Gary Owens on AT40

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(Pictured: Gary Owens at KPRZ in Los Angeles, 1983.)

When Gary Owens died three weeks ago, I was on the road and unable to cobble together a tribute to one of America’s most famous radio DJs. Fortunately, Premiere Radio Networks, the company that syndicates American Top 40, helped out last weekend by offering affiliates the show from September 12, 1981, which was guest-hosted by Owens. It was the third option for AT40 80s affiliates on that weekend, so I doubt many of them aired it, but I got me a copy of it, because of course I did. The first part of a two-part live blog is on the flip. We’ll do part 2 on Monday.

38. “General Hospi-tale”/Afternoon Delights. When I first took over the afternoon show on KDTH in 1982, my boss thought it would be a good idea if I had a soap-opera update feature. He had a friend who was addicted to Days of Our Lives, so I would call up this woman a couple of times a week and she’d tell us what was happening on the show. It was not good radio. Because she didn’t tell the plots very well and I couldn’t keep them straight enough to talk intelligently about them from week to week, it wasn’t long before we took the feature out behind the building and shot it. “General Hospi-tale,” about the soap then at its peak cultural influence thanks to the highly publicized romance of Luke and Laura, wasn’t much more explicable to non-GH viewers. But it did well enough to eventually make #33.

36. “I’ve Done Everything for You”/Rick Springfield. Further General Hospital flavor, with the singer/actor who played, and still occasionally plays, Dr. Noah Drake on the show. (“Jessie’s Girl,” a former #1 hit, is also on the show, up at #11.)

The first thing you notice about Gary Owens on this show is how “announcery” he sounds. All you can think of is his Laugh-In persona, in the studio with his hand over one ear. But after a while, you don’t notice his perfect diction and glorious pipes as much as you notice the twinkle. Where that magnificent voice could have been off-putting had it belonged to somebody else, Owens’ great gift was to sound friendly and accessible in spite of it. And he was. When he died, absolutely every tribute to the man talked about how nice he was, to fellow radio types and to regular listeners who crossed his path.

35. “Chloe”/Elton John. If you remember hearing “Chloe” on the radio, I’ll give you a dollar, because I don’t. There’s a copy of Elton’s album The Fox up here in the office someplace, but I bet I haven’t played it since 1981.

33. “You Could Take My Heart Away”/Silver Condor. I am pretty sure I haven’t heard “You Could Take My Heart Away” since 1981, either. Guitarist Earl Slick, famed for his gigs with David Bowie and Phantom Rocker and Slick, is on this.

32. “Share Your Love With Me” and 31. “I Don’t Need You”/Kenny Rogers. The stuff Rogers made with Lionel Richie was the best stuff of his career—better songs and better performances than Rogers had been releasing in the late 70s.

31. “Draw of the Cards”/Kim Carnes. Any followup to a hit as big as “Bette Davis Eyes” was destined to come up short, even though “Draw of the Cards” is more interesting. (That video, though.)

Owens periodically remarks he’s on loan from Soundtrack of the 60s, the syndicated show he was hosting in 1981. But Owens’ daily radio gig in Los Angeles during the 60s (and until the early 80s) was on MOR station KMPC, where he did afternoons. After he left KMPC, he went to do mornings on KPRZ—a station doing the nostalgic Music of Your Life format. Day to day over the course of his radio career, I’ll wager he played more Frank Sinatra and Patti Page than he did the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

27. “Breaking Away”/Balance. Owens could have said this was Silver Condor and nobody would have known the difference.

25. “In Your Letter”/REO Speedwagon. It’s true, America—you’d rather hear “In Your Letter” than listen to “Take It on the Run” again. Honestly, you would.

“I’m Gary Owens, feeding the AT40 goldfish for Casey Kasem this week—and working for scale—as the countdown continues.” (Jingle out.)

11 thoughts on “Gary Owens on AT40

  1. David L. Bisese

    Do yourself a favor. Listen to that copy of (Elton’s) “The Fox” album that’s in your office. There were far more good songs than filler on that one.

  2. Mike Stenz

    I remember listening to this countdown when it first aired. I had just started keeping track of the full top 40. Until I went to the record store and got a peek at the label, I had no way of knowing how to spell “Hospi-Tale.”

  3. Andy

    I remember watching “Laugh In” as a little kid and loving it. Then I watched some episodes as an adult when it was re-aired by one of the cable channels in the 80’s (probably TV Land, not sure), and was surprised at how poorly it had aged. Still, I’ve always harbored enormous affection for all the members of that cast, who I think were all hugely talented, including Gary Owens. He somehow managed to simultaneously play it straight while fitting in seamlessly with the zaniness surrounding him.

    Totally agree that Kenny Rogers hit a home run with the Lionel Richie collaboration, although he pretty much sucked all the life and energy out of “Share Your Love With Me”, which was done far better years earlier by both Bobby Bland and Aretha.

    I’ve always thought that the release of “Draw of the Cards” (rather than the more commercial “Mistaken Identity”) as the follow-up to “Bette Davis Eyes” was a key career misstep. It’s an intriguing track, but it’s hard to imagine anybody listening to it and thinking “this is gonna be a big hit”, and I doubt it would have even made the top 40 if it weren’t the follow-up to the biggest hit single of the early 80’s. Carnes already had a couple of things working against her: By 1981, she was a bit older than the average breakthrough star (right at the dawn of MTV, when that started to really matter a lot), and she’d made the choice to work outside her natural mainstream pop/country/folk wheelhouse, in favor of a synthesizer-heavy New Wave-esque pop that wasn’t really her forte (though some of what she did in that vein was excellent, as a whole it all seemed a bit poser-ish and slightly pretentious.) The ultimate result was a slow, half-decade career death spiral, which was a shame, given how talented she was.

    I’ve got “General Hospi-Tale” on my iPod, and I even have the album somewhere, though I’ve never listened to it. The only top 40 hit, to my knowledge, that name-checks Richard Simmons.

  4. porky

    recently got a best-of Jackie DeShannon and her original version of “Bette Davis Eyes” is on it. Whoa, kind of in the vein of “Last Time I Saw Him” by Diana Ross or “Who’s in the Strawberry Patch” by Tony Orlando. Someone with good ears heard the potential of the underlying tune.

    And speaking of original versions, I was surprised to see that Sammy Hagar wrote “I’ve Done Everything For You.”

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  7. mikehagerty

    I don’t know how this burbled up into the “Hottest” column after five years, but I’m glad it did, since it posted before I discovered THJKOC.

    Gary Owens was why I wanted to be on the radio. My parents listened to KMPC more than any other radio station, and while the first voice I remember hearing on the radio was Roger Carroll, Johnny Magnus taught me about jazz and I loved their helicopter traffic guy, Captain Max Schumacher, it wasn’t until I heard Gary Owens at age 8 that I wanted to do THAT.

    I was blessed to meet Gary in person at the Radio and Records convention in Los Angeles in early 1979. In 2004, Gary wrote a book (How to Make a Million Dollars With Your Voice), and I had him as a guest, by phone, on a talk show that I was the substitute host for.

    I introduced him and said “Gary, you won’t remember, but you and I met a few years back…” and Gary jumped right in “Oh, no, Michael. I do! We were in the lobby of the Century Plaza Hotel at the R&R convention with…..” and then he names the other SIX people standing in that circle having that conversation 25 years before.

    I hadn’t told his publicist, or anyone at my station, that story—he remembered. And I was no big deal in 1979—not that I ever have been—just a 22-year-old music director from Reno, I’m told that this was Gary—he just remembered.

    They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Gary Owens was an exception.

    1. Every story I have ever heard about people interacting with Gary Owens, without exception, ends with them saying what a kind and lovely man he was.

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