Bob Perkins: The Art of Listening
"It's BP with the GM!" That's how the famed and venerable jazz disc jockey Bob Perkins signs on the air, with the code for "Bob Perkins with the good music." And it's not just a slogan. Perkins has a way of selecting jazz that resonates with his listeners' tastes and represents thoughtful choices on his part that invariably convey something important about the music. His program always flows along and entices the listener. As he himself notes, his trade secret is "big ears"his ability to listen. And he is listening not only to the music but to the musicians, the audience, and the tenor of the times. He wants to know what's on his listeners' minds, and he uses that information in his programming. Plus, Perkins frequently has musicians as guests on his show.
Indeed, Perkins has always heralded and supported Philadelphia jazz players, bolstering the local jazz scene and appearing regularly as a lecturer and concert emcee. (Recently, he gave talks on Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis to accompany related musical performances. In addition, he has emceed the Cape May Jazz Festival and other regional events.) Philly Jazz owes a great deal to Perkins, who has been in jazz radio for over thirty years, and in his current slot at WRTI-FM for more than a decade. And now Bob can be heard on the internet worldwide at wrti.org, so readers anywhere can tune in.
Before he ventured into full-time jazz broadcasting, Perkins was for many years News and Editorial Director at the Philadelphia radio station WDAS, and as an African-American, he helped make inroads into the local political scene that helped the Civil Rights and Equality cause through his advocacy of discussion of issues rather than personalities. More than a jazz disc jockey, Perkins has had radio in his blood from the time he was a child. Appropriately, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia for his work.
AAJ: Since you're always spinning the "good music" on your show, what do you personally listen to on your car radio or at home?
BP: Actually, I very seldom listen music at home. I like the feeling of sharing with an audience, so it's something of a revelation to both myself and the audience, and we're both surprised at the same time, and hopefully delighted by what I play.
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AAJ: Let's start with your beginnings in life. You grew up in South Philadelphia, and your website biography states that your father was an amateur radio hobbyist, so you came up listening to radio from dawn until midnight. Tell us about your life during those early days, and especially what stimulated your interest in jazz and led you eventually to become a disc jockey.
BP: Well, our radio was set up by my dad, who loved broadcasting, and I remember all the old newscasters: Gabriel Heater, Eric Sevareid, H.V. Kaltenborn, and the master of them all, Edward R. Murrow. I recall his overseas broadcasts and his team of reporters who were broadcasting a nightly reporta roundup of what was happening in the war. These turned out to be my mentorsI didn't know it at the time, but I kind of stacked the experience away until I got into broadcasting, and then I used it. And my dad was a radio nut who listened to shows like Don McNeill's "Breakfast Club," and Dorothy Kilgallen, who had a show on WOR in New York where they would sit around the table and discuss what shows they saw last night and so on. Arthur Godfrey had a breakfast showhe sang and played ukulele. There was all manner of stuff. Radio was still eclectic in that era. And my brother, who was nine years my senior, brought in Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and things like that.
AAJ: So, it was your brother who initially led you to jazz?
BP: Yes, he was my mentor. He taught me everything, including how to throw a football, play baseball, whatever. I saw the Harlem Globetrotters when I was five years old, courtesy of him. He just took me by the hand to movies, sporting events, and so forth. He went into the service in the Second World War, and all my goodies somewhat stopped, but my sister took up where he left off. She was a little older than him, and so then she took me downtown to the Mastbaum and the Fox Theaters and all the movies downtown, so as a kid, I got a pretty good exposure to everything that was going on, maybe more so than the average kid.
AAJ: You were very close to your brother and sister.
BP: Yeah, we had a great family. I'm the youngest of five sibs. I guess my mom and pop thought they were done with kids, and then nine years later, here I come! So I was always around adults, and I heard adult talk and adult radio, and I heard good music, so I was kind of set up, and there's no reason I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing.
AAJ: Did you hear recordings as well, or just radio?
BP: My brother brought in records of Ellington, and before that, Fats Waller. We had a little wind-up Victrola, and it was my job to step on this pedestal and wind the thing up and put the needles in there. Then my father got sophisticated and brought in a combination phonograph and radio, and I started hearing Ellington and Andre Previn, when the latter was a child prodigy. And Previn, when he came over from England, interpreted some of Ellington's works.
AAJ: Did you go downtown to hear Philly musicians perform?
BP: I was too young to get into clubs, so most of my exposure was from radio, and they played mostly good standard pop music, and then later, when in my teens, I listened to some of the disc jockeys, like Doug Arthur, who was a master at WIBG. He stood up when he talked because he said he could emote better on the air.