My Music DNA: The AM Radio Era

In an age of gadget addiction I look back and realize my first AM radio was my first personal gadget that changed my life.  TV will always be the gadget that raised us baby boomers to see the world, but it was a family gadget.  For me, it was a white clock radio I got for Christmas in 1962 that was my first in a long line of personal gadgets.  Sadly, I don’t have a photo of my much loved radio, but this one will do to inspire these words.


How do we become the people we grow up to be?  The other night I watched Transcendent Man, a documentary on Ray Kurzweil on Netflix streaming.   Kurzweil is an inventor and visionary who hopes to live long enough for medical science to discover immortality, but he also loved his deceased father dearly, and wants to recreate his dad’s personality in a computer.  Kurzweil’s assumption is if he could program a computer with everything his father was interested in, he could create an artificial being that has his father’s personality.  I think a lot about artificial intelligence and I’ve long wondered what programs our personality.  Are we the sum of our likes, loves and dislikes and hates?

The other day I told a friend at work that the music of the 1960s defined me.  She objected to the term “defined” but I couldn’t think of a better one.  If I tried to program a robot to act like me it would require figuring out how to program a love for the same music I love.  I don’t think that’s possible, but then how did it happen in the first place, with me?  How was I programmed to love the music that I do?  What are my music genes?

Some people are very sentimental about music.  Think about weddings and funerals and how we select songs that define us.  There’s that word again.  But we don’t play our favorite TV shows at our funerals, but songs we love.  Some couples mark falling in love with songs.  And what would movies be without songs to enhance our emotions?  Baby Boomers are very different except that most of us feel tied together by the music we shared growing up in the 1960s.

One reason I’m writing this is to remember.  Figuring out the answers to these questions helps me remember.  Writing about the past involves spelunking into the deepest caverns of my mind.  My first memories of music was from the 1950s, listening to songs on my dad’s 1955 Pontiac car radio.  Right from the start my Dad hated the pop music I was unconsciously drawn to.  But it wasn’t until I got that clock radio for Christmas, when I was 11, that the songs started burning into my memory.  My AM radio, with a tiny 3” speaker, was one of the most transformative gadgets of my life.  I wished I had a photo of it sitting in all the rooms I lived in during the years I owned it.  What a shame.  That’s another article to write:  what I wished I had photographed when growing up.

From the end of 1962 until through 1967 that AM radio programmed the musical foundation of my life.  I got the radio when I was living on Maine Avenue at Homestead Air Force Base.  I was in the 6th grade at Air Base Elementary.  I started 7th grade a Redlands Jr. High in September 1963,   We then moved back to our house in Hollywood, Florida probably late October, where I attended Broward Jr. High until just after JFK was killed, when we moved to New Ellington, South Carolina, for the rest of the 7th grade and part of the 8th at John F. Kennedy Jr. High.  Then back to Leisure City near Homestead, where I spent the 8th grade going to Homestead Junior High, and then we moved to Cutler Ridge, where I went to the 9th grade at Cutler Ridge Jr. High.  I graduated Jr. High in 1966, the summer they started advertising Star Trek.  By the time the show premiered we had moved to Charleston, Mississippi for the first half of the 10th grade at East Tallahatchie High School, and then in March of 1967 we moved to Coconut Grove, Florida where I finished the 10th grade at Coral Gables High School and started the 11th.  This is was 1967 and 1968.  It was around the end of 1967 that my white AM radio died.  In 1968 I bought a small console stereo with AM/FM radio, and that began my FM years I’ll write about in the future.

Through the magic of Rdio I’ve been assembling playlists for the songs that are etched in my synapses, making groovy grooves in my gray matter.  I played my radio whenever I wasn’t in school, and I even slept with the radio playing.  Is it any wonder that I imprinted on those songs.  I can even remember the radio stations I listened to when we lived in South Florida, WQAM and WFUN.

If you wish to listen to these songs, sign up for the free membership to Rdio and play these playlists.  You can view the lists without joining, but it doesn’t take much effort to set up a free account.


Would I have been a different person if I had played different music for those five years?  What if I had gotten into jazz or classical music?  Would different music made a different Jim Harris?  Wouldn’t it be a fascinating experiment if we could raise ourselves over and over again, traveling back in time to our birthday to be born in a different country and culture.  Then compare how much of our personality stays the same and how much is differs?  If I had been born in China and immigrated to the US in the 1990s, would I eventually discover that I loved these songs on these 6 playlists?

I don’t think I’d love the music same way if I did.  There’s something about absorbing the pop culture around you when you go through puberty – that stuff sticks to you for the rest of your life.  1962-1967 seems very clear in my memories, while the rest of my life is a blur.

To illustrate how precise my memories are from this time, is how attuned I am to the sound of the original recordings.  When building my playlists I could tell almost immediately when a song was the original, or if it was a recreation, or even if it had been re-mastered tune.  I don’t mind some sonic improvements but I hate major changes.  Remember, I first heard this music in mono.  I usually don’t mind the stereo versions, but the re-mastering that messes with the sound levels, even when it makes the instruments stand out clearer, bothers me.  And I just hate when artists re-record their hits.  I know it’s because they lost the rights to the originals, but I want to hear what I heard over my white AM radio from late 1962 to late 1967.

The soundtrack for the film Pirate Radio re-mastered many classics, compressing the sound to modernize the feel of the songs because modern songs are much louder than oldies.  I can handle this to a degree, but it makes me want a 60s AM filter to change the sound back.  It’s not quite the same, but it’s somewhat like colorizing old black and white movies.

A lot of songs are missing from these playlists – songs I’ve forgotten, songs that everyone has forgotten and gone out of print, songs out of copyright, songs from The Beatles and other butthead artists that refuse to let their music play from streaming music services.  And there’s another group of missing songs, those I learned later to love, like folk music and jazz from that era that I didn’t learn about until after I switched to FM and LPs.

Also, there’s the problem that Rdio just doesn’t have all the songs it could.  For example, “Half Heaven, Half Heartache” by Gene Pitney is available from Rhapsody but not Rdio.  This is why I pay $9.99 a month to two streaming music services.

Finally, there’s the problem of my memory.  Even with national playlists I can’t remember all the songs I used to love because many songs were local or regional hits.  For example, in Miami back in 1963, my sister and I loved a song called “The Lone Teen Ranger” that I never heard again for decades.  I later I learned on the Internet this was Paul Simon singing as Jerry Landis.  But there are so many songs like this that I haven’t heard for decades that are still lost in the darks corners of my mind.

There’s a wonderful internet radio called Playa Cofi Jukebox that lets you play songs by years 1950-1989.  Nothing is required to play the music, and if you pick a year, you’ll get a link to the weekly record charts – for example here’s December 22, 1962, around the time I got my radio.  By the way, this goes to show you a flaw in my playlists.  Songs on 1963 have songs that first appeared in 1962.  If I was anal I’d remake the lists by absolute release dates.


The other night on the Grammys Maroon 5 and Foster the People sang two Beach Boys songs as a 50 Year Tribute.  Are songs from my youth still turning on young people after all these years?  I have no idea what these songs sound like without the nostalgia speakers I always hear them through.  Do they sound funny and quaint, or could they actually appeal to an eleven year old in 2012?

JWH – 2/20/12 (50th Anniversary of John Glenn’s flight into space)

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