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Faculty Spotlight: Al Riess

“Vernacular music is history,” said Al Riess, reference librarian at E. H. Butler Library. “It comes out of a particular culture, and it tells that culture’s story.” For the last 20 years, Riess has given up his Saturday mornings to share those stories with anyone willing to listen.

Al RiessRiess has been a fixture on WBNY-FM 91.3 since October 1988, when his radio show, Rooting About: The Folk and Roots Music Show, debuted. Today he’s on the air every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to noon. He presents The C-JAM Show: The Classics of Jazz and More, which includes jazz and jazz-influenced singers from the 1920s through the 1960s, from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. After that, Riess presents Rhythm, Roots, and Rock ’n’ Roll, an hour of music that backs up Riess’s assertion that rock and roll didn’t start in 1955, as many believe; its early licks date back to blues, R & B, rockabilly, and vintage country from the 1920s on. “I’ve been getting out of doing chores on Saturday mornings for 20 years,” he said.

Instead, he took on the job of acquiring a massive roots music library for WBNY. “I started out with the CD era,” said Riess, “so I contacted recording labels on behalf of the station, asking for music to play and review.” WBNY has more than 7,000 such recordings, organized alphabetically and locked in double-door cabinets, thanks to Riess’s efforts over the last 20 years.

In the Buffalo News in 1993, Mark Shechner wrote, “Riess is a model DJ…because he is an avid music researcher…who knows more about his corner of music than his audience and has dedicated himself to passing on what he knows.”

Indeed, Riess’s knowledge is encyclopedic. Riess has reviewed more than 900 recordings for Dirty Linen, a highly regarded folk and world music magazine. He casually refers to record labels that were around long before the term “indie” was popular—Arhoolie, Shanachie, Sunshine, even Rounder, a label probably unfamiliar to most people until its release Raising Sand, by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, won five Grammys this month. He’s steeped in everything from Tex-Mex music to the traditional Joik songstyle of Scandinavia and can recall song titles at the drop of a hat.

“Here’s one,” said Riess, pulling out Trouble in Mind by Big Bill Broonzy. “This has the song ‘Black, Brown, and White.’” It’s the song that 87-year-old Rev. Joseph Lowery referred to when he offered the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, praying that all races can join together in a new beginning.

Riess’s own beginnings focused squarely on music. Like many of his peers, he spent his nights with a transistor radio pressed against his ear, listening to the music of the British Invasion. He owns all the No. 1 pop hits from 1964 to 1969.

Riess, who started his career at E. H. Butler Library in 1980, approached WBNY at the urging of his friends. “They said, ‘You have an incredible collection of records,’” Riess recalled. “‘Why don’t you see if you can get a spot on WBNY?’”

So he pitched the idea to the program director of WBNY, which is a USG-funded student organization, and Riess was offered the Saturday-morning slot for Rooting About.

The show featured “all kinds of folk, traditional, ethnic, and world roots music,” according to Riess. And something else: knowledge.

Riess’s show is in the tradition of DJs from music radio’s glory days, when DJs picked the music they wanted to play for their listeners and brought real knowledge to their programs. Riess has never lost his passion for music and the power of radio to share that passion.

“Radio is my favorite mass medium,” he said. “I’m grateful that I’ve been able to be part of it.”

To listen to WBNY-FM online, visit the station’s Web site.

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Read previous Faculty Spotlight stories:

Simeon W. Chilungu
Kimberley Zittel-Palamara