Big Band Means Big Bucks for Al Ham, Whose Syndicated Oldies Show Has Made Him Radio's Monarch of Mellow

updated 12/20/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 01:00AM

Don't touch that dial. Here comes a new musical wave that's as old as your grandmother and twice as lively. It's called The Music of Your Life, a syndicated radio show of big-band oldies and laid-back pop hits that has brought failing rock, country and religion stations back into the black. In Chicago, Boston, Denver and more than 150 other cities, some six million swingers are snapping their fingers and tapping their Hush Puppies to that old-time sound. "We used to make good records and nobody bought them," says songster Steve Lawrence, "but now we're being received like never before." Lawrence receives plenty of air time on Music of Your Life, along with fellow crooners Perry Como, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.

But the real winner in this musical renaissance is the show's founder, Al Ham. "This music never did die," insists Ham, 57. "It just stayed in the closet all these years." Now that it's out in the open, Ham finds himself with a multimillion-dollar business. The show, which costs radio stations from $650 to $4,000 a month (depending on the size of the market), runs on top AM music stations in L.A., Cleveland and Milwaukee and on Long Island, winning listeners with such all-time favorites as Stardust, My Way and In the Mood.

The secret of Ham's success? Part timing, part hard sell and part demographics. He started the show in 1978, but when his first station, WDJZ in Bridgeport, Conn., dropped it the following year "because the music was too old," Al used his own funds to re-launch the program. He convinced radio stations they could snatch what Madison Avenue types call the "Upscale Maturity Audience" with big-band dances and his personal selection of hit songs from more than 10,000 recordings. Advertisers eventually caught on to the spending power of Al's new market. Now even some baby boomers tune into the music of Ham's life. "There's a big search for traditional values these days," notes Ham.

Growing up in West Haven, Conn., the son of a clock company executive, Albert Ham practiced his string bass as much as 12 hours a day until he won a spot with the Artie Shaw Orchestra at age 17. After serving as a bombardier in World War II and studying math and music for a few years at Amherst and Columbia, Al took up with Tex Beneke and the Glenn Miller Orchestra; he met and married the band's singer, Mary Mayo. In the '50s Ham produced records for the likes of Johnny Mathis, Ray Conniff and Mitch Miller before moving on to arranging various commercial jingles. Unfortunately, Ham's most recent radio success brought on his 1979 divorce. "When I met my wife, I thought we'd stay together for the rest of our lives just like in the old songs," he says. "But in the end I got so possessed with the music, I blew my marriage." Since 1975 Ham has been working nonstop on the show (the first three years on research), often sleeping in four-hour spurts. But that doesn't mean his life lacks pleasures. He owns a secluded Tudor home near Bridgeport, has taken up jogging and last August married stewardess Tamara O'Malley, 33.

Already boasting a contract from Columbia to start an old-fashioned music label, Al hopes to build on the radio program with a touring orchestra and a weekly TV show. But for now his graying listeners seem content with his no-frills approach. As one Tulsa retiree relates: "On our 48th wedding anniversary, do you know how my wife and I entertained our guests? We tuned in The Music of Your Life, turned up the volume and danced till midnight!"

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