Swinging vinyl on the dial


By Sharon Hartwick

Every Saturday, Danny Stiles shows up at the WNYC studios in the Municipal Building at the end of Chambers St. to tape another trip back in time to the era of great American music. Sitting in his office, he fingers through rows of well-worn LPs, preparing for the evening’s program. He picks out dozens and lines them up in a grocery cart filling it to the brim.

“Sometimes I get in a mood for something and I say, wait a minute, I haven’t played that for some time. So I look for it while I’m on the air,” said Stiles. “I have enough for 80 shows here,” he said.

Stiles has created, produced and hosted a weekly show for WNYC-AM for almost 20 years.

“I have it down pat. This is exactly what I do every Saturday, come hell or high water. I seldom take vacations,” he said, pushing the cart down the hallway to the studio. He rolls it next to his chair, where it will remain for the entire session, arms-length from the turntables.

During his career, which spans well over 50 years, Stiles has worked at more than twenty stations in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. During the ‘50s he was known as the “Kat Man” in Newark, playing rhythm and blues on his late night show, the Kit Kat Club.

Today, in addition to WYNC, Stiles, who tapse some of his shows, is on the air late into every night on either WNSW-AM or WPAT-AM.

The self-proclaimed “vicar of vintage vinyl” and “swami of sacred songs,” Stiles has been educating, entertaining and winning over audiences ever since he began his on-air career. At 79, Stiles brings his fans variations on his favorite kind of program: classic American standards of the ‘30s and ‘40s including the big bands and swing era, novelty tunes, nightclub entertainers and vaudevillians, and soundtracks from movies, television and Broadway shows.

From the romantic, to the sophisticated, to the comedic, with lots of behind-the-scenes commentary tossed in, his is the only show of its kind.

“He’s an ambassador to the past …and the lone holdout still providing access to this kind of music,” said Greg Perrin, 43, a fan who listens on all three stations. “And he has the utmost respect for his listeners and the music.”

Stiles, concedes his unique status, lamenting the current state of radio programming.

When he started out at WHBI in Newark in 1947, there were eight New Jersey stations and roughly 800 nationally, all individually owned. Today, he said, a handful of people own most of the 18,000 AM and FM stations.

“The programs sound like four guys are programming them. It’s terrible,” he said. ”I think you’re taking license when you call it music. I don’t understand it…It’s just foisted on people—kids — and they hear it so much, they get to like it. When I hear them humming these goofy songs, I marvel.”

Stiles wishes more listeners, especially the younger crowd, would give the gems of the past a fair hearing. He believes men respond more to the music itself and women more to the words.

“Women do hear lyrics of songs. They do recognize romance…and the mystery of life and the charm of living. Men don’t think that way,” he said.

He is convinced that teenage girls would love the music if only they were exposed to it. To make his point, he puts on “Since I Fell For You,” sung by Lenny Welch in 1967, but which was first recorded in 1941.

“Now how could any girl —15 or 16 — resist falling in love with this song and a guy that appeals to her?” he asked.

It’s a few minutes before showtime, and Stiles, a lean, gray-haired man, half glasses hanging from his neck, puts his headphones in place to get ready to weave his magic. Before going on the air, he tries out a few more records.

”This was a monster hit,” he says. He’s a kid in a candy store, smiling to himself. In the end, the eclectic mix covers decades of musical history.

“I like to change – from ballads to romantic to silly…that’s part of the charm of the program — how you set up the things you play. Anyone can spin records, but I try to give it some humor, try to keep it not serious,” he said.

Stiles decides on the opener (“Kidney Stew” sung by Charlie Schaefer with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, 1949). He will produce the show from beginning to end, two hours, with no assistance and no break, ad-libbing as he goes along.

“We’re all set…ready to go,” he says. “I hate to make a mistake ‘cause I don’t know how to edit,” he says.

Up with the musical intro — and chorus: “DANNY STILES!”

“Hello, hello, hello my hearties and welcome to the great American Museum of Natural Historical Records. This is your dean of déjà vu and a program designed especially for precocious teenagers and astute youngsters in their 20s and 30s and for mature adults in their 40s and older….”

From “Kidney Stew” he swings over to Frank Sinatra and then to “I Guess I’ll Have to Dream the Rest” with Ray Eberle and the Modernaires and the Glen Miller Orchestra — a song from his own teen-age years growing up in Newark. The boys, dressed in jackets and ties, would show up at the high school gym or Y.M.C.A., church or synagogue, he said, and dance with the girls, unforgettable in their pleated skirts and bobby socks with ribbons in their hair.

He spins “the old nostalgia wheel back to 1936” with a “beautiful saloon song” by Frances Faye, a cabaret singer accompanying herself on the piano: “No regrets…our love affair has gone astray…no regrets…” she sings.

“Can’t you just picture this? Late at night, Francis Fay at the piano. It’s got that — I know I’m drunk, but I know what I’m saying,” said Stiles.

“He’s not just a deejay or a host, he’s a storyteller and an artist—and can paint the pictures every night,” said Perrin. “Close your eyes and you could almost envision the speakeasy or the nightclub or Carnegie Hall…. He takes you on this trip.”

Over the years Stiles has accumulated tens of thousands of fans— men and women —many of whom have followed him from station to station. And he often says hello to a few on the air, such as Stu Fink, president of the Danny Stiles Nostalgia Fan Club of Boston. He also sent greetings to Mary Worth from Nutley and Josie Caravello from Jersey City, two fans he met at Three Guys From Italy, a Belleville, NJ restaurant that’s also a hangout for Stiles On Your Dials listeners.

Susan Burton started listening to Stiles while a student at Yale and became friends with him over the last 10 years. So when she and her fiancé (also a long-time listener) planned their June wedding, they asked him to host and deejay the reception.

“I said I don’t do weddings…and can’t spin the records because I don’t ride around with a van,” he said. But the bride prevailed. She hired an assistant (with a van), sent a limousine to transport him to the affair at an inn in upstate New York. He was treated like family and he and the music were a big hit. “They loved it,” he said.

Stiles’ collection of 78s, 45s and 33 LPs numbers around 250,000, so he never has to repeat a show. (But he seldom brings in 78s anymore because they’re too fragile.)

That night he spun from “Amapola” with Helen O’Connell to “Laughing in Rhythm” by the “famous team of Slim and Slam” to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney reviving “Strike up the Band” and Rex Harrison from “My Fair Lady.”

And the spinmeister couldn’t resist doing a “little shtick” with his favorite clip from “Casablanca:”

“…Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine…You know what I want to hear… You played it for her, you can play it for me…”

After which he segued into comedienne Guy Marks doing an imitation of Humphrey Bogart in a 1970s recording of “As Time Goes By.”

His listeners always know when the show is winding down. Eight-year-old Shirley Temple comes on singing “Goodnight My Love” (from the 1936 movie “Stowaway”). He sings along, after which he adds “goodnight Shirley” and “goodnight dear sweet Barbara,” a tribute to his late wife, who died six years ago.

“You gotta like a man who says goodbye to a wife who left too soon,” said Perrin.

Then to Connie Boswell’s “I’ll Never Have to Dream Again.”

And finally to his trademark last line right before the door to the “vault” swings shut: “HOLD THE DOOR RODNEY, THE 78s ARE EXCRUCIATINGLY HEAVY!”

Danny Stiles can be heard on WNYC-AM (820) Sat. 8 to 10 p.m.; WNSW-AM (1430) Mon.- Fri. 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and Sat. 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.; and WPAT-AM (930) every night from midnight to 5 a.m.