The history of disc jockeys globally and in Indianapolis starts in France

Ray Newby, a 16 year old California boy in the 1950s with parted hair sits at a turntable.

The birth of recorded music from Scott’s phonautograph to Ray Newby, the accidental DJ

French printer and bookseller Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was proofreading a book about physics in January 1857 when he took a keen interest in an illustration of the structure of the human ear. He got the idea to mimic the internal anatomy of ears in a mechanical device. He began by fashioning a barrel of plaster around a membrane of paper, wood, and glass covered in coal tar. 

The resulting paper membrane could record a person’s voice through vibrations of air that were “squiggled” by a sort of stylus, similar to how geologists measure earthquakes on a seismometer. He called his device the phonautograph and submitted the idea to the Académie Française for a patent, which they awarded a few months later. 

The problem was that no one could listen to the sounds etched on the membrane. The Phonautograph worked “one-way,” and it wasn’t until 151 years later, in 2008, that Berkeley National Laboratory researchers could digitally transcribe the audio into what is now known as the Au Clair de la lune recording, the first known recording of what we assume is Scott himself singing a song very slowly for 20 seconds. 

Scott’s recording predates Thomas Edison’s more popular wax cylinders by 28 years. Another Frenchman, Charles Cros, developed a theoretical way to play back the audio but never built a contraption to do so. It wasn’t until 1888 that Edison’s disc-shaped cylinders popularized a mass market of audio recordings starting in 1888 from Edison’s New Jersey laboratory.

In a mere 21 years, a 16-year-old named Ray Newby of Stockton, California had the novel idea of playing music from a wax cylinder over a small radio transmitter. This was at a time when most radio broadcasts were news broadcasts or narrations of popular plays that preceded the medium. Newby played music over the air and may have accidentally become the first known disc jockey.

Dispute over the origins of the term “DJ”

Despite Newby’s refreshing idea to play music over radio waves, the term “disc jockey” wouldn’t surface until pioneering radio news broadcaster Walter Winchell supposedly coined the term after seeing WNEW’s Martin Block broadcast a “make-believe ballroom” experience, switching between early versions of records that evolved out of Edison’s wax cylinders in 1935. 

Law professor and DJ Bill Randle, however, has put forward an alternative theory that it wasn’t until 1940 that Jack Kapp, a record executive, called on-air presenters “record jockeys.” The term is believed to have come from the appearance of presenters controlling sound and volume on a large board with their arms outstretched over knobs, dials, and records like a horse jockey with two big reins. This idea tracks with the immense popularity of nationally-recognized racehorses War Admiral and Seabiscuit, who both captivated the nation in a sensation of media coverage. In 1937, Seabiscuit defeated Triple Crown winner War Admiral over Memorial Day weekend in a race so much more popular than the Indianapolis 500 that it relegated the Indianapolis tradition to the back page of the New York Times.

Other theories suggest a “jockey” was any kind of machine operator and that “disc” became an accepted shorthand for records in the 1940s when their materials shifted to polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Thus, “disc jockey” was an obvious connection. The true source of the term is likely an organic outgrowth of the immense popularity of horse racing, records, language, and the industry’s growth nationwide from 1935-1940. 

Radio and music find new importance amid WWII

With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific in 1943, British broadcaster Jimmy Savile organized a jazzy dance party in Otley, England, a neighborhood on the Northside of Leeds, in the interior of England far away from Nazi air raids. Savile, who died in 2011 at the age of 84, recorded in his autobiography that he was the first known disc jockey to use turntables and a microphone at the Grand Records Ball at the Guardbridge Hotel in 1947. However, early photos in Gramophone magazine in 1931 show twin turntables for sale, so the idea likely precedes him.

Savile may have popularized the idea, but the turntable proved a turning point for DJs. The turntable infused technology and human personality that allowed DJs to play a mix of music to their tastes and their audience. DJs played a critical role in spreading American jazz, early British rock, and other genres of music to soldiers, sailors, and nurses moving rapidly around the world during World War II.

DJs had become popular for many kids, teens, and young soldiers around the world. A photo from a rollerskating rink at 926 N Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis shows teens lined up at Rollerland with a sign for local DJ Ken Kasmire in the background. The photo is believed to have been taken sometime in the 1940s.

Teens line up at the Rollerland roller skating rink, located at 926 North Pennsylvania Street. A sign for local DJ Ken Kasmire is in the background.
Teens line up at the Rollerland roller skating rink, located at 926 North Pennsylvania Street. A sign for local DJ Ken Kasmire is in the background. Photo via Indiana Historical Society.

Remarkable advancements in DJs and turntables after WWII extend to television

After the war, the ability to match songs with seamless transitions, fade, transitions with slip-cueing, and scratching and mixing emerged in the late 60s and early 70s. These new techniques enabled DJs to move between two identical records and “scratch” back and forth to extend a rhythm or segment of music for the crowd’s delight. 

Disco music in the 1970s became immensely popular in clubs, dance parties, and on the radio as DJs across the US and Europe tuned music to specific beats and tempos popular in disco music.

MTV emerged on television in 1981 and brought music to TV in a fresh new way. The style’s popularity and the subsequent production of stereos and microphones for the general public enabled smaller operators to begin playing as DJs at weddings, balls, festivals, and other private or public events. DJs could now tour their region or country with a unique artistry not unlike musicians.

Through it all, records held immense staying power as a medium, too. It was not until the 1980s, when cassettes emerged, that the record waned, only for both records and cassettes to be supplanted by compact discs (CDs) and the alluring disc shape again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Digital MP3s became preferred with the iPod and later the iPhone within the decade.

DJs and talk radio go global online

The internet freed more talented DJs to broadcast to their fans. Carl Malamud developed the first Internet Talk Radio, becoming the first truly global DJ medium. 

All of the DJs lighting up nightclubs, parties, weddings, and the Internet today owe their ability to a variety of forefathers, including Halloween Martin, a female DJ in Chicago, Woflman Jack of Shreveport, Louisiana, Francis Grasso in Brooklyn who popularized dance clubs, Frankie Knuckles and house music, and the young Ray Newby as well as advancements in the technology stemming from Scott and Edison for the fun, creative careers they have today.

Indianapolis area DJs serve in the same long history

Early Indianapolis radio station WTLC (“With Tender Loving Care”), which still broadcasts from Greenwood, Indiana with urban adult contemporary music, started in 1968 as a black-owned station. Today it is part of the larger WIBC sister station.

Long after the Indiana Avenue Jazz Scene of the 1920s and 30s was displaced through redlining and other racial animosity, soul and funk music in Indianapolis returned with immense pride on WTLC. The songs performed by local bands The Highlighters, the Moonlighters, and the Vanguards echoed community issues, community preservation, and even overshadowed releases by more prominent national artists like Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

Despite its local popularity, Indianapolis sat in the shadow of Chicago, Detroit, and the jazz scene of the South. In 1968, Indianapolis was able to carve out a small niche for up-and-coming musicians broadcasting from WTLC, but it was not sustainable.

Merrill's Hi-Decker Restaurant, with a WIBC radio broadcasting booth built onto the roof, was located at 1155 E. 38th Street on the north side of Indianapolis. It was previously known as the Parkmoor. The neon-lit DJ booth, occupied by rock & roll disc jockey Dick Sumner, combined with the drive-in restaurant's proximity to the Indiana State Fairgrounds made the Hi-Decker a popular cruising destination for Indianapolis teenagers on summer nights. Photo via Indiana Historical Society
Merrill’s Hi-Decker Restaurant, with a WIBC radio broadcasting booth built onto the roof, was located at 1155 E. 38th Street on the north side of Indianapolis. It was previously known as the Parkmoor. The neon-lit DJ booth, occupied by rock & roll disc jockey Dick Sumner, combined with the drive-in restaurant’s proximity to the Indiana State Fairgrounds made the Hi-Decker a popular cruising destination for Indianapolis teenagers on summer nights. Photo via Indiana Historical Society

WIBC, today a talk radio news station, premiered in December 1960 and broadcast from atop Merrill’s Hi-Decker Restaurant on 38th Street, right next to the Monon Railroad. The restaurant is no longer there today and sat just south of the Indiana State Fairgrounds along Coliseum Avenue in what is now a parking lot. 

Atop the restaurant sat rock n’ roll DJ Dick Sumner in a neon-lit booth, Given the proximity to the spacious fairgrounds, bands playing in the parking lot, and the downstairs drive-thru restaurant shaped like a stack of records, it was a popular cruising spot for teens.

Al Hunter writes about the restaurant:

The restaurant was shaped like a stack of records anyway, so the addition of the rectangular booth with the circular roof made the Hi-Decker one of the city’s hottest spots when Sumner was in session. The booth was brightly lit with neon lights featuring the “WIBC 1070 On Your Dial” marquee sign ablaze like a rock-n-roll sun. Indianapolis radio station WIBC was the No. 1 station among teens.

Summer would play the newest rock-and-roll hits from his WIBC radio booth on high. His show included a nightly segment after the 10 p.m. News he called “Make It or Break It.” He would spin new hot wax 45 rpm releases, many from local bands, and ask the cheeseburger chompin’ patrons parked in their cars below to vote on them. Patrons would vote by sounding their car horns. The results would decide whether the record would be played on future shows or if he should break it. Car horns could be clearly heard over the air. If the no’s won, Sumner would break the record over his microphone. If more people honked for “Make It,” that record was played every hour for the next week.

Sumner wrote years later in a recorded history on his website in 2006:

Radio seems awfully grown up now. Talk shows are angry, computers spit out carefully researched music lists, and there’s no time to broadcast local kid bands live from a drive-in while the guy on the air munches his juicy hamburger.

Grown-up, indeed. Encore Entertainment is one beneficiary of this storied history of DJs. We’re now one of Indianapolis’ largest outlets for DJs for private events. The industry continues to shine online with contemporary DJs producing mixes of top songs that often rival the original artists’ studio releases. Radio station consolidation and business economics are making it challenging to create compelling music programs over the air. But in-person, satellite, and online DJs and shows, however, provide a way forward that is customized to an audience, unique, sometimes experimental, and frequently compelling.

For private parties, weddings, Mitzvahs, and celebrations that need a DJ for hire for a night, Encore Entertainment’s acts, DJs, and artists are proud to follow in the 100+ year history of DJs around the world and here in Indianapolis.

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