It finally happened, though we thought, we hoped, he would go on forever. Danny Stiles, radio personality in the New York metro area for over 60 years, died on Friday, 11 March 2011 at age 87. Twenty-plus years, each Saturday night from 8 pm to 10 pm, Stiles broadcast the Music Museum, featuring the Great American Songbook on WNYC (820 AM), live from the “the east wing of the Art Deco penthouse” (as he described his quarters overlooking the picturesque Holland tunnel).
Stiles “on your dials” ranged over many stations in his long career; in recent month hosting a show—sponsored by John’s Pizzeria—on WPAT (930 AM). In the old style of radio, he would intersperse songs with laudatory comments about how savory, unique, and delicious the pizza was. He integrated the commercials so well that you didn’t always know you were hearing an ad.
Regular listeners knew something was wrong when Danny missed his broadcasts on WYNC for the past month. The station ran recordings of previous shows. They did so again on 12 March, in tribute (and it might have been the last). Even though he was ill, he continued to record his WPAT show with a voice cracked and tired. The week before he died, he sounded better and even boasted he would return to WYNC. Alas, he never made it.
For many years, Stiles would host a Friday night get together at New York restaurants, starting at Meli Melo on Madison, and then at Seppi’s in the Parker Meridian Hotel. Seppi’s, a warm bistro chefed by the friendly Claude Solliard, unexpectedly closed over a year ago, and Stiles’s Friday nights ended soon after (he was briefly at another restaurant downtown).
People would come from all over to dine and have a chance to meet Mr Stiles. Cocktails to start (martinis, of course), then dinner, then music featuring Rick Bogart’s New Orleans trio. Danny would introduce the band with familiar, comfortable jokes. Bogart would play the clarinet and sing in an acquired-taste style. Danny would often spin records from Bogart on his Saturday night show, too.
It was at Seppi’s where I was introduced to the great-great-great (I’ve forgotten how many) grandson of John Quincy Adams who shared his relative’s name. I met many radio personalities. I even shook hands with the Kenilworth crooner. And was I busting with pride when, on the WNYC show after one Friday night, Mr Stiles mentioned that he met the “world-class statistician” and his “blond bombshell” companion?
His life was devoted to preserving and playing the best of 20th century music. He played mostly original recordings on the original media. The sometimes scratchy recordings transported you back in time.
Stiles began each Music Museum with Cherokee from Charlie Barnet, followed closely by Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, or some other big band piece. In third place was always an early recording of Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey band. Many casual Sinatra fans would do well to look these recordings up: many are a treat.
Right around 8:30 to 8:40 pm, Danny would slip into “mob music”, singers from the last 1950s with a distinct Italian bias. He would often spin a favorite record, week on week. Some of his choices—let’s face it—were a little schmaltzy, others were quirky. But you couldn’t hold it against him. And you didn’t just get the music, but you heard the stories behind the songs, the rich history.
Every show ended with Shirley Temple singing—and Danny signing—“Goodnight, My Love.” A goofy, playful exit.
Until this last year when, right before Shirley, Danny took to playing (and talking over) the very melancholy Acker Blik instrumental “Stranger on the Shore.” It wasn’t a good omen. He is now relieved of his having to carry those “excruciatingly heavy” 78s home from the studio.
We heard the door close for the last time tonight. Goodbye, Danny, we will miss you.
Obituary from the New York Times. Nostalgia Alley interview with Danny. Danny Stiles had a website (currently still up) featuring continuous loops of his Friday night shows (they aren’t there now and are unlikely to return).
The Lady Tasting Tea will begin Monday.