by Andy Capp
What does Christmas sound like? As I wade through the drifts of holiday production orders that threaten to bury me this time of year, it becomes an important question. Is it silver bells, crowded, noisy malls, the deep "Ho Ho Hoing" of St. Nick, the slightly off-key caroling of children?
While these sounds of the season dance through my head, I keep going back to one sound, to the voice of one man. A man who was as much a part of the holidays to people in this region (in fact, to many people across the country) as are decorated fir trees and late night Christmas Eve bike assemblies. His name was Ray Loftesness, and for over fifty years he hosted a daily program between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve called "Lofty's Holiday Inn."
On the surface the show seemed simple enough. Christmas carols, new and old (after five decades, you can imagine it was quite a library of "the same fifteen songs redone over and over"), plus stories of the holidays all told by that deep friendly voice, a sound deepened by bourbon and mellowed by time. Simple, yet Ray was more than a deejay spinning ancient vinyl and ripping and reading the latest "stocking stuffers" off the AP wire. A closer listen to the stories proved that Ray was not only a gifted and interpretive storyteller, but also a very literate and insightful story writer, crafting his narratives with not just words but images so personal and engaging that no one could listen and not be moved by the emotions that the voice and those words stirred inside.
Lofty also had the advantage of "being there" when many of his stories occurred. His past included a stint in the Navy in World War II, plus some years traveling with Big Band star (and blender inventor) Fred Waring across the country. When he talked about a recording session between Bing and Frank, he had been there. When he weaved the tale of Al Burt and the fourteen carol legacy he left the world at an all too early age, he had the advantage of telling the story as a longtime friend of Al's after a chance meeting at a military canteen on the eve of the war. Lofty had traveled and experienced and listened and remembered and used all those memories to find, in his words, "New meaning to all the old joys of Christmas."
I was lucky enough to begin working at KELO and to meet Ray on the Golden Anniversary year of the show. He had been lucky that KELO had hired him after the owners cross town had launched several "old timers" at once, for whatever excuse owners have for such things. I must admit that at first he seemed more Scrooge than Santa to me, storming through the station, chain smoking Camels and replying to any friendly, "How you doing, Ray?" with a sharp, "WHO CARES?!" Eventually, Ray seemed to warm to me, and I began to see the place, mostly buried until the mike was open, where Ray hid Lofty.
I considered him a friend, and I hope he felt the same. He was certainly willing to listen to this rookie and give advice when I needed it. When a chance came for me to hit "the big league," it was Ray who advised me with a somewhat wistful tone not to let the chance pass me by. He was also there with words of encouragement when the deal went south. At the time, I was doing a Saturday morning show on our AM, and Ray was often bustling about, sometimes storming into the studio in the middle of a talk back with the newsperson, shoving some snide comment or hopelessly bad and tasteless joke under my nose. It was one of those mornings that I joked, "Lofty's here in the studio! What, they didn't wrap you in tissue and pack you away with the other Christmas stuff?" It was also one of those mornings when I noticed that he was losing too much weight much too fast.
The cancer took him six months later. The last time I saw Ray, it had taken his voice. The day he left this world, it took me over an hour to voice a fifteen-second obit for the station. I couldn't bring myself to attend the funeral.
Time went on. It was decided by Ray's family and the station that the show would continue, and the midday announcer on our FM did an admirable job of sifting through over a half a century of reels, records, cassettes, and CDs--whose only index had been in Ray's mind--and put together that first season's worth of shows. For the past few years since then, the task has gone to our FM PD, who also has done a great job. Still, even though we had many recordings of Lofty that were used throughout the season, the show had moved on and taken on a new life under Reid's watch. It was that fact, plus that regret deep inside me that I never really told Ray what he meant to me, that made me suggest that we honor his memory with a commemorative recording of his work. Both the station and Ray's family liked the idea, and so my Christmas production began a little earlier than usual this year...as in May.
Material was easy. We had hours of Ray on tape. The trick was deciding what material to put on the first tape of what we hoped would be a series of yearly offerings. We finally decided to devote one side to a Lofty Christmas story, and the other to a half hour of holiday music announced by Ray. The first story chosen was the Al Burt story I mentioned before. The music side was to be of Ray's old boss, Fred Waring. What followed was weeks of detective work that would have given Holmes migraines and probably had Ray chuckling above.
You see, as I said before, whatever filing system Ray might have had, he took to his grave. And since the Al Burt carols that were so much a part of his Al Burt story were on reel, unlabeled, I had no idea who sang them, much less who might have the rights to the recordings today. Important issues, as we planned to sell the tapes (the proceeds going to Ray's widow) and somehow needed to procure said rights.
It was one of those times that being a pack rat came in handy for me. Since I keep all my back issues of R.A.P., I dug out the article where Flip Michaels was good enough to list the number of the Harry Fox Agency, the people who license nearly all the music in the States for duplicating and/or rerecording. My first call to the agency yielded a short, terse conversation with a young woman from New York who seemed to have had a charisma bypass some years ago, who basically told me it was useless to call them and that I needed to call the record company who had the rights. The phone went dead before I could ask her how I might find that out so, chipping the frost from my ear, I went elsewhere for answers.
My former GM suggested that I contact the RIAA, which I later realized stood for "Recording-Industry-Ain't-Assisting" as I got the same advice (and frost bite) from that call. The same response came from BMI, and I never could get through to ASCAP.
At that point, I got a bit of a break. In my excavation of Ray's collection, I found a compilation CD which included Bing Crosby singing an Al Burt carol. The CD had been produced by MCA. Clutching at straws, I called P.J. Olsen, a record rep for MCA and a friend of our PD. Finally, a friendly voice and some positive direction. She gave me the numbers for MCA's legal eagles. They would surely know if MCA had the rights to the carols. As it turned out, they didn't, "but if I called Harry Fox...."
Back to square one, but this time with a little ammo. Perry Mason said I was looking for "mechanical rights," and the "people in mechanical" were the ones I needed to talk to. I gingerly punched in the number and, thankfully, this time no Ice Queen, but a quite helpful young man who said yes, we could license the songs through Harry Fox, and the papers were on their way.
"Now that wasn't so bad" only lasted until I got the paperwork. There, highlighted, it told me that I must get "blanket rights" from the copyright holder as well as paying for the rights through Mr. Fox. Fine, but HOW WAS I EVER GOING TO FIND THAT OUT?!?!
Another call to my new friend at Harry Fox. "Did you try BMI?" "How about ASCAP?" Why not...second time had been a charm with Harry. Frankly, things were getting a bit hazy at that point, but I do know that one or the other had a listing for "Burt, Al" and the name of his current publisher (Can I get an Amen?!)
So entered another angel in this drama named Judy Bell. Judy handles the rights to Al's carols for TSO Publishing and was not only sympathetic to my cause, but willing to give me the phone number of Ann Burt, Al's widow. Ann, as it turns out, was also a wonderful person who remembered Lofty somewhat and was gracious enough to offer us blanket rights to a particular group's recordings of Al's carols for the project, provided we would pay the necessary fees to Harry Fox. Now we were cooking. But wait, how was I to know if the recordings on my reel were the ones I had found the rights to?!
Another handful of Advil and back to the phone, this time to Lofty's son, to see if there were any labeled reels of the Burt carols. Maybe...he'd let me know. Did you ever try to hold your breath for two days? I was the strangest shade of purple when he called back forty-eight hours later to say that he had found an album of the carols with the Jimmy Joyce choir, the one I was looking for! An even bigger plus was that the vinyl was in better shape than the reel of tape was, so I could dub in the better tracks and improve the quality of the tape somewhat.
Out of the woods, you say? Oh, you joker, you! I now had time to do a little math on our royalty expenses. Even though Mrs. Burt was nice enough to contribute to the cause, the flat rate of 6.6 cents per song per cassette with Harry Fox was pushing our cost to 86 cents per tape in royalties alone, a cost that would more than double by adding the Fred Waring songs, which I had yet to track down. Luckily, since we wanted as much money to go back to Mrs. Loftesness as possible, it was easy to get all those involved to agree that we needed to substitute Fred Waring with a Christmas story without carols (which I really didn't have the strength to track down anymore anyway!)
Finally, I could work on the cassette itself! I realized that I had never fully appreciated my Session 8 until I put this project together. All the deleting, adding, remixing, tweaking, and re-sequencing that would have taken me weeks on the old half-inch four track only took several evenings. Then it was on to DAT and off to Digital Force, my mastering plant of choice in New York, for remastering, artwork, duplication...the finished product.
And they all lived happily ever after? You've never done a project like this, have you? There was still paperwork to send Harry Fox (lots with thirteen songs!), reference masters to listen to eight or nine times and approve, artwork proofs to, well, proof, then reproof, then, "Oh, you wanted two-color?" "Where are the contracts from Harry Fox?" "Here's the color proof...Will the red bleed like that?" "Any mail from Harry Fox for me?!" "Oh, we forgot to add the printing cost to your final, we need $500 more before we can ship" "Hello, Harry Fox? Did you lose our paperwork...," and so on. Even as I write this the first week of November, I'm still waiting for the box of tapes, tapes which we are already advertising and people are waiting to buy. Yet somehow I know it will all work out.
You know, it's funny. I began this whole thing with the idea that I was somehow giving Ray a gift, a posthumous tribute to let him know how important he was to me and to all the others whose lives he touched. I learned the ins and outs of creating a cassette, I was given the chance to actually do the cassette; something I've always wanted to do. I now realize that Ray is still teaching me, still giving to me, and still helping me find new meanings to all the old joys of Christmas.
Thank you, Lofty, and Merry Christmas!"