In 1982, I moved to a small apartment on an urban street in Dubuque. It was the only time I have ever lived by myself—I’ve always had family, roommates, or a spouse around otherwise. So I had the radio on a lot for company, and in those days, I listened to Chicago’s WGN most of the time. Sometimes I’d be doing other things around the apartment, or reading, but sometimes I’d just listen, with all my attention focused on the radio. I’d settle down on the couch at 9:00 for Milt Rosenberg’s Extension 720, the most literate radio talk show ever, and then, after the late news at 11, Chicago Eddie Schwartz came on. Many were the nights I’d be up until the wee hours just listening to him. For two decades, Schwartz was a Chicago radio institution, but only to night owls. From 1973 to 1982, he did overnights on WIND, then moved to WGN, where he remained until 1992.
To listen to Schwartz was to hear Chicago alive at night. His show was relentlessly local. He wasn’t averse to calling city officials in the middle of the night to get answers to questions, and he had regular sources for information about almost everything. (He loved cops, and they loved him back.) In 1982, outraged over the city’s failure to stock its food pantries, he started an annual food drive that raised millions. Yet despite his Chicago-centric show, he had listeners everywhere, as WGN’s nighttime signal boomed over much of North America.
Schwartz was an unlikely radio star, with a high, wheezy voice, and was morbidly obese to boot. As a result, he was an easy target for a few other Chicago jocks to make fun of. When he went from WGN to WLUP in 1992, he was joining the station that led the way in ridiculing him—“it was like the cool kids in school who’d been teasing him came calling, and he went with them,” his longtime producer said. The move turned out to be a bad idea. His contract wasn’t renewed in 1995.
Schwartz was unlucky enough to hit the open market at a time when locally originated overnight programming ceased to be particularly important. He couldn’t go back to WGN because it had a well-established overnight show, all-talk WLS wasn’t interested in him, and he wasn’t interested in going to another city. He wrote a column for a suburban newspaper chain for a while, and remained hopeful. And even out of radio, Schwartz continued to live on the night side, telling a Chicago columnist that he stayed up until 4AM most nights just to keep his body clock properly set in case an opportunity came calling. It never did. In recent years, he had health problems, and some reports say he was nearly broke. Earlier this week, Chicago Ed died at a nursing home in the Chicago suburbs at age 62.
Nobody who loved Ed’s show will forget his theme song:
So now my friends it’s dark time
The stars hang overhead
Maybe you are drivin’
Maybe you’re in bed
Maybe you’re on the night shift earnin’ extra bread
No matter who or where you are
It’s time your head was fed
Chicago Ed, Chicago Ed
He fills your morning and he feeds your head. . .
Indeed he did.
(Top 5 post tomorrow, and more on Tommy James come Monday.)