Sunday, December 18, 2016

A world celebrity, but relatively unknown in the United States

by Larry Miller

Happy birthday to Steven Spielberg and Willis Conover.  

Okay, you likely know about movie mogul Steven Spielberg, who turns 70 years old today.  The Ohio native is legendary among science-fiction folks, especially for his early successes with movies like Jaws, ET (Extra-Terrestrial), and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Willis Conover at the VOA microphone
We’re fans of both Spielberg and Conover, but who – you may ask –is this Conover fellow?

Sadly, Willis Conover died some 20 years ago at age 75.   And while he had an early affinity for science fiction just like Spielberg did a generation later, even publishing a science fiction magazine, it was a radio announcing job while in college that took Conover down a different career path. 

Willis Conover was born December 18, 1920 in Buffalo, New York. He went to teacher’s college in Salisbury, Maryland and later worked for radio station WTBO in nearby Cumberland, Maryland.  During World War II, he was assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, returning to commercial broadcasting after the war.

According to Voice of America writer/producer Dana Demange, Willis Conover went to work for commercial radio stations in the Washington, D.C. area, developing an affinity for jazz.  He became acquainted with many jazz musicians and helped organize concerts.

He also helped stop racial separation in the places where music was played at night…creating musical events where people of all races were welcome,” wrote Demange.

Apparently, Conover was unhappy about not being able to play more of the jazz music that he loved on the stations where he was working.  He began considering options.

In 1955 he began a stint of producing and hosting jazz programs for the Voice of America (VOA) in their Washington, D.C. studios.  He was given great freedom as an independent contractor.

Conover knew that he had found a perfect job,” wrote Demange.

While a well-known local radio personality in the Washington, D.C. area, Willis Conover was hardly known anywhere else across the United States.   His VOA broadcasts were beamed around the globe, and that’s where he became something of an international celebrity. You'll find a few Willis Conover photos in our Voice of America Gallery.

Voice of America broadcasts were not intended for U.S. audiences – but for citizens of other countries around the world.  It was the U.S. Information Agency's way of sharing news, information and a bit of culture from America to foreign audiences, hopefully gaining a better understanding and appreciation of the United States among world citizens.

But Conover and VOA also had a “shadow” audience right here in the United States, where powerful transmitters in Delano, California, and Greenville, North Carolina beamed VOA signals toward Latin America, Europe and Asia – picked up by relay stations that re-transmitted the signals to specific regions.  

Conover interviewing Sarah Vaughan at VOA
It was in the 1950’s that this writer – then a teenager in Chadron, Nebraska – remembers tuning in to the VOA shortwave broadcasts on cold winter nights, enjoying the deep-voiced introductions offered by Willis Conover for the music he’d selected for his programs.  And his superb interviews with musicians ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong – “Amabassador Satch,” as one of his hallmark LP albums proclaimed.

My shortwave listening continued well into the 1960’s, and I often listened to VOA while at sea in the Navy – and during a year-long tour of duty in Cuba following the missile crisis.   Tuning in to hear Lee Hall and VOA’s “Report to Latin America” was a must!  And Willis Conover’s “Music U.S.A.” and “Jazz Hour” were always delightful listening. 

The strains of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” performed by Duke Ellington and adopted by Conover as a theme song, still linger warmly in my memory after all these years.

Were he still alive, Willis Conover would be 96 years old today.

Happy birthday, Willis.  Thanks for the memories.

(Note:  Enjoy the following video tribute to Willis Conover)

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