FEBRUARY 2002: Richmond's Eric E is a jukebox of colorful anecdotes about American music. Push any button and out comes another of his takes on some aspect of the music he has found in his midst. Then you get a set that might include a mix of Jazz, Blues, Rock '�n'� Roll, Rhythm & Blues, Zydeco, Rockabilly, Country & Western, Hip Hop, Soul, Gospel, or Du-Wop. You name it.
Otherwise known as Eric E. Stanley, Eric E has made a lifelong study of American working-man's music styles and the connections between them. His understanding of those integral connections -- synapses between genres -- lies at the core of his own authentic style.
All that said, Stanley is on the air, again, with a better-than-ever version of his trademark radio show: the Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue. He'�s back after dodging a bullet that came at him out of blue -- prostate cancer. After a routine test alerted him to his situation, he was basically out of the game for a year.
With that ordeal behind him, what comes out of his listeners�' speakers on Sunday nights, between 7 p.m. and midnight, is the Eric E jukebox of Americana. His free-association decision of what recording to play next can be as improvised as a jazz musician landing on just the right note and quirky pause, to justify the experimental riff he just played.
Seamlessly, Eric E moves from Jimi Hendrix to Patsy Cline to Muddy Waters to Li'�l Ronnie and the Grand Dukes to Stanley Turentine, all, without worrying about why.
In an age of ubiquitous ticky-tacky radio programming, Stanley�'s variety-oriented ideas can'�t be packaged into a standard format. Thus, his current arrangement with WJMO, 105.7FM, allows him to do as he pleases with the five-hour block of time. He not only hosts the show and selects the music, but he also arranges for the program�'s underwriting. In effect, Eric E is his own boss.
The product, the Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue, is an utter delight. Typical of the Eric E style, he also does the commercials live. With no canned hype, the ads come off more as endorsements than intrusions. At this writing, BB&BR�s five sponsorships, one for each hour, are the Richmond Jazz Society, Plan 9 Music, Kuba Kuba restaurant, the Commercial Taphouse, and Creole Arts.
"�If you advertise with me, I�'m going in your business,�" says Stanley. �"If I haven�t been in the place, I don�'t accept the ad.�"
The Path to Radio
As a child, Eric Stanley spent as much time as he could at his aunt�'s restaurant, a spacious old log-house with a stone fireplace. The Hilltop Restaurant, located on US Route 1 in Ashland, catered mostly to a rural black clientele. In the summer he'�d cook hamburgers and do what he could to seem useful.
The Hilltop featured live entertainment, mostly acts from what was known as the Chitlin'� Circuit. Down in the basement, Stanley'�s uncle poured off-the-record shots of liquor. Fascinated with the raw music and the natural scene surrounding it, Ricky -- a skinny kid with glasses -- soaked up all he could from traveling bluesmen such as Jimmy Reed and Elmore James.
Sometimes Reed would baby-sit for precocious Ricky (who tended to ask too many questions) when his aunt and uncle were running errands for the business. �"I remember it from the late-'�50s to early-'60s,� says Stanley with his easy smile. Of the legendary Reed, Stanley recalls: �"He'�d give me a quarter for the vibrating [lounge] chair, drink whiskey from a little bottle, and play his guitar.�"
Stanley'�s favorite hit tunes from his childhood?
Off the top of his head he answers, ��"'In the Still of the Night�,' '�It'�s All in the Game,' and �'Twist and Shout,'� the Isley Brothers version."��
During his high school days, playing drums and harmonica in bands, together with performing as a dancing drum major, Stanley leaned that he enjoyed performing in front of a crowd. That yen would resurface.
In 1968, after Stanley finished Virginia Randolph, he went on to study advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University for a couple of years. For the next nine years he was away from the Richmond area, for the most part, studying Early Childhood Education at Bowie State College in Maryland and working as a day-care teacher in Washington. It was during his period in D.C. that he fell into broadcasting.
A friend was hosting a radio program with commentary about prison life. He helped her with the project and began playing some jazz here and there to broaden the narrowly focused show�'s appeal. That led to Eric Stanley�'s first program of his own, a 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. gig on WPFW-FM.
In 1979 Stanley returned to Richmond, and in 1982, while managing a Reggae band, Awareness Art Ensemble, he found his way to Color Radio. �
"I got involved with Color Radio because Charles Williams, of the Good Guys band [bass guitar], called and told me they were starting a station on Continental Cablevision and I should get involved,�" says Stanley.
Color Radio (1982-84) was the sound heard behind cable television company�s static color-bar test pattern on Channel 36. The station was started by alternative music enthusiasts who were, for the most part, neophyte broadcasters. Some had had experience at college stations.
The sound traveled by phone line from a makeshift studio over Plan 9 record store in Carytown to Continental, which sent the signal out on its lines. The DJs were invited volunteers -- several were musicians -- and they essentially played and said whatever they liked.
The eclectic, spontaneous style Stanley developed then is what he has used when he could ever since. He dubbed his show -- �The Frontline � 360 degrees of Ba-Lack Music.� Stanley closed each show with what has become his signature sign-off as Eric E, the performer: �"Gotta go ... gotta go."�
From WANT to WVGO
In the radio business some things change fast, others never change. One day you�re the toast of the town. The next week your front door key doesn'�t work because the station�s locks have been changed; you�'ve been sacked. Stanley, like anyone who has hung around for any time in the radio biz, has been buffeted about by a variety of stations through all sorts of changes in ownership and format.
The story of how he came to his present gig on Sunday nights picks up in 1988, when WRNL, 910-AM, hired Stanley to host an oldies midday show. Later, he expanded into Saturday nights, with an R&B-oriented oldies show.
In 1990 Harriet McLeod, popular music writer for the Richmond News Leader wrote: �
Stanley, music director since January, has set out to make it [WRNL] Richmond's funkiest radio station, adding to the oldies format B-sides, album cuts, tunes that never charted in the era when sales in black-owned record stores, and often sales of black artists, weren't counted for the charts. Stanley draws much of his playlist from a personal collection of 5,000 albums, singles, tapes, CDs.His move to WRXL-FM marked the beginning of the Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue, which Eric E hosted on Sunday nights. Although it was Blues-based, this time he got the freedom to do something closer to what he had done with his Color Radio show. At this point he called his format "�free-form.�"
Among other things free-form meant taking risks in stride. In speaking of two of his favorite musicians, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Stanley says, �"The ones [musicians] who got the most respect took chances.�"
His next move, in 1992, was to WVGO, 106.5-FM. The new station positioned itself as an alternative to �classic rock� and took the Richmond market by storm. Soon Stanley was recognized widely for his amazing crossover success: in other words, a black radio personality appealing to a white audience. Suddenly he was everywhere; hosting live events for the station and the darling of local entertainment writers.
On the air Eric E pushed the envelope, even for a station with a so-called �alternative� format. In addition to his �almost anything but opera� style of presentation he made a point of playing the recordings of local acts, too; such as Boy O Boy, the Good Guys and Theories of the Old School.
In 1994, having acted as DJ/host of a blues night at Mulligan�s Sports Bar for five years, he moved his act to Memphis Bar & Grill in Shockoe Bottom. There he played records and presented live music on Wednesday night for two years. But in October of 1995 the wind shifted in the market once again. Eric E and WVGO went their separate ways. And the next year he moved his live version of Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue to the Moondance Saloon. At this point he was also busy doing voice-overs for commercials and acting as a consultant and/or executive producer for several area bands� recording projects.
Diagnosis and Recovery
Over the years the resourceful Eric Stanley has worked a number of jobs to fill in and around his show business activities. It was in one of those situations that he suddenly learned of a totally unexpected problem. A screening for prostate cancer, conducted through his workplace, Haley Pontiac, revealed that he had no viable option to surgery, which took place in July of 2000.
Since this meant no work for a lengthy spell and his insurance was inadequate to cover all the ramifications, money problems loomed, not to mention the natural worry about his prognosis. Although these were dark days, there was a shaft of light at the end of the tunnel.
Enter two friends: Marilyn Marable and Lee Pillsbury. Overnight they organized a benefit show at Alley Katz, a Shockoe Bottom live stage. The all-star lineup included; Plunky & Oneness, Rene Marie, Jazz Poets Society, Bio Ritmo, The Deprogrammers/Good Guys (a combination of the two bands), Car Bomb, Inc., The Nighthawks, Helel, and Fighting Gravity.
Of the night of the Alley Katz extravaganza, Stanley says: �"The most humbling thing was when they put that benefit on.�"
Today, cancer free and undergoing no cancer-related treatment, he laughs at an unflattering photograph of a somewhat wan-looking Eric E that accompanied an article about the benefit. �"When I saw that picture of me I thought I was dying."�
Since then the American Cancer Society has approached him about acting as a spokesman for the organization, speaking to groups of men on the importance of testing.
�"Since I'�m exercising and eating better, I may be healthier than I was,"� says the ever upbeat Stanley. �"Last year, I was diagnosed and treated for cancer. Thanks to God, a real good woman [the previously mentioned Marilyn Marable], a good doctor, and the mojo [a green bag of mysterious herbs, bone powder, etc. he picked up in New Orleans years ago] I keep in my pocket, I'm still here and laughing at you.�"
Sunday Night Live
Now that Eric E is back in the saddle, the last Arbitron ratings book [as of this writing] reported that the Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue had already shot to a close second to WCDX-FM, Power 92, in his time-slot, among listeners in the 25-to-54 demographic.
So instead of complaining about how lame radio in Richmond can be, the reader is advised to tune in to Eric E. for an escape from the ordinary. On top of its entertainment value, his show is not unlike a class in music history. Yes, Stanley sounds very much the professor as he explains, for example, how Muddy Waters put together the traditional electrified blues ensemble of two guitars, drums and harmonica, with piano on occasion.
In fact, Professor Eric E is teaching a class, American Music: Blues, Hip Hop, Jazz, and Rock �n� Roll, at St. Catherine�s School this semester. So the young ladies on Grove Avenue, nestled up to the Country Club of Virginia, are learning how Chuck Berry took Country & Western songs and gave them a Blues shuffle-beat in order to become a Rock �'n'� Roll pioneer.
Those private school students will also be exposed to Eric E. Stanley'�s well-honed thoughts on the power of music to reach across cultural barriers. Of music'�s ability to bring people of different backgrounds together he says: �"Many times it�'s the hammer that breaks the wall down."�
From the Hilltop Restaurant, by way of countless hours of platter-spinning air-time, Eric Stanley, 52-years-old on February 26 (a birthday he shares with music legends Fats Domino and Johnny Cash), is at the top of his game, again.
Meanwhile, as the former hamburger flipper and dancing drum major would no doubt say at this point, �Gotta go ... �gotta go.�