The 1960s were turbulent years in our culture. We had the Beatles, protest rallies, miniskirts, pop art, psychedelic drugs and transistor radios. Coming from those tinny Stone Age personal listening devices was a mixture of sounds as chaotic as the decade. And God looked down and called it Top 40.
Most markets big enough to support a Dairy Queen had two AM rockers battling it out for ratings supremacy. Most of these stations played pretty much the same music and ran the same commercials. They had similar screaming personalities talking over the record intros. What made each station unique was its jingles, those little 20-second big band-style songs that sang the call letters, frequency and perhaps a slogan such as “Radio-A-Go-Go” or a host’s name, “Wolfman Jack!”
I owned a few “name sings” of my own courtesy of several stations where I worked, and believe me, that was one of the very few perks of being a jock at the time.
Each radio jingle was written appropriately for its function. A news intro almost always featured tympani and xylophone. Sports jingles were often scored in a 12/8 time signature, which is the cadence that identifies a march. We’re not talking subtlety here. The jingle had to tell you in just a few seconds what the next feature was. And jingle packages, a group of 20 or so similar cuts purchased as a set, were also specifically tailored for the different formats of the day, mostly Top 40, middle of the road or country.
ID jingles were usually not made by the station itself but by the skilled artisans of the jingle mills — singers, musicians, writers, arrangers, engineers and producers. The best-known suppliers of these musical haikus were surprisingly not found in New York or Los Angeles but rather in two “right to work” areas that weren’t so picky about using only union musicians.
From Dallas came such industry leaders as PAMS, TM, Gwinsound, Spot and CRC. In Memphis there was the mighty Pepper Tanner which made up for its relative low quality by offering easy-squeezy trade-out deals with stations around the world. For several years, Pepper Tanner, which later was called simply “Tanner,” also had a satellite studio in Dallas to take advantage of the pool of singers to be found there.
These musical novelties could be sung by mixed vocal groups, all-guy or all-girl ensembles; even children. Recording artists such as Barry Manilow, Rita Coolidge and Janie Fricke spent their youth toiling in the jingle fields before hitting it big.
Some of the most popular jingles weren’t sung by a voice at all, but by an electronic device invented in the early ’40s to aid people who had lost the use of their vocal chords: the Sonovox.
But the art of the jingle has been out of favor for years. People of a certain age, like me, fondly remember these little shots of aural energy; younger folks might look askance at the term “radio jingle.” For a refreshing blast from the past or, if you are unfamiliar, a little taste of what these jingles sounded like can be found at Ted Tatman’s JingleSamplers.com. Full disclosure, I contribute greatly to that site and just recently added some more prime, vintage, U.S. Grade A jingle goodness to it.
To hear me and several others ramble on the subject for three minutes, check out this NPR interview.
You can read my Radio World piece on jingle king Tom Merriman here.
For those requiring even more knowledge on the arcane world of jingles, I’ve written a couple books on the subject which can be downloaded cheap from Amazon. Check them out at my website.
Ken Deutsch is a retired jingle producer and historian.