I forget where I read this – and I can’t seem to find it, try as I might – but in the 1950s there were local radio stations throughout New York City that took dedications from their listeners, just as we continue to have in radio stations all over North America. Members of gangs would dedicate messages through radio stations both to each other and enemy gangs, delighting in the hidden code that only they knew that played over the air waves. While very interesting to me, I never came across that in my personal research, until recently.
There is a radio station in New York City called the WWRL that has been around since 1926. In the 1950s, it was a popular radio station that catered to black and Puerto Rican listeners, although it also had ethnic programming for Greek, Syrian, Irish, Russian and Ukrainian speaking people. By the time the late 1950s rolled around, it was on nearly 24 hours a day and almost entirely devoted to Spanish people with such programs as “Spanish Breakfast Club,” and “Noche de Ronda”.
WWRL had several radio hosts that appealed to black listeners, hosts such as Hal Jackson, Reggie Lavong and Tommy Smalls aka “Dr. Jive.” Tommy Smalls was a well-known disc jockey who began with the Apollo Theatre and the Rockland Palace, and then got his own radio show which started 1952, and was apparently very popular with the youth of New York City through his “Dr. Jive” persona. His show started at 3:05 and went to 5:30 (the slogan was “three-oh-five to five-three-oh”) and had a catchy theme song that when I first heard it, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Below are the lyrics and a Youtube video of the song itself:
♪ ♫♪”If you feeling kind of low, and your pulse is feeling slow and you want to feel alive, listen to Dr. Jive.
If you want to cure your ills, without medicine or pills, here’s a treatment that won’t cost five, listen to Dr. Jive.
He’s the doctor with the beat, puts the rhythm in your feet, the rhythm in the feet supplies the heat that keeps you healthy and looking sweet.
You will thrive and you’ll survive till your old days cheques arrive, so look ahead and look alive, listen to Dr. Jive.”♪ ♫♪
Smalls’ specialty was bringing to light little-known bands and singing groups that were trying to make their name known, which was very popular with the youth of New York City. At least two gangs listened to WWRL – the notorious Bishops and Chaplains from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Both gangs were black and if there is any example of youth gangs from NYC that I could point to as being the perfect example of a fighting gang, it is the Bishops and Chaplains. They were bitter enemies, and their rivalry lasted for over 10 years.
On the last week of May, 1953, there was a large celebration called the Decoration Day boat ride which was attended by 4,000 people, most of them from Bedford-Stuyvesant. On May 29, 1953, prior to the celebration, somebody from the Bishops gang sent a radio dedication through Tommy Smalls’ show stating, “From the Bishops to the Chaplains — if you’re going on the boatride, we are dedicating the record, ‘Going to the River.'” This fairly innocuous message doesn’t seem like much to the regular person, but it had a hidden meaning that would have been all too clear to the Chaplains. Although I couldn’t find the song itself, “Going to the River” was about the singer being upset about something and going to the river and jumping in, drowning themselves. No doubt this would have infuriated the Chaplains, and so the next day, the Chaplains arrived at the celebration to take care of matters. Luther Gibson, a leader in the Bishops was playing the bongoes on the pier for the celebration and took exception with someone who made a remark to him while he was playing the drums. He stabbed him in the hand, but a moment later some people started shooting at him. Although it wasn’t apparent who shot at him, it was most certainly the Chaplains. In an ironic twist, Gibson took off running down the pier, jumping into the Hudson River in his own version of “Going to the River.”
In the next few weeks, an enraged Gibson and some of his Bishop cronies trawled through Chaplain turf, looking for, and finding enemy Chaplains to beat up. This continued through the month of June and up to July 3, 1953, when some Chaplains took revenge, finding Luther Gibson, shooting and killing him. Although the Bishops and Chaplains were bitter enemies before all this happened, in this instance, it all began with a radio dedication.
Below is a newspaper article reporting on Gibson’s death at the hands of three Chaplains, Rudolph Murdough, Claude Phillips and Bernard Rodman. After Gibson’s death, the Chaplains supposedly extended a peace offering, but it was rejected by the Bishops. The Chaplains then surrounded Gibson’s home (before the funeral) and chanted, “one-two-three-four, we got Luther and will get more.”