Was any radio station actually playing the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s “Moonlight Serenade” when a voice broke in on Dec. 7, 1941, intoning, “We interrupt this program” to bring Americans news of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor?
Many a television show and movie depict the event in exactly that way because Miller and his music are touchstones of the era when radio dominated home entertainment.
And decades later in the Pittsburgh area, swing music and Saturday nights have gone hand-in-hand not only in ballrooms but also on public radio’s affiliate WESA, located at 90.5 on the FM dial.
The medium may be both broadcast and livestream on wesa.fm from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturdays, but Dale Abraham and his co-host, Mike Plaskett, on “Rhythm Sweet and Hot,” play Big Band tunes on sometimes-scratchy 78 RPM discs and impart their vast knowledge of the music scene of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Plaskett is from the Ohio River community of Bellevue and Abraham, who now lives on the North Side, has South Hills roots.
An Upper St. Clair High School graduate, class of 1980, Abraham is several generations removed from the Big Band era.
He claims never to have purchased a rock album, having grown up with a keen interest in pipe organ music.
Abraham discovered the likes of Benny Goodman when he heard a vintage jazz radio program at Shippensburg State College in east- roll, please, Buddy Rich. The DJ left that year and Abraham took over the swing show.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I didn’t know much about the music I was playing, I just liked it. Now I’m all-consumed by it.”
In 1978, the “Music of Your Life” radio format was trademarked, resurrecting songs by Artie Shaw, Tex Beneke and the Andrews Sisters on commercial radio.
Locally, “Rhythm Sweet and Hot” has been airing since 1982, originating on then-WDUQ with Mike Plaskett and Ken Crawford, a Mt. Lebanon resident and jazz aficionado. At that time, a large segment of its audience had experienced Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra as contemporaries.
“Even though a lot of the musicians are what sounds to you like moldy oldie music, you have to realize Lawrence Welk was playing in his 20s. So was Guy Lombardo. Those guys were young at the time and these were young people playing the music of the day.”
As to youth, Abraham mentions singer Durelle Alexander, who toured on the road with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at age 15. “It’s no different than the ‘American Idol’ contestants,” he said.
Abraham, a relative youngster, was among those who listened when Plaskett and Crawford hosted “Rhythm Sweet and Hot.” “On Saturdays, even back in the ‘80s, I made it my point to listen all the time. I learned from those guys and it just kept snowballing.”
Maybe you could call it “String of Pearls” of wisdom?
Back then, fans of the Big Bands didn’t have to forage at flea markets and garage sales for their faves. “I could walk into National Record Mart and Kaufmann’s ninth floor,” Abraham says, “because you could readily buy the stuff.”
Career-wise, Abraham moved from accounting to driving a Port Authority of Allegheny County bus as a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union, from which he recently retired.
Plaskett, meanwhile, asked Abraham to produce the show in 1998 when it became syndicated and began being broadcast in places as far away as Australia, Guam and Puerto Rico. He’s logging his 20th anniversary with the program this year.
In 2006, after the death of Crawford, Abraham was named his replacement, spinning platters made for dancers’ jitterbug and fox trot.
Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day achieved fame by fronting big bands, a fun fact readers might want to recall next Yuletide when they inevitably hear Crosby crooning “White Christmas.”
On that note, one Christmas when he was, perhaps, in first grade, Santa brought Abraham his first bicycle. In no time, he had graduated to his first 10-speed.
This music man has fond memories of pedaling the highways and byways of the South Hills and Washington County as a youth. Sometimes solo, sometime with friends and family, he’d head for places like McDonald or the relatively new Mingo Creek County Park.
The only music on those trips came from chirping crickets “and cars were few and far between,” Abraham says.
A while ago, he stopped by Forest Lawn Gardens Cemetery in Peters Township to look at the World War II B-25 bomber, only to discover it was gone.
That particular B-25 is now on display at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Addison, Texas. It has been restored to flight worthiness, but is considered too valuable to actually fly.
The plane, like the music of its era, endures.
“We get a lot of listeners who think it’s campy,” Abraham says of swing tunes. “Whatever reason you listen to us, it’s good with us. People find a diversion from whatever else is on the radio.”