Soul mates

Boston Globe, October 23, 2005

Every Sunday morning from midnight to 2 a.m., sweet soul music seeps from an MIT campus basement into the city’s bedrooms, taxicabs, and prison cells, in a ritual of black Boston life that has gone on for years, even generations.

The songs are pure ballads, lush and syrupy as they want to be. You are my lady , croons Freddie Jackson. I’m giving you the best that I’ve got , Anita Baker answers. I could never repay your love , the Spinners testify. And Teddy Pendergrass the Teddy Bear, the Love Man simply suggests: Close the door .

Working the controls is a mountain of a man. He wears the regulation blue shirt of his day job driving an MBTA bus. Sweat glistens on his bald head and disappears into impressive cranial folds. The red light comes on. He leans into the mike and booms in a warm baritone: “Welcome to `Mellow Madness,’ baby boys and baby girls …”

P.J. Porter, who has broadcast for nearly three decades on all- volunteer WMBR (88.1 FM), is the Boston celebrity that few people know.

Together with his friend Re Antoine, who broadcasts Sundays from 10 p.m. to midnight, Porter has nurtured a space for R&B ballads also known as slow jams in a Boston radio landscape where black music is largely confined to the flavor-of-the-week playlists of commercial hip-hop stations.

Three generations of black Bostonians have grooved and more to Porter’s sounds.

“I get kidded a lot,” Porter says, chuckling. ” ` I got seven kids because of you! Why don’t you pay the child support? ’ And I say, `I didn’t tell you to listen to the radio! But I’m glad you enjoyed it!’ “

“To me he’s the Luther Vandross of the radio because he gives everyone that down-home feeling,” says Randy Parkman, of Revere. He’s wandered into the studio for a chance to meet Porter, whom he’s listened to since the ’70s.

“There’s nobody else like P.J. in Boston,” Parkman continues. “For 27 years, as a man of color, at an institution such as MIT, what he represents to the community ….”

Reaching behind bars

Reporting for work one day about five years ago at the MBTA Mattapan station, Niecey Hall was struck by the voice of a co- worker speaking at a pay phone. She felt sure the man was Porter, whom she had listened to as a teen with her mother, a devoted fan.

But when she approached him, he merely replied: “What are you talking about?” He went off to drive his bus. But Hall was undeterred.

“He drove the 28, and I was driving the 29,” Hall says. “So all the way up Blue Hill Avenue, every time he stopped I’d pull up next to him and say, `I know it’s you! I know it’s you!’ And he wouldn’t say anything. He just sat there and gave that jolly laugh of his.”

Even when Hall spotted his name on a piece of MBTA paperwork, Porter never ‘fessed up to his identity. But when she dropped by the studio one Saturday night, at loose ends and unable to sleep, he welcomed her warmly.

The funny, vivacious Hall soon became a regular, trading banter, delivering dedications, and helping to manage the sundry characters who take Porter up on his open-door policy.

She took charge of the phone the kind with push-button lights that flicker when a call is on hold, which is most of the time and the thick weekly stack of mail that comes mostly from prisons. Reading the dedications, she quickly realized how deep a role the show plays for couples, families, and friends separated by bars.

You’re the love of my life, my soul mate, everything I’m looking for in a woman. I love you and I will see you real soon.

To my main man, keep your head up. Know our friendship is as real as any friends can be. Keep the basketball league going. Stay strong.

Unit 111-1, to the guys who work in the South Bay library, send us girls some shout-outs!

“Everybody listened to P.J. Porter when I was in South Bay [jail],” says Glen Robinson, a once-notorious Boston hardhead who served time in the late 1990s and is now a street minister. “We used to make speakers out of toilet rolls so that everyone that didn’t have a Walkman could hear. P.J. and them used to uplift the whole community. It made you feel like somebody’s thinking about you.”

“Brothers couldn’t make it through the night without P.J. Porter,” adds rapper Main T, who served three years in the 1990s. “Brothers banging on the walls, `P.J.’s coming on.’ Dudes trying to have their girl shout them out on P.J.’s show, sounding all sexy behind that slow music. Brother had a bad day that day, definitely straighten him out.”

Porter and Antoine who gets his own impressive stack of prisoner mail know what they mean to the incarcerated and their loved ones. It’s part of what keeps them showing up for their unpaid late-night gig week after week, year after year.

“I think they really depend on us,” says Porter. “We’re the only station that will spend 25 minutes doing dedications. The dedications we receive in the mail, we actually open it up and read it. There are times when I will put calls live on the air. And I mean live, no seven-second delay because I’m afraid of what somebody might say.”

Rise and fall of slow jams

Porter (who didn’t want to be photographed head-on) and the more private Antoine (who broadcasts alone and prefered not to be photographed at all) are the products of a surge in progressive black radio that took hold in the ’70s in many urban markets, including Boston, before receding from all but a few.

The local dial buzzed with the broadcasts. R&B station WILD-AM (now an all-gospel station) went off the air at sundown. But in the evening, “The Ghetto” on MIT radio, “Red, Black and Green” at BU, “360 Degrees” at Brown, in Providence, and the Northeastern station WRBB offered blocks of black music and public affairs. Those shows are gone now.

“It was like the city was coming together,” Porter recalls. “I was driving a cab at the time. And I’m riding through the city and going, `Wow, I haven’t heard this song in a long time!’ And I said that’s what I want to do. I want to be the next guy in town.”

The shows drew inspiration from stations that redefined black radio in the 1970s none more so than WHUR, at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and New York’s black-owned, commercial WBLS. Both promoted discussion of social issues and an idea of black music that went well beyond the latest Motown hits.

In 1976, WHUR student Melvin Lindsay began an all-evening show devoted to slow jams. A Smokey Robinson composition, “Quiet Storm,” gave its name to both the broadcast and the all-ballad format it pioneered. Quiet Storm shows spread across black radio into the 1980s.

Then hip-hop’s meteoric rise changed the tastes of urban youth. And black stations faced mounting competitive pressures, often from white-owned “urban” stations. At college stations, the rise of new genres cut into Quiet Storm programming. Porter, who once had WMBR’s Saturday overnight to himself, was curtailed to just two hours, though some nights he goes longer.

But he isn’t complaining. The reduced hours only sharpen his sense of mission.

“Radio is all about what you can offer the listeners, not what you can get out of them,” Porter says. “Radio today … these hip- hop stations that are so into the community, what have they actually done for the community? Nothing!”

Carrying on

The decline of the Quiet Storm has left sweet ballads marooned amid the rising tide of songs with rawer lyrics and themes.

“The thing is, the brothers right now who work at UPS listen to hip-hop,” says Nelson George, author of “The Death of Rhythm & Blues” and other books on black popular culture. “The working-class black guy listens to hip-hop. Women, it’s the same thing. Despite all the things that are said, working-class girls don’t seem to be as put off by those aspects of hip-hop as people say they should be.”

The slow jam is far from dead. But it has gone through changes, says Murray Forman, a cultural critic at Northeastern University.

“One is the influence of a hip-hop aesthetic, including the ways that the groove swings and the inclusion of occasional rap breaks,” Forman says. “The other is the trend away from erotic, sensual themes toward a more fully realized sexuality that leaves less to the imagination. We’re losing the mature, adult come-ons of a Frankie Beverly and are left with the sexualized fantasies of R. Kelly.”

The slow jam audience is aging as well.

“The greater concentration of slow jam listeners is among middle- aged blacks,” Forman says. “This community is deeply engaged with the church, and the romantic themes of Marvin Gaye or Luther Vandross fit more easily with a religiously observant lifestyle. But today R. Kelly, among others, pushes it into another realm altogether.”

Porter and Antoine take pains to please their devoted, multi- generational audience by balancing classics and obscure tracks with new slow jams that meet their standards. They both loved Mariah Carey’s summer hit, “We Belong Together.” And Antoine has been pushing recent songs by Faith Evans and Lalah Hathaway, among others.

As grounded as they are in the past, the WMBR soul men know the point of their shows is not to fret over the music’s lost glory, but something more simple and real.

“Enjoyment,” says Porter. “As long as I know that I’m making someone happy, I’m happy.”

SIDEBAR: In the mood for love

Looking to create your own Quiet Storm? Take a listen to P.J. Porter’s five can’t-miss slow jams:

“One in a Million You” Larry Graham (1980)

“Cause I Love You” Lenny Williams (1978)

“This Must Be Heaven” BrainStorm (1977)

“Make up for Lost Time” The Montclairs (1993)

“Straight From the Heart” ConFunkShun (1981)