Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mike Rapchak

The last few days have been rough for irreplaceable radio personalities. A few days ago we lost Buck Owens, who along with being a great musician was a radio station owner (KNIX and KESZ in Phoenix and KUZZ in Bakersfield). On Monday, longtime Chicago big-band jazz broadcaster Mike Rapchak died at 85.

They don't make 'em like Rapchak anymore. He famously quit 50,000-watt powerhouse WCFL (AM 1000; originally owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor, the station's slogan for many years was, "The Voice of Labor") on the air in 1965 when it switched to a rock format, only to return in 1978 for CFL's brief era as a "beautiful music" station.

In latter years, he was widely admired for his all-night show on WGN (AM 720, Tribune Company-owned station with the dubious slogan, "The World's Greatest Newspaper"), which he hosted once a week, on Saturdays, until he was forced into retirement in 1995.

In 1978, when I was 10 and my preferred radio hosts ran more along the lines of Larry Lujack and John "Records" Landecker, I thought the initials "BM" should have stood for something other than "beautiful music," but by my college years, in the late 1980s, I knew better.

Many times, in the phase of my life when I could stay up till 9 o'clock in the morning drinking hard liquor and recover by 2 or 3 in the afternoon, Rapchak's tradition of spinning Sinatra's side of "One for My Baby" at 2:45 ("It's a quarter to three ... there's no one in the place, except you and me ...") signaled the beginning of the quieter after-hours portion of the weekend's revelry, when most of the time everyone else had gone home or gone to bed except for Mr. Foojang and myself, gazing contemplatively into our gin cocktails and rhapsodizing on what it meant to be happy, unaware that a few years later, Gen X hipsters were going to co-opt smooth jazz and torch song standards into a sneering, snarky, revisionist "swinger" subculture. (That was a time when we could refer to the "Rat Pack" without digressing into a windy apology of what we didn't mean.)

Rapchak as a broadcaster was so professional, so rooted in the music he loved, that listening to his show was like receiving wisdom in a way that is now virtually extinct.

And his voice was amazing. Ken Nordine's is deeper, WBEZ Sunday afternoon jazz show host Dick Buckley's smokier (and I was too young to remember stentorian legend Franklyn MacCormack), but Rapchak's sonorous, honey-smooth style perfectly suited late nights, and the sad, easy, bittersweet songs of lost love I remember best from his show.

... So set ’em up, Joe
I got a little story
I think you oughta know

We’re drinking, my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road


Laura Rapchak said...

Thanks for the nice article about my dad. I'm glad he was appreciated by so many people. We sure do miss him.

Willis Kern said...

Sadly, I have just learned of the passing of Mike Rapchak. For several years, from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, he was such a big part of my weekend life. I never missed his Saturday night show, and often would roll a tape on the later hours after I fell asleep so I could listen later. His voice was unlike any other in radio. His interviews were interesting, his yarns about living in Whiting, IN and life with "Texas" were heartwarming. Without even knowing it, he helped me through a period when I was spinning big band tunes on the local station, and wondering just what I was doing! He was a true pro whom I have missed on the air terribly the last decade, and now I will miss forever. God speed Mike and prayers to your family.

Fred Gnerlich said...

I too have just learned of Mike's passing nearly a year after his death. I was out of the country on vacation at the time so was unaware until I asked a Whiting resident the other day who told me. After confirming it now I am truly saddened but not too surprised as I knew Mike was getting up there in years. I listened to him regularly starting in the mid-1980's and am so glad I started taping his progams because he was taken off the air much sooner than he should have been. I still have those tapes and listen to them regulary; in fact I was listening to one now before I confirmed Mike's death. I had always wanted to meet him in person but never got the chance but was fortunate to talk to him by phone. I considered him a friend and will miss him dearly but as long as I have my tapes to listen to him he will never be completely gone.

Val said...

I just happened by this site, because Oscar Peterson just passed away. I remember first hearing Oscar's Tenderly on Mike's program in the summer of 1956. I was in summer school (having flunked religion) and would return home at 11:00 am in time for Mike's program on WAAF. Mike Rapchak taught me how to listen to jazz. In addition to Oscar, I heard Mike interview Hampton Hawes and Shorty Rogers and Ahmad Jamal, and a whole slew of the greatest jazz musicians of the time. Mike let me sit in the studio with him one day in 1957, and between records he and I bantered about a bad review that Kai Winding had recently gotten in DownBeat magazine. And then he took me outside the studio and introduced me to Marty Fay, who, in turn, gave me some hot tips on jazz records of the day. Years later, I purchased a video of the Art Van Damme Quintet, and low and behold, there was Mike Rapchak interviewing Art on the video.

I first heard "There Will Never Be Another You" on the show. There will never be another Mike.

Val Ginter

Anonymous said...

I lived on the SO. Side of Chgo. 67th & Wabash. Worked for a radio shop (YHOCO RADIO) on State st. I taped many shows of ON MIKE at 11: to 12 every day, I still have those tapes. They are a treasure and Mike was meiiow and knew and talked about every artist he played. Marty Faye, Dick Buckley, Jesse Owens & Daddy-O-Daley all good memories. Thanks Ray Gallaher see you

Anonymous said...

Laura, I too taped your father's show while I was still a teenager in the 1980's. He provided us an education in music, and living with depth through the greatest music made. My condolences. Sincerely, Jack Arbanas, Buchanan, Michigan

Richard E. Cooper said...

I am embarrassed to say I have just learned of the passing of Mike Rapchak, five years late. When he did Great Music from Chicago on WGM, he saw me through the worst experience of my life. I lost my beloved wife in Nov., 1985, and afterward I listened to his soothing music every Saturday night. I even wrote him a letter telling how some of his selections described her as I wanted to remember her. To my utter surprise, he read a portion of the letter on one of his shows. Never too late to say, God bless you, Mike, and may you forever rest in peace.