Disc jockey Sid Torin, better known as Symphony Sid, had the best-known voice in jazz radio for 35 years, from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. He spent all but the middle five years on the air in New York. From 1952 to 1957, though, he was a powerful presence on Boston radio.
Sidney Tarnapol (later changed to Torin) was born in New York City in 1909. One of his first jobs was selling records at the Symphony Record Shop there in the late 1930s. When Torin first got on the radio, with a 15-minute afternoon jazz show on WBNX in the Bronx, he acquired the nickname “Symphony Sid.” That show, After School Swing Session, was popular with the younger crowd. And he only played records by Black jazz artists, so he had a following in the Black community, too.
By 1941 he was on WHOM with an overnight show, After Hours Swing Session. His popularity grew. In 1946, Lester Young wrote and recorded the tune that became Sid’s theme song, “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid.” As the 1940s progressed, Torin focused on bebop artists. On WMCA, he championed the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. He hosted remote broadcasts from clubs like the Royal Roost. He reached the top of jazz radio with his broadcasts from Birdland on WJZ, the ABC network affiliate in New York. Listeners in 30 states heard those broadcasts, and Sid is widely credited with introducing bop to a broad audience.
On to Boston
Things began to unravel for Torin when he was arrested for possession of marijuana, although his sentence was suspended. And he was off the air at WJZ because one of his guests let loose with some profanity over an open microphone. He couldn’t get back on the radio, but he continued to work as an emcee at clubs and concerts, and that’s what first brought him to Boston.
Torin toured with Jazz Unlimited, an all-star group that featured some of the top stars of modern jazz, including vibist Milt Jackson and trombonist J.J. Johnson. It rolled into Boston for a week at the Hi-Hat nightclub in May 1952. Norman Furman, the general manager at radio station WBMS, offered Sid a job. Torin wanted to get back on the air. He accepted.
Furman’s focus at WBMS was on the Black audience, which wasn’t just underserved in Boston —it wasn’t served at all. Furman thought Torin, who knew Black music and its audience, would be an asset to the new station. And he brought a bit of star power, too.
Torin had his afternoon program, Interlude in Jazz, but he played more than jazz—he was breaking new R&B records by groups like the Ravens and the Orioles. Nor did Torin’s interests stop with jazz and R&B. He also hosted a late afternoon program, Brother Sid’s Gospel Hour. Picture it: at a time when Boston radio was mostly about Eddie Fisher and Patti Page, Symphony Sid rocked the town with Max Roach, the Five Keys, and Clara Ward. Now it was Boston that was jumpin’ with Symphony Sid!
WBMS was a day-timer—it went off the air at sundown. But Sid wanted to get back into a club, and he wanted the nighttime audience, so he arranged with Furman to work nights at WCOP. He started doing remotes from the Hi-Hat. The club built a glass booth at the side of the stage, and Sid would spin records from 10 to 12 nightly. Then he’d step out of the booth to announce the headliner, and broadcast a 30-minute live set.
It was Symphony Sid who first called the Hi-Hat’s location at Mass Ave and Columbus “the Jazz Corner of Boston,” a riff on his calling New York’s Birdland at Broadway and 52nd “the Jazz Corner of the World” a few years earlier.
Sometimes Torin lost track of where he was, to humorous effect. Boston newspaperman Bill Buchanan never tired of telling the story about the night he had Sid’s show on the car radio and heard him announce, “It’s the music of Slim Gaillard coming to you from the Hi-Hat in Boston”…and there was a pause… “and you’re listening to either WBMS or WCOP.”
Torin had various other enterprises besides radio. One was selling records, his “Selections of the Month.” He’d pick three R&B singles that he thought were potential hits, package them in an album, and sell them in the department stores.
By November 1955, Sid had moved from WCOP to WMEX. The remote broadcasts ended abruptly in December, though, when a fire shut the club, and it stayed closed for about a year. The remote broadcasts did not resume when the club reopened.
Symphony Sid had his critics. Some found his hipster routine tiresome. And not all of his jazz listeners welcomed his embrace of R&B. But he knew what he was doing, and was quite consciously working to appeal to a young multi-racial audience. He viewed the R&B listener of to day as the jazz listener of tomorrow. That might have been too optimistic, but the fact remains that he played good records when other deejays didn’t, and a lot of listeners dug them.
Symphony Sid remained on the air in Boston until August 1957. Norman Furman was already gone by then. He had moved to WEVD in New York, with plans to focus the station on Black music. Again he offered Torin a job, and Sid went home. He said farewell to Boston as emcee at the North Shore Jazz Festival in Lynn that month.
Time was running out for Torin and Furman in Boston anyway. WMEX had been sold to Max Richmond and was going Top 40, and Sid would simply never play those records. WBMS was about to be sold to Bartell Broadcasting, and Furman would likely be let go when that deal completed. Bartell changed the call letters to WILD, but they retreated from the focus on Black music. It took a few years to get it back, but Furman and Torin left something in the station’s genes that came to life in the 1960s.
Symphony Sid remained on the radio in New York for another 15 years. He embraced Latin music in the 1960s, and he played Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri with the same enthusiasm he brought to Charlie Parker in earlier days. In 1972, after 35 years in radio, Torin retired to the Florida Keys. But he couldn’t stay away from the microphone—in 1974, he hosted a weekend jazz show on WBUS in Miami. Symphony Sid Torin died there on Sept 14, 1984.
Richard Vacca is the author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937- 1962, and coauthor with Fred Taylor of What, and Give Up Showbiz? Follow his blog at richardvacca.com.