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The Sound of State College in a Simpler Time

by on May 30, 2019 5:00 AM

Much like last summer, it seems like it is raining every day here. The ducks are happy (there are probably two dozen ducklings in Millbrook Marsh right now), mosquitos are everywhere and our valleys and ridges are very green. By the time you finish weeding, new ones have popped up where you started.

Listening to the rain fall through open windows, youth’s memories in a long-passed Happy Valley era flooded the mind. It was a time of truly sleepy summer days and nights.

This past Sunday night, the song “Pick Up the Pieces” by the Average White Band triggered a flashback to 1980s Sunday afternoons listening to Qwik Rock. If you are of my vintage, you would recognize that song as the opening of a Sunday afternoon radio show featuring “The Witch Doctor.”  The Witch Doctor’s show was a few hours of music that was all labeled as “soul music.” This pre-dated the explosion of hip-hop, rap and R&B crossing into mainstream charts.

The Witch Doctor’s music was not found anywhere else on the radio in State College; a soulful oasis in a musical desert. In college, for many of our black Penn State football teammates it was must-listen radio, usually playing in the weight room for Sunday afternoon lifts.

The Witch Doctor’s trademark was his smooth opening and closing to “Pick up the Pieces,” when he would talk about the show and about life. This memorable rhythmic line remains in my brain; “Mercy, mercy, mercy it’s time for the good Witch Doctor…. The Witch Doctor is bringing you the music to make you snap your fingers and tap your feet, music that is coming at you with a soulful beat.”

So for a few hours each week we’d get to hear unique music. The other 160+ hours a week, Qwik Rock was strictly a rock station. But the Witch Doctor played artists like the Sugar Hill Gang, the Brothers Johnson and Earth Wind and Fire, and introduced us to the early days of Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Prince and countless others. Guys would wait with their radio/tape decks to record the shows so they’d capture the newest music. It seems hard to imagine in the era of on-demand music that getting to hear the latest songs required patience to tape it off the radio.

With just 13 or so television stations, radio was the soundtrack of our lives, a primary source of entertainment.

WMAJ, an AM radio station, was the home of Boogie Summer ’79. To celebrate Boogie Summer ‘79, it seemed that they played the song “Boogie Nights” on a nearly hourly cycle. We didn’t complain. There were giveaways to caller number eight, or 10 or 15. In an age of rotary phones, friends who got push-button phones first had a distinct advantage. One friend I’ll call “Mike” had a push-button phone technique to dial WMAJ that was world class.

Summer days were spent at the playgrounds either as part of the Centre Region Parks and Rec parks program or on our own organizing whiffle ball, kick ball or basketball games. We’d just yell, “Mom I’m headed to the park,” and hear in response, “Be back by dinner time.” My mom had a whistle she blew that was a 10 minute warning to get home in time for dinner. Another friend’s mom had a bell.

By the time we got to high school we knew Smithfield Park had a basketball half-court with a nine-foot rim. That meant epic 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 games where the saying “no autopsy, no foul” really meant something when you were on your way to dunk. Easterly Parkway’s full court had one regulation rim, and the other was 2 inches shorter. That meant fewer of us could dunk but we had to switch directions at the halfway point of every pick-up game so each team would have a turn shooting at the lower rim.

Those were the days of paper routes, or cutting grass. Money earned was spent at the Creamery, or at one of several downtown record stores (City Lights, Arboria, National Record Mart) or buying blank tapes at Paul and Tony’s Stereo to tape your friend’s album. A chunk of those earnings went into buying cheesesteaks or a super Italian Cosmo Sub at the downtown CC Peppers.

It was a simpler time when our vision of the world did not extend much further than the horizons of the ridges that line the valley we called home. But not knowing what we were missing, we happily rode our bikes around town, played in the parks and reveled in what we thought would be an eternal youthful innocence in Happy Valley.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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