Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Deejay Who Changed My Life

Last night, Arnie Ginsburg passed away. He was 93, and had been in poor health for a while. You probably didn't know Arnie Ginsburg, unless you grew up in Boston, or unless you listened to the "Cruisin'" series-- which re-created some of the shows from the biggest top-40 deejays of the 50s and 60s. (Arnie re-created a show from 1961.) But when I think of the people who have influenced my life the most, Arnie is high up on that list.

To know why Arnie meant so much to me, and why his death saddens me so much, let me take you back to the 1950s. It was a very conservative time: boys were generally expected to either join the military or go to work right after high school, and girls were expected to marry young and stay home with the kids. It was also a very formal culture, with lots of rules:  boys were expected to have short hair, girls were expected to wear makeup, and nobody went to school dressed casually.  Antisemitism was more subtle than during the 1940s, but it was still there. (I was one of only a few Jewish kids in the high school I attended, and the names I was called by other kids would not be acceptable today; but back then, you were told to just tough it out and not whine about it.)

I won't give you Arnie's life story-- it's easily found online-- but suffice it to say he was unique. Most deejays back then were guys with big, deep, booming voices. Arnie had a high-pitched voice-- he even mocked it, calling himself "old aching adenoids" or "old leather lungs." He also became known for using lots of sound effects-- a train whistle (his show was called the "Night Train"), bells, horns... He sounded like he was having so much fun on the radio, and nobody on the air at that time sounded anything like him.  He also kept his name-- which was a big deal back then. Nobody was supposed to have an "ethnic" last name. If your last name was Italian or Greek or European Jewish, you were expected to change it to something neutral, for reasons I never understood. Arnie wouldn't do it. He remained Arnie Ginsburg, ever himself, throughout his career.

Kids growing up today probably don't understand what the top-40 deejays meant to us in the 50s and 60s. They not only entertained us by playing the hits; they seemed to be speaking directly to us, and they seemed to understand what it was like being a teenager. Those teen years were often difficult and awkward, but deejays like Arnie could improve anyone's mood. And despite being beloved by thousands of young people in Boston, he was so unassuming, so unconcerned about whether he had the "right" voice or did his show like one was supposed to. He wasn't afraid to be himself, and that was such an inspiration to me.

In large part, because of him, I decided that I wanted to be on the radio too-- the common excuse for why girls couldn't be deejays was that they didn't have big, deep voices. But Arnie didn't have one either, and he was the most popular deejay in Boston. Eventually, I was able to have that radio career.  And years later, I was able to (finally) meet him and tell him what a role model he was for me. He seemed surprised. He never thought of himself as a role model, I guess. But for a lonely kid growing up in Roslindale, Massachusetts, he was that friendly, upbeat voice on the air, and I loved to listen to him.   

I never knew he was gay. In fact, I never thought about what he did or who he hung around with when he wasn't on the radio. Few deejays ever said anything about their personal lives, and given all the prejudice against gay people back then, I can understand why they kept their private life from becoming a topic of discussion.  But when I read Arnie's obit and found out he had been with his life partner for 44 years, it made me think about how difficult it must have been for him, loving someone but not allowed to mention it in public. I'm glad we live in a different time.  I'm glad he had love in his private life, to equal the love millions of his fans had for him. He was a best friend to so many of us. That's why when I wrote a book about Boston radio, I made sure to put him on the cover-- he exemplified personality radio at its best. 

When the news about Arnie's death was made public on various radio message boards, there was an outpouring of sadness, and many positive memories from a large number of Baby Boomers who grew up listening to him.  I felt something very similar when Neil Peart of Rush died earlier this year: a very important part of my life is gone now, someone who helped me to get to where I am today. I will never forget, and I will always be grateful. Rest in peace, Arnie. And thank you.              

1 comment:

  1. I met Arnie what seems like eons ago, at a regional engineering meeting called by New England Telephone to lay out the addition of a new area code for Massachusetts. I saw a lot of colleagues at the meeting, but didn't notice Arnie until he came up to me at the snack table afterwards. I had never met him before, but we fell into conversation as easily as if we had known each other all our lives. His original background in radio was as an engineer, so we spoke the same language. I made sure to tell him that I grew up listening to him, and he was gracious and appreciative.

    I also saw him at the 50th anniversary reunion of WRKO at the Entercom studios in Brighton in 2017. It was easy to see that the years had taken their toll, but you could tell he was happy to have been invited and happy to be there.

    RIP Arnie.