(Pictured: Bob and Ray, 1951.)
The death last week of Bob Elliott sent me to the public library for Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons, a 2013 biography of the team by veteran TV writer David Pollock. Among the fascinating facts about Bob and Ray’s career is just how fast they rose to the top of the heap in radio—after starting on local radio in Boston in 1946, they were offered a weekly show on WNBC in New York in 1951, and went national not long after.
Bob and Ray did a daily morning show on WNBC. Their main competitor was the man who ruled morning drive-time in the nation’s biggest market, and who is sometimes credited with developing the modern morning-show format: Gene Rayburn, whose show on WNEW, first with Jack Lescoulie and later with Dee Finch, was #1 in the late 40s and early 50s.
Like Bob and Ray eventually did, Gene Rayburn moved into TV, an easy jump given that New York was the nation’s media capital in the 50s. He was both a game-show guest and host by 1953, and was the announcer on the original Tonight show with Steve Allen. Rayburn hosted the original incarnation of Match Game throughout the 1960s, but he remained on the radio all the while, appearing on NBC’s weekend Monitor service from 1961 through 1973. He left Monitor for the 70s Match Game revival, which was taped in Hollywood, although he never moved to California. He commuted across the country for the tapings from his home in Osterville, Massachusetts.
Rayburn’s original aspiration had been to act, and he never lost it. In 1961, when Dick Van Dyke left the lead role in Bye Bye Birdie for his own TV show, Rayburn took the part. As late as 1991, he appeared in a summer-stock production of La Cage Aux Folles. Rayburn died in 1999 at age 81.
As for Bob and Ray, their NBC gig in New York eventually had them working 12-to-18 hour days doing both local and national radio shows six days a week. They moved into TV in the early 50s and after appearing in a series of wildly successful ads for Piel’s Beer, they opened their own creative firm to develop advertising. Although they maintained a long-term relationship with NBC-TV, they eventually moved to WINS radio in New York. Like Rayburn, they appeared on Monitor during its 19-year run, often hanging around all weekend just in case they were needed to fill a few minutes here or there. Their last major gig was on National Public Radio. Ray Goulding died in 1990 at age 62; Elliott was 92.
(Pioneering DJ Alan Freed began playing R&B late at night on a station in Cleveland, but his big break came when he landed the night shift at WINS. While he prowled the nighttime, banging along with the beat on a copy of the Manhattan phone book, Bob and Ray were improvising their way through the mornings. WINS was also the flagship for New York Yankees baseball at the time, so add legendary broadcaster Mel Allen to the list of indelible personalities on a single radio station.)
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