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Forty years of digging with Scott Wallace and Doug Curry

Scott Wallace, standing, and Doug Curry in the WRUR studio.
Jeff Spevak
Scott Wallace, standing, and Doug Curry in the WRUR studio.

Doug Curry looks back at the four decades during which he and Scott Wallace have created their ultra-cool soul, R&B and blues soundtrack, and finds one true explanation as to how it happened.

“Accidents based on things,” Curry says, “that unintentionally have been preparation.”

This six-hour-long accident opens each Friday at 6 p.m. on WRUR-FM (88.5) with Wallace and his show “Rejuvenation,” three hours of soul and R&B. Curry follows from 9 p.m. to midnight with “Blacks and Blues,” three hours of blues.

Forty years. That’s call for a party Saturday at The Little Theatre. It starts at 6:30 p.m. with music by the Rochester band Sons of Monk, followed by a 7:30 p.m. showing of the 1975 Motown-driven, coming-of-age flick “Cooley High.”

And after the film, Curry and Wallace will take your questions about the film, the music they love – and, if Curry has his way, maybe a baseball question or two.

“I think most people who love music,” Curry says, “if the opportunity kind of fell in their lap — you know, you could actually go on the radio and talk about the music you love — they’d probably do it. If they could get the nerve up, they’d probably do it.”

The nerve of these guys, to have a job that they actually love.

Actually, they do have “real” jobs. By day, Wallace is a letter carrier. Curry is a car salesman. Neither thought that the radio jobs were anything but temporary when they were joining the student-run WRUR, on the University of Rochester campus, as fill-in deejays. In fact, they really weren’t even aware of each other when they started broadcasting: Curry in October 1982, Wallace in February 1983.

That anchor of Black music on Friday evenings, was no accident for either man. “Music was deep-seated in the place where we lived,” Curry says. “You couldn’t help but hear music in Harlem.”

In fact, Curry traces his first memories of hearing music back to when he was 3 years old. And even, “I can remember singing when I was 3.”

The family moved to the Bronx when he was 9, and other interests worked their way into his life. Curry saw his first baseball game in 1962, the Mets at the Polo Grounds.

As a high-school player, he earned All-Bronx honors as a first baseman and All-City second team as a pitcher. Good enough for the Mets, who invited the then-18-year-old Curry to their new home, Shea Stadium, for a tryout. Curry remembers standing in center field, looking up, up, up into the stands behind home plate, and thinking: “Wow, Willie Mays runs around here, Curt Flood runs around here.”

The Mets moved on without Curry, although he still watches baseball on television — but with the sound turned down. He’s not into the superlatives heaped upon today’s players and their super-heated stats. “These guys aren’t DiMaggio and Mays,” he grumps.

Instead, Curry went on to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. That’s where he first began doing radio. His move to Rochester in 1975 was to continue his education. And another shot at radio.

Along with a move to the WXXI building on State Street, their shows have evolved over the years. Curry says Blacks & Blues used to be “more informational. Now it’s more conversational.” And sometimes connected to events. “This record was made on this date,” Curry says, “but that was two weeks after Martin Luther King got killed, so that’s why you hear what you hear.’”

Curry sees music as social history. It’s why he draws so much of the music of his show from the 1940s and ’50s.

“This music stopped being what it was with integration,” he says. “Once integration happened, then the bedrock of the blues was wearing away. This music is about living in a certain way, in a certain place, in a certain time. And that certain place and time and way of living disappeared, gradually.

“Or so people thought. Hip-hop said, ‘No, it’s still here...’”

Writing became an interest. In 2007, Curry began doing feature stories for CITY Newspaper. He was writing poetry as well, reading his work at open mics. And acting, in shows at Blackfriars and the Multi-use Community Cultural Center. “It’s all part of the same continuum,” he says.

That continuum is the arts.

And continuum is exploration. In that, Curry calls Wallace “an absolute professor.”

“I’m easily bored,” Wallace says. “Rejuvenation,” he says, is that exploration. Not only in music, but the history of music.

“Some interesting little tidbit about a song will reboot my interest,” he says.

Growing up, Wallace was a Navy brat, moving around the country, wherever his father was based. For much of that time, it was Elmira. There was always music around. As with Curry, the foundation of Black music was laid early, from listening to his transistor radio or his father’s record collection. Or following an uncle to a nearby bar, where Wallace and his cousin would drink orange soda and listen to the jukebox.

When his father retired in 1969, the family settled in Rochester. But it wasn’t until a dozen years later that Wallace’s reading of sports news during his first couple of months at WRUR led to “Rejuvenation.”

“Finding my way took 20 years,” he admits. Whether “unintentional preparation” or its brother, “pure luck,” Wallace did pick up quickly on one thing. “Within a few weeks, somewhere along the line, I realized Doug’s doing the blues, I don’t need to touch that stuff.”

So on a recent show, Wallace played Timmy Smith’s “I’m Willing to Love You.” On the old Starville label out of Chicago, as Wallace informed his listeners; crediting a forgotten label is part of being an absolute professor of R&B and soul.

And there was The Sweet Three, with “Big Lovers Come in Small Packages.” And Willie West’s “It’s Been So Long.” Decca Records. Wallace blames himself for not having aired that one sooner. It was on the flip side of another 45 rpm he’d been playing, “Said to Myself.”

“For whatever reason, I just never flipped it over,” he says.

Exploration is in Wallace’s soul. Even as a reflection of the most trying of times. His son, Aaron, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. “It was a hard thing because his care was so incredibly intense,” Wallace says. “We had, like, a mini-ICU in the house. And nursing care as it went on.

“For six years, you sleep with one eye open. If you sleep at all.”

Aaron died from complications of the disease in 2014. He was 27. Wallace’s response was to do a yearly show that he calls “The Angel Show.” All three hours are songs he’s never played.

So going deep into the music is what Curry and Wallace do. “These songs are in my head a lot,” Wallace says, “so probably to me what is old hat is completely new to a regular listener.

“One year, on one show I said, ‘I’m gonna do a show and I’m going to pick stuff that I’ve completely passed over for years.’ These may not be the top tier, but it made for a pretty good show.”

He’ll have a song in mind for weeks. Months even. “A great song may not fit that night,” he says. “It might take me six months to find a spot where I can fit it in.”

And yet, “Obscure is not the point,” he says. “How can you make it fit into a show?”

Early on, both “Rejuvenation” and “Blacks & Blues” established a few signposts as well. Wallace opens “Rejuvenation” with a riff from Kool & the Gang. Curry starts with Wynonie Harris’ “Mr. Blues is Comin’ to Town” and closes with Ray Charles. But it’s a lesser-known Charles, the instrumental “Ray’s Blues.”

Between those signature moments is music as accident, based on things that unintentionally have been preparation.

“I didn’t want to go in and play your golden oldies, and do that every week. That would just bore the living hell out of me,” Wallace says. “So it was always about trying to go super deep, with the people that I know, and people that most regular listeners would know. And then, of course, the fun was really trying to find the obscure stuff. That’s a bottomless pit right there, when you do something like that.

“And 40 years in, I’m still finding stuff I never heard of.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.