Recalling The Jazz KNOB (Feb. 18, 2007)
The story of jazz in the Los Angeles radio market generally centers on the beleaguered KKJZ (88.1), formerly KLON, which has been L.A.’s jazz stalwart out of California State University since 1981. Before 88.1’s jazz arrival, the music was heard only on KKGO out of Los Angeles, which as KBCA, began programming jazz in about 1960. But before all that, the jazz spot was definitely the Jazz KNOB (103.1, later reassigned to 97.9) operating out of shed-like quarters atop Signal Hill.
The story of KNOB as a jazz source began with Rowland Kerr, who graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1953 and attended Long Beach City College (LBCC) in 1954.
KNOB owner “Ray Torian got in touch with LBCC’s radio class, which had a good radio studio at the time,” said Lakewood Village resident Kerr. “He needed somebody to be an engineer and DJ at the time and I guess there weren’t many pro radio people interested in working at a small wattage station at the time.”
In the 1950s, AM radio was king. KLAC and KMPC’s prestigious DJs spun Johnny Ray, Tony Bennett and Patti Page. KFI and KNX ran network shows like Bob & Ray and Jack Benny, along with late night record shows.
Narrowly listened-to FM stations appealed to audiophiles, folkies, classical music fans…and jazz devotees. This was before stereo or FM car radios. 78 rpm records still competed against LPs and 45s. This was a decade before the Beatles-led British Invasion, when Bill Haley-style rock and roll was the equivalent of juvenile delinquency. In New York City, iconic rock and roll DJ Alan Freed was starting his historic radio dominance.
A jazz fan, Kerr had a collection of “LPs that came out in the 50s,” and despite his young years, he recalled, “I could get in a few joints in L.A. and Hollywood. I saw Chet Baker at a club. There was a storefront place up on Hollywood Blvd. for a short period of time where I saw Ella Fitzgerald.”
He jumped at the job offer. “I think I got pretty good money, $50 a week,” Kerr estimated. “KNOB signed on at noon. Torian would play classical at noon and later in the day until midnight. I would open up in the afternoon at 3 or 4 p.m.”
“We operated by the FCC rules,” which required public service programming. “We carried some religious programs using 16-inch church recordings, 15 minutes of that at a time. We carried a lot of public service announcements. We had some advertising, but very little. Scott Radio and a friend of Ray’s, who had a more specialized outlet did some advertising.
“We had a library of 78s and I’d usually pull from the library,” said Kerr, who still has cardboard mailers stuffed full of jazz 78s from a label phasing out that speed in 1954. “I played mostly popular stuff at the time. We’d get records at the whim of distributors who’d send us stuff. Usually most of them didn’t give you full service.”
“We had a pretty diverse group of listeners. Jazz fans were where you can find them. Later, when we started playing more jazz and had guest collectors in and word of mouth spread.”
Then came Sleepy Stein, L.A.’s first great jazz radio legend. “Sleepy contacted Ray and came in while I was there. He would do a show he called Mahogony Hall. It allowed us to play more jazz, developing this audience of fans. Mahogany Hall was a Friday or Saturday night show. He had a great knowledge of jazz and contacts.”
Stein had previously worked in Chicago radio and KFOX on Anaheim St., where KBCA, KKGO and KKJZ’s legendary Chuck Niles also worked.
According to at least one jazz radio authority, Stein brought Niles, Jim Gosa and other early jazz DJs to KNOB. “When Sleepy arrived on the scene from KFOX, Torian hired him to be the program director. Stein’s suggestion was for an all-jazz station,” which debuted in 1957.
Another former KLON DJ, Howard Lucraft of Long Beach recalled his KNOB days. “I did weekend shows from the very start of the station. One was called Jazz International. From 1959, I did the night show from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. to sign-off.”
Lucraft, who had gotten his start at the BBC in London and did a show on KABC before joining KNOB, recalled Torian “wasn’t into jazz. He was the technical expert. We had 78,000 watts. I actually got a phone call from a listener in Oklahoma. The station was so good. Sleepy was good with people he hired. He never told me what to do or what to play. All kinds of personalities were on the air.”
“It was housed in a little wooden hut with a record library in there. It was very busy when you ran the show, you had to run different tape recorders, none of that worked that great. I never had time to pee.”
Stein bought half-interest in KNOB from Torian. “He got the money through (bandleader) Stan Kenton from two Back To Balboa concerts he put on,” said the KNOB historian. “He also got $20,000 from Henry Mancini. I think he invested $200,000.”
Shortly before his 1965 death at age 43, Freed hosted a rhythm and blues program on KNOB, as recalled by one-time jazz DJ, the late Les Carter, who was his engineer.
Apparently, the partnership between Torian and Stein wasn’t a happy one. “They disagreed a lot,” said Lucraft of the partnership. “Each had 50 percent, not 51/49.” The station sold for $400,000 and “became a middle-of-the-road station in April 1966,” said the KNOB historian. It’s now Spanish language KLAX.
Kerr recalled the “studios were a one room shack, divided into two by big glass windows, where the guests would be.” Nearby, was the Hilltop, bar and restaurant where the DJs and their guests would hang out amid mostly oil rough necks.
“People would come up to the parking lot, which was a lover’s overlook,” said Kerr. “Signal Hill cops kept it clear.”
Kerr eventually became CSULB Associate Dean of Student Affairs for College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and in the late 1970s until about 1982, Kerr produced the 49er Banjo, Fiddle and Guitar Festival, which he described as “a niche thing,” with acts like Emmy Lou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Goodman, Jimmy Buffett, Lester Flatt and the Mark Savoy Cajun Band. Kerr is also an active actor in local playhouses.
The shack that was the KNOB studio now houses the equipment, which helps keep the KKJZ transmitter up and running on Signal Hill.