Radio personality Jerry Gordon has come full circle with his lifelong passion for jazz, blues, classic R&B, and rock music. As a 13-year-old, he would often be up in his room alone, listening to his favorite Philadelphia DJs until way past bedtime.
Now Gordon, 65, who also boasts record business accomplishments of his own, gets to project and imitate some of those DJs when he hosts his WPRB jazz radio program, “Serenade to a Cuckoo,” Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The last hour is often devoted to rock music or blues, a segment he calls “Jerry’s Room.”
Gordon was raised in Chester, Pennsylvania, south of Philadelphia, by a mother who was a housewife and a father who owned a wallpaper and paint store. “At the time I was growing up there, Chester was a thriving multi-cultural town,” Gordon says. “In the 1960s with the flight of textile industries to the south, it resulted in the city falling apart economically, and it quickly became a poor town.
“My dad’s store was a little bit out of center city and a nice place with all kinds of people coming through each day. I used to help him, and that little universe became a model for me of what one does with their life; my model was as a small businessman.”
Gordon was successful in two very difficult businesses before coming to WPRB-FM, where he is a volunteer host, as are the other on-air hosts at the station on the Princeton campus. He owned Third Street Jazz and Rock for 17 years in center city Philadelphia and then founded Evidence Music, an independent record company that specialized in blues and jazz. He and a partner ran Evidence Music out of offices in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, until Gordon sold his interest in the company in 2002. His knowledge of blues, classic rock, and the huge, broad spectrum of jazz is very in-depth. Yet his air personality is one that resists filling his listeners’ heads with too much information.
Gordon says he had mandatory piano lessons as a five-year old. Yet by the time the Beatles came over, he wanted to change to playing a Farias organ and “that was the end of me and piano lessons.”
One of his earliest memories of music was connected to his parents’ 78 record player. There was a jazzy, seemingly improvised violin solo on a Tex Williams’ hit, “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette.”
“(It) is one of the most remarkable and compact jazz solos I’ve ever heard in my 65 years of life,” says Gordon. “Somehow that might have affected my musical sensibilities.”
When he was about 12 or 13, Gordon says, he became obsessed with radio and records. “I became a rabid music listener in 1964. I noticed all the kids were talking about music and listening to music on the radio. It was more of a casual thing prior to that,” he says, noting that the arrival of the Beatles on U.S. shores in February of that year certainly had a lot to do with teenage interest in rock ‘n’ roll.
Gordon got a large German short wave radio from his parents, the kind, he says, that one could imagine listening to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era Fireside Chats. “I also got a tape recorder, so I was totally plugged into the music as a kid. That was my window to the world.”
Another window was Philadelphia-area radio, with his favorite station being WIBG-AM. Initially founded as a religious station, with the call letters coming from “I Believe in God,” it soon switched formats. “It became a non-sectarian pop music powerhouse in the ’60s, and the number one DJ on that station, who was on after dinner, was Hy Lit.
“Nobody knew he was Jewish. Nobody knew anything other than he had jet black hair combed back and he was super suave and cool,” Gordon says. WIBG printed and distributed to record stores in the Philadelphia area a Top 100 list, and the station would come out with a new list every two weeks.
“During most weeks, you would hear about 70 different tracks,” he says. “You would hear the Beatles, the Supremes, Dean Martin, and Slim Harpo in the same hour, and none were more legitimate than the other, they were just the music that was happening. It was glorious.”
Because of WIBG’s Top 100 lists at the record stores, “you had documentation of what you were hearing on the radio. Starting in November, 1964, when ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ by Supremes was No. 1, I started collecting the lists and checking off every song I heard. I was obsessed. I was a pop music addict, and I’m not talking white music, I’m talking all forms of pop music at that time.”
Gordon says he began collecting glass bottles for return deposit money to feed his record buying habit. He would take the bus to center city every Saturday and buy used 45 RPM records, three for $1.
He developed his passion for blues and jazz in high school, listening to white bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Jethro Tull, who idolized [saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and recorded Kirk’s “Serenade To A Cuckoo” on one of their early albums. The white bands playing blues, including the Rolling Stones, led him back to the original black versions of many tunes by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Reverend Gary Davis, and others.
Gordon says his passion for jazz started one Saturday at the Sam Goody store. “There was a salesman there I came to rely on. One day he said to me, ‘Did you hear we’re getting rid of all our mono recordings? We’re selling only stereo LPs from now on.’ But he added, ‘the rock section is almost wiped out, but there’s all kinds of fantastic jazz available.’ And I said, ‘Jazz? Who cares about jazz?’ This guy said to me, ‘No man, jazz is cool!’”
The salesman put two albums into his hand: Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and drummer Chico Hamilton’s “A Man from Two Worlds.” “By the time Blind Faith broke up in 1970, jazz became a bigger part of my listening habits,” he says.
Gordon attended Lower Merion High School and graduated in 1969. With the Vietnam War in full swing, he jumped into college as a political science major at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He dropped out in 1972 after anti-war protests turned ugly, came back home, and took college courses locally while he tried to figure out what to do with his life.
Then his father intervened and gave the young Gordon an ultimatum. “My Dad said, ‘Listen, either go back to school full-time or start a business!’ He lent me $10,000 to move out of the house, get an apartment, and start (one),” he says.
Gordon knew there was potential for a record store in a good location and decided on 3rd and Market streets in center city. He opened Third Street Jazz and Rock in 1972, and both parents lived to see the success of his record store.
Gordon says the high point was learning from his customers, many of whom were famous musicians.
“My customers were 60 percent black and 40 percent white. I got to learn about the music that I didn’t know about from black people — Little Jimmy Scott, Gloria Lynne, Dinah Washington. I quickly learned that I couldn’t just sell the artists I knew about — I had to sell the records that the people wanted and there was a great demand for great African-American jazz, soul, and R&B artists, not just in print but out-of-print records as well.”
“Another high point was all the great relationships I made during those years being part of a Philadelphia community, getting to know artists of all kinds, getting to know my customers, and watching their kids become customers,” he says.
Regular customers included saxophonist Byard Lancaster, drummer “Philly Joe” Jones and bandleader-composer Sun Ra (Herman Blount) from the world of jazz, but also people like Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend of the Who, Sister Sledge, and Philly-area blues harmonica player Steve Guyger.
But the highest point? One day his future wife, Amy, walked into the store. Now a successful yoga teacher, Amy and Jerry have three daughters all in their 30s and out of college.
After 17 years Gordon saw the writing on the wall when compact discs began to appear and a Tower Records, once a major record store chain, opened a super store on South Street. He had interest from a person willing to purchase his store, so he sold it in 1989.
A year or so later, he and Howard Rosen, a friend from high school, launched Evidence Music, an independent record label. Gordon — still best known in the music world for helping bring on a career renaissance and wider attention to Sun Ra and his Arkestra — had the intent of reissuing classic Sun Ra vinyl on compact disc, as well as some European vinyl-only blues releases.
Word got out that Evidence Music was a place to find Sun Ra recordings on CD, and things grew from there. The label became well respected in the worlds of jazz and blues. Eventually Gordon was able to go out and scout new talent, signing Melvin Taylor, Kid Ramos, Sonny Rhodes, jazz ballad singer Andy Bey, and dozens of other emerging artists.
“With Evidence, I knew I wanted to issue the Sun Ra LPs I loved so much. But after the demise of Chess Records (the Chicago blues record company that closed in 1975), American blues artists couldn’t get a recording contract or a gig in the U.S. and there were a slew of great blues records out in Europe, where the blues had not been forgotten and blues was considered important music,” he says.
Evidence Music began as a reissue label but evolved into a major force in the independent music world, as Gordon and his partner won multiple awards from trade groups the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and American Federation for Independent Music (AFIM). During this time, Gordon was also named to the National Endowment for the Arts and served on its recordings panel.
Gordon says his best-selling Evidence recordings include ones by Chicago blues guitarist Melvin Taylor as well as certain Sun Ra compilation discs.
AFIM recognized Gordon’s efforts with Evidence Music, as all of his packages were consistent: good, fidelity-conscious studio and live recordings, coupled with slick packaging that included photos, liner notes, good graphics, and track times for all radio DJs who played them.
“Sun Ra: The Singles” won awards and pianist Tommy Flanagan Trio’s “Sea Changes” was a finalist for a Grammy in the jazz category in 1999. Jazz vocalist Andy Bey’s “Shades of Bey” was also nominated for a Grammy Award.
After a 12-year run with Evidence Music, he sold his part of the company to Rosen in 2002.
“Because of the destruction of the CD distribution network the culture had changed. There was no more growth and no real promise in the CD business,” Gordon says. “It really was not enough to sustain the two of us and having to split the profits.”
Gordon hooked up with WPRB in the summer of 2010, when there weren’t enough DJs to cover the station’s 24-hour broadcast day.
“The opportunities are declining all around this country to hear good independent radio and jazz programming, and WPRB is a true independent non-commercial station that offers wide, brilliant opportunities to hear non-commercial music,” says Gordon.
Gordon supplements his wife’s yoga teaching income by teaching courses in the history of jazz, history of blues and R&B, and classic rock ‘n’ roll girl groups at the Main Line School Night, a state funded adult school program in Radnor, Pennsylvania.
Gordon remains as dedicated as ever, showing up in all kinds of weather to host his Friday morning show at the station, as dedicated to putting on a good radio show as he once was to listening every night as a 13-year old.
And he is also dedicated to sharing his passion. “What’s really important is the role WPRB plays in many peoples’ lives, in New Jersey, in the tri-state area, and over the Internet. Records that otherwise would not be heard are being aired by WPRB.”
Serenade to a Cuckoo with Jerry Gordon, Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., WPRB, 103.3 FM, Princeton University, wprb.com or www.facebook.com/Serenade-to-a-Cuckoo-with-Jerry-Gordon-148032915291677.