By Michael McCall
July 21, 1997: For over 40 years, Ken Bramming's deep baritone voice spoke to us through our radios and televisions. That voice was stilled the morning of July 7, when the veteran radio personality succumbed to cancer at the age of 70. Best known over the past decade as a morning DJ on WAMB-AM, Bramming was one of the last of his kind--a dignified, professional broadcaster who didn't shout a mile a minute or resort to crude gimmicks. His soothing voice was a reminder of a time when skies were bluer, grass was a little greener, and the latest pop songs were featured on Your Hit Parade. And whether he was introducing a Frank Sinatra tune, giving a weather report, or reading an ad for a local florist, this fixture of the Nashville airwaves always came across with smooth clarity and relaxed confidence.
A native Hoosier, Bramming got the radio bug early. "When I was a kid, I was glued to Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Little Orphan Annie--all those daytime kids' serials," he said in an interview last year. "My ear was on the radio constantly, listening to everything, and I thought, `Wouldn't it be great to go into radio?' It stayed in the back of my mind, then when I was about 15, I said, `Hey, that's what I want to do.' And I did."
After attending the Indiana School of Radio, Bramming got his first break in 1948 at WCBC, a station in his hometown of Anderson, Ind. "I bugged them like crazy," he laughed. "I kept saying, "Give me a chance, I'll work for free." After passing the standard NBC announcer's audition--which Bramming called "a humdinger full of classical names like Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky"--he was put on the air, doing station breaks, weather, and five-minute news updates.
Within three months, he'd graduated to his first big assignments: live interviews with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. "Hamp, that was a wild interview," Bramming recalled. "He was coming to town for a dance, and it was that night. So Saturday afternoon, what's going to be a 10-minute interview lasted all afternoon because Hamp got over to the piano, started playing, and a couple guys who were musicians came running into the studio with their horns and we had a big jam session. That was one nice thing about small-town radio. You could do whatever you wanted."
Everything in those small-town radio days, including commercials, was done live; it kept a broadcaster on his toes. With a chuckle, Bramming recalled one of his biggest on-air bloopers. "I did the commercial for a local appliance store, and I was doing a spot for GE Automatic Dishwashers," Bramming remembered. "I'm reading it and I said it at least three times as GE Automatic Dishwater. I knew I was saying it, but I couldn't stop it." At least he got some publicity out of it. The next day, the appliance store had a tub of old, sudsy water on display as Bramming's Automatic Dishwater, "as advertised on WCBC."
In the early 1950s, the deejay's stay on the Hoosier radio network was interrupted by Uncle Sam, who tapped Bramming for the Korean War. But it was behind a microphone, not a rifle, that he served his country. "I ended up doing radio shows with the 25th Army Band, which was some band," he said. "They had guys from Gene Krupa's and Woody Herman's band. We had some great shows. They called me in from the camping trips out in the boondocks, which of course I loved. I was not a happy camper."
After the war, Bramming visited his parents, who had moved to Nashville. He planned to leave after a few weeks, but a lucky break involving one of Nashville's most famous sons made him stay. "Pat Boone was scheduled to be on the announcing staff at WSIX," Bramming said, "when he got his break with Arthur Godfrey and had to go to New York. So I took his place on television. A little 15-minute thing. I hadn't been on TV. They put me in there, cold turkey, and said, `You'll do.' So I stayed on television for about 14 years."
During that time, the usually staid announcer sowed some wild oats in what he called his most enjoyable role, that of the host of a weekend horror-movie show, "The Mystic Circle of Dr. Luciphur." Slipping into a thick Bela Lugosi accent, Bramming recalled with a grin, "Dr. Luciphur would say, `I'm a dapper an' debonair bon vivant from Transylvania. You will do as I say or incur my wrath, mwahahaha.' " Clad in white tie and tails, silk cape, black eye patch, and silver hair, Dr. Luciphur, along with cohorts like Granny Gruesome and Frantic Freddy the Hipster, performed little nonsense skits during the popular show's run from 1958 to 1967.
Inspired by one of his idols, TV zany Ernie Kovacs, Bramming would try anything for a laugh. "We once had an Italian Batman," he said. "It was my friend Mario [Ferrari], from Mario's Restaurant. He came out with the mask and the whole outfit and I asked him a question and he'd answer me in Italian. `An Italian Batman?' I asked. `Si,' he said, then started babbling away in Italian. We had a contest for the first one who could guess the identity of the Italian Batman. It was at least a week before anyone guessed who it was."
Bramming's TV antics eventually got him fired, though it didn't happen during "Dr. Luciphur." It happened during his side gig as WSIX's weatherman. "They had made a new weather board up, and it had these little stick-on things, Mr. Sunshine and Mr. Raincloud, which I thought was utterly ridiculous," Bramming said. "But they didn't put enough magnetic paint on them. Half the time the things wouldn't stick on the board."
One Sunday night, Bramming stuck Mr. Raincloud on the board over Minnesota, which was undergoing heavy rains. Unfortunately, on live TV, the cloud started sliding down the map. Bramming tracked the cloud's decline to the Gulf of Mexico, merrily predicting storms all the way. "The camera's going crazy and you can hear through the double glass the producer going nuts," he said. "I got fired the next day. But it was coming anyway, so I figured I'd go out with a good one."
Reflecting on those crazy times, Bramming said, "The business was more fun back then. Those early days you were experimenting all the time. You did something wrong, OK, you didn't do it again." After the weather incident, Bramming spent a decade bouncing between radio and TV on stations like WWGM-TV and WSM-FM before settling in at the home of the bright 'n' easy favorites, WAMB, in 1979.
Aside from his morning show, Bramming, as programming director, was also responsible for putting together the station's "Music in the Night," Nashville's mellowest sounds from 10 p.m. to sunrise. For lovers searching the dial for the perfect smooching soundtrack, you couldn't beat it. "I spend many hours making those tapes," he said, "which I don't mind doing. Just leave me alone and let me do what I do. I try to put myself in the mood of late night. That's when you can lay down the blues and the torch songs. Like Sinatra's `One for My Baby.' "
Sinatra, along with Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Mel Torme, and Lena Horne, topped Bramming's own personal hall of fame list, though he claimed he didn't have a favorite song. "I have many favorites, and they usually remind me of something," he said. "Like when I was in love at 17 with Suzanne, `I'll Remember April' was our song."
Despite a heart operation in 1988 and some laser surgery on his throat a few years back, Bramming showed no signs of slowing down until he was sidelined earlier this year with a diagnosis of lung cancer. During his chemotherapy, he remained hopeful and positive, and even returned for a few months to resume his morning show on WAMB. This past week, he succumbed to his illness, just a week shy of his 71st birthday.
A few years ago, Ken Bramming told me, "I'm going to my 50th class reunion this year. I went to the 40th and half the people were retired. I thought, `What in the world are you retiring for?' An old friend said, `Remember Ken, you've been doing exactly what you want to do all these years.' And I thought, `Well, yeah. But I don't want to quit. I wouldn't know what to do.' Just let me have a little corner somewhere to do my thing, that's all I ask." Here's one for Ken Bramming, his voice and his music, and one more for the road.
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