Don Wardell conjures up a previous era on his radio show on 103.7.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN
Those eager to experience the nostalgia of a live radio broadcast featuring music from the Great American Songbook needn’t rely on grainy black-and-white films to evoke the spirit of a bygone era. They merely need to pay a visit to the Cascade Lounge at Agua Caliente Casino Palm Springs on any given Monday afternoon. That’s when Don Wardell, host of 103.7 Mod FM’s Martinis, Mimosas, and Music, takes the microphone and, as the ads promise, “the Grammy winner plays the Grammy winners.”
I can’t remember when I began to appreciate the music that had been the soundtrack to my parents’ lives — the songs and singers they listened to over dinner at the Stork Club and danced to at the Copacabana — but I do remember the first time I heard Mr. Wardell’s distinctive voice. It was 2006, and after growing tired of the Top 40 (let’s face it, a little Mariah Carey goes a long way), I happened on his radio show while driving down Palm Canyon Drive. His playlist, featuring the sounds of Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Mel Tormé, and Peggy Lee, was iconic, smooth, and befitted Palm Springs’ modernist midcentury vibe. But beyond the crooners and the composers, it was his remarkable stories that had me hooked.
Stories of Miss Garland (as he lovingly refers to Judy) on the comeback trail in the early ’60s, or of a not-yet-famous Ella Fitzgerald traipsing around Harlem in hand-me-down boots, or his having to coax a depressed Rosemary Clooney out of bed are enhanced by Wardell’s encyclopedic knowledge of the recording industry and the low growl of his Birmingham accent. One wonders how, at 86 years old, he retains the particulars of the countless tales he tells and how he came to know them in the first place. But it wasn’t the origins of his detailed stories that had his devoted fans wondering on a recent Monday afternoon at the Cascade Lounge, it was his whereabouts.
On his radio program, Don Wardell spins the classics and stirs up great memories among his loyal listeners.
Wardell, who broadcasts daily from his home studio, typically shows up at the Cascade Lounge 20 minutes before the show’s 2 p.m. airtime. That allows him just enough time for a quick bite at a table in the back before making his way to the makeshift broadcast table equipped with an “On Air” sign, where he is warmly greeted by Alpha Media’s promotion director, James Johnson, and the applause of his loyal fans. These devotees, most of them seniors who have staked a claim to the front-row seats they occupy week after week, aren’t just admirers, they are a tightknit family of Wardell afficionados. They know all about the elocution lessons that led to him being cast on BBC Radio’s The Children’s Hour at age 13 and his service in the Royal Air Force, where he had the good fortune of being stationed in Paris and landing a job at Radio Luxembourg, where he was on air for nine years. They’ve heard the story of him being introduced to Sir Edward Lewis, also known as “Tettles,” the chairman of Decca Records who hired him and sent him to the Unites States. They’re aware of his lengthy tenure at RCA, whose archives contained masters of 53 songs that had never been released together and were released as the Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra Sessions (Volumes 1, 2, and 3), earning him a Grammy for Best Historical Album.
They also know of his punctuality, which made his tardiness all the more concerning. As airtime approached, worried looks appeared on many of the faces that watched the door. As their apprehension grew — Wardell is an octogenarian, after all, and walks with the aid of a tennis-balled walker — his fans realized that he was perhaps the last of a dying breed. In a 2015 interview with Gloria Greer, he opined, “Every market should have a station that plays Sinatra, Fitzgerald, [Antônio Carlos] Jobim, and Johnny Mathis, and there isn’t because they don’t think they can make money on it. So, they all chase the same rabbit — 14- to 24-year-olds.”
When he finally did arrive, only moments before airtime, there was a collective sigh of relief and a spattering of applause as Wardell, their friend, mentor, and storyteller, took his seat. Before long, members of the crowd had drifted to the dance floor, foxtrotting to the strains of Andy Williams and Diana Krall. In between musical sets, Wardell solicited stories from the audience and smiled as they recounted events in their own lives — lives that they admit are better because of him, his music, and his wonderful memories.
Listen to Don Wardell from 2 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on 107.3 Mod FM.
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