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Symposium at Kansas State recalls radio's live music roots

Saturday, October 1, 2011 | 4:59 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Fiddler Marvin Bredemeier caught the end of a time when live music was all that was heard on the radio.

He was just 8 years old in 1945 when his steelworker father taught him to perform country tunes. Soon the native of the small western Missouri town of Norborne was performing alongside his parents at dances around Kansas City and made his radio debut at 13.

The 74-year-old Kansas City man and other former radio performers will talk about their experiences and perform Oct. 14 at this year's Great Plains Radio History Symposium at Kansas State University.

Steve Smethers, an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at Kansas State and a symposium organizer, said that in the first 30 to 35 years of radio, stations filled the time between news broadcasts or informational programs with live music.

"One of the reasons was that recorded music wasn't very good quality until we discovered electromagnetic recording in the late 1940s," Smethers said, "but also the federal government had the idea that radio stations, because they operated on publicly owned frequencies, should be putting out something more artful than just recorded music. Most of the stations didn't play many recordings at all and they insisted on filling their air time with local musicians, local talent."

Performers could earn regular paychecks. Smethers said WIBW in Topeka, Kan., once employed nearly 40 musicians. But after World War II, stations gradually began to phase out live performers as they switched toward the Top 40 format.

"It hurt because we just didn't play out as much as we used to," Bredemeier recalled.

He has fond memories of a time when Saturday nights meant three different Kansas City shows — the Cow Town Jubilee, the Tidwell Jamboree and the Brush Creek Follies— were broadcast over the airwaves.

Some Midwestern performers went on to play at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., he recalled.

"It was a blast, especially for a kid," said Bredemeier, who also performed on some early television broadcasts.

Even after his radio performing days ended, radio stayed in his blood. He trained as an engineer, worked at stations, sold broadcast equipment and even owned his own station, KESM in El Dorado Springs for several years. He kept fiddling, too, playing destinations such as Lincoln Center in New York City.

"It's always been good for me. I put the fiddle under my chin and everything is OK," he said. "Nowadays, I play with just about anybody who wants me."

The event will see him reunite with Herb Hoeflicker, a guitar player who performed on several Kansas City-area stations as a teenager. It all started when he and another boy who played the fiddle — not Bredemeier — showed up for the talent show portion of the Cow Town Jubilee.

"He and I won the talent show, and then he decided he didn't want to play fiddle anymore," Hoeflicker, now 73, recalled. "So he quit and I kept going. I was about 13."

During his career, he got the chance to play with greats such as Johnny Horton, a country music and rockabilly singer whose hits included "The Battle of New Orleans." Hoeflicker, who lives at the Lake of the Ozarks outside the town of Edwards, kept working in radio throughout his life, buying and selling seven stations altogether.

The Kansas State event also will include Don Willis, a longtime musician who was inducted into the Kansas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009. Willis, 76, of Oskaloosa, Kan., recalled the heyday of live radio music was mostly over when his five-piece country band performed on-air for WIBW from 1968 to 1972. Between his shifts as a disc jockey, his band would go out to businesses like automotive repair shops to perform shows that were broadcast over the airwaves.

"The younger people, they don't get it," he said. "Nowadays all the music is on hard drive. It's an altogether different ballgame."


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