Saturday, March 10, 2012

Jim Krenn

Jimmy Krenn

Pittsburgh jock Jimmy Krenn was an institution in local drive time radio as the co-host of the top-rated WDVE-FM morning show. His comedy bits made the approaching work day a little easier to face, and after 24 years behind the mic, Krenn was as recognizable as any DJ in the region.

Raised in the Strip, behind what's now the Heinz History Center, Krenn went to North Catholic where he naturally excelled as class comedian, funny enough that even his teachers appreciated his sass.

Prepping at CCAC and then graduating from IUP in 1983, Krenn traveled the local comedy club circuit through his college years, eventually becoming a featured act on the stages of The Portfolio and The Funny Bone, which he parlayed into a spot on WDVE.

After joining the 'DVE Morning Show in 1988, the duo of Krenn and Scott Paulsen topped the age 25 to 54 drive-time demographics through the nineties with their mix of music, skits and impressions. After Paulsen’s departure in 1999, Randy Baumann picked up the slack and the zaniness and laughs kept comin'.

In fact, Krenn was selected as the Top Entertainer in the City several times by Pittsburgh Magazine. And in 2009, Pittsburgh’s Mayor Luke Ravenstahl declared February 22nd as “Jim Krenn Day.”

Then he vanished from the airwaves in December, and his name disappeared from the station's website. Krenn was yanked from his show, and WDVE offered him a different role as a sort of ambassador without portfolio, contributing on-line material and working promotions. But they made it clear that his on-air days were through. Krenn didn't go for it, and Clear Channel released him from his contract at the end of February.

“I was baffled,” said Krenn. “I have to be the first radio personality to hit his 25 to 54 ratings bonus for being number one and let go in the same week.” No explanation was offered, and none was needed. Clear Channel had a plan, and Krenn wasn't part of it any longer.

Paulsen and local stand-up comedian Bill Crawford joined the remaining morning team of Baumann, Val Porter and Mike Prisuta in January, so the circle remained unbroken. That also belied the rumor of wholesale change to attract younger listeners. WDVE stuck to the old tried-and-true formula when it replaced Krenn.

There were some negative fan reactions - a web site and Facebook page popped up decrying the decision, and Pittsburgh cowboy crooner Slim Forsythe penned "One Bird They Won't Set Free Is Jim Krenn."

But it had no affect, and the truth is that the show will probably roll along just as strong as ever with Paulsen and Baumann, who are plenty familiar to the 'DVE morning audience. The fan base seemed more dazed and confused than outraged over the change.

Freed from his contractual gag order, Krenn held a press conference this week where he said all the right things and announced his future plans.

He's ready to expand his brand. Krenn would like to catch another morning gig in the Pittsburgh market (he has no desire to relocate), but with the time to branch off into pet projects - a return to live comedy and web podcasts/vids, like his on-line 'DVE series "Jim Krenn Raw." His first post-'DVE performance will be on the comedy circuit.

The stand-up comic (he's performed with Jay Leno, Howie Mandel, Dennis Miller, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Gilbert Gottfried and Tim Allen) will headline "Jim Krenn aLIVE" May 26th at 8 p.m. at the Byham Theater, billed as "a toast to Pittsburgh and its people featuring a collection of friends and guest performers."

Tickets for the show are $32.50, $35.50 and $52.50 The top-end VIP tickets include a two-hour post-show party and meet-and-greet at the Bossa Nova club in the Strip. Part of the pot will go to Animal Friends and other charities.

Krenn and his wife Hedy are frequent participants in Pittsburgh area charities. In 2009, he received the Life Achievement Award ("The Golden Hydrant") from Animal Friends. In fact, his "Ralph the Cat" radio character was based on a pet kitty adopted from Animal Friends. He and Hedy have a houseful of dogs and cats roaming their Greentree home, all taken from area shelters.

The Pittsburgh personality has also been an advocate for Children’s Hospital and the Epilepsy Foundation while raising $1.2 million for those groups and others that include the Toys for Tots program, the Multiple Sclerosis Service Society, and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation via fundraising events and the sales of 'DVE Morning Show comedy CDs.

We wish the 52 year old Krenn the best of luck in realizing his dreams. Switching stations isn't an easy thing to pull off, and he'll be competing against his own schtick on WDVE. There's not much of a track record for successfully swapping stations in Pittsburgh, although the original 'DVE comedy man, Jimmy Roach, was axed by the station in 1986, and after stops at Magic 97 and WDSY found a gig with Froggy in 1998 that's still running strong.

Jimmy Krenn has a lot of irons in the fire (he also has a marketing degree from IUP as an ace up his sleeve), a good name and a lot of friends in the City. It will be interesting to see what direction his upcoming journey takes. One thing we'll bet on is that he lands on his feet, just as Ralph did so often.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Bob Mack

"Bob Mack Presents Hanky Panky" - label shot from The Interrobang magazine.

Robert McConnell, aka Bob Mack, made his living in the music industry the old fashioned way. He played and booked dances, operated a string of hop halls, ran a record shop, owned a label or two, and even had a radio gig back in the day when you could earn your daily bread by serving platters to teens.

First and foremost, he was among a select crew of influential dance DJs in the late fifties and sixties who could pack a club with kids and push them to buy the discs they danced to. He spun rockers and grinders, "race" records, and all the wild and bluesy music that made our little slice of heaven the home of the celebrated and unique "Pittsburgh Sound."

A record collector turned DJ, Mack told Ed Salamon that he started out by doing "...local dances, held in schools or small neighborhood halls. In 1958 I saw an opportunity when Pittsburgh deejay Barry Kaye left town, and I took over Kaye's regular Friday night 'record hop' at the Masonic Temple in nearby Washington."

He started building a chain of clubs the next year and burned the turntable at venues he ran like the White Elephant, Tarena, Blue Fox, Teenland, Wildwood Lodge, Bethel Roller Rink, Lebanon Lodge, Sugar Shack, Teen Scene, and other dance halls stretching from Washington to Erie. He later would open adult dance clubs Infiniti, Zodiac and Frontier.

Beside the hot wax, he brought in live acts like Sam & Dave, Donnie Elbert, Smokey, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Little Anthony, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, the Isley Brothers, the Coasters, the Shirelles, the Drifters and the Five Satins, along with the local performers, who were all drawn to Mack's sold-out teen club circuit.

In that era, being a radio DJ was not exactly a ticket to joining the 1%. However, for a dance jock, the exposure was priceless. So in 1962, Mack produced a home demo tape for Carnegie's spanking new dawn-to-dusk station WZUM. Owner and station manager Jimmy Psihoulis, a polka player who performed as Jimmy Pol of "Steeler Fight Song" fame, popped it in the recorder and quickly put Mack behind a mic.

Bob Mack's Wax Museum was a show not unlike Porky's WAMO program, featuring lots of obscure R&B and doo-wop. The Museum took off, featuring "Mac's Monsters," and was one of the most popular shows on local airwaves within a few months. But a programming change led to Mack eventually leaving the station.

WZUM's management wanted to update their image and told Mack to add some contemporary sounds to his oldies format. He protested, but to no avail. His ratings slid, and he resigned in early 1964, to be replaced by Johnny Walker.

But radio was never Mack's bread-and-butter vocation; he had several irons in the fire. The music entrepreneur kept on spinnin', and ran a couple of small labels, Romac ("Lonely Heart" by The Enchantments) and Viscount ("Comes Love" by The Skyliners. The label was co-owned by Joe Rock), promoted acts through Atlantis Productions, and operated a record store in town on Smithfield and Liberty, the Tri-State Record Shop.

The record shop segues into one of Pittsburgh's most famous and murky tales, the "Hanky Panky" revival.

The story goes that Mack found the record as part of a midwest collection he had bought for the shop, sped it up a couple of RPM, which is a common practice for DJs who want to juice up the tempo even today, and broke it on the hops circuit in late 1965.

Other say Bob Livorio of WKPA was the first to play it, with Clark Race and Mad Mike putting in claims.  James is no help in piecing together the puzzle, as he was working at a Michigan record store while all the dances (and bootlegging) were going on in Pittsburgh.

But no matter. If not the first, Mack was still one of the earliest jocks in on the record and promoted Tommy James locally. He booked dates, helped him line up The Raconteurs after seeing them play at Greensburg's Thunderbird Lounge to replace the original broken-up Shondells, and took him to New York where James signed a deal with Morris Levy and Roulette Records. In fact, the Roulette label lists "Bob Mack Presents" as part of the credits.

Oh, yeah, one more thing about that record store that Mack owned. His shop majordomo was a skinny North Side kid named Michael Metrovich, who used to pick out records for Mack to spin. He became a hop and radio DJ of some local renown, too. Metrovich even replaced Bob Mack's WZUM replacement, Johnny Walker, after a brief stint at WPIT. You might know him better by his stage persona, Mad Mike.

Small world, Pittsburgh.

(For a comprehensive interview of Mack and his partnership with Mad Mike, click on the PBRTV article written by Ed Salamon.)

The Enchantments featuring Leroy on Romac Records - 1962