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Laughing in Rhythm

Pete Lee of Minneapolis community radio station KFAI FM is the proprietor of Bop Street, the weekly Monday afternoon drive-time radio show that he has presided over as an on-air volunteer for more than 20 years. I got to know Pete in 2003 when I helped KFAI raise money for its capital campaign.

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 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. Count Basie and the Prom are gone now; Pete and 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 described himself as serving as her artistic assistant. In 2003 Amanda had her own gallery showing in the Twin Cities courtesy of Pete.

Pete has an omniscient 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. I deduce from listening to his show over the years that among his favorite performers 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 disc collection numbering in excess of 2,000.

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

On yesterday’s show (archived here for two weeks) Pete celebrated the anniversary of Slim Gaillard’s birth in the usual style, with the parade of Gaillard’s hits and Pete’s lucid exposition of them. Although the date and place of Gaillard’s birth are in doubt, most authorities seem to cite January 1 or 4 as the date.

When I met with Pete in 2003 I had never heard of Slim Gaillard. Checking him out following our meeting, I found it easy to understand Pete’s enthusiasm for him. It has a quality for which “guilty pleasure” may in fact be the perfect description. “Laughing in Rhythym” (video below) is a good example, though I would also recommend “Laguna Orooney” (the video has disappeared from YouTube) as well as further explorations in the Gaillard canon.

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