Pulling the Plug

When I got fired from my first full-time radio job, they didn’t blow me out the door right away. They let me work for six weeks while I was finding another job—and while they were finding my replacement.

Why I decided to hang around where I wasn’t wanted is simple to explain: I was 23 years old, and I didn’t know any better. I gladly accepted the opportunity to stay on while job-hunting, and I continued as a productive employee and genial colleague right through my last day. What I should have done with their offer was to say, “Thanks but no thanks, I’ll be fine,” and hit the street the same day they told me I was out. But since I was newly married and afraid to be unemployed, I did what seemed like the right thing.

On the air that last day, I didn’t explain precisely why I was leaving, only that I was. Because KDTH jocks were embraced by listeners as part of the family, I took lots of calls from well-wishers that day, and it was a gratifying experience. It could have been otherwise. I could have told the audience that I had been fired and why, and expressed bitterness about it—and I was indeed bitter. But I thought of myself as a consummate professional, so I went out the door like I imagined a consummate professional would.

Only in later years did I realize how unusual my situation had been. Usually, when you get fired, you’re out the door instantly. (Ken Levine says he thinks that studio chairs are on wheels so management can roll guys out in a hurry when the time comes.) That’s because not everybody reacts well to being fired.

On March 1, 1976, the decade-long Top 40 duke-out in Chicago between WLS and WCFL ended with WCFL’s surrender. Rather than simply throwing the switch on a new format out of the blue, WCFL announced it in advance, a couple of weeks before they intended to switch to elevator music. They told the jocks that all of them would be fired except for Larry Lujack, who would serve out his expensive contract by playing the Swelling Strings Orchestra in afternoon drive.

The jocks were told not to discuss the format change on the air. They worked their shifts as usual for the next two weeks (like consummate professionals), with one exception. The morning after the announcement, the morning team of Dick Sainte and Doug Dahlgren, freed from the need to toe anyone’s line, spent their show fooling around, bashing the management, bashing the current format and the coming format change—and even calling WLS morning man Fred Winston live on the air. The show went on for nearly four hours before management finally pulled the plug on Dick and Doug a half-hour early. They never returned to WCFL’s air, although a couple of weeks later, they spent an hour on WLS with Winston, continuing the farewell anarchy that had marked their final morning on WCFL.

The audio archive at Chicagoland Radio and Media has airchecks of Dick and Doug’s last show and their appearance with Winston. The site calls them “classic 70s radio” and that’s right—36 years later, nobody does this kind of thing anymore, and those of us who loved it then love hearing it now. Nevertheless, I wonder how the average listener felt about those shows while they were actually happening on those fabled mornings. Both are remarkably silly, even by standards of Top-40 morning shows, and are crowded with in-jokes that likely zoomed over the heads of most of the audience. But for fans of Chicago Top 40, they’re a time-trip worth taking. It’s the style of radio I fell in love with; Dick, Doug, and Fred were who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Still do.

More Signal, Less Noise

This is not so much a post as it is a promotional announcement, tipping you to the stuff of mine that has appeared recently at WNEW.com. If you like the usual crap at this blog, you may also enjoy:

—The bottom five positions on the Billboard 200 album chart dated June 1, 1985, in which Linda Ronstadt reinvents herself again and Bruce Springsteen sweeps all before him.

—The story of a major rock figure who’s been in jail the last 28 years, and all the famous folks he played with.

—The most mind-blowing Roy Orbison single, which hit Number One 50 years ago this week.

—A tribute to stereo geeks, those guys who loved their equipment more than the music they played on it, including a 1984 TV report on the hottest new technology of the day, the compact disc.

—Five things about the late Gil Scott-Heron.

The next post at this blog, and the last one for this week, is scheduled for tomorrow. Meanwhile, radio geeks can conjure with this: a TV clip from February 14, 1972, featuring the jocks from WLS in Chicago, including Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, and John Landecker. Were it not for these guys, I would never have ended up on the radio.

They’re Playing Our Song Again

The first radio countdown I ever heard was the WLS Big 89 of 1970. I’d already discovered the station’s weekly Hit Parade surveys by then, but the idea of playing survey songs on the radio in reverse order was new to me. (Hearing the whole year’s top songs on a single show was riveting.) If WLS ever regularly counted down its weekly survey, I never heard it, although its great competitor WCFL did—for a brief time, Larry Lujack did it on his Friday afternoon show. I used to rush home from school to hear the end of it, and at least once, I gave my little brother instructions on how to tape it for me. And there was always American Top 40, when I could catch it.

Certain countdown moments remain remarkably sharp: seconds of reaction remembered an unconscionable number of years later. Shock when “You’re So Vain” topped the Big 89 of 1972, terrible disappointment when Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”  clocked in way down at Number 65 on the Big 89 of 1974, and downright anger when “Philadelphia Freedom” came in at Number 5 for 1975 and not Number One, as I expected. (“Love Will Keep Us Together”? Are you shitting me?)

To listen to any countdown week to week is to experience the life cycle of hit records in their natural habitat. You can’t do it with the weekly rebroadcasts of American Top 40, because the shows skip around from week to week, but also because the life cycle of the records on those shows is settled history. But when the countdown is truly new each week, like the Casey shows were back in the day, the chart habitat is as unpredictable as nature itself. In the summer of 1976, I rooted for “I’ll Be Good to You” by the Brothers Johnson as it rose up the chart, and I still remember the disappointment when, after three weeks at Number 3, Casey announced that it had fallen back to Number 9. I knew in that moment that it would never hit the top. Survival of the fittest.

Tom Wilmeth is a writer in the Milwaukee area, a longtime countdown addict who still listens to them today—a surprising number of them, across a surprising variety of formats. Rock ‘n’ Rap Confidential sent along Tom’s latest blog post in its intermittent e-mail missive last week, and if you’ve ever loved a countdown, you should go read it now.

Other Recommended Reading: If you’re interested in a virtual tour of the radio complex where I work, click here. Mid-West Family Broadcasting was recently featured as Tower Site of the Week by Fybush.com. (They are, among other things, the people who run the fabulous Tophour.com.) You’ll learn more than you might care to know about transmitters and stuff, but you’ll see that I work in a beautiful facility for a company with a distinguished history. (H/t to our friend Yah Shure, who loves all that transmitter stuff.)

A few words about the football are on the flip, if you care.

Continue reading “They’re Playing Our Song Again”

Ghosts of Nixon

(I notice this is the 1200th post in the history of this blog. I gotta get a real job.)

During his 1970s reign as evening jock at WLS in Chicago, John Landecker recorded a couple of parodies that got a great deal of airplay on the station. Both featured Landecker’s impersonation of Richard Nixon, and both emerged during the Watergate scandal. The first one was “Make a Date With the Watergate,” borrowing the main riff and angel choir from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which must have come out in the late summer or fall of ’73. The better of the two was “Press My Conference,” a break-in record in the style of Dickie Goodman, incorporating snippets from hit songs, which date it to early 1974, about the time Goodman’s “Energy Crisis ’74” was getting airplay across the country. (“Press My Conference” lifts one joke from “Energy Crisis ’74” verbatim.)

WLS charted “Press My Conference” for two weeks in March 1974, showing it as “available only on WLS radio.” Ron Smith’s Chicago Top 40 Charts 1970-1979 shows it reaching a peak of Number 23, although the WLS surveys for March 9 and March 16, 1974, at Oldiesloon don’t show a chart position. “Press My Conference” features the voices of longtime Chicago newsman Lyle Dean and WLS jocks Larry Lujack and Yvonne Daniels.

According to WLS historian Scott Childers, “Make a Date With the Watergate” and “Press My Conference” were pressed onto a flexi-disc for promotional giveaways. There’s not much additional information about either of the parodies available online; one source says pressure from the White House led to WLS dropping the parodies from the air, but that’s it. I hadn’t heard either one of these since the mid 1970s, but my Internet buddy Pat found them at YouTube, and here they are. The audio is taken from the flexi-disc, although the songs were later pressed onto conventional 45s.

A few years later, Landecker recorded two more parodies. “Jane (Beat the Machine Dame),” based on Jefferson Starship’s “Jane,” came shortly after Jane Byrne was elected mayor of Chicago. In 1981, after Byrne briefly moved into the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago, Landecker responded with “Cabrini Deeds,” based on AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”

Recommended Reading: In the comments to last week’s post about the Smothers Brothers, somebody mentioned Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which appeared to be nearly as disrespectful to authority as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was. But Laugh-In was actually quite conservative; head writer Paul Keyes was a Nixon confidante, and kept Laugh-In on Nixon’s good side at the same time Tommy Smothers was landing on his enemies’ list. Kliph Nesteroff of Classic Television Showbiz wrote a fascinating piece about Keyes at WFMU’s Beware of the Blog last September that is well worth your time. Also worth it: a couple of recent posts from Barely Awake in Frog Pajamas, one that links Colonel Sanders and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to music from the early 80s, and one about listening to whole albums on the radio late at night. I’m late mentioning both of those, so head over there now. And at Debris Slide, everything you always wanted to know about B. J. Thomas.

Top 5: New Teachers and Old Landmarks

It’s October 1971. I’m in Mr. Schilling’s sixth-grade class at Northside School. He is the first male classroom teacher I have ever had, a peculiar and unpredictable combination of fun guy and hard-ass. I like him, and not just because he’s the first teacher who doesn’t give me a poor grade in handwriting—he can’t do it, he says, because his handwriting is even worse than mine. A teacher I like much less is Miss Hibbard, which is not her real name. She is the director of the district’s sixth-grade band, which rehearses one or two afternoons a week, and I am a not-particularly-talented saxophone player with a smart mouth. What I remember about Miss Hibbard is that she was extremely young—on her first teaching job that fall, if I had to guess now—and she had the habit of speaking her mind, often without editing. One day in rehearsal, she said something to me, or about me, that incensed my mother when I reported it at home. I don’t remember what it was, but Mom actually called Miss Hibbard to complain, which is something I can’t recall her doing any other time.

A big obsession that fall is touch football. Being on the 1971 Grade Football League champion Northside Browns is the highlight of my sorry athletic career. But my biggest obsession is the radio. I have written about the music from October 1971 during several other Octobers in the life of this blog, ringing changes on the most familiar songs: “Maggie May” and “Spanish Harlem” and “I’ve Found Someone of My Own” and “All Day Music” and others that still retain the power to take me back there, to the football field or the band room or the school bus, like “Annabella” by Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds or “Charity Ball” by Fanny. So this time, here are the Top 5 albums on WLS for the week of October 4, 1971:

1. Every Picture Tells a Story/Rod Stewart. This album didn’t appear on the WLS list of top albums for the week of September 27, but it stood atop the list the next week and stayed there through October. It may have been Number One in Chicago even longer than that, but WLS apparently did not publish an album list on its November surveys until the last one of the month, when the album had fallen to eighth.

2. Every Good Boy Deserves Favor/Moody Blues. Propelled by “The Story in Your Eyes,” which wasn’t especially big on WLS that fall, making only Number 14 on the station’s chart in a six-week run. In the years since, it’s become my favorite Moody Blues song.

3. Shaft/Isaac Hayes. The title song from the movie wouldn’t debut on the WLS chart for a week yet, but the album had come out during the summer. It hit the top spot in Billboard in early November, a couple of weeks before the title song did the same thing.

4. Tapestry/Carole King. This landmark album had been on the radio all summer, and the double-A-sided single “So Far Away” and “Smackwater Jack” kept the roll going. Favorite piece of trivia about the album: King is pictured on the cover at her home in Laurel Canyon with her cat, who was named Telemachus.

5. Who’s Next/The Who. I bought the single version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” late that summer, edited to 3:37 from 8:32, and it would be maybe three years before I heard the full-length version on the radio. The familiarity of the full-length version makes listening to the 45 a distinctly odd experience. A colleague of mine once suggested that the unexpected transitions are so jarring that they make you feel as though you’re tripping over something.

In October 1971, I have made a full trip around the sun with WLS in my ear. I have more to come, but it will be several years before another autumn trip captures my imagination the way 1971 does.

One Day in Your Life: September 3, 1970

September 3, 1970, is a Thursday. A nationwide manhunt is underway for four men suspected of blowing up the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin 10 days earlier. President Nixon is in California, where he meets a top-level delegation from Mexico and hosts a state dinner. A host of political and diplomatic celebrities attend, along with Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Red Skelton, and other Hollywood stars. Representatives from around the world meet for the first Congress of African People, which is held in Atlanta, Georgia. Illinois adopts a new state constitution. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi dies of colon cancer at age 57; Canned Heat guitarist Al “Blind Owl” Wilson dies of a drug overdose at age 27. Future college and pro basketball player George Lynch is born; so is Jeremy Glick, who will attempt to fight back against the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, and die in the crash. A hailstone weighing 1.67 pounds and measuring 5 1/2 inches across is found near Coffeyville, Kansas. It will be the largest ever found anywhere until 2003. For the first time since September 1963, outfielder Billy Williams is not in the lineup for the Chicago Cubs, breaking a streak of 1,117 straight games played. Without him, the Cubs beat the Phillies, 7-2. In the minor leagues, the 1970 International League regular season ends with the Syracuse Chiefs finishing first. The Arcata Union newspaper in California reports that since G and H streets in Arcata were made into a one-way pair, five of the six service stations on the two streets have suffered sharp declines in gasoline sales.

Shows on daytime TV today include 17 soap operas (counting Dark Shadows) and eight game shows. Shows on TV tonight include Family Affair, That Girl, Ironside, This Is Tom Jones, Dragnet, Bewitched, and Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers. At Criteria Studios in Miami, Derek and the Dominoes record “I Am Yours,” “Anyday,” and “It’s Too Late,” which will appear on their forthcoming album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Joni Mitchell tapes an episode of BBC in Concert that will be broadcast in October. Jimi Hendrix plays Copenhagen, Denmark and Led Zeppelin plays San Diego. A triple bill at the Fillmore West in San Francisco features Johnny Winter, Boz Scaggs, and Freddie King.

At WLS in Chicago, “War” by Edwin Starr is Number One again this week; “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago makes a strong move from Number 7 to Number Two. New in the Top 10 is “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” by Creedence Clearwater Revival at Number 8. Other big movers: “Julie Do Ya Love Me” by Bobby Sherman (22 to 14) and “Groovy Situation” by Gene Chandler (25 to 18). Aboard a Wisconsin school bus, a kid just entering fifth grade at Northside School discovers the best place to sit.

Perspective From the Present: I confess that I don’t know for certain whether September 3, 1970, was really the famous day I first sat under the radio speaker on the school bus and my future was set for me. I know it wasn’t long after school started, and I am fairly sure that I was collecting WLS music surveys by the end of September, so it’s as good as guess as any other. I know this, however: Derek and the Dominoes were not on the radio that week. The Layla album wouldn’t be released until November. On November 5, 1970, they appeared on The Johnny Cash Show performing “It’s Too Late,” which they had recorded in September. I am pretty sure I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth another look.

Stop back during the holiday weekend. There’ll probably be something new here at some point.