Teddy Charles – A Personal Recollection

On hearing of the passing of vibraphonist Teddy Charles a few days ago, I thought back to the late ’90’s, when I worked for WPBX-FM (now WLIU), on Long Island’s East End; back in the days when it was an all-jazz station.

I was a few months into my tenure, hanging out with some of the other members of the on-air staff, when the discussion turned to difficult callers, some of whom were older jazz musicians who had settled out in the Hamptons. They could be a tough bunch, who didn’t suffer fools gladly, especially when it came to the music that they loved and had played for much of their lives.  The veteran guys agreed that the toughest of these cats was Teddy Charles. 

The stories bounced around the table about Mr. Charles’ calls to our listener line, each story more frightening than the last about Teddy’s profane criticisms of the musical selections, the on-air staff and the sanity of everyone involved with the station.  When I confess that I hadn’t encountered Charles yet, I was told, with a knowing grin, “Oh don’t worry, your turn will come”

A few months later, I was doing my Saturday night show.  I was closing out a three song set at the top of the hour with Dizzy’s Big Band version of Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’“, when the white light that signaled a phone call,  lit up. I answered; and a gravelly voice began this memorable exchange:

CALLER: ” I just wanna tell ya, that you’re playing some great shit tonight. I try to tell the rest of those idiots there what the music is all about, but they don’t listen to me, they’ve all got their heads up their asses, but you get it kid, so I wanna tell you to keep on doing what you do”

ME: “Well, thank you, sir; I’m glad that you like what you hear. What’s your name, friend?”

CALLER: Teddy Charles

ME (trying unsuccessfully to hide my surprise): “The Teddy Charles?”

CHARLES: “That’s right”

ME: “Well, sir; now I’m really honored to hear from you, I hear that you’re a fan of the station…”

CHARLES: “Well, I wouldn’t say I was a fan, most of you guys over there are idiots, but you and [another station personality] , are about the only ones who have a clue. I know I beat you guys up a lot, so I wanted to let you know when you get it right.

ME: “Well, Mr. Charles I really appreciate your call and the support…”

CHARLES: “No problem, now play some Mingus, will ya?” [Hangs up]

I had almost three hours to go in my shift at that point, but nothing else mattered.  I had faced the most ferocious lion in our listening audience and instead of biting my head off, he had purred.  During long sets throughout that night, I called some of my colleagues and the Program Director to tell them about my encounter. To a man, they were impressed. In fact, I seemed to go from “rookie” to “big dog”, in a few eyes, from that moment on.

I worked at the station for another three years. Though others spoke of their continuing encounters with the “Wrath of Ted”, I never heard from him again, though I heard from those who did speak with him, that he would occasionally hold my work up as an example, while berating them.

Not all of my conversations went as well during my tenure and I admit that time has washed away the details of many of them. But that one stuck and caused a smile to come to my face whenever I heard Teddy Charles’ name or some of his music.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Charles. You played some “great shit” too.

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