Between the Unfinished Swings and the Monkey Bars

My adventures with the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll

 

The first time I saw him he was was swinging upside down on the monkey bars at Joseph Pennell Elementary. We were both 11 years old. In fact, Harvey Levy, as I was to discover, was born a day after me on Dec. 11.

He knew nothing about radio or music or Hy Lit. I felt so superior, for three weeks I alone had discovered Hy Lit at the very edge of the dial, this amazing late night (9 p.m. to 1 a.m.) Philly radio personality, the coolest, most original disc jockey, who was funny, outrageous, daring and inventive presenting music that was like none you ever heard.

He introduced me to jazz, rhythm and blues, soul and doo-wop with songs imbedded in the recesses of my brain that pop up sporadically from Frankie Lymon, Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, Wilson Pickett, Dion & the Belmonts, Little Willie John, the Coasters, Neil Sedaka, Billy Stewart, Little Richard, Larry Williams, Danny & the Juniors, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Guy Mitchell, Lee Andrews and the Hearts and that brilliant teen from Ottawa, Paul Anka.

Hy Lit was the heart and soul of rock 'n' roll.

I can remember, 50 years later, the first time I heard "Over the mountain, across the sea, there's a girl, waiting for me …" He generated so much excitement the first time Hyski premiered this record, "never before in Philadelphia, breaking out madly and topping the charts in Pittsburgh where it's a smash hit." 

It didn't matter that it wasn't true. But it did sound so otherworldly. I had the same feeling for "Stranded in the Jungle" and "Little Darlin" by the Diamonds. I adored Hy Lit's first theme, "All Night Long" by Rusty Bryant, collected soda bottles for the refund to get the LP.

The rapid patter, dark humor and jive talk, although I didn't know it at the time, sprung from the well of Lord Buckley, an American free wheeling jazz poet-comedian (an "ultra hipster") who influenced Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, Lenny Bruce and Tom Waits and was a precursor of Ferlinghetti and the Beat Generation.

Hy had discovered and mastered the best of Buckley while a brief student at the University of Miami. He adopted Lord Buckley's slang and jive and incorporated Buckley's persona mixed with a Yiddish souffle.

Visiting WHAT radio for the "Lloyd Fatman Show" on a skipped school weekday, answering the phones for the 299-pound former blues singer and musician ("Chuck Berry's brother-in-law") and doing the news and commercials (he hated to read), I was surprised and thrilled when my hero, Hy Lit, popped into WHAT studios, that 250-watt station at Windemere and Conshohocken Avenues deep in the Philly suburbs.

It was the first time I would meet him. He was 22 and he looked like Tony Curtis only more handsome. I had never yet met a movie star. (OK, I know, he was merely a radio star at the time. He would much later front several of his own TV shows.) I was 11. He was collecting records for his show from a tiny library next to the broadcast booth, 45s and LPs, and he handed me a bunch.

"Here, take these with you and see if there's anything good .. My mom tells me you are the president of my fan club." I had written Hy a letter, and his mother had answered it, sending me an 8×10 inscribed photo and one of Charlie Gracie, a new singer I liked. I shook my head as I couldn't speak. Hy Lit, was thought to be the only white deejay at a "colored" station. (Actually, Harvey Miller was there part time as well, but would soon leave for L.A. just as Tom Donahue would leave WIBG to became a radio force in San Francisco.) 

It took three buses to get home and throughout the bus ride I practiced telling Harvey what had happened. He lived on Old York Road, and I ran from my Sparks Street home as soon as I hugged my laughing mutt Amie, threw my unopened school books on the dining room table and fled to Harvey's. 

He had a finished basement (ours was a dumping ground that actually had a massive pile of coal delivered each week with peeling walls that my sister and I ate. We chipped off pieces and ate them — don't ask.) I always thought I could never do algebra or calculus because the paint on those eaten walls were surely filled with lead and I was partially brain damaged due to childhood wall eating. I know my sister was.

Harvey played the Elvis Sun sessions he had collected on his battered phonograph. He especially liked when Elvis joked around while performing. I told Harvey what happened at the Fatman show. Hy Lit had come into the studio, gave me records, told me I was president of his fan club. Harvey pushed me onto the floor and sat on my shoulder. It hurt. He was hurt.

"I'm president! he demanded. You're vice president. Did you correct Hy?"

"No, Harvey, because I should be president. You never heard of him before I told you to listen to WHAT each night …1340 on your dial. If it weren't for me you still wouldn't know about Hyski and Loretta Bianco (his girl Friday) and Pomeroy (a phantom friend) and the incredible music and his whole mad world." And that's the truth!

"O’Roonie McVoutie O’Zoot!" I shouted at him to let me up. That was something Hy would say. A lot. And we loved it. 

But I backed down and let him be president. He was taller. The true battle came a couple of years later at the time of our bar mitzvahs when neither of us were talking to the other. No, I don't have a clue what it was about. Hy even tried to intervene and we reunited briefly to deejay a junior high hop.

I moved 1,500 miles away with my parents to Miami to discover another radio personality named Larry King. We became friends, and I guested on his show from Pumpernik's Restaurant on the Beach. Unlike the recent TV persona, Larry in Miami, at his beginnings on WKAT, was what was called a "sick comic" with invented companions and outrageous bits. Very funny to a 16 year old. But no fan club here.

After the tiny WHAT, with enormous success and little money, Hy Lit was swooped up by 50,000 watt WIBG which was the major pop music station and became the top deejay in Philly for 17 years. The early '70's, however, were not good to him and he went through some rough years. 

Hy and I corresponded and, for a very brief time, he tried L.A. but couldn't land a gig. I didn't have a clue how to help him.

I was already ensconced in WMA's Beverly Hills offices when we reunited at Jade East, a Century City restaurant, and I heard, for the very first time, that Philadelphia accent. I was never aware before. Hy had gotten a job with the Harlem Globetrotters and had taken an apartment in West Los Angeles. But soon he couldn't bare the obscurity of this hostile community and returned to Philly, where he managed to reclaim his position as the most beloved disc jockey of them all.

He even helped Harvey Levy become Harvey Holiday (left) and emerge as an alternative deejay legend on his own.

Hy Lit passed away at age 73 following minor surgery. It shouldn't have happened that way. The year before Harvey had called me and said he and Hy had gone to dinner, they spoke of me and were sorry that I was across the country and couldn't join them. Me too. And then he was gone.

Harvey is still a major force in Philly radio, with all the de rigueur dances and cruises, mall openings, block parties and galas, what deejays always did. He is also a big Philly sports champion and local cheerleader. You can even hear his show each morning on WOGL on the internet. I try to catch it when I remember and am sitting at the computer facing that terrible blank page.

I especially get chills when he plays "Over the Mountain, Across the Sea …" it brings back everything, those terrible and wonderful years, tearful and joyous all at once!