of the ‘50s,
by Bill Cherry
Bill “Rascal” McCaskill,
Conducts His “Night Train” Once More
can’t have lived in this area for too long without at least knowing
that today the reigning deans of Houston
disc jockeys are Paul Berlin and Skipper Lee Frazier. But it wasn’t
always that way.
It was 1954,
and in Baytown,
a new disc jockey arrived at a somewhat small, sleepy and nondescript
AM station on Decker Drive. The call letters back then were KREL-AM,
and the stations’ power was a mere 1,000 watts.
Just to put things in prospective, Houston’s
big KTRH runs 50,000 watts, 24 hours a day. The more the watts,
the further distance the station’s signal can be heard.
The new KREL
disc jockey’s name was Bill “Rascal” McCaskill, and for the next
several years he brought notoriety to Baytown
the likes of which that city hadn’t seen before and some are quickly
willing to testify that it hasn’t seen since. And he turned conventional
radio programming in Houston
Photo courtesy Bill Cherry
took over the evening shift at KREL with a program he brought to
it and that he called “Night Train,” and rather than use a play
list of Jo Stafford, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Dinah Shore like
most of the other radio stations were using back then, he played
Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Wee Willie Wayne, the Clovers, the Five
Satins, and even Johnny Ace and Roy Hamilton.
It was the first time in this area that the blues music of the black
culture was programmed to white teenagers. And, boy, did they respond.
kids within the Gulf
Coast signal area of KREL from Galveston
to Houston to Lufkin,
joined the ranks of the rabidly loyal Rascal McCaskill listening
audience. What was going on at KREL was spreading with the same
wildfire at the huge Nashville station, WLAC, by its own soon to
be legend, Gene Nobles and his sponsor, Randy’s Record Shop.
was an anomaly, really, because McCaskill, an Eagle Scout before
he was 16, mixed his scout values to counteract the somewhat sexually
suggestive blues tunes that he played, like “Annie Had a Baby,”
and the song of a Russian roulette victim, Johnny Ace, “Pledging
His radio audience even went through the meeting and the courtship
and the marriage on February 26, 1955 of Rascal McCaskill to Jerry,
who was known to listeners as “Blond Top,” and who was always by
his side. They are still a couple today, close to 50 years later.
and Jerry 1955
Photo courtesy Bill Cherry
records McCaskill squeezed in advice on how to solve a particular
boyfriend problem, how important homework and studying were, and
the reading on the air of hundreds upon hundreds of postcards from
listeners wanting McCaskill to dedicate special songs to their “someone.”
In fact the speculation is, and it’s probably on the low side, that
through the life of “Night Train,” more than 100,000 request postcards
were sent in by listeners. It was so overwhelming that KREL had
to hire a couple of students to come in after school to sort the
mail and have it ready when McCaskill got there just before 7.
Every time the 1957 graduating class of Baytown’s Robert E. Lee
gathers for a class reunion, they honor the life of McCaskill, their
longtime celebrity hero, too. They put Rascal McCaskill on stage
in front of a mike and between turntables to recreate “Night Train.”
That’s when he cranks up the baritone sax solo version of “Night
Train,” his theme song of 53 years ago.
doing Night Train at Baytown Robert E. Lee High School Class of 1957
50th Reunion Photo courtesy Bill Cherry
He speaks his
first words, the theme song now playing in the background. And that’s
when McCaskill’s normally very deep south regional dialectal conversational
voice magically vanishes and his wonderful mid-west accent and resonant,
self-assured radio voice takes it place again.
And then various
members of the Class of ‘57, donned in costumes, “perform” a few
of the first songs Rascal plays by lip syncing them on stage. Everyone
laughs and pokes fun. Then it’s time to get serious and dance.
when it never fails. Tears well up in the eyes of the class of ‘57,
as they go to the dance floor to relive those days when their whole
lives were in front of them. And for the rest of the evening, they
dance to the very same tunes that they did back then when they’d
jam the small KREL studio while McCaskill was on the air.
Photo courtesy Bill Cherry
past 30 years or so, Rascal and Jerry McCaskill have owned and operated
Victoria’s Putt-Putt golf course.
However, throughout the years McCaskill has witnessed undying expressions
of admiration from former listeners that began when his “Night Train”
program first aired on KREL. And while other disc jockeys in the
Houston market have come and gone, barely remembered by a handful,
McCaskill, along with Berlin and Frazier, has easily stood the test
fan Barry Lancaster says he thinks it’s because along with his music,
McCaskill always reminded his listeners that he expected them to
be level-headed and have good moral values and to be good citizens.
Long ago, Steve O’Donohoe, one of the ministers at Clear Lake’s
huge Grace Community Church, was a young disc jockey at a Golden
Triangle station. And I was once a DJ in the Galveston
market. We confessed to each other that we did everything we could
back then to mimic the radio voice of Rascal McCaskill. We were
sure that was the key to earning and having radio fame. We still
think it is.