K&B. Schwegmann’s. Maison Blanche. As Benny Grunch would say, those places “ain’t dere no more.” But WTIX-FM 94.3 is still around, playing the music that on-air personality “Pal Al” Nassar describes as “the soundtrack of New Orleanians’ lives.”
Every Sunday evening, Nassar leads a live broadcast from the Treasure Chest Casino’s Caribbean Showroom, delighting guests with the songs they grew up with, especially those from local artists: Louis Prima, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe.
“Music is very powerful,” said Nassar. “This music makes people happy … sometimes it may even make them a little melancholy. But it takes them back to the good old days.”
On a recent Sunday evening, men and women crowded around small tables in the dimly-lit room, engaged in conversation. As soon as the familiar sounds of Fats Domino’s “I Want to Walk You Home” filled the air, couples scrambled to the dance floor. They smiled sweetly as they swayed back and forth, cheek-to-cheek.
“Where else can you dance to ‘Lipstick Traces’ by Benny Spellman, in public? Nowhere,” said Nassar, who has been producing the Sunday Night Oldies Show for nearly five years.
AM 690 WTIX was launched in 1953 by the Storz family from Omaha, Nebraska — a family who understood the importance of local programming, especially at a time when New Orleans musicians were topping the music charts coast to coast.
They sold the station in 1983, but left behind a legacy. Todd Storz is credited with pioneering the popular Top 40 format. When broadcaster Michael Costello created WTIX-FM 94.3 in 1995, he based the programming on the AM 690 format and continued the traditions of that station.
Like Nassar, many of WTIX-FM’s original announcers, including Bobby Reno and Hot Rod Glenn, have remained on the air.
Nassar grew up in New Orleans and developed a love of music at an early age. When he was 6, he listened to WTIX on his transistor radio, knew the names of the DJs, and decided that one day, he would be “that guy on the radio.” A month into his college career at Southeastern Louisiana University, he landed a job on a Hammond-based radio station, which was soon followed by a spot on a Baton Rouge station.
“My whole goal was to be on the radio in New Orleans, my hometown,” said Nassar. In 1976, at 20 years old, he received his first gig with WTIX.
The station’s lineup still features classic oldies like Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison, and The Supremes. But the Sunday night show has a slower pace, and an emphasis on local and regional musicians. The live show attracts people from all over southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, who have forged friendships with one another over the years.
“We’ve got a pretty good group of characters that I actually mention on the radio,” said Nassar. He has even come up with nicknames for a few of the regulars. There’s the Down the Bayou crew from Houma, the Rat Pack from Chalmette, Joe and Flo, Ms. Tammy, the Elvis Fanatic, Cha Cha, and The Spinner. A group of “20-somethings” from the Bywater make up the younger demographic.
“They know this music,” Nassar said. “They request it. And they get out on the dance floor with the older folks.”
Diane Marino, whose family owns Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant, usually attends the socials with her grown children and a niece. Within minutes of Marino’s arrival, Nassar plays her song — “Diane” by The Bachelors.
“I love the real old stuff that a lot of people don’t listen to,” said Marino, citing Shirley & Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll” and Little Willie John’s “Big Blue Diamonds” as examples.
The Sunday night shows remind Marino of the CYO sock hops she frequented as a teenager. She cherishes these memories.
“Honey, I go back a long way. Not that I’m ancient. But that’s what I remember. That’s what I thrived off of — the music,” said Marino, with a wistful smile. “It’s just something I’ll never forget. I’ll take it to my dying day.”
Since the Sunday Night Oldies Shows feature music from a DJ rather than a live band, they do indeed have the aura of a 1950s sock hop, said Nassar. Some people are mainly there to listen to the music and mingle. Other folks spend their evening on the dance floor, grooving to both slow and upbeat songs.
“The ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is the most popular line dance, and the minute the first note strikes, the whole dance floor is packed with people,” said Nassar. Toward the middle of the four-hour dance, he joins the crowd and dances to two twists — Chubby Checker’s “Twist Again” and The Beatle’s “Twist and Shout.”
Nassar, like Marino, feels nostalgic when he hears a certain song. Benny Spellman’s “A Fortune Teller” is one of them. He vividly remembers watching his parents draw an audience at parties as the talented pair danced to the fast-paced number.
Moments like this intensified Nassar’s interest in music and radio. His desire to share these songs with others has not waned.
“I have a passion for what I do, and I believe in the radio, especially WTIX and the music that this station plays,” he said. “It’s been an important part of my life.”