He Called The Tune

When the photo at right was published in “Radio-TV  Mirror” magazine in December, 1949, Martin Block was back at his old stand on WNEW after an unhappy year-long engagement with KFWB in Los Angeles, the station where he first went to work in the early 1930’s.  L.A., the second time around, rejected him as a slick, know-it-all New Yorker.   Block, in 1949, was five years away from ending permanently his long run on WNEW which had begun in 1934, when the 31-year old super salesman made an unannounced call on WNEW Station Manager Bernice Judis. After reading a few commercials and, the story goes,  speaking lovingly and at great length  about a common pencil she asked him to describe, he was hired as a part-time announcer for $25. a week.  By the time the “Radio-TV Mirror” photo was published,  he was earning more than $20,000 a week.   

After years of reigning atop the world of popular music with twice-a-day and nationally syndicated “Make Believe Ballroom” shows, movie shorts for M-G-M, TV announcing, music publishing, song writing and other enterprises, Block left WNEW on January 1, 1954, to be heard locally in New York, on WABC.  His final new-beginning was a move to WOR in 1961 for the weekend “Martin Block Hall of Fame” shows.  He was, by then, a stranger in a strange land of Beatles, Stones and Monkeys, no longer the singular voice that called the tune.

  When leaving WNEW, Block was quoted as saying it was strictly business, ABC (his syndicator) had offered him “a much better deal.”  But The Associated Press, in a September 19, 1967 dispatch following his death, quoted a friend of Block’s as saying, “WNEW never let go anybody they wanted to keep.”  

Martin Block’s “Make Believe Ballroom” is best remembered for its big band popularity polls and hit song countdowns, but the man who led the revolution on radio from live to recorded music, hosted many live on-location and in-studio music specials featuring some of the greatest talents of pop music, big band swing and jazz. For just one example, we direct your attention to “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong: 70 Years of The Martin Block Jam Session,” which includes audio of a session including Jack Teagarden, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.  E.B.


Thanks to Bill Diehl for another flea market photo find.

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2 thoughts on “He Called The Tune”

  1. Jack Sullivan, he of sainted memory, was a Francophile–he loved French champagne and chocolates. Although always gregarious, he was especially so when indulging his favorite treats. He was also, as was fitting for the General Manager of WNEW, a wonderful raconteur. One of his favorite stories was about Martin Block’s eventual demise at WNEW. He told of an especially lengthy negotiation with Block and his representatives about a new contract, which, as history acknowledges, proved to be pointless; Block left.

    The immediate problem then became: OK, who would replace Block, at the time an absolutely dominating New York radio giant. The choice narrowed down to a WNEW staff announcer at the time, Gerry Marshall. Marshall, A bespectacled young man with a ready smile, had a beautiful, mellifluous voice. Marshall was also a professional broadcaster. Told his taking over the famous Make-Believe Ballroom was temporary, Marshall went to work.

    The station, however, was filled with trepidation. What about the ratings? Finally, after a seemingly interminable wait, the ratings arrived and, miracle of miracles, they had gone UP! Sullivan, sipping champagne, then almost pride fully concluded his tale. It wasn’t Martin Block. It was never Martin Block. It was the MUSIC! It was WNEW.

  2. I dissent a little from Jack Sullivan’s contention that Block was never bigger than the music or the station and was, therefore, a supporting player in the fame he achieved. It’s true, the WNEW environment Block created and which sustained him could not be exported to ABC. But, in the late ‘40’s, to an impressionable radio wannabe like me, Martin Block on WNEW seemed to be the Rome to which all surrounding programs and personalities and other radio stations pointed. He was the center. Other people could play the hits and rate the hits, but the week’s #1 song had to be confirmed by him. It wasn’t so until he said it was so. I guess we’re not so far apart, Mr. Sullivan and I; a GM happily finding his patient healthy after a major trauma, and a fan who thought Martin Block was Rome and WNEW the entire known world.

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