Remebering Swingin Sweeney

By Scott Westerman curator@keener13.com

The Red Eye Grille straddles the northwest corner of 7th avenue and 59th street in New York City. It’s just blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater where Letterman and Colbert performed and a short walk to the heart of Broadway.  In the summer of 2014 it was the home for a reunion of many of the original Keener Keymen. In attendance were Bob Green, Jerry Goodwin, Gary Stevens and Robin Seymour, personalities from the dawn of WKNR’s notoriety. Scott Regen came soon after.  John Meagher and Jim Brooker represented Contact News with Pat St. John and Jim Kerr representing the long tail of the Keener legend. Frank Maruca joined via Skype. At the center of the action was the man who found the venue, the host and sometime master of ceremonies, Frank “Swingin” Sweeney.

It’s now almost two years later as I meet Frank and his long time companion, Stephanie for lunch at that same hallowed location. It’s clear that he’s royalty here, warmly welcomed by the staff, who exude genuine love for an amazing spirit who became Keener’s second morning man in the wake of Mort Crowley’s dramatic departure.

Frank Sweeney likens the radio business of the 50s and 60s to professional baseball. “You started out in the minor leagues and if you were lucky, you eventually made it to a major market operation.”

His own circuitous route to the majors began in the northeast and wound its way through Pennsylvania and Ohio before the confluence of timing and talent brought him to Detroit.

“I was working at WKBN in Youngstown when I learned that Mike Joseph was programming this new Top 40 station in the Motor City. Another colleague, Frank Maruca had been hired as the PD and I was tapped for the noon to 3 shift. By the time I arrived, Mort Crowley had quit and all of a sudden, I found myself on the morning show.”

It wasn’t the ideal assignment for a distinctively non-morning constitution, but “Swingin” Sweeney, a moniker he was given during his Pennsylvania swing, made the best of it. “I probably followed the format more religiously than the rest of the guys did, because I had been a program director before and had to enforce the rules. But eventually, the ‘intelligent flexibility’ that Bobby Green aptly described as the vibe at Keener, allowed us to evolve in step with our audience.”

Sweeney’s creative license was revealed in two interesting events. “We somehow ended up with a half dozen cats that we decided to give away as ‘Keener Kittens’. They were gone in an instant. The audience loved it. And then there was the time I became a Godfather. I was mentioning on the air that it was something I always wanted to do and this guy called up to say that his wife was having a baby in a couple of weeks, offering me the opportunity.”

Part of Frank’s duties included creating the weekly WKNR Music Guides. “It was a mix of art and science. The record promoters played all kinds of games to try to convince you that everything they pedaled was a hit. You developed a good sense for what the top 13 songs should be. But take a look at the lower reaches of the charts and you’ll see a lot of questionable tunes float in and out of the playlist.”

There was no question that Motown was a big part of the Keener sound and Motown talent often appeared at WKNR record hops. “I remember one of the label’s promoters contacting me to ask if he could bring a new group to one of my events. It was a girl act that didn’t yet have a name. They turned out to be the Supremes.”

The acts would show up and lip sync to their records. The crowds ate it up.

When Berry Gordy’s sister, Loucye Gordy Wakefield, passed away in July of 1965, Frank was invited to the funeral. “Every Motown act except the Supremes was in the balcony singing in the choir,” he remembers. “Diana, Flo and Mary were in New York appearing on the Ed Sullivan show.”

Sweeney had the singular distinction of introducing the Beatles during their first appearance in Detroit. “Frank Maruca said, ‘you’re the oldest so you get to introduce them.’ I remember them as being four young kids who were as fascinated by the fan reaction as the audience was with them.”

Burning the candle at both ends was particularly hard for a morning man and on more than one occasion, Sweeney’s drowsy driving attracted police attention. “One night, about 2AM I was pulled over by two of Dearborn’s Finest. Based on my weaving, they accused me of being drunk. As I was trying to convince them that I never touched the stuff (I still don’t), I happened to mention that I was “Swingin” Sweeney from Keener. That changed the whole conversation and they ended up escorting me home.

Frank’s sleep deficit ultimately ended his Keener career. On August 14, 1965, he was poised to move from air talent to Assistant Program Director. “Not for the first time, I overslept. Jerry Goodwin called Frank Maruca who was there when I turned up. I let my Irish temper get the better of me and when Frank ordered me to move to the 10PM to 1AM shift, I quit. That opened the door for Dick Puritan to move to mornings. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Sweeney quickly found work at WOHO in Toledo and then moved to WKWK in Wheeling West Virginia. “It was an operation that was similar to WKNR and it was there that I first got involved with the Miss Universe Pageant.”

Sweeney discovered he had a knack for the organization and operation of beauty pageants, ultimately rising to Senior Vice President of the Miss Universe organization before striking out on his own and a long career as a pageant licensee. Look for the Miss Universe television coverage from 1982 on YouTube and you’ll hear Frank’s dulcet tones as the voice over announcer, a side gig he had for nearly a decade.

Today, at age 82, he’s virtually retired. He and Stephanie live three blocks from the Red Eye Grille. He considers his Keener connection to be one of the most memorable experiences of his life. “Bobby Green, Jerry Goodwin and I became lifelong friends. That’s the power of Facebook for you. I’ve always felt that Bobby was the most brilliant talent that WKNR ever had. And Jerry found his niche as a performer, still involved in theater, television and film to this day.”

Sweeney describes the Keener Magic as, “Capturing lighting in a bottle. These were amazing guys who found themselves in the right place at the right time. They created a brand that still endures in the hearts of just about everyone who grew up during that era.”

We finished our lunch, toasting WKNR as the waitstaff brought over freshly baked cookies and cotton candy. Like many in their 80’s Frank’s perambulation benefits from an electric scooter. As he made his way to the exits, the regulars waved and shook his hand. “Keep rolling,” one called out, “you inspire the rest of us.” As we parted and I turned to head back toward Time’s Square, I thought that this comment probably best described the atmosphere at Keener in the 60s.

“You don’t realize you’re making history when you’re in the middle of living it,” Frank Sweeney told me. “For those of us lucky enough to have worked at WKNR, it’s been a pretty good run.”

As I look over the careers that many of the Key Men have had since, I’m inclined to agree.

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May 25th, 2017 | Filed under Keener

The Keener Top 113 All Time Leading Hits 1956-1968

WKNR Music GuideRemember how Keener used to play special programming on holiday weekends? Rock-u-mentaries were common on Top 40 stations back in the day. The History of Rock and Roll, Aural histories of the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, and Motown, each of these topics were fodder for extended attention, especially over those long weekends when the DJs took time off to be with their families.

There were also periodic surveys of “The Greatest Hits of All Time”. On January 1st 1969, WKNR released their list of the “Leading 113 All Time Hits – 1956-1968″. Time and the fading of memory has dimmed the process by which the station came up with the list, but it includes some of the most memorable music of the rock era up to that time. A special, elongated WKNR Music Guide was created to mark the event. It’s become a collector’s item among avid Keenerfans. Here’s the list as it was first heard on New Year’s Day, 1969.

# Tune Length Year
113 The Casinos – Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye 03:01.4 67
112 Otis Redding – (Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay 02:26.7 68
111 The Seekers – Georgy Girl 02:13.9 67
110 Terry Stafford – Suspicion 02:25.9 64
109 The Lovin’ Spoonful – Summer in the City 02:38.1 66
108 Small Faces – Itchycoo Park 02:45.7 68
107 The Platters – My Prayer 02:43.9 56
106 Robert Knight – Everlasting Love 02:53.3 67
105 Richard Harris – MacArthur Park 07:25.5 68
104 The Mamas & the Papas – Monday Monday 03:22.6 66
103 Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – Shop Around 02:47.3 61
102 1910 Fruitgum Company – Simon Says 02:14.6 68
101 The Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There 02:58.6 66
100 Strawberry Alarm Clock – Incense & Peppermints 02:45.1 67
99 Barbara Lewis – Hello Stranger 02:39.1 67
98 Stevie Wonder – Uptight (Keener Version) 02:48.0 66
97 The Troggs – Love Is All Around 02:56.5 68
96 The Grass Roots – Midnight Confessions 02:44.7 68
95 The Shirelles – Will You Love Me Tomorrow 02:46.5 61
94 Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction 03:24.7 65
93 Johnny Nash – Hold Me Tight 02:42.6 68
92 Crispian St. Peters – The Pied Piper 02:31.0 66
91 Bobby Vee – Take Good Care of My Baby 02:35.8 61
90 Shades of Blue – Oh How Happy 02:09.3 66
89 The Royal Guardsmen – Snoopy vs. The Red Baron 02:44.1 67
88 Chubby Checker – The Twist 02:33.9 62
87 Mary Hopkin – Those Were the Days 04:55.3 68
86 Wanted – In the Midnight Hour 01:55.1 67
85 Bobby Fuller Four – I Fought the Law 02:16.1 66
84 The Doors – Hello, I Love You 02:05.4 68
83 Shirelles – Soldier Boy 02:39.7 62
82 The Capitols – Cool Jerk 02:31.9 66
81 Neil Diamond – Cherry Cherry 02:38.6 66
80 Lloyd Price – Personality 02:35.8 59
79 Van Morrison – Gloria 02:36.3 66
78 Percy Sledge – When a Man Loves a Woman 02:51.5 67
77 The Arrows – Blues Theme 01:55.4 67
76 Sam Cooke – Chain Gang 02:34.0 60
75 Lulu – To Sir With Love 02:43.5 67
74 The Parliaments – (I Wanna) Testify 03:06.7 67
73 The McCoys – Hang on Sloopy 03:02.1 65
72 Van Morrison – Brown Eyed Girl 02:55.8 67
71 Beatles – P.S. I Love You 02:01.4 64
70 Bob Lind – Elusive Butterfly 02:47.7 66
69 John Fred & His Playboy Band – Judy in Disguise 02:53.9 68
68 Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife 03:05.4 59
67 The Four Seasons – Can’t Take My Eyes Off You 03:20.3 67
66 Jackie DeShannon – What the World Needs Now Is Love 03:01.0 65
65 Gary Lewis & The Playboys – This Diamond Ring 02:10.0 65
64 Dion – Abraham, Martin And John 03:10.3 68
63 Everly Brothers – Cathy’s Clown 02:22.6 60
62 The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations 03:33.9 66
61 Herman’s Hermits – Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter 02:45.6 65
60 The Young Rascals – Groovin’ 02:26.1 67
59 Ray Charles – I Can’t Stop Loving You 02:34.7 62
58 Elvis Presley – Are You Lonesome Tonight 02:23.6 60
57 Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made for Walkin 02:39.2 66
56 The Monkees – I’m a Believer 02:43.1 67
55 Del Shannon – Runaway 02:15.5 61
54 Dion – Runaround Sue 02:38.8 61
53 The Lemon Pipers – Green Tambourine 02:25.5 68
52 Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – Mickey’s Monkey 02:40.7 63
51 Bobby Vinton – Blue Velvet 02:46.0 63
50 Stevie Wonder – Fingertips (Scott’s Mix) 03:37.0 63
49 Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale 03:59.3 67
48 Dynamics – Misery 02:22.0 63
47 The Righteous Brothers – You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ 03:37.9 65
46 The Buckinghams – Kind of a Drag 02:02.1 67
45 Roy Orbison – Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel) 02:23.8 60
44 Simon & Garfunkel – Mrs. Robinson 03:36.9 68
43 Little Anthony & The Imperials – Goin’ Out of My Head 02:26.0 65
42 The Box Tops – The Letter 01:55.0 67
41 Jeannie C. Riley – Harper Valley P.T.A. 03:15.4 68
40 Troggs – Wild Thing 02:35.7 66
39 The Association – Never My Love 03:06.1 67
38 The Supremes – You Can’t Hurry Love 02:45.8 66
37 The Mamas & the Papas – California Dreamin’ 02:37.2 55
36 Elvis Presley – Don’t Be Cruel 02:00.5 56
35 The Tokens – The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh) 02:37.6 61
34 Petula Clark – Downtown 03:06.3 65
33 Paul Revere and The Raiders – Kicks 02:24.4 66
32 The Four Seasons – Sherry 02:33.3 62
31 Amboy Dukes – Journey to the Center of the Mind 03:26.6 68
30 The Happenings – See You in September 02:25.0 66
29 The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze 02:51.9 67
28 The Beatles – I Want To Hold Your Hand 02:23.3 64
27 Shelley Fabares – Johnny Angel 02:14.3 62
26 The Four Tops – I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) 02:45.4 65
25 Percy Faith – Theme from “A Summer Place” 02:19.7 60
24 Lou Christie – Lightnin’ Strikes 02:57.8 66
23 Gary Puckett & The Union Gap – Woman, Woman 03:31.8 68
22 Sonny & Cher – I Got You Babe 03:10.0 65
21 Question Mark & The Mysterians – 96 Tears 02:38.7 66
20 Tommy James – Mony, Mony 02:48.0 68
19 Bobby Goldsboro – Honey 03:54.6 68
18 J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers – Last Kiss 02:25.8 64
17 Bobby Hebb – Sunny 02:44.4 66
16 Buddy Holly – Peggy Sue 02:28.8 58
15 Unrelated Segments – Story of My Life 02:40.7 67
14 Paul Mauriat – Love Is Blue 02:31.6 68
13 The Surfaris – Wipe Out 02:39.4 63
12 The Temptations – My Girl 02:54.6 65
11 The Beatles – Hey Jude 05:41.9 68
10 The Turtles – Happy Together 02:52.6 67
9 Simon & Garfunkel – Sounds of Silence 03:02.6 66
8 Animals – Animals – House of the Rising Sun 03:23.8 64
7 The Beatles – Yesterday 02:02.6 65
6 The Kingsmen – Louie Louie 02:45.3 65
5 Rationals – Respect 02:40.5 66
4 The Doors – Light My Fire 02:59.6 67
3 The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction 03:43.8 65
2 Bob Seger – Heavy Music 02:34.6 67
1 The Association – Cherish 03:24.4 66
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May 29th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Yes, we really did listen to music that way..

12961525_1167181196655921_6556013066252969042_nSome of us may have actually had an encounter like this. In an age where music magically appears on a smart device, it’s hard for some youngsters to believe that, once upon a time, we spent our money on expensive electronics that used a revolving flat plastic disc to render our favorite songs.

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An iconic Marantz Stereo Receiver

If your experience was like many in the Keener generation, you probably started out with a portable record player, perhaps graduated to an integrated stereo system where all the components were in one box and then moved up to a component arrangement that was worth more than the car you drove. Names like Marantz, The Fisher, Sansui & McIntosh (not the computer) were coveted brands. Often times, we’d put together a receiver, tape deck, turntable and speakers that were each made by different companies. And the bigger the better! How cool you were sometimes paralleled the size of your speaker cabinets and whether or not you had one of those way cool reel to reel tape decks.

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Sony’s wide array of tape recorders, circa 1975.

Mix tapes were carefully crafted back then, created from a thoughtful review of our collection of 33 1/3 albums and the 45 rpm singles we bought at Harmony House after consulting the latest WKNR Music Guide. In the car, we might have sprung for electronics from Micky Shorr’s or Michigan Mobile Radio to replace the AM-only receivers with the pristine sounds of FM. Some of the more adventurous among us might even have added reverb units to simulate stereo sound with the often static prone AM signals that were the mainstay of our youth. Along the evolutionary way, 8 track tapes had a brief vogue. Even though they played at only 1 7/8 inches per second, versus the 7 1/2 ips format that was the broadcast standard, we put up with the artifacts, just to be able to listen to our favorite albums on the road.

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The Sony Walkman

As the Keener era came to a close, cassettes had come to the fore and it was only a matter of time until the machines that played them became convenient handheld devices, a precursor to today’s iPods and smart phones. Most of us also owned one cassette recorder that was attached to our stereo stack. Mix tapes became more than just a way to listen to our favorite tunes. They could also be love letters. How many of us created mix tapes for our significant others in the hope of deepening the relationship? As John Cusack’s character in the film High Fidelity put it, “The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”

Perhaps Rob Sheffield, writing in Love Is a Mix Tape said it best. “The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.”

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Apr 12th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Beatles on a Train

On March 11, 1964 The Beatles film the “I Should Have Known Better” segment of the film, A Hard Day’s Night, on a London soundstage configured to look like the inside of a railroad train. Here’s the segment (subtitled en Espanol).

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Apr 11th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Sunday Brunch with Sonny and Cher

manfromuncle_1On March 10, 1967 James Bond and the secret agent craze are at their peak. Sonny and Cher guest star as “Jerry and Ramona” on the “The Hot Number Affair” episode of NBC-TV’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The pop duo play garment-center employees who are swept up in a frantic quest for a THRUSH world-conquest report, hidden in the pattern of a dress. George Tobias, Ned Glass and Kelton Garwood co-star.

Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” had just finished a WKNR Music Guide chart run the previous month, peaking at number 5. What’s not generally known is that the iconic bass line that gave the song it’s power was an idea contributed on the fly by Wrecking Crew legend Carol Kaye. Here’s the story as told by Carol, herself.

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Apr 10th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Happy Birthday, Tom Lehrer

That_Was_The_Year_That_WasDr. Demento called him, “the best musical satirist of the twentieth century. Randy Newman and “Weird Al” Yankovic are huge fans. His 1965 LP with music from the NBC TV series “That Was the Week That Was” is a prized possession for many Keener fans who were discovering their social consciousness.

Tom Lehrer was born on March 10, 1928. He was a mathematician and political scientist, teaching during his long career at MIT and UC Santa Clara. But he could also play the piano, had a love for show tunes and a razor sharp wit.

During his brief musical career, he was one of the foremost satirists of the time, writing sharp, topical tunes about everything from racism and the atomic bomb to religion and pornography. He wrote for the American version of the BBC series, “That Was the Week That Was” during it’s brief prime, from January of 1964 through May of 1965.

It’s unclear if any of his stuff ever made it to the WKNR airwaves, but if you came of age in the mid-60s, it’s likely you not only heard Tom Lehrer’s stuff, but you might also still have at least one of his albums among your LP collection.

Here’s Tom’s take on “The New Math”.

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Apr 9th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Opening Day!

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Tiger Stadium at Night

Did you know: That the Detroit Tigers flagship station was once WKNR’s predecessor, WKMH? Station owner, Fred Knorr was also part owner of the Tigers and during the last years of his life Keener was the Motor City home for Tiger Baseball.

Who among us who grew up in Detroit in the Keener era can forget Tiger Stadium? For many, it’s etched into the screenplay of our youth, the sun beating down on our bleacher seats, the smell of Hygrade Ballpark Franks and Stroh’s Beer, the green grass mixed with the rich brown infield earth, and the pitcher’s mound, only 10 inches above grade but seeming to tower over the proceedings as the batter at home plate stared down the men whose rocket arms and ice water nerves could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

The 1968 Detroit Tigers

The 1968 Detroit Tigers

That Hemingway sentence only scratches the surface of what comes to mind when we think about baseball in The Motor City. Depending on the decade, our heroes had names like Kaline, Cash, Freehan, Lolich, Horton, Brown, McLain, Trammel, Gibson, Morris, Fidrych, Smith and Anderson. And of course, there was always Ernie. He was the voice of Spring, a unique, comforting presence that could be heard in the air on warm summer evenings, painting word pictures that flowed out of transistor radios on pontoon boats coursing across Houghton Lake, describing the highs and lows as we watched the ebb and flow of a baseball team that was as much a part of who we were then as was the radio stations that provided the soundtrack of our lives.

The Tiger’s hall of fame play-by-play announcer may have cut his teeth in Atlanta and New York, but Ernie Harwell will forever be remembered as the voice of Detroit. In fact, it wouldn’t be opening day without a recitation of the poem Ernie intoned at the start of every season. Our Tigers play, today in the friendly confines of the beautiful Comerica Park. Tiger Stadium was razed nearly ten years to the day after the last out was called in September of 1999. But for the Keener generation, the edifice at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull lives on in our memories. And wherever you may be on opening day, you can be certain that “the voice of the turtle” will be heard again, wherever the Tigers call home.

And here’s an additional treat, the final inning of Game 7 of the 1968 World Series, followed by Ernie’s post game locker room interviews. Where were you when the Tigers earned the World Championship?

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Apr 8th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Petula Clark’s historic television moment

On this date in 1968, “Petula”, airs on NBC. Petula Clark’s one and only TV special features guest star Harry Belafonte performing a duet of the British pop sensation’s antiwar song, “On The Path Of Glory.” During taping, Clark spontaneously reached and touched Belafonte’s arm. This brought a protest from the show’s sponsor, Chrysler Corporation, who feared that the act would upset southern viewers.

To ensure that the gesture would air, Petula and her executive producer husband, Claude Wolff, destroy all other takes of the duet. It becomes the first interracial contact to be broadcast on American television.

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Apr 8th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Another danger of decadent capitalism: The Twist

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.21.33 AMOn this date in 1963, Russia’s official newspaper, Pravda, warns Soviet teens of the decadent dangers of the new “twist” dance craze. Chubby Checker’s biggest chart success was a worldwide sensation and was regularly heard behind the Iron Curtain on Radio Free Europe. Like most things your parents tell tell you not to do, the twist was most certainly practiced all across the Soviet bloc, further amplified by Checker’s follow up, “Let’s Twist Again, Like We Did Last Summer”. Dick Clark’s American Bandstand program, featured the former Ernest Evans performing his signature song. Here’s video of that special moment.

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Apr 7th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Look Homeward Angel – The Monarchs

This week in 1964, “Look Homeward Angel” by the Monarchs was at Number 1 on the WKNR Music Guide. The Monarchs formed in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1961. Their one national hit reached number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100, but as was so often the case back in the day when radio stations were locally programmed, their single caught on with Detroit audiences, supplanting the Beatles in the top spot on the survey. With a number of changes in personnel over the years, the band still performs today in the Louisville area.

Our Youtube link is notable for another feature, “Diane Sargent’s” custom record sticker, popular during the WKNR era as a way of making sure that the records you may have taken to a local sock hop came home with you.

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Apr 6th, 2016 | Filed under Keener