Remembering Radio Doctors, Milwaukee’s Legendary Record Store

By Richard G. Carter, Apr. 18, 2022

Image: Vitanovski – Getty Images

The other night during a Milwaukee visit enjoying the road show version of the Temptations’ Broadway hit Ain’t Too Proud with my wife, Susan Orr—former WYMS-FM dee-jay—I was reminded of the years I bought their records at Radio Doctors’ three locations: North Second and West Wells streets.; North Third Street and West Garfield Avenue, and North Third and W. Meinecke streets. 

Prior to the Temps hitting it big in 1964 with the soulful “My Girl,” I bought my first original Black rhythm and blues records at Radio Doctors in the mid-1950s. This, after hearing the riveting sounds on Black-oriented radio stations such as Nashville-based “Randy’s Record Shop” on clear channel WLAC.

Indeed, the dawning of my lifelong celebration of original Black R&B and doo-wop took place with my joyous discovery of Radio Doctors’ downtown record store.

Seeking to purchase The Spaniels’ haunting “Baby, It’s You” in 1953 after hearing it on “Randy’s,” I took a city bus to its original location. There, I found the tune on a yellow vinyl 45-rpm Chance label, paid 89-cents, and rushed home to again hear young James “Pookie” Hudson, Gerald Gregory, Willie C. Jackson, Opal Courtney Jr. and Ernest Warren do their unique thing.

Years later, I was astonished to learn the group recorded the tune—written by Hudson—as mere teenagers while finishing high school in Gary, Ind. And to this day “Baby, It’s You” remains the best doo-wop/R&B record ever. And I’ll always recall finding their original at Radio Doctors.

Bronzeville Musical Memories

After a few years downtown, Radio Doctors moved to Third and Garfield—right across the street from the old Schuster’s department store—which was great news for me and my teenage friends. Now we had a record store nearby that stocked all of the latest R&B sounds, and it became a magnet for Black high school students at Lincoln and North Division.

One of my best memories of buying records at Radio Doctors was the kick we got out of playing them in glass-enclosed booths prior to purchase. Vintage movie fans may recall a pivotal scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Strangers on a Train (1951), in which tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) quarreled so loudly with his wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers) in such a booth that it incurred the ire of the store manager. 

Many records we bought at Radio Doctors were played as we sang along and danced at Saturday night house parties and Friday “Canteen Nights” at the Northside YMCA at North Sixth Street and West North Avenue. And I vividly recall kids shouting their requests to party hosts. 

In the 1960s, Radio Doctors again relocated to a convenient neighborhood spot next to a pet store at the corner of Third and Meinecke. The owner, Stu Glassman, once put a sign in the window hailing the return of his son from military service—staging a week-long, half-price (45-cents) sale of our favorite 45 rpm doo-wop records.

Hearing the news, I rushed to Radio Doctors and, like a mad-dog in a meat house, gobbled-up a dozen—eight by The Spaniels. As a result of my love affair with the store in Milwaukee, I actively sought-out a similar, friendly outlet in New York, after arriving there in 1970. And what I found was Colony Records, at Broadway and West 49th Street, on the ground floor of the 11-story Brill Building, which housed more than 150 music publishing offices and studios.

The building’s lobby was in a key scene in 1957’s stunning Sweet Smell of Success, with Burt Lancaster as calculating newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as smarmy publicist Sidney Falco. 

All That Vinyl

In the 1990s, Colony Records is where I talked with many R&B legends while researching my authorized biography Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight: The Story of the Spaniels. Like Radio Doctors, Colony stocked the tops in well-known, and obscure, original Black R&B.

Founded in 1948, Colony—like Radio Doctors—had more than a million vinyl records. Colony also sold sheet music from Broadway shows and movies, and its goods often were perused by the likes of Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley and Ed Bradley of CBS-TV. A noted lover of doo-wop, Bradley and I would occasionally discuss our mutual affection.

Unfortunately, Colony Records met its demise in 2012 in the wake of a huge rent increase its owners could not meet. Radio Doctors, on the other hand, simply gave way to evolving technology and the changing musical tastes and buying habits of Milwaukee youth.

Yet, this unforgettable local record store—as does Colony in New York—remains etched in my memory. I still long for the days when people could endlessly browse among what seemed like an unlimited supply of music on 33, 45 and 78 rpm vinyl. Or as a certain Milwaukee radio DJ used to say: “Mounds of sounds and stacks of wax.”

That’s what we had—in a place we loved—at the Radio Doctors of my youth in Milwaukee.

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