Pam’s Pictorama: A bit of a disclaimer on this post, as it is a radical departure from my usual posts. The recent loss of our friend Rich Conaty has me thinking and seems to require that I get a few thoughts down. For those of you who did not know Rich, he was an extraordinarily talented disc jockey who had a radio show for decades devoted to music of the 20’s and 30’s. Rich launched his career at the Fordham, NY college radio station, WFUV, in the 1970’s when he was still in high school. I caught up with him more than a decade later when I was in my senior year at college. I was commuting into NYC on weekends for a day-long life drawing class at the Art Student’s League and spending Sunday nights alone in an apartment my father used during most of the week here in Manhattan.
I just never was much of a fan of the music of my own day (the 1980’s for the most part) and while I had experimented with listening to jazz and while it held some charm, it ultimately disappointed me. Slowly as I started to discover Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday it dawned on me that what I liked was music, mostly but not only vocal, from the 1920’s and 30’s. I bought some tapes (yep, 1986 and this was before cd’s) and started to get the lay of the land. Radio shows might touch on this music, but nothing seemed to focus on it. Somehow I stumbled onto Rich’s show one Sunday night in Manhattan and I listened weekly. That was great while I was in New York, but in those pre-internet days there was no way to pick it up from New London, Connecticut. Therefore, once my class in Manhattan ended, I was left high and dry.
Post graduation I ended up back in New York, cooking professionally. The hours I kept curtailed any late night radio listening, but I did manage to tune in occasionally. My cooking career ended with a bad fall and injury early on, and I found myself working at the Metropolitan Museum with regular hours. I rediscovered Rich’s show on a road trip with my then boyfriend, Kevin Hein. We were coming home from South Jersey late one Sunday night – must have been visiting his parents. I was hooked for good at that point and became a devoted weekly listener. In fact, I would tape them each week and play them throughout the rest of the week. Kevin liked the show too, and we could usually schedule ourselves to be home on Sunday night.
Another disclaimer – unlike Kim, I am not someone who can address and debate the finer points of this music and my brain has always been a bit of a sieve for these kinds of facts, so I cannot do Rich justice on this point despite listening dutifully all those years. (It’s a good thing I managed to marry someone who verges on being a savant for remembering dates and things associated with music and recordings.) I did begin to figure out what I liked and names like Smith Belew and Annette Henshaw, Connie Boswell became familiar. The fact was though, I pretty much liked it all, even Arthur Tracy grew on me over time – well, sort of. In looking back on it, especially in that first decade, I associated Rich and the Big Broadcast with the life I made for myself in New York. Like so many kids from the suburbs who move here, there are touchstones for how we found our way to who we wanted to be – and Rich’s show and the world of that music was that for me.
Over the almost three decades of listening, Rich was sharing bits of his personal life over his show until all us listeners felt like we knew him. Show anniversaries, AA, meeting and then eventually marrying his girlfriend Mary. As for me, after more than seven years together Kevin and I called it quits. I dated a few people, some who shared my musical interest – or at least had interests that intersected. I don’t think Kim knows this, but it was a passing comment about the Boswell sisters he made at a party once that really got me thinking about him. His comics were steeped in period musical references too – it piqued my interest indeed.
I guess Kim was thinking about me as well, but evidently he was surprised to find Fats Waller playing when he walked into my apartment for our first date – a random tape of one of Rich’s shows – Fats with Ted Lewis, Crazy About My Baby, Kim reminds me now. Kim focused on it right away and wanted to know more about the show – he became a devoted follower of the show and my boyfriend that night. A little more than a month later he and I made our only ever New Year’s Eve foray out to the New Yorker Hotel where Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks were performing, an event Rich had mentioned on his show. He and Mary were there, but we didn’t know them. I had heard the Nighthawks live once or twice before – at a film, an outside concert downtown, but it was the first time Kim and I heard them together. I was recovering from a horrible flu that night and we didn’t stay too long though and were amazed to get a taxi in that locale, not so far from Times Square.
Life burbled along. Kim and I moved in together. Sunday nights were pretty sacred and always reserved for the Big Broadcast. Rich left WFUV for a brief foray into commercial radio and we followed the best we could. It was a square peg in a round hole however, with playlists and other limitations, and eventually he found his way back to WFUV, to our great relief. He had his first bout with cancer, but seemed to recover quickly. His marriage ultimately ended over time; we eventually got hitched ourselves in 2000. Sadly, later Rich’s former wife Mary died years later.
On occasion we would go hear the Nighthawks at a restaurant in Chelsea, once or twice alone, but more often when someone with an interest in music was visiting from out of town. And somewhere in the years that followed Rich recognized Kim’s name and called it out as a thank you for being a supporter of the show. This lead to that over time and Rich invited us to join him to hear Vince and the Nighthawks at their then current gig at a place in the basement of a Times Square building that appeared to have once been a speakeasy, Sophia’s. Hard to find, but worth the effort.
I was beyond excited to meet Rich – yep, a total fan girl after all this time. I wasn’t disappointed. Rich was just the sweetest, most generous guy on the face of the earth. Despite the late hour he drove out of his way to drop us off at home after the show. After that Kim and I joined him several times, most recently at a new venue for the Nighthawks, The Iguana. He loved the story of Kim hearing Fats the first time he visited me and would always ask Vince to play it on those subsequent visits to hear the Nighthawks with him. He remembered Kim’s birthday too after we had a musical evening as a birthday foray for him. One night at a large table we met Rich’s mom. I was seated next to her and she was already a bit vague, but I had a good time talking to her.
Kim did a great ad for the Big Broadcast for Rich to use and we have used it on our Facebook page to remind people of and introduce them to the show on Sunday nights. My good friend Betsy was one unexpected convert. Kim also did the cover art for one of the Big Broadcast annual premium disks for giving to the show. I counseled Rich on fundraising for his program – it was always so important to him that the show be seen as carrying its weight at the cash starved not-for-profit station. (We would also talk about his cats and, although I am sure he made provision for them, I worry about them now. I’m sure they miss him so much!)
While we would communicate via Facebook and Twitter and see each other periodically, our paths intersecting on and off throughout the last ten or more years, we were not in touch enough that I can fully adjust to the idea that he is gone. A second round of cancer came on hard and fast and claimed him this time. However, in my mind he remains at home upstate working on the next Big Broadcast and our next date to hear the Nighthawks remains alluringly in the near future.