Friday, December 10, 2010

Chicago Radio Memories Told with Wit and Wisdom -- Fast Read, Must-Have

The history of Chicago popular radio hasn't really been completely described unless you include Art Hellyer's book "The Hellyer Say." As witty as the title leads you to believe, Art Hellyer's one-to-one interesting, intelligent writing style, combined with his dead-on wit, will have you laughing out loud and drawing stares from people around you.

To list `all' the radio stations where Art worked would exceed the length of a review. Suffice it to say that he worked on `all' of them, literally at one time. He came to shine among luminaries in Chicago radio with the assistance of two wonderful people in his life, the first being his late wife, always described as "the lovely Elaine" and his brilliant radio engineer, the late Leonard Kratoska (Lenny Kaye), the faithful Dr. K-TT as nicknamed by Hellyer, who did more things with sound effects, dropped appropriately and timely that any recordings of broadcasts would be played repeatedly for sheer entertainment value.

The book - at first blush - begins as a love story about Art and Elaine's early years together, building a life while Hellyer looked convention in the face and worked literally 24/6.5 to stay in the radio business. The charm with which he describes their courtship and the regard in which he holds her is enough of a reason to fall for the book, lock, stock and barrel. And yet, there's plenty of radio biz history, sterling stories and insider gossip to make it a must-read if you love Chicago radio, or radio in general.

Of appeal beyond Chicago, though, is that for those whippersnappers who think that radio shock jocks didn't show up until the 90s, Hellyer was likely the first in line to throw audiences for a loop.

In fact, his spoofs, pranks, and failure to follow station protocol was the vexation of virtually every program director he worked for, and the love of every listener who tuned in, faithfully, to hear what Art and Dr. K-TT would do next.

Irreverence, done properly, is brilliant radio, and Art Hellyer was the first master of disaster when it came to torturing the sanctity of "you can't do that on radio" but with a specifically gentlemanly and G-rated approach. Among the things that found him at odds with the brass upstairs: he decided to rag on sponsors of his show for problems with their products. A specific story regarding Hellyer's commentary on a certain Cadillac auto sponsor had the station's top dogs near cardiac arrest, but quick thinking and some fast talking found the Cadillac folks one of Hellyer's biggest fans.

Forever to the dismay of his bosses (and there were many), every time one of the top cats would send Hellyer a crisply typed, sternly worded memo along the lines of "you can't say that" or "you can't do that", Hellyer's classic response was to read the memo on-air, get the listeners stirred up sufficiently to call in and wreck the phone lines and occasionally throw the phone system into total havoc to the point of having the phone company call and tell Hellyer's bosses to stop whatever he was doing. Their systems couldn't handle Hellyer, or his pranks. But the audiences, faithful, sure, and forever growing in number, couldn't get enough.

Wherever Art Hellyer was on-air, listeners followed. There's sufficient stories of great stars starting out. Hellyer's sheer delight at the opportunities afforded to meet and greet them are entertaining as well. Patti Page, Perry Como, and more - considered the landed gentry of 60s entertainment - about which Hellyer provides undiscovered insight into the gems and jewels of superb singers who personally introduced their first records.

Truly a chronicle of the good old days of music radio, talk radio, and radio in general, this is a must-have book among all the others in your library. Hellyer's wit is as keen as ever, and the handbook for hilarity in the best of megawatt broadcasting is Chicago's finest gift to national audiences.

Even if you've never heard of him before now, Art Hellyer's "The Hellyer Say" will have you hooked, the way Steve King and Johnnie Putman were when he was their guest on WGN Radio along with Top Rock Girly Jock, Connie Szerszen, one overnight morning when I was fortunate enough to tune in. Read the book, and give one to someone who loves radio as much as you do. "The Hellyer Say" is a must-read.

This review also appeared in Keep Rockin' Magazine, December, 2010 issue, page 45 and shared on

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Definitely Not a Diva—Texas A&M Dean is Music’s Evening Star, Yet Shines by Day

It’s hard for some of us to imagine having two careers and keeping them separate without one interrupting the other. For song stylist Karan Chavis, you won’t hear her even humming in the hallways of the Texas A&M Health Science Center where she works.

An award-winning former Executive Director for Administrative Services at Texas A&M through last year, Aggie grad Chavis this year took on a new role as Assistant Dean of Planning and Evaluation for the TAMU Health Science Center. Daylight hours, she’s a no-nonsense but kind team leader in the fast-expanding outreach of TAMU’s health programs.

If you just knew her professionally, it would be difficult to imagine that her talents as an administrator actually overshadow her gifts as a musical performer and song stylist. On stage, though, her professionalism shines through as though singing were her only vocation. Two talented sides to one very modest person.

Limiting her musical commitments within a calendar year to balance work, home, and family, local audiences were delighted to hear Chavis as a Parisian chanteuse at the American Heart Association gala held in April at Miramont Country Club in Bryan.

No performance in 2010, though, will stand as more memorable, though, than her spectacular turn, saluting the music of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald for two performances in Austin one recent August evening.

Chavis’ versatility extends beyond work and song. An expert seamstress, she even created her own costume for the annual Texas Reds Festival in downtown Bryan this past June. She’s been called upon to sew costumes for all three of her local backup singers for a special event in less than 24 hours. She does so with the same efficiency and quiet modesty that befits her professional style by day. It’s just her thing. Music. Sewing. Art.

The magnificent, charming setting of Austin’s One World Theatre on Bee Caves Road was the perfect venue for the concert staged by Hart Beat Productions: ‘It’s Ella! A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald’, featuring Pamela Hart, Karan Chavis, and Willie Nicholson. The three singers took turns at recreating many in Fitzgerald’s vast catalog of ‘Ella’ songs. In highlights of the evening, Willie Nicholson almost stole the entire show with her rendition of ‘Black Coffee’. Exhibiting an effervescent but controlled smouldering voice befitting the song’s lyrics, Nicholson drew the audience in with their ears and eyes and imprinted the memory of the song forever with her smooth delivery. Hart’s top-of-the-mark rendition of ‘Someone to Watch over Me’ should be hereafter known as her personal signature tune.

TAMU local audiences always request Chavis sing a signature favorite tune, ‘Satchmo Blues’, in which Chavis displays her extraordinary talent to alternate between the voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in the same song. Poetry to hear and amazing to watch, Chavis makes you forget she’s the one singing and you just hear the true voices of the original artists she is presenting.

Chavis’ a cappella rendition of ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ stayed completely true to Fitzgerald’s rendition. No small feat, but no surprise either. Chavis mentioned Fitzgerald’s major role in influencing her to study music and perform professionally. Legendary singers have that effect on impressionable young talents.

One special young lady, 16-year-old Shanice McKissick, made her public debut during the evening, and received a standing ovation for her rendition of ‘Summertime’. As well she should have. McKissick, a young talent, absorbed the encouragement and confident stylings of Chavis, Nicholson, and Hart in several weeks of rehearsals, with multiple opportunities to watch the masters at work. For a young Karan Chavis, her mentor was Ella Fitzgerald. For young McKissick, she was fortunate to have three Texas-based professionals to emulate in Nicholson, Hart, and Chavis. Chavis resides in College Station, Nicholson in Temple, and Hart (her mentor) in Austin.

The evening’s two performances were presented by The Women in Jazz Association. Backed by the exceptionally talented William Menefield Band (William Menefield, Piano & Musical Director, Michael Stevens, Bass, Kevin Scott, Drums), and Michael Malone on Saxophone, the singers could not have had more professional accompaniment for their arrangements. Solos filled the air, appropriately, and entertained audiences with their seamless transitions for the talented singers.

The One World Theatre was perfect, an intimate seating arrangement with every seat a ‘good one’. Hartt Stearns (Hartt & Soul Productions) has booked a lineup for this hidden treasure that should make people rush out for season tickets. Premier guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, classically trained pop singer Andrew Heller, jazz prodigy Nikki Yanofsky, classic rock singer B. J. Thomas, songwriter Suzanne Vega, jazz drummer Billy Cobham, guitarist legend Earl Klugh and more will appear there this fall.

Two people should be singled out for their mutual labor of love: Kevin and Pamela Hart, of Hart Beat Productions, two of the primary forces behind the nonprofit jazz group. It takes substantial funding to stage such an undertaking. The evening’s emcee, Jabari Warfield, recognized additional sponsors: the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin, IBM, the Austin-American Statesman, The Majestic Design Group, the Mitchie Mitchell Foundation, and a host of volunteers whose contributions are vital to the evening’s success.

The next time you walk down the halls of Texas A&M’s Health Science Center, you still won’t hear Karan Chavis singing, because she’s 100% committed to focusing on her day job. But if you’re very lucky, some evening in Austin, Houston, Dallas, or Bryan-College Station, you can hear this dean sing, with all her heart and soul, and it will be forever a tribute to the memory of an unforgettable song stylist, Miss Ella Fitzgerald.

For more information on future concerts and events, visit and