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Music

Bill Gardner spun classic R&B on the L.A. airwaves for four decades. Then came the coronavirus

Bill Gardner
L.A. radio staple Bill Gardner, whose R&B program “Rhapsody in Black” has aired weekly since 1984. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he has been unable to do his show.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Bill Gardner has been broadcasting in Los Angeles for 36 years. But these days, when his KPFK-FM (90.7) show “Rhapsody in Black” comes on at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, Gardner is listening to it on the radio like anybody else. “It’s… a little surreal,” he chuckles. “I don’t know what they’re going to play, and so I just sit back and listen.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic leaving him and his wife, Paulette, under house arrest, and no makeshift studio in his Norwalk home from which he can broadcast, “Rhapsody in Black,” like the rest of his life, is on pause. While Gardner sits quarantined, an engineer at the station pulls out a “Best of Bill” CD and slaps it on the air. Since his weekly show explores the charts for a given year of rhythm and blues history, there’s a timelessness built in. 1955 is still 1955. But Gardner’s fans wonder, given the need to keep the city locked down tight, and given the precautions an 81-year-old needs to take, when or if Gardner will once more come into their homes live and direct.

“He’s a great guy, I love him a lot,” says Billy Vera, a musician, bandleader and onetime radio institution in town himself. “Bill doesn’t have one of those ‘professional’ voices or presentations, and that works in his favor. What’s great about him is he’s authentic — he lived the music. He really grew up at that time the records were being made.

“And he’s such a gentleman. He’s not one of those jive characters that a lot of jocks tried to be — there’s a genuineness about him that’s really affecting.”

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More pressure is likely to be placed on Gov. Gavin Newsom to offer a clearer timeline to reopening California amid the coronavirus outbreak.

KPFK is a listener-sponsored Pacifica station operating on a shoestring in Studio City. Its music shows are overseen by volunteers like Gardner who believe in what they are doing, says music director Maggie LePique. “For the most part,” she adds, “we’re working at home and hosts are prerecording their shows. If you don’t have a home studio, that makes it difficult.”

Gardner remembers the first time he entered the KPFK studio. It was 1983, and R&B star Johnny Otis was hosting his own radio program.

Gardner was a fan dropping by, and when Otis asked him to come back, he got pulled in, becoming Otis’ assistant. Gardner notes that Otis liked having folks around but that he also needed to be the center of attention.

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“Well, I’m a good listener, so he liked me,” he recalls. “I learned how to put together a set of songs from Johnny.”

Gardner is a tall, imposing figure with a bald head. That first time down at the station, he was stopped in the lobby by an older guy in a turtleneck sweater. “Are you the man?” the guy asked, maybe joking. It was Roy Milton, a 1940s bandleader and star in the African American clubs of Central Avenue. If being on the air got you a chance to meet Milton, Gardner decided he was in. He kept coming back, and a few weeks later, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was there, waving a skull on a stick at Otis as the two of them cut up.

Now, Otis, Milton and Screamin’ Jay are all gone. And Gardner is nervous about leaving the house.

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Sitting in his home, shelves of CDs behind him, Gardner has begun work on a memoir. Along with making notes, he’s been taking out the family photos and putting some up on social media. There are beauties, for sure: A black and white shot of his dad’s auto upholstery shop at the corner of Bronson and Jefferson. A photo of Bill at 9 or 10, sitting on the hood of the family’s Buick in front of the house.

Gardner was born in 1938 and grew up around 24th Street and San Pedro, just south of downtown. Those pictures evoke African American life in Los Angeles after World War II. It was an era of some optimism, with small businesses growing and black home-ownership expanding into areas formerly off-limits.

After his parents divorced, his mother took a job at Flash Records, a small black-owned chain that also ran an R&B label. Music was an interest, and when he attended Jefferson High School in the mid-1950s, Gardner was surrounded by tunes, because Jefferson had long been a cradle for jazz and R&B in town.

One of its biggest musical names, Richard Berry, had already graduated to become the celebrated composer of “Louie Louie” and a one-of-a-kind wit on the scene. “He was a recording star to us,” says Gardner, and he was a guy you could see at the grocery store.

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Gardner hoped to play baseball after high school. “I could have played semi-pro ball, and I played ball in the Army, but if you were black back then, you couldn’t be just an average player and make it.” He studied social work at Los Angeles City College; one day, while he was playing ball at the school, a Warner Bros. scout asked him to be an extra in the movie “Damn Yankees.” He remembers meeting Tab Hunter at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.

By the time he started doing his own radio show, at Pasadena-based KPCC-FM (89.3) in 1984, the guys he admired in high school had made all the records they were going to make and were now looking back on it all; his program became a casual hang for some of the greats on the scene, folks like Berry and Don Julian of the Larks and Arthur Lee Maye from the Crowns.

For a while at KPCC, Gardner had two shows back to back: “Rhythm & Blues Time Capsule,” with the enviable slogan “the show that is changing the sleeping habits of Southern California,” and “Rhapsody in Black,” the program he took to KPFK in 2000.

Commemorating the greats for so long has led to a few commemorations of his own; last year, the California State Assembly issued a proclamation in celebration of the effect he’s had on several generations’ sleeping habits.

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Mexican American conguero Poncho Sanchez and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne are devoted listeners, and Gardner found out first-hand what a fan Phil Spector was. Not only did he make sizable donations over the years but he also came by KPCC one night when Gardner was on the air. Spector called from his car, parked outside the radio station, and was invited in. He didn’t want to be interviewed on air, but Spector stood over Gardner as he played his request for some Little Richard. Over the years (long before the “Wall of Sound” producer’s 2009 conviction for second-degree murder), Gardner and Spector became pretty good friends, and the DJ went to Spector’s celebrity-packed bowling parties. “I didn’t know who everybody was, but they all looked like KISS,” he cackles.

“I actually think I enjoy doing the show more now,” Gardner adds. “The music keeps growing on you, and you’re always trying to get a little better, to please people. See, back in the 1980s, I regarded it as a hobby.”

Gardner worked for 30 years as a social worker for the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, where he investigated allegations of child abuse. Then, playing vocal groups and funk was blessed relief from the darkness he found on the job. Now the show is its own reward, and Gardner doesn’t want to give it up.

KPFK recently replayed an interview he did years ago with his old friend Bill Withers. The singer and songwriter, who died March 30, married into Gardner’s wife’s family, and the two men became close.

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“You know how casual and philosophical he was in his songs? He was just that way in real life,” says Gardner. “He was such an interesting person who could really entertain.”

Last week, his brother-in-law died from COVID-19 complications. Gardner got quiet for a moment, and we change the subject.

“I’m worried about KPFK going down, because they have to continue fund-raising to stay on the air, and a lot of people don’t have money now,” he said.

“I’m afraid. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back in the studio. I’m 81. Whatever’s going to happen, I’m gonna be careful. I might be in the house a year and a half until they find the vaccine. But I plan to go back someday, somewhere, to do ‘Rhapsody in Black.’”


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