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Electric History

The Transistor Radio
Jeff Beyl

John Lennon once said that the transistor radio made him what he was. If that is true, then I say "thanks!" to whoever invented the transistor radio.
(Bell Labs Dec 1947) Read how here

I remember when I got my first transistor radio. It was a birthday present. I had just turned ten. I had yearned for one for months. My older brother already had one and it was about the coolest thing around. Of course, as older brothers are wont to do, he tormented me by never letting me listen to it. That was a long time ago but I remember tearing open that wrapped package to this day. My transistor radio was small, about a third the size of a paperback book. It had a black leather cover and a telescoping antenna. It took a nine volt battery and had small, plastic, knurled dials. It felt good in the palm of my hand and when I turned it on the world opened up to me. Let me say that again; the world opened up to me when I turned it on.

It sounded tinny, scratchy, a lot of static, sometimes I had to hold it just right, point the antenna in just the right direction, sometimes I even wrapped the antennae with a little aluminum wrap. But it made sound. That was the important thing. Sound. Music. Roy Orbison, Bobby Darrin, Wolfman Jack howling across the airwaves. Man, it was great!

The first transistor radio came out the year I was born, 1954. I didn’t get mine until 1964. The price had dropped from the original $49.95 to well under $20.00, making it more affordable. The great thing about them, at least to all of us, is that they brought music to us and we could take that music with us anywhere we wanted to go, even down to the beach (at least until the battery died). It became our way of not only discovering music (and thus, through the music, discovering ourselves), it became our way of listening to our music away from our parents, and in my case, away from my older brother.

Homework, dinner, feed the dogs, a nightly routine. Seven PM, go to bed. We had bedtimes back then. Seven PM? Go to bed? But I looked forward to it. It became the best part of my day. I had my own radio; my brother couldn’t keep it from me. I would crawl into bed, pull the covers over my head and turn my radio on low. The world would open like the night blooming Jasmine outside my bedroom window. I would hide under the covers, my ear on my transistor radio, volume so low only my ear pressed to the tiny speaker could hear it. Scratchy. Static. But it brought me Puff the Magic Dragon, Unchained Melody, Pretty Woman, Mack the Knife. It was better than anything I had done throughout the day. Arithmetic, spelling, touch football, lunch. Listening to my transistor radio was even better than the bus ride home sitting next to Margie.

There had always been music in our house. My father turned me on to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Mingus, Monk and Brubeck. I grew up digging the syncopated jazz beat, the sultry, amber sound of the saxophone, the soaring trumpet. My mother always had Nina Simone, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, playing while she did the house work. Sometimes, when she would drink wine late into the evening, she would put on Beethoven, Fur Elise or Moonlight Sonata. We had Rachmaninoff and Chopin, we had Mozart. Day music, night music. For me, night music became J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers singing Last Kiss, or Ray Peterson’s, Tell Laura I love Her. It became Leslie Gore singing I’ll Cry If I Want To or Jackie DeShannon’s, Put a Little Love In Your Heart or Richie Valens’ La Bamba or The Ventures’ Pipeline or Walk, Don’t Run. Surf Music. Jan and Dean. Surf City. The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.

In a way, I miss those days, discovering all that new music and listening to it through my own transistor radio. But music has been great all through the years and there is something nowadays that is even better. Now we have the iPod.

What a great thing the iPod is! Way better than the transistor radio. Way better than the Walkman. Just click the song you want to hear and there it is. No rewinding, no cassette tapes to carry around. Just click and there you are wherever you want to be. I now have all the music I have discovered since those early years with the transistor radio days under the covers; Eric Clapton, The Derek Trucks Band, Hendrix, Santana, Al DiMeola, Led Zeppelin (can’t name em’ all).
*Lennon soon now Apple Corp and Apple inc are talking.

I have Miles and Monk, Sinatra and Simone, Mozart and Bach. But I also have the same music that made me what I am today. Beyond The Sea, The lion Sleeps Tonight, My Boyfriend’s Back, The Leader of the Pack. I have it all. The Righteous Brothers, Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan. I can carry my whole music library around with me. I carry the world around with me and rediscover the world and myself wherever I go. And the iPod sounds better, too. There is no static, no antennae, no commercials. Just clear, smooth, resonant music. I say a big "thanks!" to whoever invented the iPod. (Apple Inc - Steve Jobs directing team with other Californian electronic specialists such as Wolfson sound)

It was a renaissance time back then. Music was changing. Music was new and fresh. When four guys from England who called themselves The Beatles came along and changed the face of modern music, my transistor radio brought them to me as well. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five. We were young and the world was opening up to us and the transistor radio brought it all to us. The transistor radio. John Lennon once said that the transistor radio (if I may paraphrase) made him what he was. The transistor radio also made me what I am. You and me, John. Not bad company.

© Jeffrey Beyl Feb 2007

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