While few people today think about an announcer’s race, there was a time when nearly all the radio announcers were white. America was still segregated, and although big-name black musicians could get hired to perform popular songs, few if any radio stations, even up north, would hire a black announcer. One of the people who changed that in Boston was William Sebastian “Sabby” Lewis.
Sabby Lewis never expected to be a trailblazer. Born in Middleburg, NC in 1914, he grew up in Philadelphia. Sabby began taking piano lessons at a young age because his mother wanted him to. At first, he resisted, but ultimately, he found he not only enjoyed it, but it was a great way to entertain his friends. By the time he was a teenager, he had decided on a career in music. It turned out to be a wise choice.
Around 1932, Sabby’s family relocated to greater Boston; he studied piano at the then-Boston Conservatory of Music, and in 1936, he assembled his first group, an eight-piece jazz band. Newspaper listings showed that he was soon performing all over eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire; by the late 1930s, he was receiving excellent reviews. Boston did not have as big a club scene as cities like New York, but that didn’t mean there weren’t some excellent venues to hear jazz and dance music. Sabby and his band played in most of them; but in the early 1940s, they most frequently performed at the Savoy Café, which by that time was located at 410 Mass. Ave, near Huntington. Sabby was also gaining a following in New York, where he was performing at such clubs as the Famous Door and Kelly’s Stables. In addition, he and his orchestra were signed by Decca Records in the spring of 1942; but thanks to a ban on making records (partly due to the desire to conserve shellac during the war, but mostly due to a strike by the American Federation of Musicians over royalties), all recording was curtailed from August 1942 to 1944.
Although Sabby couldn’t make any records, something was about to happen that would take him to the next level and expand his popularity. There was a highly-rated Sunday night program on the NBC Radio Network called the Fitch Bandwagon (sponsored by the F.W. Fitch Company, known for its shampoo and other beauty products); since its NBC debut in 1938, it had featured some of the top bands and vocalists in the USA. In addition to the big names, the program also made visits to various cities, seeking up-and-coming bands. In the summer of 1942, the program came to Boston in search of local talent. Fans were invited to fill out ballots and vote for their favorite band; whoever got the most votes would earn the chance to perform on the Fitch Bandwagon, an amazing opportunity given that this show was heard on stations from coast to coast. More than a hundred local bands sought the public’s support, and when the votes were tallied, Sabby and his orchestra received the most—a total of 7,286; as a result, on July 19th, the Sabby Lewis band was heard on WBZ in Boston, along with NBC stations nation-wide. The results were very positive. Suddenly, more gigs in better-known venues came his way—for example, in September, he was booked into New York City’s well-known Savoy Ballroom. He soon was offered a radio show in New York—station WOR gave him his own program several nights a week. He was also occasionally heard over the Mutual Broadcasting network. Whenever his band performed on radio, Sabby introduced the selections.
Throughout the 1940s, Sabby’s popularity continued to grow. Audiences found his music so danceable that they wanted him and the band to stay on. As one New York reporter noted, Sabby’s orchestra became famous for long engagements: they performed at the Zanzibar for seven months, at Kelly’s Stables for sixteen weeks, at the Famous Door for ten weeks; and when they played in Boston, they spent nearly four years as the main attraction at the Savoy Café. By the late 1940s, however, Sabby and his band had settled into a different Boston club—the Hi-Hat, on Columbus Ave. He was finally able to put out some recordings, including “I Made Up My Mind,” “Bottoms Up,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and “The King,” all of which got favorable reviews from music industry trade publications. Several of these recordings were on the Mercury label.
Meanwhile, radio (and music) were gradually changing. Where radio shows had previously been live, and many stations had their own studio orchestras, by the late 1940s, stations were trying to save money by playing more phonograph records and less live music. This led to a new occupation: “disc jockey.” A deejay was someone who chatted with the listeners and then played the hits, rather than acting like the more formal “announcer,” who spoke in perfect diction while introducing the bands. Disc jockeys used a new style of talking to listeners, appealing to a young audience by being up-beat, fast-talking, even using the slang of the day.
In Boston, several new radio stations went on the air after the war ended. Among them was WBMS, at 1090 AM (their call letters stood for World’s Best Music Station, and they played classical music). When classical was not sufficiently popular, they changed to middle-of-the-road pop, and they briefly changed their call letters to WHEE in 1951. But in early 1952, new station manager Norman Furman, made major changes. WBMS put a variety of interesting talk programs on the air, including one hosted by controversial former Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. Furman also refocused WBMS’s music to play more of the hits. And he hired Sabby Lewis to host his own radio show.
By now, Boston had more than 60,000 black residents, and Furman believed they would respond well to a black announcer. He was right. Sabby, who was identified in station advertising as a “popular colored bandleader,” was well-received, and not just by black listeners; he also had a following of white listeners, many of whom had come to see him at the clubs over the years. On his program, Sabby played jazz and dance music, and he also interviewed celebrity musicians who were in town (given his own long career, he knew and had worked with many famous entertainers).
Some sources have reported, erroneously, that Sabby Lewis was Boston’s first black deejay. He was not. Back in 1949, WVOM (the Voice of Massachusetts) hired another jazz musician, Eddie Petty, and gave him a show for about a year. In addition, WVOM briefly hired one other jazz performer, Jimmy Givens, as a deejay, around 1951. But although Sabby Lewis was not really Boston’s first black deejay, he was certainly the one with the most longevity—he worked at WBMS for five years, while also continuing to perform at local clubs. For most Bostonians of that era, whenever they thought about jazz, they thought about Sabby Lewis and his band.
After his radio career ended around 1957 (WBMS was sold; it became WILD and made changes to its staff), he went back to doing what he did best—entertaining audiences. Unfortunately, his career was almost permanently ended in 1963, when his car was hit by a drunk driver; the accident damaged his left hand, making playing the piano difficult. He left the music industry and worked for a while as a housing inspector at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, before gradually making a return to performing in the mid-1970s. Sabby received a number of local awards, including a 1984 proclamation from then-Governor Michael Dukakis in honor of his many years in the music industry; the Martin Luther King Music Achievement Award in 1988; and induction into the New England Jazz Hall of Fame in 2001. Till the day he finally retired, many local jazz musicians thought of Sabby as a mentor and an inspiration. Sabby Lewis died in July 1994. He was 79.
(by Donna Halper)
Published on September 20, 2017