Talking all that jazz with WRTI legend Bob Perkins

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Bob Perkins is known to loyal listeners by the tagline "BP with the GM." STEVEN M. FALK /Staff Photographer

When Bob Perkins was growing up at 19th and Gerritt Streets in South Philadelphia during the Great Depression, his father, Deforrest, was stricken by arthritis at age 39 and could no longer work at his job as a freight elevator operator.

"He suffered terribly: Camel cigarettes and the radio were his only outs," recalls his youngest child, the revered WRTI-FM (90.1) jazz DJ known to loyal listeners of his smooth, sonorous delivery by the trademark tagline: "BP with the GM."

That's "Bob Perkins with the good music."

Spending long hours with his radio-obsessed dad, Perkins caught the bug. The broadcast institution will be inducted into the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame on Wednesday as part of the Philadelphia Music Alliance's all-jazz Class of 2016.

Also getting plaques with their names on them in front of the Kimmel Center on South Broad are: organist Joey DeFrancesco; bassist, bandleader, and former member of the Roots Christian McBride; tenor sax player Benny Golson; and late bassist Jaco Pastorius.

"The radio was on from dawn until 1 or 2 in the morning," Perkins, who's 82, recalls, sitting for an interview one day last week before his 6-to-9 p.m. Monday-to-Thursday shift at the Temple station that has been his home since 1997.

The John Coltrane- and Sarah Vaughn-loving jock, his crisp red shirt untucked, a New Orleans French Quarter ball cap on his head, is also heard for four hours - playing "the old stuff, and the new stuff that sounds like the old stuff" - beginning at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings.

Perkins' father "made his own antennas. He could pull in Chicago and programs from the Chez Paree, with Milton Berle or whoever was playing there, from 600 miles away, on a small AM radio. I remember sitting in my parents' bedroom when they announced the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. We would listen to the Phillies games, and the A's when they were here."

"I was a radio nut. I was a quiet kid. And I'm still quiet. I don't know how the hell I got into this racket! But I was being raised by four elder siblings, and older parents who thought they were done until I came along. So I was around older people all the time, and I listened. That held me in good stead, and I got, I guess, some wisdom."

He became a jazz nut, too, when his brother Joe schooled him on the music. Perkins' first memory is Joe taking him to see bandleader Lucky Millinder at the Fays Theatre at 40th and Market Streets when he was 5. "We took our coats off and I sat on them so I could see over the ladies with the big hats," he remembers with a resonant laugh.

Graduating from South Philadelphia High School, Perkins studied radio at the American Foundation of Dramatic Arts under legends like Bill Smith, Jules Rind, and Louise Bishop. "I enjoyed learning, but I knew a lot of the stuff because I listened to the great ones at home." He namechecks Frank Ford, John Facenda, and Phillies broadcasters Bill Campbell and Byrum Saam.

"That was the real school. We had some magnificent broadcasters in this market."

In the early 1960s, Perkins spent a few years selling insurance in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where WRTI's studios are now on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Later, he lived in the neighborhood at the Flamingo Apartments - where, he later learned, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, and Arthur Prysock once lived.

In 1964, he followed his brothers to Detroit, where they had moved for jobs in the auto industry. "By divine hand or dumb luck," he says, the building of the insurance company where he was applying for a job housed a small, black-owned radio station upstairs. He walked up there and landed his first job.

Five years later, he came home to be news and editorial director at WDAS-FM when the station served as the voice of the black community. While also writing editorials and cultural stories for the Philadelphia News Observer and Philadelphia Tribune, he stayed at 'DAS for 19 years.

In 1977, Perkins began a public radio Saturday-night jazz show at WHYY-FM (90.9). From 1983 to 1988, he also had a jazz show mixing Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee with Coltrane and Miles Davis on WDAS-AM. In 1997, he moved from 'HYY  to 'RTI.

As he gets set to celebrate 52 years in the business and 40 playing the music he loves, Perkins clearly belongs on the short list of Philadelphia broadcasters like retired folk DJ Gene Shay and still-going-strong Sinatraphile Sid Mark, who have been associated with one brand of music over a staggeringly long period. "I listen to those guys and borrow from them," says Perkins. "Those are my heroes. I'm a composite of hundreds of people."

With jazz in scarce supply - WRTI splits its time between jazz and classical - Perkins is the professor from whom generations of Philadelphians have learned.

"Bob is jazz radio," says David Conant, WRTI general manager, via email. "He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music and the musicians, and has known many of the greats. . . . Bob's staying power is a testament to his greatness. He is genuine, a real original."

Perkins is free to play what he wishes: "They leave me alone. They respect my time in the business."

Perkins, who walks steadily with the aid of a cane - "I can't do what I useta could," he says, chuckling - lives in Glenside with his wife, Sheila. "She just got her doctorate in education: I used to be the star in the family, but now when I pass her I have to genuflect."

When he gets home, he works out the playlist for the next show. "I don't play any music at home," he says. "I like to be almost like an audience. An alter ego listening to myself. I kind of put myself in their shoes. What would I like to hear if I were them? What would excite me?

"People call me and tell me, 'I didn't like jazz till you played it,' " he says with pride. "I like melody. Something they can hum. Music they danced and romanced to when they were young people."

Pressed to name personal favorites, Perkins starts with Duke Ellington. "For his versatility. Not only for being a great bandleader but also the writing. The style, the presentation. The whole package."

Also on the GM list: "Miles. Coltrane. Morgana King," the actress who played Marlon Brando's wife in The Godfather. "Sarah, of course, and Ella [Fitzgerald]. Anita O'Day. There are so many great ones. I was weaned on these people. You're never going to hear their likes again."

To hang with Perkins is to hear stories that bring Philadelphia's jazz history to life. About watching Coltrane playing 20-minute solos until his drummer Jimmy Cobb was worn out. Or seeing Betty Carter or Ellington at the two long-gone jazz clubs, the Showboat and Pep's Musical Bar, that were a block away from each other off South Broad Street.

So what will it mean to have his name immortalized just up the street in front of the Kimmel Center? "When I heard the name Marian Anderson, I said, 'Damn, I'm going to be in a space inhabited by this giant?' And I'm going in with giants. Benny Golson? All these people who have done so much. Little Bobby Perkins, a skinny kid from South Philadelphia? Never thought it would happen. Never thought it would happen."

Listen below to a Spotify playlist of 10 favorites selected by Perkins:

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