It’s been 40 years since Steve Cushing launched “Blues Before Sunrise,” the five-hour weekly public-radio showcase for vintage blues, R&B and gospel recordings spanning the 1920s through the ’60s. Fortunately for all of us, he’s still at it.
“Chicago is still the world capital of the blues and ‘Blues Before Sunrise’ is one reason why,” said Dan Bindert, station manager of College of DuPage’s WDCB 90.9-FM, which airs the show Saturday nights from midnight to 5 a.m. “It’s incredible that Steve’s been keeping blues fans up all night with his incredible trip into the rich cultural legacy of the blues for 40 years.”
Bindert attributes the popularity and longevity of the show to its host’s “excellent taste and amazing record collection,” which Cushing began amassing just after graduating from Proviso East High School.
“I watched my mentor Dick Buckley work and have fun far past retirement age and can easily see myself doing the same thing,” Cushing, 68, told me. “What’s been weird is that over the past couple of decades the alternate musics — jazz, blues, folk — which were a staple of public radio’s early days, are no longer on its menu.
“The reason my program still survives is that it’s available for free. Most public radio programming is so expensive that after buying the popular packages — ‘Morning Edition,’ ‘All Things Considered,’ ‘This American Life,’ ‘1A’ — many stations have little or no budget left and have to fill in their schedule with whatever’s cheap or free. And that’s ‘Blues Before Sunrise.’”
Despite Cushing’s humble assessment, he’s been hailed as a “veritable Chicago institution” for the labor of love he started in 1980 at Chicago Public Media WBEZ 91.5-FM. Since 2007 it’s been airing on WDCB. It’s also heard on 25 other public radio stations nationwide.
Cushing recently began hosting a new show, “Jazz Oasis,” following “Blues Before Sunrise” from 5 to 6 a.m. Sundays on WDCB. It focuses on mainstream and bebop jazz from 1946 to 1964.
He also is the author of three books based on his many interviews over the years. The latest, Blues Before Sunrise 2: Interviews from the Chicago Scene, was published in November by University of Illinois Press.
Added Bindert: “As a night owl myself, I love that we have a great historian like Steve sharing rare blues records with our audience in a timeslot almost every other station considers a throwaway. I hope one day to get to bed before 5 a.m. on a Saturday night, but it’s even less likely to happen now since Steve added an hour of jazz from 5 to 6 a.m.”
Wednesday’s comment of the day: Mike Braden: The three-headed monster of racism and hatred and violence needs to be slain. But turning off the cameras won’t do that; it’ll only make it worse.