top of page


Every generation has its own music, and as a child of the 60s, I feel very fortunate to have grown up with the Beatles, and Bob, and Joni, and the Stones, and Aretha and so many others performing the soundtrack of my life. But I feel blessed that I also came to appreciate the music of other generations too. I usually didn't care for the bland recordings of popular tunes beloved by my mother and father--by the likes of Andy Williams and Perry Como--but I knew many of the songs they sang were beautifully written and composed, and as I grew older I sought out a variety of "covers" of those melodies by vocalists and band leaders as diverse as Frank, Louis, Tony, Ella, and Billie. George Gershwin was revered in my house, but there were so many more composers who embellished what is now known as the "Great American Songbook" that I viewed it as my charge to discover them. In college I gravitated to the world of jazz, but there was significant crossover between jazz and pop as it existed prior to the 60s. In the 80s, in addition to listening to the likes of Prince, U2, The Police, and The Pretenders, I often listened to radio icons William B. Williams in order to become schooled on the history of the American popular song.

In the late 1950s, Long Island-born William B. Williams inherited the microphone for a popular radio program known as The Make Believe Ballroom. He made no excuse for his contempt for what passed as popular music in the 60s and 70s, but that never bothered me. I was more interested to learn what I could about the songs and artists of the 20s to the 50s. And few had the encyclopedic knowledge of Willie B. (as he was affectionately known). He introduced me to recordings I had never heard before, and those tunes often sent me into deep dives into the work of a particular artist. It was not unusual in his celebration of a particular song stylist to have that person appear on his show! So, while he was spinning the records of Tony Bennett, let's say, he would suddenly announce that Bennett himself had slipped into the booth! That would prompt a discussion of Tony's memories of breaking into the business and those who influenced him along the way. It was Willie B. who gave Francis Albert Sinatra his moniker, the "Chairman of the Board". Frank was very grateful to Williams for continuing to play his music when his career went South for a bit. Williams knew just about everyone in popular recording history and did his best to keep their recordings on air when station after station was changing its format to rock or contemporary pop or all-talk. He was such a beloved presence on the radio (with one of the all-time great voices) that he even appeared on the cover of Detective Comics in November of 1966! His guests in that issue? None other than the Dark Knight and his sidekick.

I don't remember Martin Block, the man who started the "Ballroom", as its host, but I am forever indebted that he did. Back in 1989, Dr. Billy Taylor, jazz pianist extraordinaire and Keeper of the Flame, submitted a segment about the Ballroom as one of his regular pieces on CBS Sunday Morning, hosted by Charles Kuralt. Below is that loving tribute to an important show in the history of radio.

William B. Williams could even coax the big musical stars into recording a promotional jingle now and then. Here he persuades Nat "King" Cole to put in a good musical word for station WNEW, home of The Make Believe Ballroom.

And I'm sure that I dedicated some time on Thanksgiving weekend in 1985 to something other than turkey and football.

In the 80s, Willie B was a ubiquitous presence on radio and television. He made a few bucks as a commercial pitchman. He hawked album compilations of the greatest hits recorded during the Big Band Era. I remember once when he compiled a list of the greatest recordings of all times. That didn't necessarily mean the greatest songs ever or the greatest artists ever. The list comprised those magical moments of alchemy when song and artist became one, and no one ever again questioned which version of a song was considered the greatest rendition. I recorded the shows on my cassette tapes, but sadly they are no more. Some of the iconic works included: "Georgia on My Mind" by Ray Charles; "The Christmas Song" by Nat Cole, "Sing, Sing, Sing" by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra; "April in Paris" by Count Basie and His Orchestra; "Over the Rainbow" by Judy Garland; "Stormy Weather" by Lena Horne; "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" by Tony Bennett; "Take the A Train" by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, "I Can't Get Started" by Bunny Berrigan & His Orchestra, and so many others.

We lost William B. Williams in the summer of 1986, but I played my recordings of his shows long after that. He was my teacher about a world that began in Tin Pan Alley long before I was born, and I am forever in his debt. Willie B was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame as well as the Voiceover Hall of Fame. Here is some of his work:

And let's conclude with a choice selection from "The Great American Songbook". In his dulcet tones, Willie B. would both celebrate it and inform you about it.


bottom of page