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Barry White is probably the only man on the planet who wouldn't have a case of voice envy around Chuck Niles. The heavy grains and deep, machismo-laden microtones that emanate from Niles' leathery throat make other radio voices seem hopelessly reedy and thin. A combination of genetics, cigarettes and timing makes him not just a legendary jazz DJ but a maestro of mic-side groove as well.
For Niles, life begins at age 73. The Springfield, Massachusetts, native has been the midday man at KLON-FM 88.1, Cal State Long Beach's public radio station, since 1990—and at several other stations before that. He is the Left Coast Lothario of straight-ahead jazz, so much so that he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998. Being a jazz DJ is a joyous obsession for him—a compulsion, a spiritual calling and a movement toward democracy and equality. And though straight-ahead jazz has been largely associated with African-Americans, he'd prefer to label the genre American music—a sound to be shared by all.
"Jazz is the perfect illustration of what democracy is," says Niles, taking a long drag on a filterless Pall Mall as we sit on the patio outside Steamers Café in Fullerton. "You have the opportunity to stand up and state your case within a structured form. A guy in Congress gets up and states how he feels within a structured arena. Same thing when a guy stands up with his horn and plays—that's how he feels. American music is a black music, but since it's an art form, anybody can play it if they're talented enough. You just have to know what the hell you're doing so people will come together in admiration of the talent."
Radio mouthpieces come and go, usually with no more commotion than a wayward pigeon. And DJs, more often than not, are considered nothing more than second bananas to the music —until a really great one comes around. In a way, the radio mic is to Niles what the bent horn was to Dizzy Gillespie, or what a sax—any sax—became in the hands of Charlie Parker. When notes are percussively accented within the beats of a song, they take on more rhythmic value and weight; jazz musicians call this "playing in the pocket." Niles has a way of speaking in the pocket, using a musician's timing to augment his words. But being a great DJ is more than just a gift.
"I think it does take a little talent to be a DJ. And I think you have to really be involved in what you're playing—to believe in it," says Niles. "We're all egomaniacs, you know. But there are some people who have this gig so that they can be heard and build up their notoriety, which has nothing to do with being really involved in what you're playing. I've lucked out all my life. I sit there for three hours a day, I keep my headphones on most all the time, and I'm listening to the best music in the world. I take great joy in that."
Sometimes, you'll hear Niles break into a tasty bit of scat at the tail end of a tune or utter a few choice words over a song's beginning—normally one of the most irritating things a DJ can do. But Niles' voice is a musical opiate, no matter how or when he uses it. "I get caught up in the excitement of the moment," he says, laughing. "And I introduce what's about to be played with the music up under me a little bit, so I become part of the tune. You know what I'm saying? It's almost subliminal."
It was 1950 when Chuck's definitive, smoky voice first broke over a hot mic. The Korean War was on, and after joining the Navy and spending nine months on a destroyer escort stationed in the Marshall Islands, he found himself back in the States. "I thought I might get called back into active duty, but it never happened," Niles recalls. So his father, "who knew somebody who knew somebody," helped get him an early Sunday-morning show on a local commercial radio station in Massachusetts. And the voice was born.
During his early broadcasting days on the East Coast, Niles was also a working musician, moonlighting on sax and clarinet with as many as three different bands at once. After turning down a chance to go on the road as a full-time player, he began concentrating more on his radio career. "My better sense told me to stay with radio. I don't think I was that good a musician. I got around pretty good on the clarinet, and I could play, you know. But I wasn't obsessed with it," says the DJ as he takes a discreet swig of beer from a paper cup. "The clarinet is a terrible instrument—I think Satan himself invented it. And I thought I was doing pretty good until I heard Buddy DeFranco; after that, I wanted to take a long walk on a short pier. These people practice six, seven or eight hours a day, which I didn't. And you gotta have the talent to go with it."