I trudged out into a brimming parking lot on a faultless July evening in Framingham, Massachusetts expecting to cool off a bit from the feverish dancing that made my then gangling body glisten like a lake trout. While I had always been a reluctant dancer – I was left-handed “with two left feet,” a former girlfriend had once quipped – I was now bathed in sweat because of the set I had just furiously danced to that had been orchestrated by a local deejay legend by the name of Bud Ballou.
As an iconic rock ‘n roll figure on AM 1510 WMEX Boston, Ballou’s famed “ten-thousand ‘45’s’ stack” was then serving as the centerpiece to five hours of nonstop delight at the then popular “Timothy’s Too.” During a 20-minute intermission, I had just ventured outside of the jammed nightclub to “cool off.” Having attended over 50 Ballou “Oldies” shows in the past, I had brought a pad of paper and pen with me so that I could jot down his particular song list that evening.
As I perused through the list, I realized that the last eight tunes of the previous set had encapsulated Ballou’s heady mix of the familiar with the obscure: The Dave Clark Five’s matchless “Can’t You See That She’s Mine,” Elvis Presley’s unappreciated gem, “Stuck on You,” Martha and the Vandellas’ infectious 1964 single, “Nowhere to Run,” Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys’ palpitating ode to ’50’s music, “Good Old Rock ‘n Roll,” Archie Bell and the Drells’ hypnotic, “Tighten Up,” Jan and Dean’s irresistible “Surf City,” Sly and the Family Stone’s mesmerizing “Dance to the Music,” and Orpheus’s “Can’t Find the Time to Tell You” – an incandescent 1968 ballad performed by a local Boston band.
As I gulped the southwestern breeze that provided immediate relief from the sweltering tavern air, I noticed that another patron was also cooling his heels outside, quietly puffing away on a filtered cigarette. I gave him a second glance and realized that it was none other than Bud Ballou himself.
I took a measured risk, tiptoed up to him and exclaimed, “Bud, your shows are so much fun that I lose track of what time it is when you’re doing your thing! Thank you.”
He grasped my right hand firmly. “Hey, my good man, that’s exactly what my show is all about!”
Over the next few minutes, I chatted with what turned out to be an incredibly affable individual who took discernible pleasure in his craft. Effervescent and engaging both on the air and on stage, Bud Ballou was just as ebullient in a darkened nightclub parking lot as he was on stage. When I informed him that I had over 3,000 records myself and that I yearned to put on similar oldies show at my college’s bar, “The Rathskeller,” Ballou cried, “Hey! That’s great! Tell ‘the powers-that-be’ there that you would like to put on a show for free. Persuade your friends to show up – and see if you actually draw in some good business. If that happens, you will have your foot in the door. If you’re good, they will pay you well, and then you might be able to call your own shots down the road.”
When I pumped Ballou to share with me what he had learned as someone who had hosted thousands of rock ‘n roll dances over a 12-year period, Bud continued to punctuate his sentences in his customary rat-a-tat style. “You know, you can have 10,000 45’s as I do and still put on a lousy show! As a longtime hockey fan, the one thing I notice that the great ones like Bobby Orr have is the one thing you can’t measure – intuition. In my line of work, you have to be cognizant of the moment; you have to feel the mood – and then choose that perfect song that will make them dance instantaneously.”
When the deejay glanced at his watch and realized that his next set was commencing in five minutes, he requested that I walk with him back to the club while he set up. On our way to the brightly-lit stage, Bud Ballou remarked, “Remember, old music is all about conjuring up good memories. You want the audience to be active, participatory. You want them to think as if they are part of the process. I try to do that in my song choices, in my introductions to each single, and in the way the evening unfolds. In reality, I am just following the audience’s lead. As you’ve probably noticed already, each show is different. You can’t repeat the magic. It just happens. Ultimately, it’s all in the mix.”
As we shook hands, Bud Ballou pointed to me and exclaimed, “Hey, great to meet you, Shaun – and good luck!”
Over the next two months, I attended at least 20 more Bud Ballou shows at Timothy Too’s on Route 9 in Framingham. I ended up jotting down the deejay’s mystical elixir on a yellow legal pad. It was evident that he knew his music intimately. It was also evident that Ballou had developed a system of organization that enabled him to unearth music at lightning speed. Like a pinball wizard, he moved with relentless abandon from genre to genre, decade to decade, group to group. In the end, the opted tunes each evening were spontaneous. It was like observing a deft musicologist with ADD – working in fifth gear.
While he worked from a purposeful set-list, Ballou’s shows often reverted to pure improvisation. Through the mantle of instinct, he would gaze intently at the audience as they were dancing, begin to ponder visibly, and would then twist purposely around to his systematic stacks of songs to locate that 45, which would then be cued up as the next entry.
Rather than play the obvious by an artist – “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, for instance; Bud tended to put on such less heralded Checker numbers as “It’s Pony Time” or “Dancin’ Party.” Ballou relished putting on those “lost 45’s” that summoned a wellspring of memories for most dancers. He also loved setting up each song with particular details that would make the hit more relevant and captivating. His song introductions turned out to be veritable mini-music lessons: “From crooning on the corner of East 183rd Street and Belmont Avenue in the Bronx to eventually releasing this Top 5 single in June 1962, here’s the incomparable Dion DiMucci with his follow-up to “The Wanderer,” “Lovers Who Wander!”
Finally, Ballou savored paying tribute to a cavalcade of deceased rock and rollers throughout each show, immortalizing them at the beginning of each tune he then dedicated in their memory. “Here’s a fabulous one from the late, great Sam Cooke!” he would bellow before playing a soul cruncher by the incomparable singer/songwriter who “died much too early back in ’64.” In the end, Bud Ballou seemed to understand that each song, and indeed, each life, had an expiration mark and that fame was most assuredly transient.
When I arrived back in college in September 1975 as a junior, I followed Bud Ballou’s advice and asked the manager of Jacksonville University’s Rathskeller if I could put on an oldies’ show for free. By that time, I had recorded all 3,000 singles from my voluminous collection of 45’s and LP’s onto nearly a hundred, 90-minute cassette tapes. I had also categorized them by genre, group, and year – and began to put together a tentative show. in addition, I purchased a small cassette player and headset to fast forward or rewind any tape to locate a particular song, hired two friends to serve as my soundmen, and put on my first show just before Columbus Day Weekend.
Given the emerging popularity of my oldies shows that year, I ended up securing a weekly Saturday night paid gig by early November. Fraternities and sororities commenced hiring me out as well. As the winter turned to early spring, my “Rockin’ to the Oldies Shows” had become celebrated communal happenings on campus. When I returned to the Boston area later on that May, I informed Bud Ballou at Timothy Too’s one night that his advice had borne fruit. He flicked a smile and then laughed, “You better not get ‘too good’, Shaun. I need a job here!”
When I returned to Jacksonville University for my senior year, over 1000 students attended an oldies party in the college’s dining hall, which kicked off orientation that fall. I ended up hosting nearly 40 shows over the next eight months. Throughout the entire experience, I had learned that the surest way to make any dream come true was to live it.
However, when I received an unanticipated phone call from an old Wellesley friend on April 16, 1977, I was reminded once again of the volatility of life. I quickly learned that Bud Ballou had just dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. According to The Boston Globe, Bud Ballou was just 34 and married with four young children when he suddenly died “much too young.”
Later on, when I flipped on the local Jacksonville oldies station, the Flamingos wistful hit, “Lovers Never Say Goodbye,” reverberated out of my cassette/radio boombox. I closed my eyes and remembered Bud playing the 1958 doo-wop classic to conclude a momentous set the previous summer. “Please wait for me/ For I shall return./My love for you will forever burn/Though we must part/There’s no reason to cry/Just say so long/Because lovers never say goodbye…” As someone who had already taken my share of philosophy courses, I knew even then there was nothing predictable in this life – and very little that was fair.
A week later, I produced my last oldies show at the Rathskeller as a college undergraduate. Thankfully, TEP, a popular fraternity at JU at the time, sponsored my show two days before graduation. To publicize the event, they had hung a gargantuan banner that was stretched tautly between two stately palm trees in the center of campus. “For the Last Time This Friday Night at The Rat – Rockin’ to the Oldies – Starring Shaun Kelly!” it read.
My parents, who just driven 1,300 miles south in order to see there to attend my graduation, stopped in their tracks in front of the banner as we came across it on an extended campus tour. “I’ll be damned, Shaunie – you’d think you were Artie Shaw or Bing Crosby. You can’t sing, dance, play an instrument, or perform – but here you are!” my Dad teased.
“You’re right, Dad, but I can play the songs of artists who could!” I retorted. All three of us laughed as we walked past the banner to a formal reception honoring the graduating seniors.
At 8:45 pm the following evening, the Rathskeller was teeming with 600 undergraduates and alums, and I began to set up for the final engagement. By this time, they had already turned away scores of people and placed speakers outside the bar so that “would-be’s” could actually dance outside. At precisely 9:00 pm, I began the five-hour dance-a-thon with Wanda Jackson’s 1960 hyperkinetic rockabilly hit, “Let’s Have a Party.”
Around midnight, just as I was getting into my last sustained set, an enterprising sophomore sauntered up to me and asked me for some guidance. “Shaun, I would like to continue your show in some form next year. What advice can you give me?”
I tapped my hands on the 90 cassettes laid out before me and proceeded to lay out the magic that had been passed onto me that I had learned firsthand as a result of hosting more than 80 oldies shows in college. When we finished conversing, I put my hand on the undergraduate’s shoulder and said, “You, know, the best deejay whoever did this kind of thing once explained to me that ‘it’s all in the mix.’”
At 1:57 am, I concluded the proceedings with Chicago’s haunting ballad, “Colour My World.” As streams of couples commenced to cling to one another in the dark, slow-dancing to the melancholic piano prologue, Terry Kath’s familiar baritone tessitura vocals began to reverberate throughout the building: “As time goes on/I realize – just what you mean to me/And now that you’re near/Promise your love – that I’ve waited to share/And dreams of our moments together…”
Three minutes later, as the tune ended and the lights in the Rathskeller were switched on, I dedicated the show to the late, great Bud Ballou.
PS – Bud used to end each of his shows with the same song, “Can’t Find the Time To Tell You” by the Boston group, Orpheus. This one’s for Bud.