Steve Cushing’s long-running radio program remains a singular and imperative cultural exploration of America’s blues heritage
By Avery Gregurich
“What is an algorithm?” Steve Cushing asked me, genuinely. It’s a relevant question for all of us, but especially Cushing. He’s the longtime host, producer, and DJ of the radio program Blues Before Sunrise, the landmark broadcast that has served as a soundtrack for the night shift, bar close, can’t-sleep crowd on Saturday nights for forty years. And algorithms, well, they are trying to take his job.
I said something vague about how I think Spotify and YouTube work, getting neither of us closer to a clearer understanding of algorithms. What I do know for certain is this: whatever an algorithm is, and however it works to mechanically fill playlists and recommend music to us all, Steve Cushing is its absolute antithesis.
Every week for the past four decades—first from WBEZ in Chicago, now from his dining room table in Manistee, Michigan—Cushing records five hours of music put out somewhere between 1900 and 1965. These recordings are broadcast on public radio stations across the country on Saturday nights from the hours of midnight to five a.m, offering large doses of rare pre-war recordings, along with traditional blues, big band, gospel, and R&B records.
I started listening to the program back in college. When the second shift at the grocery store was over on Saturday nights, Cushing always seemed to be waiting for me in my car. Over the years, I’ve continued to find him, and I always wondered about the voice on the other end of that radio dial. I wanted to know what had kept him going all these years, and most of all, I wanted to talk about his record collection. I called him up a few weeks ago and asked about both.
He didn’t much want to talk about himself in a traditional sense: in many ways, the story of the show is Cushing’s own story. In the place of personal details, he often offered up the very history of recorded music in America instead. Like how the shortage of shellac during World War II led to the gap in recorded music that has always shaped the timeline of his show into two groups: pre-war and post-war. And how most of the early record labels were run by furniture makers who needed music in order to sell their record cabinets.
Cushing is part anthropologist, part discographer, and wholly a singular blues radio DJ. He estimates that every program consists of between eighty and ninety records, which is just a fraction of the ten or twelve thousand in his house. He is surrounded by stacks of them. Every program he records creates a stack, and each stack represents the playlist of someone else’s Saturday night. Meanwhile, Cushing himself sits alone at his dining room table, spinning records and talking to imagined listeners, wondering if anyone is even still awake.
Cushing grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but his interest in blues music didn’t start until he was a teenager. “I don’t know if you’re aware of the history of Fleetwood Mac, but they used to be a blues band, and then they became a rock band. I discovered Fleetwood Mac—I heard it on the radio when I was in high school, a thing called “Albatross,” Cushing told me. “So I bought Fleetwood Mac just thinking it was a different kind of rock and roll, and then I realized that there was blues out there and I started buying blues.” (Their song “Albatross” has been the closing track on Blues Before Sunrise ever since.)
His serious record collecting started at Val’s halla Records in Oak Park, Illinois, where he grew up, but it didn’t have many blues records. The owner, Val Camilletti, pointed Cushing downtown to the corner of State and Grand, where the legendary Jazz Record Mart stood. It was the epicenter of the Chicago blues scene in the ‘70s. “Bob Koester owned Jazz Record Mart. He also owned Delmark Records, a jazz and blues label. His shipping clerk was Bruce Iglauer, who now runs Alligator Records. I met a couple of their friends, a married couple at the time, Jim and Amy O’Neal, who started Living Blues Magazine,” Cushing said. “And in meeting those people, I wondered what it was I could do to make a living at the blues. I decided what I’d like to do is become a disc jockey.”
He went to Columbia College in Chicago and took all the radio classes they offered, and later got his first radio job at the Triton College station. Three years later, he was hired as a fulltime engineer at WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, operating the boards for talk shows and for other disc jockeys, including his idol and mentor, Dick Buckley. Cushing has attempted throughout his career to emulate Buckley’s casual presentation style, presenting the songs as worthwhile entertainment and not merely a kind of kitsch. “He was just a guy playing records and let you sit in with him,” Cushing explained.
That style has been crucial to Blues Before Sunrise’s longevity and its influence. The show’s charm lies largely in Cushing’s near encyclopedic knowledge of the music and his personal collection of obscure records, but finding the show at all is sort of a miracle in itself, especially now. Manually tuning in a radio station in the late hours of Saturday night feels kind of like an act of defiance. While Cushing does maintain a personal archive of the shows, and a website, there are very few accessible hours of the program scattered across the web, and the site simply states each show’s setlist and nothing else.
In our conversations, Cushing urged me not to romanticize his work. He considers Blues Before Sunrise first and foremost a radio show that just happens to have been on the air for forty years.“I’ve just figured that I know right away, with the music I play, that I lose–I would say like ninety-eight percent of the general public around the world,” he said. “But I’m just trying to do a good enough job and find records that people would like, that catch their ear.”
In the early ‘70s, when Cushing was first starting out in his radio career, he was also going to see blues bands play all across the city, and especially on the South and West sides. Cushing is white, and he said the only other white people who were going to these shows at the time were musicians. “So they asked me if I was a musician, if I wanted to play. I played drums throughout grade school, and so, when they asked if I wanted to come up and sit in, I would go up and play,” he said. “When I was first out there, there weren’t many white guys playing. I was playing with Black veterans who took me under their wing.”
Over the next few decades, Cushing went on to play drums for, and produce records by, various bluesmen, including Magic Slim, Billy Boy Arnold, Smokey Smothers, Eddie Taylor, and Sunnyland Slim. In 1975, at twenty-two years old, after one of his sets with Magic Slim, Cushing was shot point blank in the stomach with a .38. “The doctor told me, ‘I don’t know why you are alive today.’ I spent a month in the hospital, five days in intensive care,” he told me. “Everything since then has been borrowed time.”
Cushing continued to work as a radio engineer during the day and an in-demand drummer at night. In 1980, he pitched a blues radio program to WBEZ. Within a few weeks, it was on the air. Blues Before Sunrise ran locally on WBEZ for ten years, with Cushing hosting the program live on Saturday nights into early Sunday mornings. He told me he got through the long nights by drinking bottles of Coca-Cola in the WBEZ studios, which were then located in the Clark Adams Building. “Sometimes I would record an hour of the program and put it on and just go up and sit and watch the city lights up on the roof,” he said.
He never took requests, but listeners would often call in and tell him to check out various overlooked and forgotten musicians, which would send him back to Koester’s Jazz Record Mart to try and find them for the next week’s show. He calls this the “golden age” of Blues Before Sunrise, during which he fielded calls largely from elderly Black listeners who had grown up with this music and hadn’t heard it on the radio in decades. Some were veteran blues players, like Blind John and Floyd McDaniel, who filled in details of the recordings and shared anecdotes about the musicians. Others were just listeners who happened to know the sometimes cryptic references in song lyrics. Cushing would jot down notes on record sleeves, and, to this day, he’ll reference those notes to share the information with listeners—a sort of loose oral history of early-twentieth-century blues.
Many of the local players at the time tuned in to the program after sets of their own. Dave Specter, a highly respected Chicago bluesman and longtime recording artist for Delmark Records, said he’s always viewed the show as a primer on the foundation of the blues. “[Cushing] would play things that myself and most other musicians maybe had never heard before—rare sides, obscure sides. And that was always one of the things that I liked. You’re like, ‘What is that?’ ‘Who’s that playing guitar?’ ‘Who’s singing?’” Specter said. “And I would learn about the artists from the show.”
Blues harmonica legend Billy Branch was playing the same clubs as Cushing at the time and listening to his radio show on Saturday nights. “I had great respect for his knowledge and his education. He was the only guy that you could readily get that knowledge from,” Branch said. “But I remember I’d call him up sometimes and I’d say, ‘Steve, play some of our stuff man.’ My issue was that there were so many of us that were active, and that I would have hoped that he would have played more of our music.”
I asked Steve why he’s chosen to never play anything recorded past 1965 on Blues Before Sunrise, given his time playing with, and even producing records for, many blues musicians who came later on. He says his response has always been the same: “Everybody who’s out there doing a blues show now, besides me, is playing your record. You’ve got eighty shows that are playing you, and I’m the one guy who is not. There needs to be a place, a home for traditional music that nobody else would want to play or is capable of playing because they don’t have the records.”
Contemporary blues musicians still turn to the program for education and inspiration. Ivy Ford, a Chicago blueswoman and multi-instrumentalist, finds the program at the end of long Saturday nights. “I listen to Blues Before Sunrise after a gig and I’m driving home at two or three in the morning, and having that there, it gives a sense of security and support in the craft that I do. Being a musician in that genre, there’s definitely a very endearing quality about it,” Ford says. “It kind of makes me feel like the universe is talking to you, saying like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right. This is who I am. I’m doing the right thing. This is what I’m meant to do.’”
Alligator Records’ recording artist Toronzo Cannon, an ascending blues guitarist, says he also tunes in when he’s trying to come down after shows. “The times where I had gigs, he was locked in on my radio. And this was even when I had satellite radio in my car. I still go to my terrestrial radio for him,” Cannon said. “He’ll play stuff that I don’t have. Then I’ll research it, you know, and check things out, and I might even steal a rhythm or two.”
Cannon said sometimes he holds up his cellphone to the speaker and turns on the Shazam app. “Sometimes it will give you that shoulder nod, like, ‘Hey I don’t know what that is!” he said, then laughed.
In 1990, NPR began broadcasting Blues Before Sunrise live across the country on Saturday nights, eventually reaching more than a hundred and twenty stations every weekend. Cushing left WBEZ as an engineer in 1997, taking the program with him and pursuing it as an independent production, and he’s continued to offer the program to public radio stations free of charge.
At some point, I asked Cushing an obvious question: has he ever gotten tired of the music? “To me, the greatest frustration is that I’m playing the same records that I’ve been playing for forty years….But then I have to convince myself: the average person—even if at some time during your life you are willing to sit up and listen to five hours of music and be sleep-deprived—when you start a real life, if you take a spouse and you have kids and you have a career, there’s gonna come a time when you can no longer do that,” he said. “So I’m thinking basically there’s a turnover…so you are not playing it for the four hundredth time for somebody.”
Cushing himself has never married. He says he’s taken his “fair public radio salary” and spent it all on his record collection. He lives alone with thousands of LPs, CDs, foreign imports, and volumes of discographies that tell him which musicians are playing on them. He also maintains his archive of Blues Before Sunrise shows. He developed a habit of saving everything in triplicate years ago, keeping a backup hard drive in the garage, and another in a friend’s house. He’d like to get a safety deposit box, but says “it’s sort of expensive.”
“If I ever have a fire, I may lose all my records, but at least I would preserve the interviews and the archive of programmings to this point,” he said. (The interviews he’s talking about are nearly hundred and twenty interviews he’s conducted over the last forty-plus years, some of which have been collected and published as three books by the University of Illinois Press. They feature blues archivists, collectors, and blues musicians. His interviews are far-reaching, highly detailed, and, for many of their subjects, the definitive biographies and summaries of their careers.)
The number of shows in Cushing’s archives add up to more than eleven thousand. You could listen nonstop for eight months and never repeat a show. Their final destination is still being decided. He’d like SiriusXM Radio to take a look and see if they would be interested in devoting a channel to the archives. He says it might be nice to “make some money for the first time in twenty years” from the program.
Either way, he’s certain that he doesn’t want the show’s archives, or his record collection, to end up in a library somewhere. “I’m just going to leave it to my best friends. They can get busy on eBay selling [the records] to other collectors. So while it was like a composite body, now it will just be particles of nutrition going to other collections.”
“It’s really hard to figure what happens to this stuff,” he said, and paused. “It’s just like for a short moment in the timeline, all this music is together. Then it’s gone with the wind.”
In 2013, Cushing moved from Chicago to Manistee, Michigan. At sixty-eight, he swims every day. Part of the reason he moved to Manistee was because it had an Olympic-sized swimming pool in town. He told me these days he’s swimming faster than he ever has in his life. And, for the first time in that life, he’s also digging into jazz. “Here I am, close to seventy, discovering all these new people. It’s been a brand new world for me because people who’ve been listening to jazz all their life already know this stuff,” Cushing said. “There’s not so much left for me to explore in the world of blues, but I love to go out on the open highway and drive and listen to modern jazz.”
That new exploration has turned into another hour of radio, which on most public radio stations follows Blues Before Sunrise. He’s calling it Jazz Oasis, and hopes more stations pick it up. Cushing can’t imagine a time when he won’t be working on Blues Before Sunrise, though. He nods his head to Dick Buckley again in explaining his plans moving forward. “I watched [Buckley] do his program way beyond retirement age. As long as he could keep a train of thought and patter between records, he would do the show,” Cushing said. “If there’s a place for it, as long as I’m lucid and still can talk, I can see myself doing it if there’s any demand at all.”
I asked Cushing how he saw his work, the project of presenting and broadcasting music that is in some cases a century old. He paused a moment, then came up with a comparison involving the final scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “When the whole King’s complex is falling apart, and the guy in chain mail and a hood holds up his hand to say goodbye, basically that’s me, the Knight Templar there in chain mail,” he said, then let out a laugh. “This has been my mission and I’ve done it till the end. It only lasts as long as it lasts.” ■
Avery Gregurich is a writer living and working in Marengo, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River, and has never strayed far from it.
Cover photo: The house band for the Blues Harmonica Summit at the B.L.U.E.S. club on the northside of Chicago in the early 1980s. Pictured: Steve Cushing on the left playing the drums, Eddie “The Big Town Playboy” at the center playing the guitar, and Ken Pickens on bass at the right. Image courtesy Steve Cushing.
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