The good Dion turns 66

I have occasionally 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 disc jockeys’ personalities and large personal recording collections. For nearly the past 16 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 two years ago to talk about the show; the following is adapted and updated from my report of two years back.
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 nearly 27 years ago 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 her artistic assistant. In 2003 Amanda 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 of 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 disc collection numbering in excess of 2,000.
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.
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 transcendentally beautiful aspect to the show.
When I met with Pete two years ago, he 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 that evening, and that he was superb.
The musical highlight of Dion’s show that evening 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 1968 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.
The featured “birthday in blue” on Pete’s show today was that of Dion — today he turned 66. Pete played several Dion and the Belmonts numbers during the second hour of the show today, including Dion’s “Donna the Prima Donna.” Immediately following the Dion set Pete played a Spanish-language version of “Donna the Prima Donna” and an Italian-language version of the Stones’ “As Tears Go By.”
I called Pete during the second hour of the show today to ask if he had a message for our readers; he asked that you check out the second hour of today’s show, if not the whole thing together with last week’s. One of the great things about KFAI is that it archives the past two weeks’ shows. For access to the archives with Bop Street’s shows of today and last week, click here.
Pete’s impetus to continue the show is simply to share his interest in the music. It has kept him going for the past sixteen 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, Dion and Bop Street run.


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