The Night John Lennon Died

(edited a bit since first being posted)

I keep telling regular commenter Yah Shure that he needs his own blog. His knowledge of pop music is encyclopedic, and he’s an old radio guy on top of it. Twenty-eight years ago tonight, he was on the air at WJON in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and was doing an oldies show after the 10PM news block as part of his evening shift. Here are his memories of that night:

WJON’s 10 o’clock report typically ran until a little after 10:25 PM Central time. I kicked off my oldies show with a big hit, but I have no idea now what it was. That record was still playing when the news reporter, having just finished her newscast, came in and mentioned that there had just been a report that John Lennon had been shot. She handed me the bulletin from WJON’s Associated Press teletype:

BULLETIN (AP)

(NEW YORK) — THERE’S A  REPORT THAT JOHN LENNON HAS BEEN SHOT.  IT HAPPENED IN NEW YORK, ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE.

POLICE SAY A MAN TENTATIVELY IDENTIFIED AS THE FORMER BEATLE WAS SHOT AND WOUNDED AND HAS BEEN TAKEN IN A POLICE CAR TO ROOSEVELT HOSPITAL.
A SUSPECT HAS BEEN TAKEN INTO CUSTODY.
NO WORD JUST YET ON HOW SERIOUS IT IS.
AP-MP-12-08-80 2225CST

The original AP bulletins sent on December 8, 1980 (click to enlarge)

The original AP bulletins sent on December 8, 1980 (click to enlarge)

I immediately began to roll tape to record ABC Radio’s closed circuit feed. [A network audio link that would transmit bulletins to member stations–Ed.] Ordinarily, I would have said something going into the next record, but I just segued in order to buy some time. There wasn’t enough information in the news bulletin that I felt like I should have read it right then and there, and I needed to prepare for some contingencies depending on how the story played out. I reached into the bin of current 45s next to the turntables on my right, and pulled out “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Having just moved to a brand-new building next door barely two months earlier, WJON had mostly all-new equipment in the on-air studio, including turntables. But there were only two, and I was using them both to play my own records. So I set the Lennon single down next to one of them to have within easy reach if needed.

I don’t recall anything about what songs I was playing at the time, because of the suddenness of the Lennon news.  Some people—myself included—can sometimes remember exactly what music was playing at a given moment. But part of being an on-air radio personality involves doing a lot of mental multitasking, and there was plenty of that going on at that moment. But at this particular moment, the things that would normally occupy my mind were bumped aside because of who it was that had reportedly been shot. . . .

When the breakup of the Beatles was announced in 1970, it was no real surprise. Really, what else could they do as a band that they hadn’t already done? But letting go of the dream that they would continue to blaze the trail was a lot more difficult than accepting the fact that they were calling it a hard day’s day. There was always the chance, however slim it might have been, that they might make some more music down the road. Subconsciously, the sudden possibility that this may never come to pass filled me with a foreboding feeling. I wanted to be proven wrong, but deep down inside, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the ABC Radio news bulletin light in the studio would come on.

I’d segued into a third record when that light came on, followed by the closed-circuit alert to affiliates mentioning the forthcoming bulletin “on the death of John Lennon.” [The AP transmitted a four-word bulletin over its teletype: “John Lennon shot dead.”–Ed.]

My heart just sank.  I cued up “(Just Like) Starting Over,” its now suddenly ironic title hitting like a hammer.

I recorded the bulletin, rewound and cued the tape, and played it on the air without saying a word, followed by the Lennon record. At that point, the adrenaline took over, as I scrapped the planned show, playing nothing but Beatles records and repeating the recorded bulletin several times. There was nothing much that I could add or say. I’d had the wind completely knocked out of my sails. The dream really was over.

At 11 PM, I got off the air, then went back to the newsroom with a box in which to place all news items on John Lennon. I took calls from friends who’d heard the news while watching Monday Night Football. I had some commercials to produce, then set about preparing for an entire evening’s worth of Lennon and Beatles music and tributes for the following night.

It was about 1:30 AM when I made the two-mile drive home from WJON to my apartment on the other side of US Highway 10. Some time around two o’clock, while sitting on my bedroom floor and looking at some Beatles 45s, the adrenaline wore off, the reality sunk in, and I cried long and hard.

As so many did. Please share your memories of that night in the comments, if you’d like.

21 responses

  1. jb, I’ve told Yah Shure the same thing about blogging. This demonstration of his knowledge and writing skills was perfectly timed and much appreciated.

    I was making pizza in a restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana when the news came on the radio. The station played rock, now known as classic rock, so everyone listening with me was a Beatles freak. We all were numb.

    Then I had to go back to my form, wake my roommate, and tell him. He acknowledged the news, went to sleep, then woke with a start in the morning when it finally registered.

    What a sad, rough night.

  2. I was watching Monday Night Football when Howard Cosell (begrudgingly) broke into live programming to inform us that Lennon was shot dead in New York City from an assailant’s bullet.

    Here’s a link to a “dialscan” from an unknown source from wfmu collecting live reaction of the4 sad news…

    http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2005/12/nyc_radio_the_n.html

  3. I don’t believe it’s correct to say that Cosell “begrudgingly” reported Lennon’s death. He said he was “duty bound in having to tell you,” but it wasn’t because he didn’t think it was important. I take him to mean that he was required to report something so unpleasant and he wished it were otherwise.

    See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gcdz1IRVoM

    When Lennon visited the Monday Night Football booth in 1974, Cosell interviewed him amiably, and took time off the air to explain the game to him.

    See the interview here:

  4. Found this blog, thanks to a link from my friend, Yah Shure.

    I remember being on air myself, December of 1980. Only being a young DJ (21 at the time and 7 years experience by then), I seem to recall getting the newswire copy and being in total shock. Our Music Director at a station in Jamestown, NY, where I was then, came by the station and the 2 of us spent time into the wee hours (after sign-off) retrieving every John Lennon and Beatles 45 from the library so we could do a fitting tribute over the days that followed.

    If you enjoy Yah Shure’s contributions, join us all over at Pat Downey’s http://www.top40musiconcd.com site. Wonderful chat forum and an even more amazing database that Pat has.
    You’ll know what CD’s do (or often don’t) contain the true 45 versions that we’ve all come to love…

    I’ve bookmarked this blog and hope to pop in and contribute to the discussion.

  5. I woke up the morning of Dec. 9th to my clock raido playing Beatles music. The station played several in a row and I thought that was odd. I started to think something bad must have happend. When the DJ came on he said the words that still haunt me today. John Lennon was dead. Shot to death. I started to cry. I was in a state of shock the whole day. I could’nt work or think about anything but why ,why, why ! Every time I hear ‘Imagine’ or any Beatle song, I still ask myself why. How can somebody kill such a great and kind man. He was and always will be my Hero. I miss him.

  6. I was at home in Monticello, Minnesota, watching football. I’d no doubt been reporting that evening at a Monticello City Council meeting — the second Tuesday of the month — but it must have been a much shorter meeting that usual for me to have been home in time to hear Cosell’s announcement. I just went numb, I guess, and when we went to bed I was unable to sleep. I got up and watched “Nightline” cover the news and wandered off to bed sad and still numb. The next day I went home from the newspaper office for lunch and listened to a Twin Cities radio station playing the Beatles (and Lennon solo) A to Z. As I was listening, and “Imagine” was followed by “In My Life,” I lost it and the tears came.

    This was a great post, jb. Thanks for recruiting Yah Shure for it. I agree with you and Sean that it’s long past time for him to have his own blog. He’d be a natural.

  7. Really lovely post.

    I happened to be at the dentist’s office the following morning when I heard about Lennon’s death.

  8. I can’t add my story, since I was born in ’84, but it’s interesting to read others’ stories. It’s fascinating. . . if it weren’t for that one event, how many people today would be able to remember specifically what they were doing on December 8, 1980? Memory’s a funny thing.

    And I want to sign the petition encouraging Yah Shure to write a blog. :)

  9. Thanks for the kind words. Much of my memory of that night had long been placed under lock and key in a back closet of the brain, and I really had to sit down and piece it back together. Many thanks to jb for giving me the opportunity to share the results of the mental reboot.

    Thanks, too, for the blogging encouragement.

  10. Melanthe Alexian | Reply

    The time was 10:50 p.m. I had just come into the front room to watch local television news. A picture of John had just flashed onto the screen, Channel 8’s Mike Ahern quoting hospital spokesmen, “There’s blood all over — we’re doing the best we can.” Started flipping channels and landed on one with a crawler announcing that John had been shot to death.

    I was in Bloomington, Indiana too. I worked for WQAX, a campus/community cable FM stereo radio station. We were off the “air” that night. I couldn’t get to the studio, nor could anyone else. I spent the night DXing New York stations, making aircheck tapes of the worst night in rock and roll history.

    I did a Lennon special as soon as I could, and every year thereafter. I collected tapes of interviews, rarities, and more airchecks, and I read from John’s writings and from my scrapbook. I ran Lennon specials on December 8 for ten years, then changed them to October 9 when Yoko asked people to celebrate John’s life. I still feel a little strange tonight — like I should be sitting at that console.

    Happy Xmas.

  11. Obviously the “second Monday” of the month. Oops!

  12. That night, I was on the air at AM 79, KOSY in Texarkana. I remember playing “Starting Over”, and adding the sound effect of a door closing, where the music stops near the near of the song.

    Later that night, I heard he had been shot to death….it gave me a really wierd feeling. I would not have used the sound effect had I known what was going to happen that night.

  13. Didn’t the AP wire ring the alarm bells, reserved for nuclear war and such?

  14. I was in the studios of WATK/WRLO-FM, Antigo, Wi. Being an engineer I was working on whatever but stayed to give a hand answering phones and watching the wire. Looks like the copy came from one of the more modern Extel dot-matrix printers and not the old classic Model 15…..PD

  15. pd, yes, the pictured AP bulletins came from WJON’s dot matrix printer.

    We had an old model 15 down the hall in its own closet at my college station, until the student union claimed that spot for a service elevator. The clacking teletype ended up in – of all places – the station’s restroom, which wasn’t roomy to begin with. Never heard any stories of the Charmin being threaded through the wrong apparatus, nor of any ten-bell alarm bulletins having to be relayed aloud through the door.

  16. I LOVE JOHN LENNON

  17. Melanthe Alexian | Reply

    Bill: The Associated Press reserves twelve bells for a nuclear attack or the second coming of Christ. That night, AP rang five bells, code for a bulletin, two levels above important. Iniitial reports of Martin Luther King’s shooting apparently got six as did.initial reports of the JFK shooting.

    (When the report went out that a priest had been called in to the Parkland Hospital ER, AP rang the bells eighteen times. When Kennedy’s death was confirmed, there were 22 bells. Absolutely unheard of.)

    UPI apparently rang all of its ten bells for initial reports of Lennon’s shooting. Some people only heard nine, appropriately enough.

    We didn’t have a teletype at WQAX, but I have read/heard about this stuff from other news people and DJs who were working that night.

  18. […] remembered. And he invited regular commenter Yah Shure – a regular visitor here, as well – to look back to that evening in 1980, when Yah Shure was the deejay at WJON here in St. Cloud. It’s a great […]

  19. […] (Another radio tale from the night Lennon died is here.) […]

  20. I woke up the next morning to the sound of my mom crying. When I went into her bedroom, she told me that John Lennon had died. She went downstairs and played Starting Over on the stereo over and over that morning. I never fully understood that moment, but I’ve never forgotten it.

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