Sounds of Summer
Sounds of Summer
By Jim Waltzer CAP: Radio legend Ed Hurst (right), pictured with WPEN co-host Joe Grady and Frank Sinatra. -->
It was the middle of World War II and the radio show was called Night Trick, a network-feed broadcast on Atlantic City's WFPG (World's Famous Playground) from the Steel Pier. Announcer Ed Hurst, who happened to be a high school junior, was introducing jazz and big-band recordings. The show ended at 1am, and the next day, Hurst found himself dozing off in afternoon Spanish class. It wasn't the first time.
The principal gave him a choice: leave the station or leave school.
Soon enough, he dropped out to join the Navy, though he did return eventually to graduate. He also returned to the airwaves, where he built a career that spanned six decades and made his a regional household name.
Regardless of the calendar, Ed Hurst's friendly voice on the radio always signaled summertime. His Saturday-afternoon live broadcasts on the Steel Pier, which began in the late 1950s, ran for 20 years. As Hurst presided and waves slapped the pilings below, teens danced to the latest songs.
By then, he already had a well-established career. He had rejoined WFPG after leaving the Navy, then cast anchor in Philadelphia by way of Miami. He was still only 20 when Philly's WPEN hired him in 1946 and promptly stuck him in the 5am slot. Even at dawn, though, the young man liked to have fun on the air. "I came up as a personality," Hurst said years later. "The afternoon guy, Joe Grady, was straitlaced and had a squeaky-voiced partner ... They paired us [Grady and Hurst] for a six-week trial, and we took off together."
Their 950 Club (WPEN is still at 950 on the AM dial) was Philadelphia's top-rated radio show for a decade, and Grady and Hurst also hosted television dance shows and a variety program featuring singers such as '50s giants Nat "King" Cole and Patti Paige. The radio duo was the first pick to host a new dance show launched by media mogul Walter Annenberg on his rival stations, but according to Hurst, WPEN would not release them from their contracts. Instead, announcer Dick Clark got the nod and American Bandstand became part of the popular culture.
Hurst's signature show would arrive a few years later, when he found himself back at the Steel Pier's Marine Ballroom for Summertime at the Pier. "In the early days, we had unmanned microwave 'hops' to a transmitter in Pitman [N.J.]," said Hurst. "If the wind blew too hard, we got snow [on the screen]." The technology improved, and the show lasted through two decades and three TV stations.
After a three-year hiatus, Hurst returned to the mike in 1981 when WPEN asked him and Grady back for a two-week reunion, as the station reclaimed its old format. The two weeks, though, turned out to be just the opening bars. The station was deluged with mail requesting that the veteran team keep spinning tunes and stories, and interviewing the great singing stars. Their return and the public response made the TV news. Calls came in from the likes of Rosemary Clooney and Steve Lawrence.
Grady and Hurst were back on top. The good guys and the good music were back in town. Another storied DJ, Joe Niagra, joined the roster and WPEN was resurgent: higher ratings, larger studio audience, increased advertising revenue.
Grady retired in 1987 but Ed Hurst kept going. Come the new century, he was still there, hosting the latter-day Steel Pier Radio Show and 950 Club on weekend afternoons. In a compact, high-tech vault at 'PEN's City Line Avenue studios, he racked the CDs and sent the "Music of the Stars" out over the airwaves -- long gone were the turntables and cumbersome relays, and the studio audience was now a trick of the imagination. But the old recordings sounded as if the singers were right there in the room, and the host's unpretentious voice and avuncular style still put you at ease. It was summertime at the pier. n
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