Home of the Live Music Calendar Follow STLBlues on Twitter Follow STLBlues on Facebook Home of the Live Music Calendar Live Music Is Better, Book It Here!! Live music is better, book yours now!
 DJ Gabriel embodies the St. Louis blues
By Daniel P. Finney Of the Post-Dispatch 11/06/2004
Reprinted with permission of the Post-Dispatch
Gabriel with Papa Ray
Gabriel with fellow KDHX DJ Papa Ray

Local radio disc jockey Gabriel entertains the late-night listeners with his blues and oldies show from radio station KDHX.

To listen to Gabriel on KDHX (88.1 FM), one must have the proper equipment.

Turn off that super-powerful mega zillion-watt receiver in the living room, the one with the six speakers, a subwoofer and Dolby 5.1 capability.

Put away anything with a digital tuner or MP3 on it.

This is not the time for this high-tech gadgetry. Not with Gabriel coming on.

What you need is an old transistor radio, some beat-up thing powered by a 9-volt battery and a giant telescoping antenna. It should have no more than one speaker that angrily crackles whenever someone flips on a fluorescent light or lightning spikes slice across the night sky.

Only then, with this atavistic gear installed, can you really appreciate Gabriel, the overnight DJ broadcasting from 12:30 to 5:30 a.m. Mondays on community radio KDHX.

You see, Gabriel is not of this time. No, he's got too much personality, too much history to be a radio voice in this era of corporate-programmed sameness. He's one of the last of those distinct, free voices that echo through the night with grand stories and a sharp wit that keeps truck drivers awake and lulls insomniacs to sleep.

OK, now, do you have what you need? Are you ready? Its 12:30 a.m., its time. Turn that thing up and let's get it going.

And now for your dancing, listening and reminiscing pleasure . . . Ladies and gentleman, here's the man! . . . I mean The Man! . . . The sensational! . . . The incomparable! . . . The king of the blues! . . .
Gabriel playing the blues on KDHX . . .

The opening narration gives way to Bill Haley and the Comets Rock Around The Clock. Then comes The Voice.

What ya say? What ya know? Whats the buzz, huh?

The voice sounds like a hoarse trumpet player gurgling seltzer water, as if at any minute it's going to give up under the strain of getting out the next syllable.

Yet, somehow, it keeps going all night long as it has for 52 years at radio stations around St. Louis and across the country. Despite a certain haggard quality, Gabriel's voice is pleasant, calming and offers a hint of grandfatherly wisdom that comes from a lifetime of listening, playing and living the blues.

We'll be playing the three B's tonight, Gabriel tells listeners. And I'm not talkin about Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. I'm talkin about boogie, barrelhouse and the natural blues.

Behind the control panel at KDHX, Gabriels long brown fingers work with feverish intensity. He cues up a tape, sets a CD in place and plugs in a public-service announcement - all the while chatting it up with listeners.

Thank you to everyone who pledged during our fund-raising drive last week, he says. But I came up short of my goal, you know. Where were all of you? You get some crazy excuses come pledge time. I've heard em all, folks. The cat chewed through the telephone pole and you couldn't call in. Uh-huh.

Well, I forgive you. Lets get things going with a little taste of the blues, some James Cotton.

Two quick key punches, the microphone is off and James Cotton is on the airwaves. Gabriel turns to his left and begins hunting for his next tune through the CDs and tapes piled on the desk in stacks held together by rubber bands.

The KDHX broadcast studio is filled with state-of-the-art equipment, three CD players, a mini-disc player, a pair of turntables and an audio cassette player. But when Gabriel is in studio, the two most important pieces of equipment are matching battered Samsonite suitcases held together by two frayed, scarred leather belts.

Gabriel props them up on two TV trays and opens them. Inside each case is treasure held in square plastic CD cases and rectangle cassette boxes. They may not have the market value of diamonds or gold, but for fans of the blues, gospel - which Gabriel calls the holy blues - and just about any music of the last 60 years, the contents of Gabriels suitcases are priceless gems.

Nobody is playing what Gabriel plays the way he plays it, says Tom Papa Ray, owner of Vintage Vinyl music stores. He is the heritage of St. Louis radio. Every single show is a history lesson in rhythm and blues, and he's the professor with first-hand knowledge.

Gabriel's entire 5-hour show is planned in advance. He marks each CD and cassette with a number, which corresponds to a playlist held in the plastic sleeves of a large powder blue three-ring binder, the vinyl peeling back from the edges.

He only plays music out of his own collection. While KDHX has a large and varied music library, it pales in comparison to Gabriel's, which dates back to the 1920s and includes approximately 50,000 records, tapes and CDs.

During breaks, the portly man rolls up the sleeves of his blue and black flannel shirt and shuffles over to the suitcases, the cuffs of his faded black denim pants stopping at the tops of his dusty wingtips with worn soft rubber soles.

He flips through his tapes looking for some song that probably only he could remember. Gabriel has spent the better part of the past three years transferring his old vinyl sides to the computer so he can burn them onto CDs, which are easier for him to carry.

Back in the day, I would have four or five of those suitcases filled up with 45's, 78's and everything you can imagine, Gabriel says. That was like movin' your whole house.

The Dinosaur Age

This suitcase DJ system has been with Gabriel as long as he's been on the air. And hes been on the air a long, long time.

In more than a half-century filling the night-time airwaves, he's done overnight stints at a handful of radio stations, most notably KATZ (1600 AM) from 1959 to 1970.

Richard Miller, now chairman of Truman Bank, used to own KADI and KXOW, Gabriels competition. Miller recalls Gabriel's show on KATZ when it was midnight to 6 a.m. six nights a week.

He was a guy who could get to the guts of a community and really make them listen, Miller says. He always played the really good blues, you know? He was very much off the wall. He would take phone calls from people and just talk music all night. He worked in a little double entendre, not real racy stuff, but classy and funny the way they used to do it. There was no script. It was all ad-libbed.

Through the years, Gabriel came to know many of the musical greats. Heck, he grew up with some of them. Born in Louisiana, Gabriel attended Lincoln High School in East St. Louis at the same time as Miles Davis. Gabriel was buddies with Davis brother, Vernon Davis, and the two played in school bands together. Gabriel, by the way, was a trumpet and pedal steel guitar player.

Gabriel has hung out with Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and rock and roll godfather Chuck Berry. A buddy of another blues and rock elder, Ike Turner, Gabriel occasionally mentions on air that he used to shuttle Turners ex-wife, Tina Turner, to gigs because Ike trusted Gabriel not to make a pass at her.

Gabriel recorded and sold music as well, including a 1960s recording of the blues tune The Buzzard Lope, a little story about going to the house of doom to pick up welfare stamps.

I cut eight or nine records and none of them did any good, Gabriel says. I hooked up with Ike Turner for a while and that didn't work out either.

He ran a record store called the House Of The Blues in St. Louis where he sold nothing but blues and gospel music. He owned part of the old Majestic Theater in East St. Louis, but problems with his business partner cost him more than $20,000 in the deal, a financial debacle from which he says he's never quite recovered.

The first mistake I made was opening the thing up with a convicted felon, Gabriel says. He couldn't get a license, so I put up all the money for it. The thing went belly up, and they're still sending me bills. Now that place is on the registry of historic buildings. Who was the idiot there? Poor, dumb me.

As long as he's been around, and as many people who know him, there are a few things nobody knows about Gabriel - or if they know, they're not saying.

For example, whats Gabriel's last name?

I'll let him tell you that, Miller says. Hes a private man.

Gabriels not telling.

And how old is he?

I'm guessing he's in his mid-70s, says Bev Hacker, KDHX station manager.

On the question of age, Gabriel will only say, I've been around since dinosaurs walked the streets of St.

Creatures of the night

For a creature of the night such as Gabriel, the mystery works.

Folklore is a part of the blues, stories that may not be 100 percent accurate, leave out a detail here or there but create a fiction thats truer than truth. In that way, Gabriel is KDHX's balladeer. His one name and singular voice guide the regular after-midnight howlers and prowlers through the darkness. His listeners are a small but loyal crowd. Some are graveyard shifters at factories and businesses. Later in the night, there are early-morning folks, bakers and grocery workers getting ready for a long day.

There is Bobbie from Troy, Mo., who celebrated her 90th birthday in September. Gabriel played her favorite, James Cotten, to mark the occasion. There is James from St. Louis, who calls in five or six times a night. There's Don the Paperman, the newspaper carrier.

A semi-truck driver who runs a regular route to Kansas City, Mo., every Sunday night picks up Gabriel just west of Springfield, Ill., and listens to him until he loses the KDHX signal in the hills before Columbia, Mo. The driver sent in a donation during the fall pledge drive because Gabriels show keeps him going.

Joel the Cabdriver actually played an instrumental role in keeping Gabriel on the air. A while back, Gabriel's car broke down, and he was'nt going to be able to make it from his East St. Louis home to KDHXs studio at the corner of Magnolia and Arkansas avenues in the South Grand neighborhood. Joel, a loyal listener, offered to pick Gabriel up and drive him to the show until he got his car fixed.

With KDHX broadcasting on the Internet, people from all over the globe call and write Gabriel. He regularly gets calls from Brooklyn, N.Y., Lawrence, Kan., and even Germany and London.

Yes sir, we are worldwide, Gabriel says with a grin. It's nice to be known. Of course, its not the kind of thing you can't take to Schnucks and buy a plate of sausage with.

Call to talk music

All KDHX on-air talent are unpaid volunteers. With Gabriel's connections in the music community, he could probably get a paying job on a commercial radio station. He refuses.

I won't play the rap crap, he says. I don't even know what that Nelly is talking about. Who is this guy anyway? I'd rather play Memphis Slim or Roy Acuff. These men are singing about being so poor they can't afford to take a bath. Now I know what they're talking about.

Gabriel more than plays the blues. He lives them. After the financial meltdown with his theater and record store, Gabriel says he lives off his monthly Social Security check for income. His wife, he says, left him some time ago.

I'm a bitch on wheels to know, Gabriel says. Don't nobody get along with me for too long. When she left, I just said, OK, I'll miss you but leave the keys to the refrigerator. As you can see, - he rubs his round belly - she did.

On the subject of family, Gabriel is as enigmatic and evasive as he is about his age and last name. He says only that he lives alone in East St. Louis.

A lifetime of listening to music live or with headphones matted to his ears has taken a toll on his hearing. Gabriel has nerve deafness in both ears. With the help of a large hearing aid in his left ear, he can work manageable conversations and still hear his beloved blues.

You can be speaking the Kings English as proper as you please, but it just sounds like mumbling to me, he says.

With this handicap, Gabriel needs a little help with the show, someone to answer the phone calls, check the weather forecasts and make sure the music is playing properly over the air.

The job used to fall to Gabriels former wife. About a decade ago, however, she needed surgery on one of her feet. Gabriel enlisted the help of Dennis Brannaker, a former cab driver who listened to Gabriel on KATZ while working overnight shifts for Victory Cab Co.

He gave me my introduction to the blues, Brannaker says. He taught me to speak a whole new language.

Brannaker met Gabriel at a KDHX function in the early 1990s. He liked the old DJ so much he brought him doughnuts a couple of times, which, of course, Gabriel liked. When Gabriels wife needed surgery, he invited Brannaker to fill in for her and eventually the gig became his every Monday morning.

Brannaker's role is essential. Gabriel plays little games with his listeners, tricks really. He asks them to call in and tell him who is singing a particular song. His followers, such as James from St. Louis, almost always cause the little yellow light bulb on the control board to flash.

Gabriel tries to stump them. One evening, he plays a version of Amazing Grace sung by a very soulful female singer. Brannaker takes the calls and writes down the name of the caller and his or her guess on a sheet of scratch paper. He hands it across the control board to Gabriel. No one guesses the Amazing Grace vocalist.

You don't recognize Gladys Knight? Gabriel chides the listeners. Come on now, friends, how do you not recognize Gladys Knight?

Gabriel launches into a story about a piano player in Chicago who froze to death. Gabriel's mind freezes, too, and he can't remember the pianists name. The yellow light bulb flashes. Its James from St. Louis. The piano players name was Avery Paris.

It's like this giant sounding board, Brannaker muses. You put a few sentences out there and it comes back to you instantly.

The amazing part of the calls, though, is that the listeners call in not to get their names in a drawing for a big cash prize or to win a free CD or tickets to a concert. They call in to talk music. They tend to say only a few words to Brannaker and get back to listening, not wanting to miss what Gabriel might play or say next.

Plight of the downtrodden

And, oh, the things Gabriel says.

Watching him work is like watching fizzy soda pop being poured into a glass of ice. Idea after idea just bubbles up to the top and eventually spills right out into the microphone.

From time to time, the old school Gabriel struggles to get the newfangled KDHX equipment to follow his whims.

Well, I pressed the button and the little man didn't go, he says. He's asleep at the switch. Now I know you people think that these CD players work on transistors. Well, I'm here to tell you there aint no transistors. Theres a little man in that box and when you press the button, he's supposed to get the music goin. Sometimes he's asleep. Let's see if we can wake up the little man this time.

Gabriel presses the button. The music doesn't play. He looks deadpan at Brannaker. Dennis, set phasers to stun. It's gonna be one of those nights.

Brannaker is one of Gabriels favorite on-air foils. He teases his message taker about the quality of his penmanship and the accuracy of his accounts. Gabriel puts out a call to listeners to get the date of Ray Charles death. The calls come in saying it was either June 10 or July 10. (It was June 10.)

Gabriel looks at the conflicting messages. Dennis, I'm glad youre not the one taking the call from the governor at the prison for the reprieve because if you were, that poor soul would be gone.

The DJ laments strange trends to his listeners.

Friends, I never thought I would live long enough to see Cadillac make a truck, he says. They need that big space in the back to mount a .50 caliber machine gun on there so nobody will take it away from you.

Often, Gabriel empathizes with the plight of the downtrodden and troubled. A listener calls in and asks if Gabriel will put in a plug for blind veterans who need assistance. He does and adds, You know, I would'nt be president long. If I were president, I would up the money for the veterans. I would up the money for the blind. And the people with Cadillac trucks would have to get their own. Nope, I wouldnt be president long.

But Gabriel never gets into serious politics. He seldom dwells on one topic for more than a few minutes. For him, and his listeners, its always about the music.

Let's get back to the blues, ladies and gentlemen, he says. Here's a little something for you. Let's see if you recognize it. Let's see if you like it. Youd better. Cause if Gabriel aint playin' it, nobody is playin' it.

He hits the button.

And the little man goes.

 -- Back to top --
 Live Music Calendar | Send Blues News | © STLBlues 2000 | Privacy Policy