It’s a frosty December evening as I walk into the WWOZ studio on Monday to talk with radio show host Gentilly Jr. about his tenure at the station. WWOZ just turned 30 years old and Gentilly Jr. has been with WWOZ for almost as long.
Danielle Small: You are one of WWOZ’s oldest show hosts.
Gentilly Jr.: I might be number two in the tenure list; I started my show February 2, 1982; coming up on 29 years.
DS: 29 years! With no breaks?
GJ: Pretty much, except for vacations and whatnot. I was off for about 6 months because of Katrina. WWOZ ran archived shows from a station in New Jersey for a little while after the storm and then was in Baton Rouge for a little bit. But I didn’t go there. When I came back to New Orleans I started right back up again.
DS: How did you become involved with WWOZ in the first place?
GJ: I went to a meeting before the station was even up and going and there were people talking about what kind of news they’d talk about on the radio. So I left, wasn’t interested. But they never really did the news. So like a year later I talked to Walter Brock, one of the founders of the station, and I said that might be fun, I’d like to do a show. Let me do a show for ya, so I did. Back then most of the shows were taped, very few of them were live. So it ran for a few times and after a few weeks I called Walter again and said I’d like to do another one, and he said, “Why don’t you just do it on a regular basis?” Been doing it ever since.
DS: Your show is classified as a blues and R&B show. And I appreciate how you go from way back when to today, crossing different genres and exposing more than one type of sound in a three hour time frame.
GJ: It started out being more of a blues kinda show but I didn’t want to get bored with it and I didn’t want anyone else to get bored with it, so it just naturally expanded. Yeah, it’s pretty eclectic, mostly older stuff… but when I file my records—most people file their stuff alphabetically—I never do that. I have my own system, by genre. So when I put together the show I go to each section and pull stuff, so you always get a little gospel, little rockabilly, little acoustic singer/songwriter, blues… that’s just the way it works out. I try to play different stuff all the time. That’s my main agenda. And I tell people: well, if you love it or hate it, it’s gonna be a long time before you hear it again.
DS: It must take ages to put together your show.
GJ: Sometimes it takes me up to 9 hours. I don’t like a lot of talking. I like to play a solid three hours of music. My show rarely—almost never—has guests. Ruffled a few feathers. But most people know not to ask me now.
DS: What were your musical influences growing up?
GJ: I have a sister who is eight years older than I am, so when I was five she was a teenager. I was always listening to her stuff when she was out of the house. I’d sneak in her room and get into her records.
DS: What did your sister listen to?
GJ: She was into stuff that was on the radio at that time. This was New Orleans in the 60’s. I got my favorites. Muddy Waters. For years and years I made it a point to put him in every single week. I don’t do that anymore, but he still makes it most weeks. I always try to find new stuff. I’ve always loved music; it’s forever been a part of me. In college I constantly hung out at the record store.
DS: Did you have a radio show in college?
GJ: No, this is my first show.
DS: Do you play any instruments?
GJ: Nope, all I can play is records.
DS: Being surrounded by music, you don’t ever get the urge to pick up a guitar or hammer out some tunes on a keyboard and jam out?
GJ: I played the drums when I was in school, but no not really. Maybe one day though, never too late. Maybe I’ll pick up the piano. Drums are kind of noisy.
DS: Oh I know! My neighbors hate me; I play the drums. Do you ever sit in on/substitute other people shows?
GJ: I really don’t. I got my hands full. It’s about all I can handle. I don’t want to water it down or dilute it. I have had people sitting for me and I think they try to emulate my show a little bit. If you look at the ‘OZ charter it will tell you this is a blues show, but I don’t get too bogged down in that. I play what I like. I look for intensity. If I like it, I put it out there. That’s why I don’t really solicit artists to give me things because I don’t want them to give me something that I’m like, “Man, I really don’t want to play this.” But if I like it, I’ll play it, doesn’t matter what kind of genre you fit it in to. Not being a musician I don’t even know what the blues is. What’s the different between the blues and country? I don’t know; one guy’s got a country accent? I think my ignorance kinda helps me out here. I like being in the dark a little bit. There was a very wise man who once said you can learn a lot about a frog by dissecting it but you gotta kill the poor bastard to do it.
DS: What are some of your other favorite shows on ‘OZ?
GJ: Oh, many; Your Cousin Dimitri, Black Mold, Billy Delle… I like shows with not a lot of talking.
DS: Tell me more about how WWOZ was in the beginning? Was the vibe much different?
GJ: Yeah, it was a lot different. Very much a shoestring operation. Very few live shows, almost everything was taped. They’d have tapes and they would play them all the time. Over and over. It was very loose. And of course the hours were different. We used to sign off at 10 at night.
DS: Ha! And I love listening to WWOZ late night!
GJ: We had to. We were above Tipitina’s so once the bands started you couldn’t play your records, not just because of the noise but the vibrations would literally move the needle around on the turntables.
DS: Your show was before the Emperor Ernie K-Doe’s show. That must have been a trip!
GJ: Ernie was great. He’d leave his mic on and talk and sing along to the songs.
DS: I would have loved to hear that.
GJ: Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any tapes. We would just reuse the same tape over and over. We finally went live in the summer of ’85 when we moved to Armstrong Park. We had a big Second-Line parade for the move.
DS: New Orleans loves a parade! I think it’s fantastic that thanks to internet streaming more people around the world are exposed to New Orleans culture.
GJ: I see us go through the digital age, where we are on the internet now. Everyday there is something new for us. Like anything else in life, you grow older, and you develop and hopefully get better. It amazes me during these membership drives how many calls we get from out of town—about half—supporting us and they don’t even live here. It’s great.
You can tune into Gentilly Jr. on Mondays for his Blues and R&B show 7-10pm on WWOZ.org or 90.7 FM on your dial. Additionally, Gentilly Jr. will be appearing on HBO’s Tremé in the second episode of the second season, playing himself.