Everyone loves an 'Old School Dance Party,' especially its ringmaster
Friday, 4pm, and John L. Hanson Jr.'s on the move.
Horizontes host Michael Crockett's just jumped out the booth. A quick station identification, and the next jock's loose.
"You listening to the Ooold School, with John E. Dee!" announces Hanson at the end of the first cut, the sax-fueled disco soul of Evelyn "Champagne" King's "Shame," first of 36 songs he'll play during his three hours on the radio this particular TGIF.
It's a big weekend in Austin, with Formula One wheeling in and the Texas/Oklahoma State showdown set for Saturday. Two hours before show time – in the station's John L. Hanson Jr. Staff Room (no joke) – the Old School Dance Party host points out how many people will be in town. He's got to hit the airwaves red hot. Michael Jackson's "Bad" follows "Shame."
"You know I'm bad," echoes Hanson as the King of Pop scats over the Quincy Jones beat. "I'm John E. Dee!"
Hanson, 63, had that first song in his pocket since he conceived the opening for his show two days earlier, well before his weekly drive down from Dallas Friday mornings. He's commuted for five years since his wife took a position with the Nuclear Regulatory Committee.
The rest of the opening sequence – Patti LaBelle's "New Attitude," Latimore's "Let's Straighten It Out," and Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" – came together on the drive down I-35, not by reference, but by inspiration. His musical road map gets plotted by the radio stations throughout the area: KISS 103.1FM around Temple and Killeen, then KUTX when he gets within the Austin bubble.
"Very seldom do I listen to CDs," he admits. "It's the radio or nothing."
Hanson has CDs. In the booth, he keeps a box of them by his side. They detail decades of dance floor jams from his youth and beyond, and he tears through all of them from 4-7pm on Fridays.
"It's a research project every week," he says. "One song will lead me to another, and then another."
Those songs take you for a ride, all right. One that runs deep down through your past.
"I was in junior high school for this one," he says. Or, "I was smoking my first cigarette."
"The music is the message. It allows you to go back."
Soul on FM
What's made the Old School Dance Party such an immediate Austin favorite is that it allows Hanson himself to go back just as far as his listeners.
A Detroit native, he's one of the longest-tenured deejays in town, having come here for school at Huston-Tillotson University in 1970 and staying when he took a job at KUT. Soul on FM, at the time the only black music radio broadcast in Austin, was the program, and it played a lot like the Dance Party does today. Hanson learned the method ("Play the songs that got you in trouble") from the great Chicago personality Bill "Butterball" Crane, whose quick delivery and constant corner-turning ignited the WVON nighttime airwaves during Hanson's adolescence.
"I started mimicking him," he says. "I'd do it at football practice: imitate his rhymes. Then our high school had a talent show, and it was too large. There were too many acts, and the emcee couldn't come out and announce all the acts. What I ended up doing was grouping the three sets of acts and putting a poem together for the three – what they did, explained poetically.
"After the talent show, the program director at WJLB came up and asked me, 'Have you ever thought about becoming a disc jockey?' Well, I'm 15 years old ...
"I started at the radio station doing teen reports, then a Sunday program."
Hanson's spent all but his college years behind the microphone since.
Most of those 39 years weren't spent in music. Soul on FM was dropped in 1980, and Hanson took Jew Don Boney's seat hosting In Black America, the KUT-produced program that's pushed the envelope on black advancement and equality through its syndication to 13 cities nationwide. In that time, Hanson shared airtime with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bill Cosby, Arthur Ashe, and Coretta Scott King. A few weeks ago he spoke with Randall Kennedy, a Harvard University professor of law, about affirmative action. Before that, Madison Media Management CEO Paula Williams Madison, who spoke about diversity in television broadcasting.
"It had substance and meaning," says the host of his initial attraction to the show. "I could be a force for intellect and disseminate information so that people could make intelligent decisions. I had a different type of voice, and that progression made sense."
Indeed, at 5:30pm on a Friday – now that Hanson's just run through songs by Parliament, the Brothers Johnson, Patrice Rushen, and Janet Jackson – it makes perfect sense.
"You know there's no mystery to our history!" he announces to his listeners, many of whom are tuning in on their drives home from work. "We are Austin-born and Texas-proud. This is KUTX, nine-eight-nine, playing the No. 1 song from 1975!"
Twice during Dance Party, Hanson plugs KUT's 10:30pm Monday broadcast of In Black America, featuring Dr. Carol A. Archbold, an associate professor in the department of criminal justice and political science at North Dakota State University, and the author of a new study entitled "Newspaper Accounts of Racial Profiling: Accurate Portrayal or Perpetuation of Myth?"
"I find it fascinating and amazing that, in 2013, I can still find people in different occupations who are the first blacks in that position," he says. "It makes no sense to me. Yes, things have changed, but not significantly enough to where you're not finding people who are the first in a professional endeavor."
Master of Disaster
A funny thing happens when you listen to John Hanson's radio shows: You don't hear much John Hanson. In fact, on this particular Friday's broadcast, he chimes in with something more substantial than a title less than a dozen times.
"They're not about me," he says. "In Black America is about the person I'm interviewing, Dance Party's about the music. All I'm doing is serving as the ringmaster."
Hanson's only hosted the Old School Dance Party since February, a month after KUTX split into the music-centric subdivision of KUT and brought the Soul on FM deejay full circle. He'd spent 33 years away from music, but his playlists spin genuinely joyous relics. These aren't the deepest cuts or the newest hits. They're time immemorial favorites, the ones that got you in trouble: Luther Vandross' "Any Love," the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself."
"The music speaks for itself," he shrugs.
For him too, it seems.
Hanson's style adheres to the blueprints laid out by Butterball Crane and Sixties jocks, masters of ceremony who talked less and spoke more, spouting spontaneous poetry and slick wit.
"It's theatre," he explains. "In either program, it's all entertainment and theatre. I couldn't sing, so I became a deejay."
It's now after 6pm. You're in your car and driving home. Hanson chimes in after the Temptations' "Farewell My Love."
"The Master of Disaster," he signs off, just as he has for decades. "Faster than a speeding turtle, more powerful than Kool-Aid, able to reach a musical climax with every spinning record. So bad I make babies cry; so bad I make flowers die. Take candy from babies, and give dogs rabies. If that ain't bad, the sky ain't blue, the grass ain't green, and it rains no more.
"And all that is said ain't read: John E. Dee's is where you heard it said."