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Texas | Columns | Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories

Baytown’s DJ of the ‘50s,
Bill “Rascal” McCaskill,
Conducts His “Night Train” Once More

by Bill Cherry
Bill Cherry

You can’t have lived in this area for too long without at least knowing that today the reigning deans of Houston disc jockeys are Paul Berlin and Skipper Lee Frazier. But it wasn’t always that way.

It was 1954, and in Baytown, a new disc jockey arrived at a somewhat small, sleepy and nondescript AM station on Decker Drive. The call letters back then were KREL-AM, and the stations’ power was a mere 1,000 watts.

Just to put things in prospective, Houston’s big KTRH runs 50,000 watts, 24 hours a day. The more the watts, the further distance the station’s signal can be heard.

The new KREL disc jockey’s name was Bill “Rascal” McCaskill, and for the next several years he brought notoriety to Baytown the likes of which that city hadn’t seen before and some are quickly willing to testify that it hasn’t seen since. And he turned conventional radio programming in Houston upside down.

"Rascal" in 1954
Photo courtesy Bill Cherry

Rascal McCaskill took over the evening shift at KREL with a program he brought to it and that he called “Night Train,” and rather than use a play list of Jo Stafford, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Dinah Shore like most of the other radio stations were using back then, he played Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Wee Willie Wayne, the Clovers, the Five Satins, and even Johnny Ace and Roy Hamilton.

It was the first time in this area that the blues music of the black culture was programmed to white teenagers. And, boy, did they respond.

Thousands of kids within the Gulf Coast signal area of KREL from Galveston to Houston to Lufkin, joined the ranks of the rabidly loyal Rascal McCaskill listening audience. What was going on at KREL was spreading with the same wildfire at the huge Nashville station, WLAC, by its own soon to be legend, Gene Nobles and his sponsor, Randy’s Record Shop.

“Night Train” was an anomaly, really, because McCaskill, an Eagle Scout before he was 16, mixed his scout values to counteract the somewhat sexually suggestive blues tunes that he played, like “Annie Had a Baby,” and the song of a Russian roulette victim, Johnny Ace, “Pledging My Love.”

His radio audience even went through the meeting and the courtship and the marriage on February 26, 1955 of Rascal McCaskill to Jerry, who was known to listeners as “Blond Top,” and who was always by his side. They are still a couple today, close to 50 years later.

"Rascal" and Jerry 1955
Photo courtesy Bill Cherry

And between records McCaskill squeezed in advice on how to solve a particular boyfriend problem, how important homework and studying were, and the reading on the air of hundreds upon hundreds of postcards from listeners wanting McCaskill to dedicate special songs to their “someone.”

In fact the speculation is, and it’s probably on the low side, that through the life of “Night Train,” more than 100,000 request postcards were sent in by listeners. It was so overwhelming that KREL had to hire a couple of students to come in after school to sort the mail and have it ready when McCaskill got there just before 7.

Every time the 1957 graduating class of Baytown’s Robert E. Lee gathers for a class reunion, they honor the life of McCaskill, their longtime celebrity hero, too. They put Rascal McCaskill on stage in front of a mike and between turntables to recreate “Night Train.” That’s when he cranks up the baritone sax solo version of “Night Train,” his theme song of 53 years ago.

Rascal doing Night Train at Baytown Robert E. Lee High School Class of 1957 50th Reunion Photo courtesy Bill Cherry

He speaks his first words, the theme song now playing in the background. And that’s when McCaskill’s normally very deep south regional dialectal conversational voice magically vanishes and his wonderful mid-west accent and resonant, self-assured radio voice takes it place again.

And then various members of the Class of ‘57, donned in costumes, “perform” a few of the first songs Rascal plays by lip syncing them on stage. Everyone laughs and pokes fun. Then it’s time to get serious and dance.

And that’s when it never fails. Tears well up in the eyes of the class of ‘57, as they go to the dance floor to relive those days when their whole lives were in front of them. And for the rest of the evening, they dance to the very same tunes that they did back then when they’d jam the small KREL studio while McCaskill was on the air.

"Rascal" at 80
Photo courtesy Bill Cherry

For the past 30 years or so, Rascal and Jerry McCaskill have owned and operated Victoria’s Putt-Putt golf course.

However, throughout the years McCaskill has witnessed undying expressions of admiration from former listeners that began when his “Night Train” program first aired on KREL. And while other disc jockeys in the Houston market have come and gone, barely remembered by a handful, McCaskill, along with Berlin and Frazier, has easily stood the test of time.

Longtime McCaskill fan Barry Lancaster says he thinks it’s because along with his music, McCaskill always reminded his listeners that he expected them to be level-headed and have good moral values and to be good citizens.

Long ago, Steve O’Donohoe, one of the ministers at Clear Lake’s huge Grace Community Church, was a young disc jockey at a Golden Triangle station. And I was once a DJ in the Galveston market. We confessed to each other that we did everything we could back then to mimic the radio voice of Rascal McCaskill. We were sure that was the key to earning and having radio fame. We still think it is.

Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories
April 10, 2008 column
© William S. Cherry
All rights reserved

Bill Cherry, a Dallas Realtor and free lance writer was a longtime columnist for "The Galveston County Daily News." His book, Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories, has sold thousands, and is still available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com and other bookstores.

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