“Good morning, my soul-licious listeners” is how Felix Hernandez recently greeted his Saturday-morning audience, the many thousands who tune in for his long-running Rhythm Revue show, which airs and streams on WBGO, Newark’s public-radio outlet. I’ve counted myself among them since early 1995, when my boss on the copy desk of the magazine I worked at informed me of the show’s existence. Nearing what then seemed to me the wise old age of forty, he possessed an edgy wit and encyclopedic knowledge of mid-century American jazz and soul, his headlines sometimes containing sly references to Charlie Parker or Wilson Pickett. On Mondays he would grill me about what I’d heard on Rhythm Revue that weekend, and, clearly more important, what I’d liked. Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” or Al Green’s “I Can’t Get Next to You”? Aretha Franklin’s “Think” or Little Sister’s “You’re the One”? Pickett’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” or The Supremes’—and why? It was like a test I had to pass to gain his trust, which I think I did, eventually. When I told him a few months later that I’d received the special three-CD Rhythm Revue compilation for giving money during WBGO’s spring pledge drive, he reacted as if I’d been saved from perdition.
That compilation came packaged in a sturdy cardboard booklet filled with liner notes and classic black-and-white photos of the artists, along with a touchingly sincere expression of gratitude from Hernandez himself: “Despite the original time slot (Saturday mornings 6 to 10), Rhythm Revue found a large audience of people who were starving for R&B sounds of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, sounds which had disappeared from radio by the 1980s…. For your loyalty and support, I thank you, the listeners.” “I Thank You” also happens to be the title of a Sam & Dave classic that Hernandez often plays, and I have to believe the echo was intentional. Over the years, Hernandez’s playlist has grown to include R&B sounds from the ’80s and ’90s, with artists like Prince, Lisa Stansfield, and Boyz II Men joining the roster. The show is so popular that Hernandez long ago spun off an incarnated version, the Rhythm Revue Dance Party, held at venues in New York and New Jersey and drawing as many as three thousand people in its heyday (the pandemic put a crimp in things, but the party is back to being held on a regular basis). Recently, WBGO added a few hours of Rhythm Revue to its Sunday schedule.
The WBGO website refers to Hernandez as “the maestro of the groove,” which is appropriate, since he’s no latter-day barker of the pop-music airwaves. His appeal lies in the quiet but obvious joy with which he shares the songs he’s selected and steps aside to let the music take over. He’ll play five or six tracks in a row; sometimes he introduces what’s to come, other times he recaps what he just played. There’s no shtick, no act, and—this being public radio—no commercials. Occasionally he’ll share lesser-known details about a certain producer or backing musician or the provenance of a lyric, yet with none of the ponderous self-importance of stereotypical FM personalities. Hernandez traces his love for music to his Philadelphia upbringing; he listened to local R&B radio, and his Cuban father played a lot of Celia Cruz around the house. As a student at Temple University, he hosted his own show. He was still a child when his mother told him he should play records for a living: “She wanted her kids to be happy before they were wealthy,” he told the New York Times in 2006. On the air, Hernandez definitely sounds happy.