In the interest of full disclosure, let me say right up front that I have not only known Alan Lambert and enjoyed his work for years, but that I also host the radio show that airs right before his each Saturday night on KWGS, a.k.a. Public Radio Tulsa, at 89.5 on the FM dial. Mine is a Western swing and cowboy jazz program called Swing On This; his is Big Band Saturday Night. And while Swing On This is coming up on 10 years of weekly broadcasts, it’s an infant compared to Big Band Saturday Night, which began on Tulsa radio in the early ‘80s – making it one of the longest-lived programs in town. While Alan wasn’t there from the beginning, he was certainly already a veteran broadcaster then, having started as a teenager as the ‘60s dawned.
“I began at KFMJ, which is now KGTO,” he says. “I was a junior at Rogers High School in Tulsa. Then I started doing a nighttime show on KOME, kind of a light-rock thing. Of course, that made me very popular at school.”
Even before his high school graduation, Lambert had already began climbing the radio ladder, learning his craft as he performed tasks ranging from sales and production to play-by-play sports announcing. In 1965, he became a genuine television personality, playing a character named Captain Alan on a kids’ show called Alan’s Cartoon Alley, which aired on Channel 2. That station was then called KVOO; it shared a studio with the radio station bearing the same call letters.
“I’d been doing television production and announcing upstairs, and, on the weekends, radio downstairs,” he recalls. “Then, the folks at the TV station decided to revive the robot from an old children’s show called Big Bill and Oom-A-Gog. They literally pulled Oom-A-Gog out of the dust in a prop room, and they held auditions. It became one of the first ongoing color shows on Tulsa television. I wore an orange flight suit. Oh, I was spiffy.”
Alan’s Cartoon Alley lasted about three years, but Lambert, sans flight suit, stayed with KVOO-TV, announcing, doing the weather and as an assistant to news director Jack Morris. Eventually, he went to radio full time, spending the next two decades as KVOO’s news director.
In 1993, he was working at radio station KBEZ – the home of Big Band Saturday Night – when the job of station manager for KRSC, at what was then Rogers State College in Claremore, opened up.
“That was just too good,” he says. “I had to take it. So I did that, taught some broadcasting classes, and stayed at KBEZ part-time – which gave me the opportunity to start with Big Band Saturday Night in 1995.”
Lambert believes he’s the fourth host of that long-running show, originated by Jim Jerrels (currently on KVOO) and later hosted by Andy Wolfe and then Dan Murphy. When Murphy left the program, Lambert – who’d filled in several times – had no trouble sliding in front of the microphone for what he thought was an interim job.
“I was supposed to take it over temporarily,” he says. “I didn’t know it was something I’d be doing full-time. I was station manager at KRSC, I was teaching classes, and I thought, ‘Man, this would be too much.’ But I fell in love with the show, they made me a permanent offer, and I stayed.”
Once at the helm, Lambert adds, he made some changes. “Dan was doing a very good job, but he was playing strictly ‘30s and ‘40s material,” he explains. “I thought in order to keep the show moving forward, I had to play newer artists that extended the longevity of big-band music. So I’d play recordings by the new versions of bands like the Glenn Miller Orchestra or Harry James, and new acts in that tradition, like Harry Connick Jr. I’ve played some college bands who do this kind of music, and soundtracks from movies are very good to big-band and swing. Sometimes, people discover big-band masters for the first time at the movies.”
Lambert and BBSN put in a decade at KBEZ before new management came in and decided the program didn’t fit the station’s direction.
“I knew I wanted to keep the show going, so I called [general manager] Rich Fisher at KWGS,” remembers Lambert with a chuckle. “We know each other so well that he didn’t even say hello. He just said, ‘We want your show.’”
And that’s how Big Band Saturday Night got its new home, where it’s resided ever since. KWGS even gave Lambert the chance to do the program as a live remote, just as stations and their announcers did during the golden days of the big-band era. In November 2010, KWGS threw a party with a live orchestra to celebrate Lambert’s 50th anniversary in the radio business, and KWGS broadcast it all in the BBSN time slot.
“That was so great, and I so appreciate Rich and KWGS for doing that,” he says. “Rich and (development director) Casey Morgan, as I understand it, came up with the idea of having it at the Crystal Ballroom in the Mayo Hotel, where all the big bands used to play. And Rich put together a wonderful orchestra.”
Also on hand that night was Lambert’s wife, Diana Lane Lambert, who had her own Celtic music show on KRSC for several years. He calls her “the underpinning of everything I’ve done on Big Band Saturday Night.” In addition to “putting up with my being gone for five hours every Saturday night for eleven years,” he says, she has become the recurrent female voice on the program.
“We started doing that just before I left KBEZ,” notes Lambert. “In the past five years, she’s been consistently coming on the show. We’ll do special shows, too – on Valentine’s Day and Christmas, for instance.”
Another member of Diana’s family also figures into the BBSN broadcasts. “Every Saturday night, when I end by saying, ‘Goodnight, Mom,’ it’s really Diana’s mother I’m talking to,” he explains. “I lost my own mother in 1966, when she was 23, and Diana’s mother allows me to call her Mom. She’ll be 95 in May.”
It’s to be expected that a good part of the Big Band Saturday Night demographic is, like Diana’s mother, in the septuagenarian to nonagenarian range. But Lambert says he has plenty of younger listeners as well, who often communicate with him on Facebook.
“I have people from the very first year of the show who are still listening, like Mildred, who’s in an assisted–living facility in Wagoner,” he says. “And I have twins, Chloe and Maykela, who are 10 years old. They started listening with their folks, and they still listen every Saturday night.”
And while the show’s fans – which, thanks to the Internet, are all over the globe – can always count on hearing Lambert’s time-tested blend of classic and current big-band music, they’ve learned that he can occasionally pitch them a curve as well.
“When Paul McCartney turned 64, I played ‘When I’m 64’ by the Beatles,” he recalls. “I just said, ‘Paul McCartney and John Lennon were gifted writers of some beautiful music, and this kind of has a Dixieland feel to it.’ I played Pete Fountain on one side of it and Benny Goodman on the other – and it worked.”