Broadcasting From A Bunker: Jay Lawrence’s Love of Big Bands

It is often said we remember where we were and what we were doing when the milestones of life occur. Your first kiss. That marriage proposal. The birth of your first child. But for many presenters, that time when the broadcasting bug first “bit” seems elusive.  You just somehow always instinctively knew you were destined for the airwaves. Jay Lawrence, host of “From Stateside”, is one of those presenters. Jay explains, “I have always been fascinated with radio from Jack Benny to Paul Harvey.  When I was younger I would stay up late and watch Jack Parr on television when my parents went to bed.  I wanted to be the next Jack Parr.  But I think Johnny Carson got that gig.”

Born and raised in central Illinois (what Jay fondly calls “fly over country”), his mother was a fourth grade school teacher and his father was in the dry cleaning business. “I am the son of a Dry Cleaner”, Jay says unabashedly. “As a kid, I had a portable radio on my bike and loved listening to the music of Bobby Darin while doing my paper route.” Jay’s recollection of first breaking into radio was driving with a friend to visit various small stations in rural Illinois at night.  “You know we wanted to be hot jocks!” explains Jay with a smile. “The first station that had my voice on the air was in Princeton, Illinois, radio station WZOE.  The announcer working the night shift let me read the weather. That’s all it took! I was hooked on radio and I never looked back.”

As a child, music was always a part of Lawrence’s life. “My father loved to play the piano and in his younger days he played in some small bands. Once I found some old arrangements in an attic trunk, sheet music numbered without names… just like that song 720 In The Books.”  Jay took piano lessons and went on to play tenor sax in band.  As a senior year in high school he discovered some big band arrangements hiding in a closet and said, “Let’s start a band!”  (Jay readily admits he was influenced by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies). Lawrence ‘fronted’ the band as it performed at local events and eventually the group became a big hit. About that time ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ was starting to gain popularity and big bands were soon on the decline. Jay didn’t have a clue how to get into ‘Rock ‘n Roll’, so instead, he opened a small dance hall for youth of the area and hired all the bands.

By the time Jay reached college, the broadcasting die was cast, and Jay was soon skipping English class and instead wandered the halls of a Peoria, Illinois television station, learning what he could. Jay quickly advanced from station Floor Director to TV Director and then to establishing a FM radio station in Lincoln, Nebraska.

While Jay pursued his career in broadcasting, his love of big band music never waned. “I simply love the sound and the arrangements.  And I can understand the words!  I have a real respect for all of the musicians that played in those bands.”

For a time, Jay operated an internet radio station playing music of the ‘70s, ‘80s and current hits. One weekend he had traveled to a neighboring state to attend a wedding and went looking for some ‘Old Time Radio’ to fall asleep to while in his hotel room. He discovered a radio station playing vintage big band music from England. “I was captivated by what I heard and I listened all the way home”, says Jay. Soon after he developed the pilot for “From Stateside” and mailed it off. The station liked the concept and the rest as they say, is radio history.

“From Stateside” originates from what Jay calls his ‘underground studio bunker’- a throwback to the days of makeshift home bomb shelters of World War Two. In addition to playing rare and popular tunes of the ‘40s, “From Stateside’ features a movie from the era like “Since You Went Away” or perhaps a long forgotten movie such as one starring Wallace Berry and Marjorie Main called “Rationing.” And with a nod to his appreciation for old time radio, the program also features clips from radio shows from the 1940s like Jack Benny, Lux Radio Theatre, The Hardy Family and more. Given that Glenn Miller is Jay’s favorite big band orchestra, each week he offers “Miller Time”, showcasing a Miller band recording.

When asked why he thinks big band and swing music, some of it nearly a century old now, is making such an impression on younger generations, Jay doesn’t hesitate- “Because it’s good music!  You and understand the lyrics.  The harmonies are real.” After all his years of collecting and producing “From Stateside”, what does Jay Lawrence recommend to someone new to the big band scene to listen to? “Easy- Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra to start.”

“From Stateside with Jay Lawrence” can be heard Fridays at 5PM Pacific/8PM Eastern on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Guglielmo Marconi’s accountant.