When Bethesda Was Cool
In the 1970s downtown Bethesda was the center of the local music universe
It was March 14, 1979, in downtown Bethesda, and radio disc jockey Don Grossinger was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped on-air studio of Washington High Fidelity Stereo (WHFS) 102.3 FM with reggae legend Peter Tosh, co-founder of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Program Director David Einstein. “All of a sudden, Peter decides he wants to play some music, but he doesn’t have a guitar,” says Grossinger, now 64. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to hear one of his idols perform, Grossinger thought quickly.
“I ran across Cordell Avenue to the Psyche Delly and asked Jimmy Thackery if I could borrow his guitar,” Grossinger says. Thackery, a member of the local band the Nighthawks, agreed. Armed with a flashy hollow body Gretsch guitar, Grossinger dashed back into the studio, where Tosh, his distinctive dreadlocks corralled by a woolen cap, started to perform.
Known for being more strident and overtly angry about social injustice than Marley and some of his reggae brethren, Tosh quietly began singing one of his more obscure songs, the gentle, spiritual “Jah Is My Keeper.”
“It affected all of us,” Grossinger says. “There was a complete stillness in the studio when he performed.” Though Tosh’s unexpected on-air jam session was certainly memorable, Grossinger says he will never forget what happened immediately afterward. “He got out a cannabis plant and rolled a joint about 7 inches long,” Grossinger says. “I had some and almost died…it might have been another night for him, but it was pretty amazing for this white boy.”
For the young people listening that night, WHFS represented more than a cool place to hear new music. “The WHFS ethos was showing me the way to be different, the way to be myself, take chances, overturn rocks, slow down and be subversive,” says actor Daniel Stern, who grew up in Chevy Chase and starred in Home Alone and City Slickers.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Bethesda’s music scene transformed what had been a quiet Washington, D.C., suburb into one of the nation’s most important rock, bluegrass and new wave hubs—all powered by an anarchic radio station that was so small it didn’t even appear in the Arbitron ratings.
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The Bethesda of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t look much like it does today. Neighborhoods were more modest. Instead of luxury condos and high-end shops, downtown Bethesda was sprinkled with record stores, music clubs, head shops plying drug paraphernalia and group houses full of musicians.
WHFS’ offices were located in the Triangle Towers on Cordell, and the Psyche Delly nightclub was across the street at 4846 Cordell Avenue. Despite a capacity of just 90 until 1979, the Psyche Delly was able to book national acts such as Gregg Allman and Joan Jett because of its proximity to WHFS. Superstars Mick Jagger and Jimmy Buffett were occasionally in the audience.
Aerial photo of downtown Bethesda taken in the 1980s
“It was the center of the local music universe and a breeding ground for local acts,” Silver Spring graphic artist and documentary filmmaker Dick Bangham says of Cordell Avenue.
Nearby—in the building on Fairmont Avenue that’s now home to Positano Ristorante Italiano—was the Red Fox Inn, one of the most influential bluegrass clubs in the country. Jerry Garcia was known to occasionally pop in unannounced and play after doing an interview at WHFS.
At that time, it wasn’t uncommon to see Linda Ronstadt or Stevie Nicks walking out of WHFS after an interview, then ambling over to the Tastee Diner or the Little Tavern, another diner located at the corner of Montgomery Lane and Waverly Street, for a late-night meal.
Late-night spot Little Tavern
Local figures who lived in or within walking distance of the Triangle Towers in the ’70s included the “voice” of WHFS, Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert, cult musician Root Boy Slim, members of the Nighthawks, Slickee Boys lead singer Mark Noone and WHFS DJ Adele Abrams. Says Nighthawks lead singer Mark Wenner: “We’d walk around handing out flyers for a show, and people would hand us back a joint.”
WHFS began broadcasting at 102.3 FM in 1961, focusing largely on classical and easy listening music, and then jazz in the late evenings. In 1967, Jacob Einstein became general manager and part owner. Two years later, DJ Josh Brooks was part of a group that convinced him to try a progressive rock focus.
The station began featuring hip music along with concert listings and community services such as housing, job and ride boards. It even published a vegetarian cookbook. “It’s how the fans found out where to buy new records, blue jeans, army jackets, and where to find health food stores, head shops and so on,” says documentarian Jay Schlossberg, a Potomac resident who has been filming Feast Your Ears: The Story of WHFS 102.3 FM since 2014. Bangham is also a producer and editor on the project. (See sidebar on page 148.)
Even at its height, WHFS wasn’t a top station. Instead, word-of-mouth enthusiasm and creative programming generated much of its devoted audience. Brooks hosted a guest DJ segment featuring members of Congress, Redskins players and other hometown celebrities. Defensive lineman Bill Brundige, who blocked a field goal attempt in Super Bowl VII leading to the Redskins’ only score, played a lot of sensitive Bob Dylan songs. “That surprised me a little,” Brooks says.
WHFS ad from local entertainment publication Unicorn Times
Abrams, one of the few female jocks at WHFS, enjoyed a loyal following among the prison population at Jessup Correctional Institution. “I got love letters all the time,” she says. “Fortunately, no one ever came to visit me after they got out on parole.”
Seth Hurwitz, who graduated from Winston Churchill High School in 1976, landed a coveted WHFS DJ gig at age 17. “I was playing more progressive stuff, like Roxy Music, and less of [WHFS staples such as] Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt,” says Hurwitz, who now owns the 9:30 Club in the District.
Hurwitz endured occasional flak from the other DJs over his music choices. “Seth was a little ahead of us all,” Grossinger says. One night in 1978, General Manager Damian Einstein, son of owner Jacob Einstein, asked Hurwitz to stop by on his way home.
“I thought he was going to talk to me about it and tell me to stop,” Hurwitz says of the songs he was playing. “He told me I was fired.” Hurwitz says he staggered out “absolutely crushed.”
Hurwitz, who is now one of the area’s leading concert promoters, can laugh about it today. “I tell people WHFS stands for We Have Fired Seth.”
WHFS eventually came around to new wave music. Carl Joseph DeMarco, Walt Whitman High School Class of 1982, listened to the station as a teenager, and remembers it vividly today from China, where he is an English teacher. “The music on HFS made us so different than kids our age elsewhere who weren’t getting the cutting edge of rock and pop music,” he says. “When punk and new wave finally caught on in the rest of the country, it was already passé to us.”
Station management encouraged DJs to host shows at an advertiser’s location. In the summer of 1978, Abrams and Weasel were doing a live show at a store in District Heights called Float ‘N Smoke that sold water beds and head shop supplies such as bongs and rolling paper. “Someone got the idea to have a contest to see how many people could lay on a water bed,” Abrams says. Weasel and Abrams ended up in the middle of the pile. “I got bit on the ass and yelped live on the air,” she says.
“We did them live with two turntables and a mixer,” says DJ Don “Cerphe” Colwell. “People bumped into them all the time and the records would skip on the air.”
The setup back at the WHFS offices wasn’t much more polished. Before a 1979 renovation, the offices and studios looked like a set from That 70s Show, Cerphe says. “It started with the R. Crumb-like logo on our front doors and continued throughout the suite with mismatched carpet, chipped paint, overflowing ashtrays and wall-to-wall fluorescent lighting.”
Musicians regularly visited the studio. Cerphe recalls an interview with Bruce Springsteen that started late because Springsteen got lost on the Beltway. “We had a good laugh about it when he finally made it,” Cerphe says.
On another occasion, four “low-key guys” stopped by, grateful that a station was playing their first album. Cerphe thought so little of the encounter that he didn’t record it or take pictures. “They were Kiss,” he says now. “I still kick myself for not preserving the moment.”
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Across the street from WHFS sat the Psyche Delly, a small sub shop. In late 1974, owner Lou Sordo began hosting local musicians, transforming the Delly into an ear-crunching musical venue at night. There was a small, low stage in the back, a nondescript food counter toward the front, and a mismatched assortment of rock and roll- and beer-related wall hangings.
“The dressing room was ridiculously narrow,” remembers Slickee guitarist Kim Kane. Just 3 or 4 feet wide, it filled up quickly with fans, friends and other bands between shows.
“Sometimes it was like the Marx Brothers stateroom scene in there,” Kane says.
WHFS DJ Don “Cerphe” Colwell with Linda Ronstadt in 1977 after the singer was interviewed on his show
Eric Weaver, Whitman Class of 1982, remembers women getting up on the stage to flash the audience. He and two friends sometimes put on psychedelic clothes and hopped onto the stage to dance. One night, the lead guitarist for The Cramps chewed lit cigarettes while performing. “Freaked me out,” says Tommy Keene, a member of the Walter Johnson High School Class of 1976 who was in the audience. A few years later, Keene would be playing the club as a power pop headliner.
In early 1975, Gregg Allman was living in Bethesda trying to “get his musical chops back,” Weasel says. Fresh out of rehab and hoping to convince his Allman Brothers Band members to take him back, he worked out musically with the Nighthawks onstage at the Psyche Delly. (The band, which anchored the club’s Sunday night slot for years, recorded a popular live album there in 1976.)
One night, at an invitation-only gath- ering featuring radio station personnel and assorted friends, the phone rang. “It was Cher; she was looking for him,” Abrams says. The tumultuous couple was in the throes of a messy divorce that was all over the tabloids. Allman shook his head from up onstage. “He said to tell her he wasn’t there,” Abrams says.
Playing stadiums in the 1970s, Black Oak Arkansas charted 10 albums on the Billboard Hot 100 list and had the Top 40 single “Jim Dandy.” No longer able to fill bigger venues by 1984, the band showed up for a show at the Psyche Delly with a bad attitude. “They were pissed off we didn’t get a limo to take them the block or block and a half from their Holiday Inn,” club manager Hank Thomas says. Things didn’t get better when the band began to play. “They screamed at the audience, then the audience turned on them,” Thomas says. Lead singer Jim “Dandy” Mangrum turned the monitors up as high as they’d go before kicking them around the stage.