The voice of WIRD

I’ve always liked the word mellifluous, even before I knew what it meant.

Its definition is “sweet and smooth-sounding,” and its roots are Latin: mellis – honey; and fluere – to flow.

I don’t know when I first heard the word, but whenever I hear it now I think of Neil Drew, who passed away this week.

At one point in my life Neil Drew was The Voice of WIRD, and I knew his voice as well as anyone’s.

1962 – The Magical Year

It was all happening in the spring of 1962 … and so was I. I was 15, undergoing that mysterious transformation from post-kiddie to young adult. Things were changing fast, and what had previously fascinated me, now bored me to tears. Comic books, BB guns and the Johnson-Smith catalogue were insults to my newfound maturity. Instead, I’d become interested in sports cars, big city life, and sophisticated literature (my favorites being True, Saga and Argosy).

Likewise, my musical tastes underwent a change for the better. This was due to two things.

One was a radio given to me by my Uncle Irving. It was old when I got it, a turquoise-green G.E. “portable.” I put portable in quotation marks because, today when we can hold a computer in the palm of our hand, portable means something entirely different. But back in the stone age of electronics, my “portable” radio was as big and heavy as a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Moreover, to keep it in batteries for few days would’ve doomed me to indentured servitude.

Luckily, my radio could be plugged in, and thus it became my agent of freedom. With my radio I could now chill in the privacy of my room and groove on tunes to my heart’s content. This was no small deal: I loved music but had no phonograph, so the only music I could hear was on the radio. And until the magical spring of ’62, the only station I listened to was WNBZ.

Of course I listened to WNBZ because it was the only station I could listen to, because it was the only station around. I’d grown up with WNBZ and then had outgrown it. The music was granny stuff, not something that could appeal to someone like me, a nascent hipster who was only a few years away from becoming a serious coffee drinker and a devoted reader of The Playboy Advisor.

What tunes did WNBZ play? As far as I was concerned, they were all hopelessly square. First, there were brother groups – The Ames Brothers, The Mills Brothers, The Blackwood Brothers. Then there were sister groups The Andrews Sisters, The Lennon Sisters, The Boswell Sisters. And after that was a random assortment, their only common trait being they were all lame-o schlockmeisters. Among them were Arthur Godfrey, Teresa Brewer, Ray Conniff, Mitch Miller, and the lamest of the lame – Eddie Fisher and his trilling schmaltz.

But WIRD was something else. To me, it was like 1,000 Roman candles exploding in the midnight sky. Suddenly I was exposed to genres I’d never heard, like jazz, soul and folk. With jazz, there were Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck. As for soul? The only one I remember is Ray Charles. Among the folk music they played was stuff by the Brothers Four, and the Kingston Trio, and Burl Ives (I can still hear him singing Mr. In-Between).

And accompanying the music was Neil Drew and his velvet voice.

On the air and off my game

I only met him once. It was that magical 1962 spring, right at the end of school. The weather was warming up, and I was in my room. WIRD’s music was in the background as I pored over a True magazine article, “My Escape from an Algerian Prison Camp.”

Suddenly, a voice on the radio caught my attention. It was Neil and he was announcing a contest they ran from time to time. The DJ could broadcast from his car so he’d pick some spot in Saranac Lake or Lake Placid, announce his location on the air, and whoever found him got to take a one-question quiz. I’ve no idea now what the prizes were, but to a 15 year-old, they sounded downright sultanic.

So there I was, listening for all I was worth, when Neil announced the location – at the bottom of Maryland Avenue in My Home Town.

Holy Kamoly, that was right in my backyard!

I tore down the stairs and sprinted out to Maryland Avenue, where a car was parked. In it was Neil Drew. I was immediately impressed with how handsome and sophisticated he looked, what with his natty clothes, his full head of well-coiffed hair, and the cigarette in his hand. I was also impressed by how old he was – I mean, he was a 100 percent grown-up, as I’d expected a media star would be. When I read his obit, I realized he was actually 22 at that time, but to a 15 year-old, 22 was elderly, if not ancient.

As for the contest? I think I might’ve known the answer, but on the spot, under all that pressure, I folded and flubbed it. I was, however, consoled by my 15 seconds of fame.

Over the next 50 years, I saw Neil hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. But not having been introduced, we never spoke, only nodded and said hello, as any small town person does to anyone. Yet his voice was always so familiar to me, I only had to pause a moment and I could recall it perfectly.

An odd thing to think of: In one way, I knew Neil perfectly; in every other way, I didn’t know him at all.

Then again, when I think about it some more, the same can probably be said about almost everyone.