Usually, midsized American cities invade the national musical landscape when several local acts share a “sound,” a fresh approach to pop music that is instantly recognizable. It’s the gritty soul of ‘60s Memphis, the outlaw county of ‘70s Austin, the sharp funk of ‘80s Minneapolis or the grunge of ‘90s Seattle. There is probably a beloved club where these acts play, and a legendary studio where they record, and a renegade college radio station broadcasting their songs to the public. All those things exist in Pittsburgh, too — The Mr. Roboto Project, Get Hip Records, WRCT-FM — but there is no “Pittsburgh Sound,” no imaginary place that exists only on the airwaves.
And yet Pittsburgh, the Mr. Magoo of American cities, occasionally upends everything for everyone in pop music, almost always without any ambition of doing so.
Like everywhere else, this region boasts its scattershot successes, from Donny Iris to The Clarks to Christina Aguilera, as well as a rich jazz history and underground scenes, but its truest musical legacy comes from people who didn’t play or record songs.
“Pittsburgh has always been a record town. The musicians didn’t come out of this town, but the DJs did,” said Justin Hopper, a local arts writer. He was offering context for a popular dance night he hosted in the early 2000s. On one of his frequent trips across the Atlantic, Hopper began exploring Northern Soul, an underground party scene in post-industrial England starting in the late-1960s where people danced all night to obscure American soul records. The most appealing characteristic of Northern Soul, for Hopper, was its lack of definition, or rather its tautology: records fit the Northern Soul aesthetic simply by being played at Northern Soul events; the authority of the DJ trumped all, giving the scene a slippery, hard-to-define quality that easily veered into elitism.
The movement saw revivals in New York and Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s, and Hopper brought it to Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. Soulcialism, as its name implied, sought to be both countercultural and communal. It took place at a stone-sided dive bar on the city’s boozy South Side. There was no dress code and no cover. “You can’t be elitist in Pittsburgh,” Hopper said. “You can, but you’ll be on your own.”
After Soulcialism faded, similar events popped up: Never Souled Out, Vipers Soul Club, Cashin’ In, The Big Throw Back, Title Town, Friday Nite Club, some lasting years, others fading quickly, all devoted to rarely heard soul and funk records purchased online, at garage sales, or at Jerry’s Records, a local vinyl emporium, but recorded decades earlier in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans. Wherever. “None of the records were made in Pittsburgh,” Hopper said. “They were played in Pittsburgh.” For that reason, Hopper sees this enduring local trend as the continuation of a tradition from a previous generation: the radio disc jockeys that created “Pittsburgh Oldies.”
The undisputed king of this class — “The Daddio of the Radio,” “The Platter Pushin’ Pappa,” “The Founder and Creator of the Oldies” — is Craig “Porky” Chedwick, who made a name for himself in the late 1940s by becoming the first white disc jockey east of the Rockies to play “race” records. “I was playing for Porky Chedwick, not an audience,” he told a local television station in 1989. “I was so certain this music was going to happen, I didn’t care if you listened or not. I knew it was going to happen.”
“It” is rock ‘n’ roll, and when it “happened” Chedwick became a gatekeeper. He played hits and rarities. His local dance parties attracted thousands of teenagers, and one possibly apocryphal event in 1961 was blamed for bringing downtown Pittsburgh to a standstill. The “Dusty Discs” compilations released by his long time employer WAMO-FM established his credentials as a first-rate curator: an artist at selecting, a tastemaker.
Because the times changed and the tunes didn’t, Chedwick went from being a rebel to a nostalgic icon (both compliments, around here). Alongside colleagues such as Mad Mike, Terry Lee and Chuck Brinkman, Chedwick pioneered the Oldies radio format that is only now losing its hold over the market, but he didn’t profit from it. Despite offers from larger markets and honors from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he never left Pittsburgh, save a brief retirement in Florida that didn’t take. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he stayed because he could do what he wanted here. Last year, at 93, Chedwick started a new weekly AM show, and when it didn’t get any sponsors after two months, he moved it to a doo-wop website called Pittsburgh Oldies Radio. The site triumphantly proclaims, “The sound they created will last forever,” but that “sound” wasn’t really created by Pittsburghers. It was more cobbled together by Pittsburghers.
Across town, but only a click away online, Gregg Gillis is flipping Chedwick’s career inside out. Under the stage name Girl Talk, Gillis jumbles the best moments from half a century of pop music into free albums of infectious songs and all-night dance parties. In “Smash Your Head,” his breakthrough piece, the Notorious B.I.G. raps over a sped-up “Tiny Dancer” to a beat from Nirvana. The result is greater than its parts, an anthem closing out the most uplifting movie never made. A decade into his career, Gillis made Pittsburgh lore in record time: while working as a biomedical engineer, he secretly trotted around the world on weekends playing sold-out shows that now pay his way.
Gillis didn’t invent the mash-up anymore than Chedwick invented radio patter, but, like Chedwick, his enthusiasm for the material made the form more enjoyable for listeners. Asked by the music website Pitchfork if he thought the pop hits he sampled were “cheesy” or “guilty pleasures” on their own, Gillis said, “I’m totally behind everything. Especially pop; it’s so sincere and up-front, making a song everyone’s going to enjoy. It’s impossible for me to hate on that.” The same love that once attracted Chedwick to un-cool B-Sides now attracts Girl Talk to un-cool A-Sides.
Like Chedwick, Girl Talk has stayed put despite his growing status. “If I moved to other places, it might be overwhelming in some aspects,” he told the Post-Gazette in 2009. “Pittsburgh is a good place to develop certain projects because you can kind of do your own thing without fear of stepping on anyone else’s turf or scene.”
That magnificent modesty and subversive sincerity appear in the city’s first musical star: Stephen Foster. A childhood in post-frontier Pittsburgh gave Foster access to river traffic from across the country, but denied him a formal education that may have molded his natural talent into a symphonic tradition. On his own, Foster essentially created popular music, merging hymns, European ballads, minstrelsy and plantation songs into simple tunes about love, home, joy and sadness that people liked singing. Of the more than 200 songs he wrote, the best hop every fence in American life: high and low art, white and black culture, northern and southern traditions, eastern establishment and freewheeling westward expansion. While his racial lyrics are cringe-worthy today, his musical tastes were indiscriminate, and in that respect, “Oh Susanna!” — a 21-year-old white northerner’s minstrel song about separated southern lovers that became an anthem for California prospectors — was the “Smash Your Head” of its day.
A songwriter before recorded music, the Foster “sound” appeared only on the page, as sheet music, or in amateur performances from parlors and street corners across the country. And because the songs wriggled so quickly into the American consciousness, his best-known work is as anonymous and free as folk music to many people today.
Although his star rose into the 1850s with “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” Foster’s continuous search for a profitable career in songwriting, and a creative cold streak, lead him away from Pittsburgh. Anachronistically speaking, he pulled an Andy Warhol during the Civil War, moving to New York City in 1860, but, unlike Warhol, the big city crushed his spirit. “It was an unwise move,” Fletcher Hodges, Jr., a biographer, wrote in 1938. “His was a personality that needed sympathetic, understanding family and friends — without them he was lost.” Foster died in Bellevue Hospital four years later, young, broke and alone.
Today, as always, a crop of young musicians aims to launch traditional careers from the Golden Triangle. With Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, Pittsburgh threw two rappers onto the charts last year, and many talented independent bands are nipping at the toes of popular culture as they build strong local followings. Their music is diverse, though, and unlikely to coalesce. And so the Pittsburgh Sound remains silent, just an idea: the sincere insistence that whatever song is loved the most will always sound the best.