[purchase Jimi Hendrix’s Night Flying Bird]
I’ve written numerous times about the importance that the radio I listened to growing up had in nurturing my love of music. I was lucky to live in New York (or at least, the suburbs of New York) during the heyday of WNEW-FM, one of the seminal free form/progressive stations in the country. I spent hours listening to Dave Herman, Scott Muni, Pete Fornatale, Vin Scelsa, Dennis Elsas (who I still listen to on WFUV), Richard and Dan Neer, and the other DJs who had the freedom to mix genres, go off on rants and rambles, play long, complex songs, and create shows that were more than the sum of their parts. But after all these years, one of the most memorable members of the WNEW staff was Alison Steele, the Night Bird, who was on during the overnight, when I had to listen really quietly, or on headphones, so my parents didn’t know I wasn’t sleeping.
Steele was memorable not just because she was a woman in an otherwise male-dominated lineup (although the station did have, at various times, other female DJs), but because of her distinctive, sultry voice, and because of the experimental, somewhat spacy nature of her show, which mixed poetry and social observations with the music. Here’s the way she opened up her show, for a while:
The flutter of wings, the shadow across the moon, the sounds of the night, as the Nightbird spreads her wings and soars, above the earth, into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come, fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird, at WNEW-FM, until dawn.
Here’s a different opening, equally cosmic:
Steele was a New Yorker, born Ceil Loman in Brooklyn in 1937. I’m kind of taken aback that this icon of cool was born in the same year and borough as my father. Steele (she was, for a while, the third wife of orchestra leader and DJ Ted Steele, who was two decades older) initially got into radio in 1966 by being one of four women chosen from an audition pool of about 800, to create an all-female DJ staff at WNEW-FM, playing middle of the road music. But after 18 months, the station switched to the progressive format that ultimately made it famous, and Steele was the only one of the women asked to stay on, despite her lack of knowledge of the type of music she would have to play..
Here’s a long soundcheck from Steele’s show from Valentine’s Day, 1977 which gives you an idea of what her show was like. You can hear the type of music she played and her between songs patter (a word that doesn’t do her justice), including a love poem. She created something that drew you in, made you think, and played good music (although I’d have to question the Bread decision).
The Night Bird left WNEW in 1979, not long after I started college and began at WPRB, to work in television, returning to the airwaves in 1984 on WNEW-AM, the middle of the road AM sister station. She moved back to FM in 1989, on WXRK, known as K-Rock, where her overnight show, similar to what she did on WNEW-FM would end, and Howard Stern’s crapfest (I’ve never been a fan) would begin. From what I understand, Stern would disparage her, but in reality, he respected Steele, and aired a tribute to her after she passed away in 1995, of stomach cancer. She is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although the Hall doesn’t list DJs on its website, it says so elsewhere on the Internet, so it must be true.
I’ll admit that I didn’t listen to Steele much, if at all, after she left WNEW-FM, but her shows on that station certainly influenced me. And I’m in good company. Jimi Hendrix wrote a song called “Night Bird Flying” which was reportedly inspired by her radio shows. The song was not released until after Hendrix died. As you may know, the Hendrix estate is very, very protective of Jimi’s music, and you can’t even find a video of the song in its entirety to watch. But there is this officially sanctioned Behind The Scenes video discussing the song, mostly by producer/engineer Eddie Kramer, which should give you a sense of the song.
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