Sterling Yates, an accomplished musician, comedic actor, and radio and television host was an important promoter of jazz in the Pittsburgh area during the 1950s and 1960s. He played jazz by national and Pittsburgh area artists on his KDKA radio programs and his WQED and KDKA television shows. Yates also emceed many jazz concerts and seminars including the Newport Jazz Festival. A witty creative comedic actor he gave life to colorful characters on the Rege Cordic radio show, Josie Carey children’s television show Funsville, the Mr Winkles Christmas television series, and his own daily KDKA TV variety show. Sterling Yates entertained children of the baby boom and their parents with memorable comedy and great jazz music.
Symphonic and Jazz Musician
Sterling C. Yates, born in Chicago in 1925, grew up in Pittsburgh. Studying with Mr. Robert Bechtold at the Bechtold Music Store in Wilkinsburg Yates became a very talented clarinet and saxophone player. He continued his music studies at the Carnegie Tech School of Music in Pittsburgh graduating in 1951. While still in music school he performed regularly with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Wheeling Symphony playing oboe, English horn, and clarinet. A well known jazz clarinetist he performed with Erroll Garner and other Pittsburgh jazz greats.
Cordic and Company Comedian
Yates went on to work in radio at Pittsburgh station WWSW-AM. The Rege Cordic program ‘Cordic and Company’, which began on WWSW in 1948, was the most popular morning show in Pittsburgh. Sterling Yates joined the cast of ‘Cordic and Company’ giving voice to the comedic characters Baldwin McMoney, Dad, the Question Man, Oob and Li'l Oobl. In an interview with the Post Gazette Rege Cordic said “Yates was one of the most talented people I've ever worked with. He was a brilliant voice-concept person, with a really unique sense of humor." The "Cordic & Company" show moved to KDKA radio on Labor Day 1954.
Going down Melody Lane
In 1954 Yates became a regular cast member on the Dumont Television Network show “67 Melody Lane” starring popular organist Ken Griffin. The series, filmed in Pittsburgh, was set in Ken's home with Yates playing his producer. Yates introduced the various musicians who appeared on the show including Johnny Costa and Joe Negri.
KDKA Radio and TV Years
Yates moved over to KDKA radio to continue his roles on the Cordic show. With a commanding 85% share the KDKA Cordic and Company show dominated the Pittsburgh drive time market for a decade. The Cordic and Company show ended in November of 1965 when Rege Cordic took over the morning drive-time spot at KNX (AM) in Los Angeles to replace Bob Crane who left to star in Hogan's Heroes.
Sterling Yates roles and popularity grew at KDKA while he was on the Cordic show. He became a radio DJ, an actor on children’s television shows, a hockey announcer, an occasional guest clarinetist on the Slim Byrant show, and a host of his own daily TV show.
Sunday Mornings with Sterling
Yates hosted his own KDKA radio show on Sunday mornings. As an accomplished musician he was given free rein to play great music. Yates aired jazz, big band tunes, Broadway music, Steve and Edie, Sinatra and novelty songs on the show that ran from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. It was an oasis of music in the day of Top 40 radio. Opening the show each week with the rich strings of the David Rose Orchestra’s "Take My Love", Pittsburghers woke up to glorious music every Sunday. In a 1988 interview with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Steigerwald family of sportscasters John and Paul and guitarist Dan, said that their father would wake them up every Sunday so that they could listen to Yates.
After his Sunday morning shows Yates headed back to his house in Shadyside where he held jam sessions with his musician friends that started at 2:30 PM that sometimes ran to 4 AM in the morning.
Sterling Yates also hosted an hour long 8 P.M. Saturday jazz show. Billboard Magazine wrote “Jazz is getting an important voice in Sterling Yates. Sterling Yates has started a new series, "A Little Jazz," on KDKA, Pittsburgh, from 8 to 9 p.m. on Saturdays.” Yates played hip progressive jazz introducing new releases every week. With KDKA’s powerful 50,000 watts Yates evening jazz show was heard throughout the Midwest and Northeast.
Yates’ support for jazz was noticed nationally. According to a report in Billboard Magazine Yates emceed the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival introducing Theolonous Monk, George Shearing, and Anita O’day and other jazz greats. In 1959 Yates also hosted a concert that was broadcast live on several radio stations from the Hotel Sherywyn featuring Dodo Marmarosa, Reid James, and John Costa for a United Way fund raiser. On WQED-TV in 1961 Yates was the host of the weekly series the “Jazz Scene’. He featured performances of local and national artists. Legendary jazz pianist Dodo Marmarosa recorded three songs on the show that are included on the Uptown Records 1997 CD release “Pittsburgh 1958”. The cuts include Danny Conn’s arrangement of Horoscope Virgo Movement, along with the Oblivion, and Dodo’s Blues. Yates is given credit on the album.Funsville
Beginning in 1961 Sterling Yates appeared on Josie Carey’s a live half hour afternoon children’s show on KDKA-TV called “Funsville. Running five afternoons a week, Funsville was a zany after school favorite of Pittsburgh baby boomer kids. Pianist Johnny Costa performed jazzy music and played the silent character Indian Mary. Sterling Yates was the puppeteer and voice of the tiny monkey Fenwick Bitty BitBit and other characters. Yates also played the eccentric inventor Mr. Wrinkles. Wearing a lab coat and an “idea hat” containing idea cards Mr. Wrinkle took Josie to his secret laboratory where he worked on his wild inventions, starred at his spinning spiral, and gazed through his magic window. Josie Carey described the show as “silly” with Sterling always going for the joke. Yates and Costa co-wrote songs with Josie for that were performed on Funsville. Syndicated on the Group-W network Funsville was also aired in Boston, Cleveland, and Baltimore.
Mr. Winkles and the North Pole
Each Christmas season Mr. Wrinkle took children on a daily visit with Santa on the imaginative show 'Mr. Wrinkle Goes to the North Pole”. It aired Monday to Friday at 6:15 to 6:30 PM. Viewers of Funsville sent letters to Santa in care of Mr. Wrinkle at KDKA. Picking up a bag of letters from his secret laboratory he set off on his daily visit with Santa. Mr. Wrinkle blasted off on his “Star Rocket” space ship to fly to the North Pole to deliver the letters to Santa. Mr. Wrinkles landed his rocket ship on Santa’s roof. Sliding down the chimney into Santa’s living room, Mr. Wrinkle dusted the soot from his white lab coat. Santa, played by the delightfully merry Ed Schaughnessy, welcomed his friend Mr. Wrinkle. A big box in the middle of Santa’s living room was the home of the Elves. The Elves were heard yammering away in their high pitched squeaky voices when Yates or Santa lifted the door on top of the Elf’s Box. Yates would also visit with Santa’s friends Gnorman the Gnome and Susie Snowflake played by Josie Carey. Each year Mr. Wrinkle would help Santa save Christmas from some threatening calamity such as the disappearance of the rein deer, stolen letters to Santa, or lack of snow. At the close of the show Santa would read the letters from viewing children that Mr. Wrinkle delivered. It was pure magic for baby boomers who believed in Santa.
Sterling Yates and Bob Prince became the play by play television announcing team of the Pittsburgh Hornets Hockey Team in 1962. They worked together on the Hornets games that were televised on KDKA-TV for several years during the early 1960s.
In 1963 the Pittsburgh Playhouse asked Yates to star in one of their productions. Sterling made his stage debut in "Take Her, She's Mine" playing a father of two headstrong daughters. He appeared again at the Playhouse in production of "A Thousand Clowns".
Daily TV Show
In March of 1964 Pittsburgh Post Gazette TV Critic Win Fanning wrote that KDKA was letting “the mad man of music and many voices” out of his cage on Sunday mornings to host a daily television show. Running Monday through Friday at 9 am it was a variety show that featured interviews, musical guests, and comedy skits. Yates portrayed the characters Dr. Ernest Libido, a psychiatrist for animals, and Aunt Fanny, a cook with 87,000 peanut butter recipes. National and local musicians appeared on the show.
Sterling Yates hosted a television special on October 3 1966 that was simulcast on KDKA-TV, WTAE, and WIIC. A kick off event for the United Way, the show was filmed in color at various locations around Pittsburgh such as the “bridge to nowhere” and the Civic Arena” Yates introduced the acts which included the Joe Negri Trio, the Vogues, singer Judy Knatch, and The Four Of Us. Yates was at the height of his popularity in Pittsburgh a star of radio and television.
To New York
In 1966 KDKA decided to dump local live programming to air less expensive syndicated reruns. KDKA replaced “Funsville” with reruns of the “Rifleman” so that children could watch Chuck Conners gun down people. Silly jokes, zany puppets, fun songs, Indian Mary, and Mr Wrinkles were replaced by "Hey Pa" and gun fights. Sterling Yates daily morning television show was replaced with reruns of the Real McCoys.
Rather than being content to just host his long running Sunday morning radio show, Sterling Yates ended his 13 year relationship KDKA. He moved on to the biggest market in the U.S. for a job on WNBC radio. Working in New York City Yates hosted the daily giveaway quiz show “Fortune Phone”. With an apartment on Park Avenue he was living a good life until tragedy struck. He suffered an aneurysm in 1967 and had to undergo intensive speech therapy. Yates returned briefly to WNBC on the show “Swap Shop”. He closed out his career doing commercial voiceovers.
On his retirement he moved back to Pittsburgh in 1988 settling in Shadyside with his wife Jeanne Negley Yates in 1988. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 11, 1991 at Shadyside Hospital.