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Ted “T” Herring: Blind DJ’s world was filled with light

Ted “T” Herring. Photo by Doug Coffland.


Herring with Jazz88 DJ Claudia Russell.

A college campus on a Saturday night can be a desolate outpost to most people, but to Ted “T” Herring it was his window to the world.

Known to the public only as “T,” Herring hosted his “Every Shade of Blue” radio broadcast on the campus of San Diego City College for nearly every Saturday night for 33 years. In a relaxed and soothing voice and alone in the studio he would simply be “pickin’ ‘em up and layin’ ‘em down” in four and five-hour shifts on Jazz 88.

His blues radio show would captivate and inspire listeners, many of whom would pick up the phone to call him with requests or tell him stories about a song they had just heard and how that song had affected their lives.

“T” retired in June 2014 after 36 years at the station, retreating to his Clairemont home where he would live until he died in his sleep on May 5 following a two-year battle with a debilitating respiratory ailment. He was 69.

The popularity of his radio show and his long tenure at Jazz 88 earned him the title of Voice of Blues in San Diego, and he was proud to call his show “the longest running prime-time blues show west of the Mississippi.” Yet many of his listeners had no idea of the challenges he overcame just to bring them music.

His retirement coincided with the station’s transformation from playing records and CDs to a computer-based broadcast system. “T” had carefully developed a method of working alone, but that would no longer be possible under the new system without the assistance of an engineer
“T” had retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that caused him to live life with thick glasses from an early age until he became legally blind in 1990 at the age of 41.

“I’m a much better person blind than I ever was sighted,” he said in a 2010 broadcast interview with former Jazz 88 station manager Mark DeBoskey. “I listen better. You really need to listen to people when you are blind. It made me look more deeply into myself and do an evaluation. I learned how to create my own happiness.”

His spirit was an inspiration to those in his personal life, his co-workers at Jazz 88, and even to listeners who had no idea he suffered from blindness. He commanded a legion of loyal listeners, regaling them with stories about blues and the artists who performed the music.

“He had very open ears and he knew that the music was a connection to the listeners, so he learned what they wanted and delivered that,” said Claudia Russell, a colleague at the station. “He was a natural communicator and always had the sense to know what was needed to be said and how to say it.”

By his own admission he knew little about blues when he took over the show at the end of 1984. Jazz 88 had added a daytime blues show a few years before and later DJ Doug Coffland would establish its presence on Saturday night for five years.

“T” hosted a jazz show as well as a weekly “Guitar Hour” show but was up for the challenge of learning the blues.

The station had a limited blues collection of about 300 albums at that point. Coffland had supplemented that music from his vast personal library, a resource that disappeared when he left.

“T” scrambled to find enough music to fill his shift. He broadened the show’s scope from straight blues to encompass gospel, R&B, Cajun, New Orleans, and zydeco as well. He chose the name “Every Shade of Blue” to cover the variety of blues styles.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “My exposure to blues was the British blues bands I had heard.”

Those bands—the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, and others—had simply learned the blues from American artists that were often overlooked in their own country.
“In the beginning, I relied on listeners,” he said. They would call during the show to make requests and he recalled one caller asking for a song by Slim Harpo, an artist he’d never even heard of.

“As I learned to appreciate the music and what it meant to blues listeners, I realized you really have to produce a quality product. Blues is a feeling that comes out in a place between your heart and soul.”

“T” was born in Detroit, but moved to California in 1957 with his mother and sister. They traveled cross-country in a car without a radio and passed the time by singing the pop songs of the day to themselves.

He listened to lots of music on the radio as a youth, but was years away from seeing it as a profession and spent his time on the debate team at Madison High School.

At the age of 20, wanderlust caught his soul and “T” found himself in Johannesburg, South Africa, producing the first rock concert ever in that country. He lost ever penny he had on the three-band show and later spent time crewing on a sailboat that left Mexico for Tahiti. He would later use his knowledge of Mexico to import clothing and art to Amersterdam, Holland, where he had met a friend.

He wrestled with a career plan, but one night at a Stanley Turrentine concert at the Catamaran Hotel in Pacific Beach, “T” said he heard a voice tell him, “You could be in radio.”

He checked into it and was about to enroll in a commercial radio school when he discovered he could learn the same thing at City College. He took some radio classes and had an idea to become a news broadcaster. His debut as a student broadcaster occurred on September 25, 1978, the same morning a PSA passenger jet collided with a small Cessna over North Park, resulting in the death of 144 people.

“It was quite a day and I knew I didn’t want to be delivering negative news to people, so I decided to be a DJ,” he said.

“The quality of the blues show went way up after he took over,” said his predecessor Coffland. “He had a great wit and personal charm, but what really shined through was his enthusiasm. That was just built into his nature and it showed.”

Another former colleague and longtime friend, Mark Chatfield, recalled how polished and smooth his on-air presence was.

“I’d see him rushing to get back into the studio when a record was ending and he’d bang into a wall, but he’d just slide into his chair like it was an easy chair and he was on-air with that cool, calm voice.”

“T” championed local blues bands, inviting them down to the station on a Saturday night for an interview, or to play live on the air.

One visitor noted that his tiny four-by-five-foot broadcast booth was dark, lit only by a couple of dim lights on the console. He told visitors that he didn’t bother turning on the studio lights since he was blind and it wouldn’t help him.

He was never one to complain about his blindness and often turned it into an advantage. In later years, many new CDs would be mailed directly to his home. He would unwrap them and listen to them, not knowing who the artist was nor swayed by any of the promotional bluster included in the CD package.

It was a pure way to evaluate the music. “T” often could identify the main musician or singer in the band, but he would wait for several hours until someone could sit down and read the credits to him off the CD package. He considered that a very pure way of identifying good music.
Along the way, “T” developed two side jobs. He became a mail-order minister with the Universal Life Church and conducted weddings, while also working as a massage therapist. Both of those he viewed as helping people.

“Conducting weddings actually was a beautiful gift to me,” he said. “I would conduct a half-hour or 45-minute interview with the couple ahead of time and record it, and then listen back to it to memorize it for the ceremony. That taught me to exercise my memory, which was very important to a blind person.”

He used to say he was so thankful for the years he had his eyesight and cherished what he had seen.

“I see in my dreams every night,” he told DeBoskey in his 2010 interview. “I’m never blind in my dreams. Sunsets and rainbows are not out of my life because I can see them in my dreams.”

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