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Bob Porter, Eminent Producer, Broadcaster and Writer, and Pillar of WBGO, Has Died at 80

Bob Porter at the WBGO Champions of Jazz Gala, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, on May 1, 2018.
Jacob Blickenstaff
Bob Porter at the WBGO Champions of Jazz Gala, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, on May 1, 2018.

Bob Porter, a prolific record producer and heralded jazz and blues authority whose voice has been heard continuously on the air at WBGO since its earliest signal in 1979, died on Saturday at his home in Northvale, N.J. He was 80.

The cause was complications due to esophageal cancer, said his wife, Linda Porter.

Porter had a hand in hundreds of albums, first as a producer for Prestige in the 1960s, later at Milestone and others, and at the helm of historical reissues by Atlantic and Savoy. He was the author of Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community, 1945-1975 — a book that drew on firsthand experience to chart an alternative path to what usually constitutes jazz history.

And of course, Porter was an iconic voice and presence at WBGO — the unequivocal expert behind Portraits in Blue, which he started as a syndicated blues show in 1981, as well as Saturday Morning Function, which focuses on rhythm and blues, and the Sunday morning show Swing Party. Rhonda Hamilton, his longtime colleague on the air at WBGO, offers this heartfelt remembrance:

Rhonda Hamilton remembers Bob Porter

Porter was nothing if not devoted to Newark Public Radio. “I started in April 1979 doing a two-hour show on Wednesday afternoons,” he recalled last year. “Jazz was going through one of its down times, and I would play records that were then out-of-print. The show was called ‘Rare But Well Done.’ I was serving only as a volunteer. The first song I played was Count Basie and Joe Williams’ ‘Every Day I Have the Blues.’ My theme song was Houston Person’s ‘Goodness.’”

“He loved our music, and he especially loved connecting jazz with the Black community,” says Person, a tenor saxophonist whose friendship and working relationship with Porter began in the late 1960s. “He was devoted to keeping alive that R&B link to jazz, though he was primarily a jazz producer. We were a part of the street.”

Along with dozens of Person sessions, Porter produced notable albums by saxophonists Gene Ammons, Hank Crawford, Sonny Stitt and David “Fathead” Newman; guitarists Pat Martino and Melvin Sparks; and organists Jimmy McGriff, Don Patterson, Charles Earland and Johnny “Hammond” Smith. Soul jazz, to use Porter’s preferred term, is unfathomable without his contribution behind the scenes. “He was right in there and knew how to link everybody up, bring it all together,” Person attests.

The Mighty Burner (Rudy Van Gelder Remaster)

Robert Porter was born in Wellesley, Mass., on June 20, 1940, the son of David Porter, Chairman of David L Babson & Company, and Constance Porter. Bob, the eldest of four siblings, graduated from Whittier College and served in the Army, stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Porter came up at a time when jazz musicians like Horace Silver and Lou Donaldson were reaching a popular audience. He was a jazz and blues enthusiast with a keen ear, strong opinions and a sharp mind for detail when he produced his first album for Prestige — Professor Soul, a 1968 date by organist Charles Kynard. That same year, Porter produced Person’s Soul Dance! and Harold Mabern’s Rakin’ and Scrapin’; he was on his way.

The depth of his historical knowledge also made Porter a key figure in the preservation of label catalogs. He won his first Grammy Award in 1979, in the Best Liner Notes category, for Charlie Parker - The Complete Savoy Sessions, a five-LP set. (He was also its reissue producer.) He won another Grammy for Best Historical Album in 1986, for Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-1974, Vols. 1-7.

Reviewing the Atlantic set in the New York Times, critic Robert Palmer observed that Porter and his team had “done an excellent job, mixing most of the hits (and many of these have not been available on American albums for some years) with just enough obscurities and delightful discoveries to keep the seasoned aficionado happy.”

Bob Porter with his trademark festival hat, from Meyer the Hatter in New Orleans.
courtesy of Linda Porter
Bob Porter with his trademark festival hat, from Meyer the Hatter in New Orleans.

Along with his two Grammys (out of a total of five nominations), Porter received a W.C. Handy Award (aka a Blues Music Award) in 1986, and was a 2009 inductee in the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

He was also honored with the Nick Bishop Award for Outstanding Service by the New Jersey Jazz Society, and the Blues Heaven Award by Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. He received a Community Service Award by the Bergen County Chapter of the NAACP in 2003, and the Marian McPartland-Willis Conover Award for Excellence in Jazz Broadcasting from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2007.

Gary Walker, WBGO’s music director and host of Morning Jazz, remembers meeting Porter when he first began working at the station in 1984. “He could be curmudgeonly, that’s for sure,” Walker says fondly. “But for some reason, right from the very start, he and I hit it off. You could get close and stay close, whenever the subject was good music. But you knew to stay away from Bob if the Bruins or the Celtics suffered a loss. That’s when you’d give him a little space.”

WBGO will pay tribute to the legacy of Bob Porter in the coming days and weeks — and in perpetuity, considering the foundational role he played in building the station and its commitment to musical integrity. Linda reports that was listening to WBGO when he passed.

“To use the parlance of the business he cherished, Bob was blessed with a pair of ‘golden ears,’” says Steve Williams, the organization’s President and CEO. “It is impossible to overstate the significance of Bob’s impact on American music, and how the world hears it. And the seminal role he played in the success and longevity of WBGO is undeniable and will never be forgotten.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.