Meeting Mister Lee

I have frequently referred to Minneapolis FM community radio station KFAI in the course of writing about musical subjects on this site. Like several such radio stations around the country, KFAI subsists on the love of its on-air volunteers for the kind of popular music heard nowhere else on the radio dial, as well as on an infantile left-wing politics that the good stations like KFAI at least divorce from the music programming. In addition, KFAI specializes in bringing multilanguage programming to underserved communities such as the burgeoning Twin Cities Hmong and East African immigrant populations.

But KFAI’s bread and butter are the blues, rhythm and blues, and soul music shows that occupy its weekday drive-time programming slots. These shows thrive on the disk jockeys’ personalities and large personal recording collections. For nearly the past 14 years, the best of these shows — and to my knowledge, the best American pop music show in the country — has been Pete Lee’s weekly Monday afternoon show Bop Street. I sought Pete out for lunch today to talk about the show; this is my report.

Pete hails from Red Bank, New Jersey, Count Basie’s home town. As a college freshman he fell in love with a native Minnesotan and came to the Twin Cities 25 years ago this week to join her. He says he arrived on the old Empire Builder from New York and upon his arrival took her to see Count Basie perform at St. Paul’s old Prom Ballroom. The Empire Builder, Count Basie and the Prom are all gone now; only Pete and the woman who is now his wife remain.

Pete works full time as a zookeeper at St. Paul’s Como Zoo, where he tends the apes. He claims that one of his apes may have an artistic vision, the incomparable Amanda, and he describes himself as serving as her artistic assistant. Amanda recently had her own gallery showing in the Twin Cities courtesy of Pete.

Pete has an omniscient, joyous love of American popular music in all its forms, from jazz, to blues, to rhythm-and-blues, pop, vocal group harmony including doo wop and gospel, rock, country and rockabilly, as well as the composers and performers of the music. As a regular listener to the show, I deduce that among his favorites are Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Louis Jordan, Percy Mayfield, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Elvis and the Beatles. But there can be no doubt that at the summit of these performers in Pete’s estimation is the man whom he regularly refers to as Saint Francis of Hoboken.

Pete builds each week’s shows around “birthdays in blue,” the birthdays of the performers, composers, and musicians who have created American popular music. He says that organizing the shows in this fashion assures that repetition will be kept to a minimum. In preparing the shows he draws on his own record and compact disk collection numbering in excess of 2,000. Today’s show was built around the birthdays this week of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Jimmy Rushing.

One of the delights of the show is the contrasting versions of songs he plays “once more once,” usually of standards by Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, Carmichael, or Mercer, with respect to which he can draw on a variety of great performances. But sometimes he also plays numerous versions of a lesser song such as Bobby Troup’s “Route 66″ if the different performances are sufficiently strong. Excellence and fun are his criteria.

On today’s show, for example, Pete played a couple of Elvis’s hits from the ’50s along with their rarely heard original versions by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Wynonie Harris. One of the great things about KFAI is that it archives the most recent two shows of each of its locally produced programs. For access to the archives with Bop Street’s shows of today and last week, click here.

During the Lent season Pete adds a segment of vocal group gospel music to the weekly proceedings. He explained that he showcases the joyous side of gospel, music that he thinks fits best with the show’s time slot for commuters. It is a feature that provides a transcendently beautiful aspect to the show.

Pete talked about his recent visit to the Iowa State Fair to see Dion (that’s the great Dion Dimucci, of Dion and the Belmonts, not Celine Dion). Dion appeared as part of an oldies show, a show that Pete described as pathetic until Dion took the stage. He said that Dion sounded vocally closer in age to 16 than 64, and that he was superb.

The musical highlight of the show was introduced by Dion’s 9/11-related comments, comments from the perspective of a native New Yorker. He spoke of the guys who died because their jobs had called them that day. He said that many of them had learned about duty and doing the right thing as he had in parochial school. Then Dion gave a stirring performance of his late ’60s hit “Abraham, Martin and John” (“They freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young”).

The reference to parochial school led naturally to a discussion of guilty pleasures. According to Pete (or according to what he had learned in school), all pleasure is guilty. He confessed that his guilty musical pleasure is Slim Gaillard, performer of novelty songs in a made-up language. Slim’s hits (of course!) include “Flat Foot Floogie,” the immortal “Chicken Rhythm,” and a couple of other “totally absurd” classics.

Pete’s impetus to continue the show is simply to share his interest in the music. It has kept him going for the past fourteen years, during which time the show has constituted a weekly source of light, humor, and beauty deep in the American grain. Long may Pete Lee and Bop Street run.

HINDROCKET adds: Awesome report, Trunk. I have fond memories of Dion and the Belmonts–”Runaround Sue,” of course, but most of all “The Wanderer,” which my older brother had on a 45 that I played until the grooves were shot. There may be an instance of more blatant wish fulfillment in popular culture, but if so, I missed it: “Well, I’m the type of guy who’ll never settle down; Where pretty girls are, well, you know that I’m around….” And generally downhill from there. But I’m glad to learn that Dion is a patriot, and that he can still sing.

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