At the beginning of October, local podcaster Lee Douglas hit a milestone. It was his third year running the Old Time Rock & Roll podcast (available at www.talkshoe.com or via subscription from iTunes), a donation-dependent lesson in music, mostly from the '50s, that began as a weekly hourlong show and currently stands as a twice-weekly, 90-minute marathon of knowledge. Douglas got some acknowledgement — a couple of minutes on a local TV news profile, an anniversary show of greatest hits — but generally, the 66-year-old Winter Park resident continued along his quiet quest.
The thing that went mostly unnoticed, however, is that what Douglas is doing with Old Time Rock & Roll — racking up 229 musically packed episodes as of this writing — is unique, not just in Orlando but anywhere. A recently retired Orange County schoolteacher in computer programming, Douglas has turned his love of education and of rock, doo-wop, rockabilly and soul into a mind-blowing seminar for music lovers. He spent months digitizing his astounding collection of oldies, both well-known and rare, into an ever-increasing catalog of approximately 90,000 tracks, most by artists long forgotten. Douglas organizes his collection into various themes and put the songs in historical context in his grainy, excitable radio-jockey voice. An hour of Sun Records classics, Chess and Specialty Records, Ted Steele's Bandstand, Dion and the Belmonts, shows devoted strictly to Jewish-American, Hispanic-American and Italian-American singers … you name it, he's got it, and he'll learn you a little something in the process. Sometimes he even surprises himself: In an episode titled "The Originals," in which Douglas takes well-known songs and plays the very first recordings of them (the Exciters' "Doo Wa Ditty," Irma Thomas' "Time Is on My Side," a year before the Rolling Stones got to it), Douglas unearthed a 1950 song by Al Jolson called "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
"I `always` thought it was an Elvis song," says Douglas, working on his laptop at his regular haunt, Panera Bread. "I had to play it. I found, at a dollar store in the mall, an album by Tony Orlando and Dawn just sitting there. I stay off iTunes. I've got everything they have. Even Rhapsody said they have 8 million tunes, but I dare anybody to find what I've got on Rhapsody or iTunes, because nobody cares about `these songs`."
Douglas, who grew up in Brooklyn right around the birth of rock & roll and spent some time trying to become a professional wrestler, today carries himself as equal parts cocky and embattled. He's confident in what he has to offer, but, because of financial concerns, he has set his sights on the nearly unbreakable market of commercial radio. He tends to feel the brick walls he hits especially hard. "I will continue this for one more year and then give up," Douglas writes on his blog. "Many would have already given up, but I ain't that smart."
A natural storyteller, Douglas grew up idolizing Alan Freed, a New York radio DJ in the '50s often credited as the "Father of Rock & Roll" because he exposed white audiences to African-American music. Douglas ingratiated himself with Freed and his family as a kid, something that would come back to him on a cosmic level later on.
"Alan Freed would sit down and talk to you and ask, ‘What do you like?' remembers Douglas. "When I got divorced back in 1996 and I had to pay child support — and I did, which is what you're supposed to; not like the rest of these deadbeats — I had no money to live on. My new wife and I were pretty broke." Douglas was forced to sell off his collection of playbooks from each of Freed's shows on eBay. "Turned out it was Alan Freed's son `Lance Freed` who purchased it, and his wife took care of all the details. She said her name and I said, ‘You're Lance's wife, aren't you?' She said, ‘How did you know?' I said, ‘I knew him when he was a kid.' Actually, `Alan Freed` saved my life. So I do these shows."
Those shows can leave listeners in a bug-eyed state, thanks to constant revelations and downright oddities. "I've out-doctored Dr. Demento with the amount of weird songs I have found," boasts Douglas. One recent find uncovered the work of Jimi Hendrix when the legendary guitarist was a member of Little Richard's backup band. Another is a version of "Think Twice" by Jackie Wilson and LaVern Baker that Douglas, a conservative, will not play on his show. (The track features a giggling Baker and Wilson trading barbs like "Wait a minute, bitch/I've had just about enough of your shit" and much filthier.)
"I got into Elvis and `my parents said`, ‘Oh, Elvis. The guy can't sing!' Ten years later, we were listening to the Beatles and they say, ‘Whatever happened to that Elvis guy? He was kind of nice,'" laughs Douglas, who fails to see the irony when he later rants about contemporary stars, from Madonna and Michael Jackson in the '80s — "You tell me why the most incredible talent of the 1970s … has to grab his crotch every 15 seconds" — to rappers today.
"You know who's turning over in his grave, banging his head against a stone wall in hell? Lenny Bruce. He was subjected to such scrutiny and today you can say those things on television and he got arrested doing it in a nightclub act," says Douglas. "When you have that Kanye West … why would you want to be like him? I'd rather be like Taylor Swift and be a humble person."
While Douglas can be cantankerous about modern music, he has the been-there credibility to back it up. He says he went to every rock show that came through New York in the '50s and '60s. He recalls a Jerry Lee Lewis show in 1958 when he was getting Lewis' autograph and was suddenly bowled over by 15 girls who tore Lewis' coat right off his back. In another story, Douglas drops the telling line, "Larry Williams was the cockiest man I ever met." Another: "I was there the day that Alan Freed offered Screamin' Jay Hawkins $300 to come out in a coffin. I saw Buddy Holly two months before he died." Douglas, whose only exposure to today's Top 40 comes in the form of American Idol, which he watches religiously, relishes the chance to point out the '50s origins of current radio hits.
"I also worked at the YMCA after school at the computer labs, and I asked one girl to play me a song and I think it was by Fergie. And what is it? ‘The Girl Can't Help It!' `Fergie's 2006 ‘Clumsy' sampled the 1956 Little Richard song.` I said, ‘Do you know how old that song is? Older than your mama.'"
Until Douglas makes good on his promise to hang it up, he continues to educate the music-listening public on the great rock artists of the past, from Buddy Knox to Barry Mann to Huey "Piano" Smith & the Clowns and, on one show, the doo-wop stylings of Jerry Landis, who would use his real name, Paul Simon, later in his career. Considering the only oldies station in Orlando, WEUS (810-AM), was replaced last year by religious and talk programming, Douglas could be the area's last hope.
"I'm here to make a splash," says he says, organizing and reorganizing desktop folders that contain decades of studious musical education. "I'm not here to play around. I haven't got an ego trip. Most of the podcasts on these networks, they goof around, they do whatever they want but they just want to hear themselves. I've gone beyond that. I want to give people a chance to hear `these songs` one last time."[email protected]