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BEHIND THE SCENES with Lex Gillespie


When you started mapping out your ideas for Our Day Will Come ? Did you know what archival material you were looking for? Did you know that Martin Luther King had spoken specifically on the subject of music and the civil rights movement?

I first heard the King speech I used while working at the Smithsonian a few years ago on another project and it worked great to set up the program. But I had mixed results finding other archival to use in this program as well as the rest of the series (Let the Good Times Roll). I tried, for instance, to find a recording of a civil rights benefit concert with Ray Charles at Miles College in Alabama in 1963 but struck out, having called the college and looked in various archives. I used some archival sound of a Ku Klux Klan rally in Birmingham to show the hostility towards outsiders coming to town, but that was the only relevant sound I found.

In other cases, however, I easily found sound to match several stories I told, including one in which Chicago R&B / gospel artist Pops Staples recalls writing a song after watching TV coverage of attempts to desegregate Little Rock, Arkansas public schools in 1957. I found a President Eisenhower speech about Little Rock on a collection of speeches of the 20th century published by Rhino Records.

Where do you look for archival tape?

I've found archival tape in a variety of places, including people's private collections. Old newsreels can work really well, because they were written in such a dated, dramatic style. (They are located at the National Archives in Maryland.) For the series Let the Good Times Roll, I looked for archival interviews with musicians in a number of archives, at Columbia College in Chicago, at Yale, and at Middle Tennessee State. But while these places may have interviews of the musicians I wanted, the tape was often of bad audio and/or editorial quality, so these archival visits didn't always pay off. Some interviewers, for example, would use basic recording equipment and "step on" the answers a lot. In one case, the interviewer was a '60s hippie with a fascination for astrology and the first question she'd ask of everyone would be: "So what's your sign?" That didn't work for me.

You've produced many historical radio documentaries in your career. How well-suited is radio for exploring historical events and themes?

Radio can work fine to explore historical events, although it's often a challenge to find archival tape to flesh out a story, in addition to the interviews or narration you use. Having (or not having) the archival tape can determine what stories you tell. One time, for a program on early gospel music on the radio, I found an elderly gospel singer in San Francisco who sang with his group on the radio in 1927. He was a great interview and told harrowing stories of touring during the era of Jim Crow from town to town in the Deep South. But in the end we decided not to use the interview because we didn't have any radio programs or music of his group back then to use along with it.

Of the historical programs you've produced, do you have one that stands out as your favorite because it adapted so well for radio?

I liked a piece I did for WBEZ's Chicago Matters called A Kind and Just Parent , on the creation of the first juvenile court in the U.S., although it wasn't necessarily the best to adapt for radio. The court was founded in Chicago in 1899, so obviously there was no recorded sound of the first gavel falling, or anything else for that matter. So I had to use period music, sound effects and actors reading from written accounts of the participants to tell the story. Studs Terkel read the part of an activist Catholic priest named Father Timothy Hurley who worked to keep teenagers out of adult jails. What I liked most about it was that it felt almost like writing a play to tell the story. The tape sounded good because the actors did such great readings of the printed material, so I had greater control than if I merely did interviews.

How did you decide which songs, and how much of each song, to include in Our Day will Come ?

This was the story of the political impact of R&B music, and in most instances the particular song I picked came out of the interviews I used. There were several '60s classics that had to be included: A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding's Respect , and host Jerry Butler's Only the Strong Survive . The program's first 15 minutes is the story of Chicago's Staple Singers, and the interviews I did with Pops Staples and his daughter Mavis nicely set up the songs I used in that segment: Why (Am I Treated So Bad)? and Freedom Highway . I knew both songs had good stories behind them, so I asked them about the songs in the interviews. I always prefer whenever possible for the interview tape to set up a song, rather than having the narrator do it.

This program was the last in a 13-part series about rhythm and blues. Did you end with this program for a particular reason?

Yes, there were two over-arching themes in the series. One was how R&B influenced rock 'n' roll. The second was the social impact R&B music had on events of the day. The series covered the post-WWII period from 1945 to 1970, from the beginnings of the civil rights movement to the passage of landmark legislation during the 1960s. Throughout the series it touched on the civil rights theme, but with the final program I wanted to bring it all together.