THE FIRST STEVIE WONDER AND TALES FROM THE WAY BACK MACHINE
Bill Wax who runs our Bluesville Channel pulls me aside to play me something. It's really, really good in a very rootsy way. Then he shows me the CD cover and tells me about the artist. It's a "kid" named Sugar Chile Robinson. He's 12 years old! One problem: It was recorded in 1951 ! Apparently a clothing company is using him in an ad. Bill did his "research" and found the CD on a French label. This kid is unbelievable. Unfortunately his timing was REAL bad. 1951 was not an easy time for a Black kid to get discovered and marketed to the mainstream. If it was ten years later, maybe Sugar Chile would be in Stevie Wonders shoes.
Sugar Chile is now 67 years old and living in Detroit (we think). It's the classic "what if" story. Imagine if this kid got discovered. I'll tellya he HAD the chops...it's an awesome record. Maybe a little late, but we're going to be all over this "kid". Bill Wax is playing it on Bluesville, Mindy on XM Kids, Matt The Catt on 50's, and who knows where else. This says a lot about a different kind of research. Researching genres to DISCOVER things that otherwise would be unknown forever. Here's to you Sugar Chile! I hope you FINALLY get what you deserve!
Speaking of discovery, if you haven't discovered the upcoming "Before The Music Dies" film. Immediately, without fail go to www.beforethemusicdies.com for info and a promo video. This is a documentary that MUST get seen. I'll leave it at that. Check the website.
Speaking of rewinding the clock--
When I was 18 I got hired to be Program Director of WRIF in Detroit, then owned by ABC. I remember flying into Detroit in December 1971 with a WMYQ windbreaker and diving into 8 degrees with blowing snow and a windchill of 11 below. WRIF then was an intimidating place. One one side there was ABC. The pinnacle of big league corporate radio. Then there was the staff, a combination of politically driven free form guys and hardened vets. Then there was the extreme left wing listener base, many from the anarchy driven Ann Arbor posse. Put these all together and it was easy to think "What the fuck am I doing here"? I had a nice gig at the second ever Top 40 station in Miami, living in a rented mansion with the entire staff (The "Q" house---we pooled our money for rent and got this amazing house) in the haven for rich hippies known as Coconut Grove. Oh yeah, but it's Detroit---Top 5 market, huge signal and the chance to really make some noise.
Despite my penchant for top grade pot and eclectic music tastes, most of the air staff thought I was the equivalent of a Narc from ABC. They either left or got fired. Art Penhallow who is still in Detroit and has become quite a legend stuck around. He was kinda scary. Big guy with a huge voice and all the charm of a pissed off biker. I couldn't figure out if he was horrible or brilliant---But that's when I learned the importance of "character"--He had that and with character it doesn't matter how bad or great you are from a conventional radio standpoint. He had character and it worked. We then brought in guys like Jim McKeon and Pat St. John and had the makings of a dysfunctional but effective staff. The station went on to quickly become #1 in teens, the first FM in any major market to do so. I think the ABC executives got kinda pissed off because they wanted 18-34's. We did great in 18-24 but I felt that with progressive station WABX in town, why go head to head with them when there were SO many 17 year olds who thought ABX was a little too out there and tended to be more of the Zeppelin, Tull crowd. We were completely off the reservation in terms of what ABC wanted us to do. I learned EVERY trick about fooling the home office which served me well when I became a consultant. It included paying off the executive secretaries in NYC (with Albums) to find out when the executives were listening or planning a visit. I will say though that those executives were great people with a lot of vision. Allen Shaw ran the FM group. I still hang out with Allen who became a major group owner. Then his right hand guy was Dale Pon who later created the "I want my MTV campaign" and Bob Henebery who had a deep knowledge of radio basics. These guys, especially Allen are very much unsung heroes of early FM radio.
We always got nailed in the press about "ruining" Free Form radio, In reality, as illustrated at WRIF, we never intended to ruin anything. We saw a group of unserved listeners and went after them. The Detroit case illustrates it. WABX WAS more adventurous, and in reality BOTH stations did very well. It's certainly not our fault that WABX blew it over the years, or many adventurous and Free Form stations collapsed under their own elitism....I wish they hadn't. There's a balance between serving enough people well to stay in business and doing something that people MANY people like. We did both.
Bob Hamilton who ran a popular trade magazine then printed a big cover story about two "up and coming PD's. (Scott Shannon was the other PD). The #1 in teen success got some good press, especially up against the powerhouse CKLW. Simultaneously, a guy named Dan Henderson who was the Afternoon DJ on WXYZ-AM our sister station pulled me aside and said "There's this guy who runs the big AM-FM in Raleigh and is looking to do something with his FM...will you talk to him"? Hell yes! So Carl Venters who ran WPTF in Raleigh comes to Detroit and we have dinner. He tells me of his 100,000 watt FM and how he can't figure out what to do with it in the college heavy Raleigh Durham market. By coffee we had a deal. I was going to consult him for $500, travel expenses and the chance to do some damage in a virgin market.
Uh Oh. Word got out. ABC said you can consult OR work for us. I saw a vivid image of Bill Drake, the famous Top 40 consultant of the 60's, sitting in a pool at his Bel Air home from a 1968 Time Magazine piece come into my mind. Then the fact I was making $200 a week programming one of the most successful FM's in the Country (Nixon had a wage and price freeze on and I was frozen solid)...then, it was kind of a no brainer. Plus I felt the ABC way of programming wasn't right...here was a chance to do it "my way"--very important for an 18 year old punk with an "all the answers" attitude issue. Geting out of Detroit was OK too. It was an electric place back then fashioning itself as the Rock n Roll capital of the World. The concert scene at Cobo Hall and Ford Theater was especially rich, though personally, it was generally a lonely and grey period outside of the scene and the station. I got evicted from my first apartment for "welcoming undesirables", my next place was unfurnished except for a guitar, amp, Marantz stereo and an inflatable pool raft for a bed. A bit depressing, but it was a time filled with SO much promise and hope. I was in a strange place--my high school friends were all living it up in college and despite a cool gig for an 18 year old, I was kind of an outsider as the people I hung around with were significantly older, lived in far away places or worked for me. I spent a lot of time...thinking.
So I hit the road....Went to Raleigh. Brought in David Sousa (air name was Jay Michael Stone--that HAD to go!) who I worked with in Miami at WMYQ to be the PD, and Robert W Walker (real name oddly enough) another Miami legend (WMYQ, Y-100 etc..) to set it up...brought in DJ's like Bill Hard who later ran a trade paper. Raleigh in'72 was an odd place for us. A couple of long hairs didn't play well, even in this campus town. Thank God we had Carl Venters, a local community leader and solid citizen to deflect the "Who the hell are these Yankees...I think one of 'em is a Jew" looks we'd get at the fancy company lunch spots we went to...and a lot of the old timers at the Big Southern Insurance Company owned AM gave us some pretty funny looks---the AM, WPTF stood for "We Protect The Family". The group we brought in probably looked more like 'We Kill The Family". However I remember going into a Wachovia bank to cash a check and hearing a tape of "Badge" by Cream playing---so I knew this was all going to work out. It Did. We went to an 11.7 share on one rating book. WQDR (which stood for Quad Rock---just in case quad happened)was a massive success. Everything about the station clicked---The marketing, the sound, the signal...everything. It was the Blueprint for the "Superstars" concept that was formally launched the following year, though the original notes for it go back to '67. But these were the real learing days...about creating, interacting, making mistakes, bonding...you name it. No more notepads and daydreams--this was it. There was no rule book--we were CREATING it. EVERYTHING was instict, along with some strange research I used to do like hitchking studies. Days on end hitchhiking to study in car listening habits. I wish EVERYONE in radio could have experienced whta I got to experience in the early 70's. It was Life 101 with a major in media and music. One of the things that's sadly amusing is that so many of those ideas and concepts created then are STILL being used on radio today...which is another reason I get crazy over the importance of we at XM RE-WRITING that damn 1972 playbook!
About the same time, I started to seek other clients. One was KROQ. Me and Robert Walker flew out to LA to meet with Gary Bookasta and Gary Price the two guys who ran the station at the time. THAT was THE weirdest trip...ever. The station was a disaster in every way. Signal, mission, everything. Of course years later under new management the station became massively good, successful and powerful, but in '72, it DEFINED "toilet". The whole thing struck as a front for "something". Gary Price went on to run KNAC which I consulted briefly. Great station in Long Beach...no signal. Not sure what happened to Gary Bookasta.
Another early visit was to see John Tenaglia n Philly who ran the General Cinema, a fledgling group of FM's in good markets. John had a deserved reputation as a hard ass, mean and nasty guy. Personally, I really liked him and we got on well. Did the best presentation possible--a real "sales" rap as John didn't want to hear any "save the world" stuff--he wanted MONEY. "Pitching" these guys was delicate. I found the balance of being who I was--a very young person that LIVED in the world of the listeners with a sense of broadcasting knowledge and a respect for the business side was effective. It worked. There were a lot of guys talking to big broadcasters who couldn't balance the two. They were either 100% music junkies who couldn't relate to the idea of a station making money--or rocket scientists who secretly thought Jimi Hendrix was a weido. I think that balance still works today--Thinking like a fan, balanced with the reality of what is....and NEVER getting bent out of shape about the bullshit....and doing everything you can to avoid contributing to it. (not easy)
Now John Tenaglia wouldn't hire me as a consultant but he had a station going up in Chicago and wanted to know if I would like to be the Program Director. YES! I can put consulting on hold. The Chicago story is a classic.....to be continued.