Rock of Ages | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Rock of Ages 

In the '60s, Charlie Apple started spinning Records. Now he's using music to help the elderly get their groove back.

Two buses carrying 84 older people head for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The passengers are as likely to tell you how "the mayor of Soulville" Chuck Edwards used to record for Duke in the mid-'50s as tell you about their grandchildren.

On this one-day Elderhostel trip, there will be a lecture from a living legend of rock music, guided tours of the museum, a radio recording session, two meals and an evening performance of 1950s entertainers at Cleveland's State Theater. The cruise director for this action-packed outing is Charlie Apple -- deejay, radio personality, educator, entertainer, and lately, executive director of Services for Older Adults. At 61, Apple is still rockin' and still finding the music to be as rousing -- even to the AARP-set -- as when he was a teen.

Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, young Apple dreamed of being an entertainer; he'd tie a can to a broomstick and pretend to be Bing Crosby. He had plenty of exposure to music. "I was an only child, so my mother kept me in and she always had the radio on," but it took his peers to lure him into rock 'n' roll: He got his first taste at a Boy Scout camp in Highland Park when he heard the other kids were singing Bill Haley's "Crazy Man Crazy." Thus infected, Apple became a record head -- spending his cash on vinyl, memorizing the label info. He set up his own "radio station" at home with a record player, a rigged board with fake knobs, and music logs. He'd "broadcast" shows -- purely for his own amusement.

After graduating from Penn Hills High School in 1960, he started at Carnegie Tech where the dramatics department proved "too highbrow." Apple transferred to Duquesne, where in 1964 -- between school productions and spinning records at parties -- he received a degree in education. That same year he began teaching elementary school at St. Edmund's Academy in Squirrel Hill. After all, he reckoned "teaching is a form of entertainment."

But he would soon find -- and sustain -- an audience. In 1966, Apple became a bona fide member of the Pittsburgh music scene when he landed a radio show at WPSL in Monroeville -- not playing the current British Invasion hits, but a free-form mix of locally popular, off-chart records. In 1980, he hopped to WKPA in New Kensington, and since 1992 has spun tunes at WLSW Music Power 104 in Scottdale every Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. That makes Apple a 37-year veteran of Pittsburgh's peculiar subculture of record collectors and oldies lovers who perpetuate some of the greatest music you may never have heard.

"Pittsburgh oldies," even Apple admits, is largely "indefinable." Like so many things in Pittsburgh mysterious to the outsider, it's often defined by what isn't there anymore: music that certain deejays -- most now gone -- played on radio shows and at dance halls decades ago. Apple explains, "What these deejays played was the alternative music of its day; these weren't the Top 40 songs. Many were hard-to-find records or by bands that only made a couple hundred copies."

It's a genre-busting playlist that includes songs from rock 'n' roll, deep R&B, rockabilly, jungle, swamp, doo-wop, vocal harmony, jump blues, down-home blues, early soul, middle soul, "monster" tunes, novelty instrumentals, surf instrumentals, and even shag -- "but only if it was odd." Regional bands did well by Pittsburgh deejays like Apple, Porky Chedwick and the late "Mad Mike" Metro, but being part of the Pittsburgh oldies canon doesn't necessarily mean the act was from Pittsburgh -- simply that its record was once popular here. These deejays working at more loosely structured independent stations, in their quests to establish identities and cement listener loyalty, would seek out unusual records. Says Apple, "If Porky Chedwick found a rare record, he'd play it on his show and make it popular. Then, you'd have to go out and find that record -- if you could -- and play it on your show."

Record collector Ray Nalley, now 53, recalls listening to Apple and the other Pittsburgh oldies deejays in his youth. "Charlie had his own style -- he played booze records, stuff like Wynonie Harris, doo-wop groups, instrumentals, teen ballads, garage groups like the Swamp Rats. When he had his show on WPSL, he'd encourage people to come out and see him on the radio. We'd take a bus, or thumb out. Charlie Apple was always friendly, a cheerleader."

Apple hops on board the Elderhostel bus at its Cranberry stop, his fluffy hair and beard still wet from the shower; he's wearing a T-shirt with his own face caricatured on it and printed with a piece of code for Pittsburgh music: "in-depth oldies." He is, as always, brimming over with enthusiasm.

Halfway to Cleveland, Apple grabs the mike for some educating. Years of broadcasting and teaching have lent Apple a sonorous speaking voice, warm and well-modulated -- though the rock 'n' roll deejay can't help interjecting exaggerated phrasing and silly jokes. He laughs easily -- and often, tossing his head back and releasing an actual "ha ha ha" sound.

Most on the bus are members of the "Apple Corps"; they tune into his radio show or turn up at local bars and nightclubs to hear Apple play oldies records. He knows they don't need a primer about the early days of rock 'n' roll

So having visited the museum earlier that week, Apple suggests exhibits that will be of interest to the Pittsburgh oldies fan -- the Atlantic Records display, the mock-up of the Sun recording studio -- and he recommends the short film Mystery Train that traces the migration of African Americans and their music into the northern cities. "I've seen it six or seven times and it still fascinates me." He passes out a two-page sheet listing a couple dozen obscure oldies nuggets to unearth in the museum, many structured in a treasure-hunt fashion: "Find out with whom HUEY SMITH recorded in addition to the Clowns."

He reminds them that their generation was fortunate to be present during the exciting time that was the genesis of rock 'n' roll, and that their support of music then -- particularly of music outside the Top 40 streams -- is as valid a part of music history as the acts themselves. Then, he brings on their king, the day's co-lecturer: "the Bossman, the Daddio of the Raddio" -- Pittsburgh radio pioneer Craig "Porky" Chedwick, who has been "pushing platters" for an astounding 55 years. "He's one of a handful of people who are really instrumental in the formation of rock 'n' roll. They played the ‘wrong' kind of music. People called him the devil, parents thought he was can see he's very gentle."

At 85, Porky is a little frail, but he gamely stands decked out in some of his notoriously lively clothing, sporting gold-trimmed glasses and his blond hair carefully combed back. Some folks call out "Hi Porky!" but the bus remains rapt while he speaks. "I'm very sincere in what I say: How could I, an ethnic guy from Homestead with poor parents and no education and a blind eye, get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?" In an industry noted for braggadocio, his self-effacing, hometown earnestness endears. He gestures to his still-adoring fans on the bus. "I put you in the rock 'n' roll hall of fame in my heart, thank you for your support."

Porky, who on the air invented so many crazy words that he claimed his own "Porkology" dictionary, struggles to convey the wonder of his life's work. "I got a calling, an inspiration, I was getting certain vibrations to be in big-time radio. When a community radio station opened up in Homestead in 1948, there was a place for me to get on the air." He tells the story of buying unwanted dusty 78s -- records by black acts, "race" records, and dropping the needle on them. "The falsettos, the bass, the togetherness. They wrote about poverty and handicaps I could understand. This was a message nobody was getting. I blew the dust off them." He'd found his calling. "I was giving kids the music. One day they would know I was speaking the truth."

There could be nothing so illuminating preserved behind glass in the upcoming Hall of Fame as these few inclusive words from a man who literally help stitch together "rock" and "roll." Porky closes with a few of his patented rhymes: "I'm no John Wayne, I'm Porky the Insane. I'm not Nero, but I'm Pittsburgh's hero." The bus breaks into spontaneous applause.

"I believe, that what I do when I entertain, is affectively educating. It's authenticating memory, it's authenticating who we are as older people." Apple could easily be describing that sublime moment he facilitated between Porky and his "kids" on the bus, but in fact, he's excitedly outlining his latest venture, Services for Older Adults. We're at another Pittsburgh institution, Eat 'n Park. Apple muses that it seems all business in Pittsburgh is conducted at Eat 'n Parks: "Mad Mike and I used to meet to swap records in Eat 'n Park parking lots."

"About three years ago, I took a leave of absence from teaching at St. Edmund's to discover what I wanted to do, and it suddenly hit me that what I'd always wanted to be was an entertainer. A couple of times people had asked me to entertain in an independent living facility. I have a great love for trivia and all kinds of music, no matter how old it is, so I would put together a show and we'd do some sing-alongs and I thought: I really like doing that. Maybe I can do something that would be entertaining, but would also be interactive and would give people an uplifting experience that would even be therapeutically good for them."

Apple researched his idea, consulting with activities directors at nursing homes, doctors, businessmen and foundations. "I found there was a great interest in what I was proposing. And I found out you can't make any money doing it, because nobody has any money. These places -- despite the fact that they're mandated by the state to do a certain amount of activities -- their budgets are woefully low."

A friend suggested that Apple start a nonprofit and tap into Pittsburgh's prodigious foundation money. "But, to be a nonprofit, you have to do an awful lot of paperwork and you might spend more of your time doing the paperwork rather than entertaining people." A fortuitous connection through colleagues led Apple to the Tides Center -- a national nonprofit committed to "positive social change" that acts as an administrative umbrella for burgeoning nonprofits. For a percentage of an organization's donations, the Tides Center provides infrastructure and management services, financial oversight, and helps with all that required paperwork.

Apple met with Jo DeBolt, director of the Tides Center regional eastern office here in Pittsburgh, and outlined his plans for a service that would bring his unique brand of entertainment and education into nursing homes, retirement communities and other facilities for older adults. He says, "They gave me the application, and the questions...former English teachers don't answer questions in one sentence! So, I was writing paragraphs and more paragraphs."

DeBolt recalls being impressed. "The thought that he put into every piece of what he was doing, the unspoken message that that conveys, amazed me."

Apple's Services for Older Adults proposal was accepted as a Tides project. And after receiving some seed money from foundations and raising several thousand dollars from appeal letters, it began official operations in November 2002. On paper, the organization offers "quality, respectful entertainment packages...stimulating, therapeutic uplifting fun" for older adults in residential facilities. What it means in practice is that Apple brings his boundless enthusiasm about music and life to those who may find such emotion in short supply.

Tom O'Shea, executive director of the Kane Regional Centers, Allegheny County's long-term care facilities, and a longtime acquaintance of Apple who served as a consultant to SOA's formation, agrees. "We had him at the Glen Hazel Kane Center. He did a show for our behavioral unit -- these are people with long-term care needs, physically and mentally -- and it was just fabulous. Charlie has such a great ability to look at a group of people and recognize the dignity they have. They enjoyed every second of it, the excitement and the fun of it all. When someone like Charlie comes with the enthusiasm -- the props, the screaming and shouting -- it reminds people of their enjoyment.

"And Charlie's very knowledgeable about music; he can put it into context. He enables them to go back to a time when things were going well for them and that linkage allows positive memories. It reminds them that the music is still living and that it's vibrant and fun and they think, ‘I'm alive and I can be vibrant and have fun.'"

Sharon Jankovik is wrapped in clear plastic and multi-colored balloons; it's the Halloween party at Independence Court assisted-living facility in Monroeville and Jankovik, the activities director, has come as a bag of Jelly Bellies. Apple is setting up his gear, draping holiday-themed fabric over his speaker stands, and stringing up paper pumpkins along the wall. The center's staff, many in costumes, is directing residents into the large activities room. Some people are in wheelchairs, many have walkers; they are all moving slowly, but the room quickly fills up with more than 50 residents and a dozen or so staff members.

Apple's spiffed up in a full tuxedo -- shiny shoes and all -- and he grabs a broomstick ("more seasonal than a cane") for his opening number, Jerry Vale's "Hey Look Me Over." He's equipped with a head mike, so he can sing and twirl with ease. Launching into "Put on a Happy Face," Apple's voice fails him. He makes a joke about being too poor to have allergies, and deftly goes on, discreetly shutting off his mike to cough, and taking hits from a bottle of Chloraseptic. A few residents begin to clap along and Apple's delighted. "Go on and clap!"

A few songs later, Apple posits, "Now, I know some of you like to dance in your seats. I know a way to dance and sit down -- and no, I don't mean lap dancing. You go cheep cheep cheep with the hands, flap flap flap with the wrists, then right in your chair, wiggle wiggle wiggle, then clap clap clap clap." Apple takes a beat. "I just happen to have the music with me."

Everybody does the "Bird Dance" easily in their chairs. When the song switches key, hands are waving in the air. Apple's shaking his tailfeathers, rhyming "Shake your rear, shake your derry-EAR!" The staff acts as Apple's aides, working the whole room, singing loudly, encouraging and helping residents to clap.

Autumn activities are revisited: Apple mimes swinging a bat; "World Series!" someone guesses. On goes the old-school Pirates hat, and everybody sings "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" where they'll "root, root for the Pirates." "1960, 1979 -- those were great seasons. Remember Willie Stargel?" The music starts again with the Pirates' old theme song "We Are Family." Then, "Que Sera Sera." "Everybody sing in French!" A staff member walks in sporting a rainbow Afro wig. Apple immediately grabs his own and stuffs it over his head.

It is reminiscent of a children's party with elements of controlled cheerful chaos: For an hour Apple never stops bouncing off the energy, moving among the residents, calling out gags, asking trivia questions, acknowledging individuals ("I like that shirt!"), performing magic tricks, swapping out wigs and hats -- a veritable whirlwind of upbeat. As fruit punch and treats are dispensed, Apple wraps up with a patriotic set. He's got a big Uncle Sam hat on now; "America the Beautiful" segues into Woody Guthrie's populist hymn "This Land Is Your Land," which garners a rousing sing-along response.

After the show, Apple roams the room greeting each resident: "Thank you for being here today....It's so good to see you." One woman keeps Apple's hand clasped in hers and says, "We sang Irish songs." Apple crows, "St. Patrick's Day! That's the last time I was here." Another, the puckish, blue-eyed Peggy Lynch, takes a ribbing from Apple after she winks at him. Finally, his costumes, props and tubs of assorted gear are loaded up, balanced precariously onto a trolley. Waving off offers of help, Apple cheerfully wheels away.

As the residents disperse, Jankovik dismantles her costume, careful to deflate, not pop, the balloons. She and the center's van driver Rich Cheney give enthusiastic reviews to Apple's show. "It's about making people happy, so they have a good time." And how did Jankovik learn about Apple's services? It seems that the son of one of the residents is a fan of Apple's oldies radio show.

This bus trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is Apple and Services for Older Adults' second venture with Elderhostel -- a national nonprofit organization founded in 1975 and based in Boston that provides learning and educational travel experiences for adults 55 and older. In collaboration with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and Elderhostel, earlier this year Apple taught a four-week-long class on the origins of rock 'n' roll at the Jewish Community Center. Pam Vingle, program manager for Elderhostel Pittsburgh says, "Charlie really knocked himself out, the time, the care and the detail that he put into it."

For the past three years, Pittsburgh has been a test market for one-day Elderhostel trips, what Vingle terms "rediscovering gems in our own backyard." The organization is also seeking to attract 55- to 65-year-olds, the start of what will be a large aging Baby Boomer group whose interests Vingle sums up with an apt non sequitur: "Older people are younger now." She adds, "Charlie was just a perfect fit, since he was already connected to this age group through his radio and oldies work."

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Apple's ensconced in their state-of-the-art recording facility tucked up in the tip of the glass pyramid. No late-night deejay ever accidentally upended a pizza on this gleaming board. Apple is recording a program -- of Hall of Fame inductees, naturally -- to be edited later and dropped into his upcoming WLSW shows. "We're at the top of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and we're havin' a blast!"

Museum visitors are welcome in the studio, and Apple encourages all comers to cozy up to one of the mikes: "You're gonna be on the radio in Pittsburgh." Tom and Carol Conboy, from Baldwin and on the Elderhostel tour, stop by to give a shout-out to their buddies in the Three Rivers Corvette Club. Apple comes out of a Howlin' Wolf tune, and asks a 7-year-old boy goofing with the studio headphones if he's seen Howlin' Wolf's money suitcase downstairs in the museum. "He didn't trust people. He only took cash and carried it right on stage with him." The kid looks nonplussed, but it's a good life lesson anyhow.

"A friend of mine pointed out that for years I worked with adolescents who were in a period of rapid physical changes moving from dependence to independence and an uncertain future -- and now I'm working with folks who are in a period of rapid physical changes, who are going from independence to dependence, and an uncertain future. It's not unlike an early adolescent period of not being sure where you're headed. It makes me feel I've got some background and training that can help.

"And as a teacher I think everything I do in my show has a purpose beyond just for fun. In some of the independent places I do a little song parody about getting older and that's healthy when we can look at ourselves and find humor. If we know other people are having the same problems, it makes it more of a universal experience. A sense of humor gets us through a lot. For those of us in various transition periods in our lives, it's good to be able to laugh at ourselves."

Apple tailors his Services for Older Adults shows to accommodate groups that are ambulatory enough to dance in a talent show ("To have people in their 70s and 80s getting up in front of a audience and giving rather than feeling like they're on the receiving end, that changes their whole perspective") to those in lock-down dementia units. "People there who don't do anything else, and you start singing those familiar songs, and they sing -- and it's wonderful. There's no way to totally assess it but I can't help but think that something's happening inside their brain at that moment that is giving them some joy that they maybe don't experience the rest of the day. It's that song that still connects even though everything is gone."

He clearly thrives on the smaller moments that might seem insignificant to a less sensitive ear. "At one of the Services for Older Adults shows, a guy came up -- I was talking about Perry Como -- and said, ‘You aren't ever going to believe this but I used to play football with Perry Como's son' -- and that's so exciting," he enthuses. "I just love the chance to communicate and talk with people and stimulate memories."

Kane Centers' O'Shea cites this interactive desire as one of Apple's greatest assets. "He has such genuine enthusiasm -- and it's a two-way feed. He thoroughly enjoys the interaction, and receives as much fun as audience. The emotional payback he gets, that's the amazing thing."

Apple is pleased with his first official year of operation. "I think we're doing very well. Every place I've been to, they ask me back -- some of them three and four times."

The Tides Center doesn't have a formal review process for the projects it helps but DeBolt says, "Charlie is so connected in a variety of ways to a number of people, I find I often bump into people who are aware of his work and comment positively on it."

Among Apple's goals for Services for Older Adults is expanding the talent base. "I want to train other people to do it, book them into places, and let them carry the ball and hopefully be able to replicate it in other cities. So that eventually -- and I'm hoping to do this till I'm 70 at least -- I could really become the executive director." Apple slips into saying "we" occasionally when discussing Services for Older Adults but laughingly admits, "Right now I'm the executive director, the secretary, the janitor, the entertainer, the transportation manager -- though I do have a volunteer board of directors.

"It's an hour's worth of entertainment but between writing the script, re-arranging the music or adding new music, driving to the place, setting up, doing the show, breaking down, making sure I just don't run out but that I talk to some people -- it can be as much as six or seven hours for one show. I donate all the paper, all the computer work, everything -- none of that gets charged to the company. We have a fee for service -- it's $100. It's a standard fee; if the place can't afford it, then I drop it down to whatever they can afford, and theoretically then what happens is the nonprofit donations that people make help subsidize that so I can keep on doing it.

"And as anyone in nonprofits knows, it's very hard to raise money right now." But Apple is indefatigable -- he sends out appeal letters, earmarks some oldies events like car cruises as fund-raisers, and even keeps a little donation can out at his club shows.

Apple spins oldies tunes at area bars and clubs a couple times a week. The dancing crowd -- dozens of them -- turns up at Cavanaugh's in McKeesport (this is Apple's popular Sandcastle Jukebox Sunday Nights moved indoors for the winter); the rare-record gang meets at T's Lounge in Edgewood. There are recurring gigs at the Lamplighter in Delmont and the Viking Lounge in McKeesport. With few exceptions, his Apple Corps are 50 years and up.

This night Apple's working a small crowd at a bar in West Mifflin where's he had a regular gig since spring. "Oldies thunder at Spencer's Down Under," he calls as the cowbell-and-saxophone instrumental "Funhouse" starts clanging and blaring. "We don't have a Viagra machine in the bathroom," Apple teases somebody making a return trip to the facilities.

"‘Red Rose Tea'! Remember Mad Mike and the big screens at the West View ballroom? The chimps?" Apple and two older couples at once imitate the apes from the old Red Rose TV ad. This foursome has made the hour's journey from Washington to hear Apple. "This takes me back to my youth," says "Dave," 64. "Charlie plays the true oldies, not the remakes -- the songs I heard listening to Porky and Sir Walter Raleigh -- this is a unique sound that wasn't national hits; they were local hits that we fell in love with."

The last stop of the day is at the beautifully restored State Theater in downtown Cleveland, a 1922 grand pile of columns, chandeliers, terrazzo floors and gilded ceilings. Here, the Elderhostel group catches a show of acts who had vocal, doo-wop and rock 'n' roll hits between 1956 and 1964. These performers are certainly no spring chickens, yet they're movin' and groovin' like yesterday is tomorrow. Dozens of rows back from the stage, Apple -- the perpetual fan -- is wriggling with delight in his seat and throwing his arms in the air to clap. In all, the bus trip is a success.

Earlier on the bus, Apple had confessed. "I admit it: I was a geek -- and that early rock 'n' roll and people like Porky -- he made me feel important, the music made me feel important. Rock 'n' roll spoke to teens, to their alienation; the music celebrated rebellion." In its way, this bus is still marching to a different drummer. Time may have made their music tamer, but it hasn't necessarily made it any more popular -- yet all these years later, these music fans have sustained a community, a social bond with a shared Pittsburgh-oldies language.

"Often when I do a Services for Older Adults show, we'll do a cheer for the older folks, and they love it when we do that because they enjoy the fact that I think it's good to be mature. This is a youth-oriented culture, which is great, but it's also fun to be older too. You can have a lot fun -- and a lot of people do."

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