NEW YORK – Rich Conaty, one of the national treasures of American music history, died Dec. 30, 2016. Conaty, 62, was perhaps the nation’s greatest expert on the songs of the early era of classic American recordings, and his programs and legacy will live on, long after his life.
Conaty hosted a radio program, The Big Broadcast, beginning in the 1970s when he was a Fordham student. On his show he played and discussed popular standards from the early to mid 20th century, with an emphasis the ’20s and ’30s. The WFUV program continued until just before he died, and hundreds of episodes are recorded for posterity.
I first remember hearing Conaty’s voice while he was on WQEW 1560 AM, one of the greatest radio stations ever, and one completely unique. The station was the first to intellectually put together the standards of Sinatra with more recent ballads; it was just after the era of When Harry Met Sally and Harry Connick, and the station gave a fresh look at the songs of everyone from Vic Damone to Carly Simon. This had been done, in a manner, with the popular MOR format so much loved in the 1970s. MOR, which stands for Middle of the Road, played songs that everyone could listen to, both new and classic. At its best, it had Streisand and the Carpenters; the format fell apart, I think, with the arrival of Air Supply. However, WQEW gave this format an intellectual edge, which came from its hybrid origins from WNEW and The New York Times.
The station was born after the closing of WNEW AM as a music station in 1992; WNEW was a pioneering AM radio station (its FM call letters were transferred for a bit to Washington D.C. by CBS Radio) when WNEW AM 1330 (Eleven Three O) was sold to Michael Bloomberg; all of its content moved over to the classical AM station of the New York Times, 1560 WQXR, and that station was rebranded as WQEW, promising standards, jazz and a continued promotion of the American songbook. It was a clear channel station, and the signal reached up and down the east coast at night.
I remember hearing the station for the first time sometime soon after it started. It was a snowy evening and we were on the West Side, picking up a sandwich, before we headed on a drive back to Virginia. It must have been the dead of winter, as the evening came early. Waiting in the car, I turned on WQEW and heard the music of New York on a station that played just that. Conaty was hired at the station by Stan Martin, and guest hosted for Jonathan Schwartz.
While I was introduced to Conaty on WQEW, I afterward listened to him online on the Fordham station WFUV. His show was filled with obscure artists, many of whom are completely forgotten. In my opinion, some deservedly so and I frankly prefer a more slick sound to my American standards. However, Conaty’s enthusiasm held it together. He had perhaps a more complete knowledge of the roots of this great period of American standards than any other, as he was far enough away from the period to have some perspective on it, yet close enough to it in the 1970s and 1980s to actually have known many of the principals.
American Standard for the World
Conaty and the WQEW crew had a clear, defining understanding of American popular music, and calling their genre American popular standards was an important idea, one that had more than a few roots. The success of the Music of Your Life radio format, pioneered by adman Al Ham, was the first national medium to bring together late 20th century current hits with the classics. Symphonies, of course, play popular music at their annual “pops” concert series, but this is often treated as a concession to what is the true high culture, classical music. Sadly, the symphony has never understood what Paul Whiteman did, namely marry the conventions of popular culture with the rich, tonal depth of an orchestra.
Conaty understood that our popular songs were America’s great contribution to the world. My father, who heard many of the greats while at University of Virginia in the 1950s, contends that long after many things are forgotten about American culture, our classic songs will survive, enduringly and infinatum.
Conaty’s voice was gentle and thoughtful, and always his voice was young. It was not professional, in the sense of the “radio” d.j. voice and personality that many had in the 1960s and 70s, but he was in that genre, and a bit better than that, actually.
He once told an interviewer that if he were on a desert island, he would want two house bands, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, alternating with Ted Weems Orchestra, which was a band that worked for Perry Como. He was a fan of the Boswell Sisters, which I do not understand, as it sounds so dated. I knew about none of them before Conaty.
Like many in the creative field, Conaty struggled, as there is little money in esoteric 78s. His marriage failed, as well. But he had legions of fans and followers, who were educated in one of America’s great contributions to the world, popular standards. Below, a short interview with him, and below that, an early clip from Fordham.
Below, a goofy clip from 1981, after a decade on air at Fordham.