late 1940s, and comes to our attention in early 1953 on WVDA-AM, playing jazz and blues, and sometimes spicing it up by reading poetry. His real name was Milton Tokson, but early on he decided that Malden, the name of his suburban Boston home town, was more radio-friendly.

WVDA in 1953 was one of Boston’s top music stations for jazz. There was Malden in the evenings, longtime Boston radio personality Sherm Feller on overnights, Bill Buchanan with a weekend big band show, and that summer Bob “The Robin” Martin arrived from WMTW in Portland, Maine to host an afternoon show. In terms of broadcast hours per week, the only station with as much jazz as WVDA was WBMS.

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