One reason rock and roll is synonymous with Cleveland is radio and the personalities that gave it such character. From WJW, WERE, and WIXY in the AM area to WMMS in the glory days of FM, Cleveland radio has meant rock.
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, when radio was much more segregated than today, there were “race” stations and white stations.
In the black community, rhythm ’n’ blues, the then-new name for “race music,” was the rage. Rhyming disc jockey Bill Hawkins, the first black DJ in town, was the man.
“Walkin’, Talkin’ Bill Hawkins used to broadcast out of a window on 105th from Hawkins Music Stop,” said John Lenear, vice president of advertising at the Call &Post, Cleveland. (Lenear died July 14, 2006.)
Hawkins’s store was part of a thriving scene along East 105th Street between Cedar Road and Euclid Avenue. “Cedar was a community, there was a drugstore on the corner where we used to get milkshakes, you could buy ice cream hand packed.”
Lenear recalled Hawkins as a tall, mustachioed man who played rhythm ’n’ blues over WHK. “That’s the only music there was. There was no rock and roll. The white music then consisted of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and Johnnie Ray was, what kind of freak is this? Bill Randle, for black artists, I think he played Roy Hamilton, Johnny Nash, the Platters, Johnny Mathis—the white stuff.”
Hawkins was Alan Freed’s biggest competitor for the ear of the black audience, said Lenear, who worked for Freed and occasionally sang with the Five Quails, a doo-wop group.
Dick Goddard met Freed, the famous DJ best known as Moondog, in the late ’40s, when Goddard was a football player at Greensburg High School and Freed was a DJ at WAKR in Akron.
He played what was current back then, and the lyrics were not outrageous—they were very danceable and listenable, and you actually had melodies to songs, something that has long ago disappeared. —Dick Goddard, TV personality
By the time Freed began broadcasting over WJW in 1951, he’d befriended Leo Mintz, owner of Record Rendezvous on Prospect, and had begun playing black music for white kids. Some credit him, some Mintz, for coining the term “rock and roll.” Some, like WIXY founder Norman Wain, suggest Freed was at his strongest in Cleveland. He certainly made a huge mark here, mounting the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena on March 21, 1952. Billed as the first rock and roll concert, it created bedlam when sixteen to twenty-five thousand tickets were sold for a venue that seated only ten thousand.
Freed had already done that Moondog thing at the Arena not too long before. Alan Freed was a master of the theater of the mind: He had that sound, that little castanet sound from that Moondog beggar in New York, the show would start with that ch ch chchchchch, then you’d hear that howl. He comes on and says, “Down boy, down, we’re going to rock tonight.” He adopted what the black jocks did, he’d talk right through the records, he’d urge the singers on, he talked over almost every record. About a year later in New York, I was listening to WINS [where Freed ended up], it was terrible, he didn’t do any of the imaginative, exciting things that made that show. —Norman Wain, WIXY co-founder
“Down boy, down, we’re going to rock tonight.”
No one downplays the importance of the Moondog Coronation Ball or of Freed’s role in rock. Some credit Freed and Mintz with coining the term “rock and roll.” But some were familiar with the term before it became a musical tag, like the man who brought us the Agora:
I heard rock and roll before it was coined into music. I remember at one bar this guy was yelling at this girl, “c’mon, baby, let’s rock and roll.” He meant let’s go to bed and make love. That had to be ’49 or ’50, the first time I heard that term “rock and roll.” It was part of their language. Rock and roll meant “let’s go to bed.” —Hank LoConti, founder of the Agora
It was a black and white world indeed. Lenear recalled: “We did an event where we opened up a show for Bill Randle at some West Side high school, an all-white high school; the only black thing out there was the five of us. It was in a big gym and all the girls had on plaid skirts and white socks rolled up.”
Randle, who died in January 2004 at eighty-one, was one of the most influential disc jockeys of the ’50s and ’60s. Critical to the career of Presley, he also “broke” artists such as Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, and the wild crooner Johnnie Ray. Besides his work in the music industry, he was a teacher and a lawyer.
Rock was just beginning; there were no huge concerts, no clubs for kids, and in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the hits were mainstream, by Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, and, thanks to Randle, Johnnie Ray.
When the white artists started coming, they weren’t going to sing rhythm ’n’ blues. So they changed it to rock and roll. Billy Ward and the Dominoes, the Ravens, the Swallows, those smooth groups, that’s who you patterned yourself after. You sang sweet stuff. Bill Haley and the Comets finally came in with a backbeat. Alan Freed was the big dog. He helped folks who wanted to record, because he’s responsible for the Moonglows, Harvey Fuqua and those guys. Harvey was our manager. Alan Freed played a lot of our stuff because Harvey made sure that we got plenty of airplay. That was in the days when you dropped $100 on the table, you got some airtime. —Bill Strawbridge, musician
They used to do a lot of record hops back in those days, with Carl Reese from WERE. In those days, the talent, like Carl, didn’t touch any equipment. They had an engineer in the control room who played all the records, did all the commercials, kept a log. I remember doing a YMCA down around Five Points in East Cleveland. The DJ would spin records for a certain portion of the night, then they would have an additional attraction, the live band. There were generally a lot of people there because Carl was a high-profile disc jockey. —George Stage, fan (Kirtland)
The DJs with the highest profile were Freed and Randle. Freed, of course, is best known—in Cleveland, at least—for the Moondog Coronation Ball. Randle is famous for breaking Elvis Presley north of the Mason-Dixon Line and for having a golden ear.
I go back to ’54 and ’55 when I was in a children’s home, monopolizing Bill Randle on WERE. By ’55, he was playing “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Mystery Train,” and Fats Domino; he pushed Fats. He didn’t push Little Richard; Richard was a little wild for Bill’s tastes. —Bill Miller, musician (Mr. Stress Blues Band)
The first time Presley played Cleveland was February 26, 1955, at the Circle Theater. He returned there on October 19, when WERE-AM DJs Tommy Edwards and Randle brought him to play the venue at East 105th and Euclid. The following night, Randle presented the Hillbilly Cat at Brooklyn High School. Pat Boone, a Randle project, was also on the bill. On January 28, 1956, Randle introduced Presley to national television on The Jackie Gleason Show.
In 1954 there were eight AM radio stations and Randle had 50 percent of the audience. I had a show from 2 to 7 and at 6:30 I used to do “Big Chief’s Mambo Matinee” and play Latin records. Randle was at 1300 at WERE, I was at 1260, and at 6:30 every night he’d play a Latin song to confuse the audience so if you were tuning in you might think it was him. When record pluggers used to come and visit, I would ask why. They confessed it was a way to maybe force Randle to play a record.
Randle was the most incredible person I’ve ever met in my life; he had an IQ—must have been 180. He had a photographic mind and an absolutely perfect memory. He invented the whole idea of music research; he had his mother in Detroit, some friends in Pittsburgh, and lots of spies in the Cleveland area checking up on store sales, and the minute anything started breaking, he would get behind it. He wasn’t always first but he made you think he was first. I remember playing a record for fourteen days, the record’s beginning to sell, Randle would play it and say, “You heard it first on The Bill Randle Show.”
One time, I think it was ’55, Randle gets ahold of me, says, “Come on, we’re going to see the next big name in American music. This is his first concert above the Mason-Dixon Line,” and in walks this little skinny kid and he starts shaking his hips with three guys behind him—his name was Elvis Presley. I said, “You got to be out of your mind.” Bill says to me, “Remember the name Elvis Presley.” I couldn’t even spell it. Bill said, “I’ve been tracking him since his first recordings at Sun Records in Memphis.”
He would play rock records back to back with something from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He only liked the specific record, and he liked anything that was happening. He went wherever the audience pulled him. —Norman Wain
“In walks this little skinny kid and he starts shaking his hips with three guys behind him.”
You could never figure what the guy was going to do. He had so much money and connections and stuff, he had 50 million college degrees, and he used to consistently brag. God, did he brag. He was always telling you about he did this, and he did that. He did accomplish a lot, I guess. —Harvey Pekar, graphic novelist, music critic
Randle soldiered on into the 1990s; Freed, meanwhile, worked for WJW until 1954, when he left for New York’s AM powerhouse, WINS. In 1959, the payola scandal, targeting disc jockeys who traded pay for record play, broke—and broke Freed. Other Cleveland DJs probed for accepting gifts and money to promote records included KYW’s Joe Finan and Wes Hopkins. Top 40 radio was about to hit. Its standard bearers in the Cleveland area were KYW, CKLW—and WIXY.
CKLW was big, out of Detroit, it was where all the Motown came from. It’s actually in Windsor, and because of federal laws in Canada, it had to play a certain amount of Canadian music, so the Guess Who and Gordon Lightfoot came out of there first. A lot of big artists became really big in Cleveland because of CKLW: the Rationals, Ted Nugent, they were out of Detroit; Mitch Ryder, Terry Knight and the Pack. —Greg Beaumont, owner of the Record Den in Mentor
Perhaps the Detroit–Cleveland connection explains why Terry Knight and the Pack, which would evolve into Grand Funk Railroad, became the first rock group to play La Cave—that basement club off University Circle where folk turned into rock—on September 27, 1966.
I liked CKLW a lot more than WIXY. The disc jockeys made it seem exciting; they may have been a little more cutting-edge than the Cleveland stations. The power chords really got me the first time, like on “She’s Not There,” by the Zombies. They’d play “Empty Heart” by the Rolling Stones, an album cut on “12 x 5,” and the disc jockey would play it three or four times in a row because he couldn’t get enough of it. —Denny Carleton, musician (Lost Souls, The Choir)
We ended up listening to radio like crazy: KYW, WHK, WIXY. There was a disc jockey on CKLW named Shannon and he said the sun never sets on the Shannon empire. He sounded so British, and they were playing the British groups. When I go back now and look at some of the playlists, it wasn’t just British bands like I remember. Radio was our link to each other . . . Wherever you were you had your transistor radio. I can’t remember being without a transistor radio once I got into junior high. Before I had a car, I had a transistor radio taped to the handlebars of my bike. When we got together, it was “Did you hear this record? Did you hear that? Did you hear this? —John Awarski, fan (Cleveland)
“Before I had a car, I had a transistor radio taped to the handlebars of my bike.”
Thanks to my older brother and sister I was exposed to the hit parade in the ’50s and ’60s via radio, primarily and initially (as I can remember) WHK Color Radio and the good guys, especially Johnny Holliday. Then it was WIXY 1260 and CKLW the Big 8 in Detroit. Those pretty much saw me through the ’60s, although I lost interest in radio around ’68–’69 and pretty much listened to records for a while until WMMS radio entered my life via a homemade FM tuner. —Matt “the Cat” Lapczynski, former WMMS DJ
By the late ’60s, WIXY was the top AMer. Founded in 1965 by Bob Weiss, Norman Wain, and Joe Zingale, the station locked into a groove in 1966, when Larry Morrow joined from CKLW, a 50,000-watter at 800 AM; WIXY was only 5,000 watts, out of Seven Hills. To pump it up, Wain needed Morrow, aka the Duker.
Morrow had his first interview in Cleveland, on July 23, 1966, the last of six days of the Hough riots:
I turned on the television, I saw a movie on that I didn’t want to see, which actually was the Hough riots. It had a bunch of army national guardsmen fighting with the police; then I turned to Channel 5 and said, that’s unusual to have the same movie on both channels. Then I went to Channel 8 and realized what was going on. It was scary . . . I needed the job, and I couldn’t work in Detroit because CKLW owned the name Duke Windsor, and I was popular in Detroit. The radio stations didn’t want to hear about Larry Morrow; they wanted Duke Windsor.
Norm Wain was out of town when I started on September 23 and maybe three or four days before, Jane Scott had done an interview. In the interview, she said, “What are they going to call you?” I said I think I’m going to use my real name, Larry Morrow. So she writes, “WIXY Makes the Duker Theirs,” but she talks about Larry Morrow. Norm Wain is driving back from Pittsburgh and when he picks up his radio station to hear his new guy, Duke Windsor, he hears Larry Morrow and is livid. He runs in the radio station and says, “I hired Duke Windsor.” No one knows who the hell Larry Morrow is. I said, “Hey, I’ve been on the air for a week already as Larry the Duker Morrow.” The Duker it was. —Larry Morrow, radio personality
WIXY’s glory days were 1966 to 1971, when Wain and his associates sold it. The station stayed in operation until 1975. Among its celebrities: Morrow, Armstrong, Mike Reineri, Dick “Wilde Childe” Kemp, Lou “King” Kirby, Jerry Brooke, Bobby Magic—and, briefly, Billy Bass. It was the WMMS of its day: high profile, promotionally brilliant, community oriented, marketing driven. It had a whole gang of personality:
First of all, the music was very exciting in those days. The Beatles were coming out with their stuff. Elvis Presley was hot. All the records were fantastic; they were all short and exciting. On top of that, we threw every possible promotion you could think of into the mix. One of the biggest things we ever did was the Francine contest, where this girl with big boobs was attracting all the attention on Wall Street—we tried to find a Cleveland girl who could do that, we found two and sent them to New York. We had all kinds of ticket giveaways. There was a song, “Lady Godiva” [by Peter and Gordon, 1966], so we put this woman who looked like she was naked on a horse and rode her down Euclid Avenue. We had the WIXY 1260 Superstars; the jocks went out and played basketball against high school teams. It wasn’t just the music, the jocks were wild, and there was so much going on we knew we were the talk of the town and if you didn’t listen, you missed a day, you missed a lot. —Norman Wain, WIXY co-founder
Larry Morrow drove Neil Diamond and his band to Chippewa Lake for a concert in August 1968 in “our first annual WIXY Appreciation Day.”
Neil Diamond had a song out called “Solitary Man.” I picked Neil Diamond up at the airport with his band in my new Chevy wagon. They had their instruments; I picked up the drums. There were four of them, and I brought them to the concert and took them back. The second year we moved it to Geauga Lake. It was outdoors, all outdoors, right by the water.
“We didn’t pay anybody. In those days, they came in to promote their records.”
A hundred thousand came. Unbelievable. It was free. We did two or three of them. I remember Tommy James and the Shondells were there; Smokey Robinson and the Miracles came in. We didn’t pay anybody. In those days, they came in to promote their records, and WIXY 1260 was just starting to become recognized nationally as a station where you could break records. And Cleveland, Ohio, was a great city to break records. —Larry Morrow
FM was beginning to rear its head, however. Shaker Heights native Martin Perlich, a pioneer of so-called free-form radio with his Perlich Project, reminisces:
The rock scene in ’62 would have meant Brian Hyland, the Four Seasons, Dion and the Belmonts . . . to me, if you didn’t listen to Bartok and Alban Berg you listened to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. I was an improvising pianist, rock and roll to me was baby music, and it had no adult content and was purely a commodity as far as I could see in those days. Then of course the ’60s happened and the Beatles happened. I was working at WCLV in 1965 doing a classical music review, new releases, the Audition Booth.
It mutated into the Perlich Project:
I was doing folk music, humor, far out things like Sun Ra, Alan Ginsberg, bebop. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to be eclectic, and I don’t know that there is a true category today. I would play Ravi Shankar, early Dylan, Glenn Gould, “Howl”—I went to the limit as far as I could, and it was very popular. I was interviewing Devo in the ’70s, and they said, “We should interview you, we were listening in Akron.” —Martin Perlich, DJ, author
One key link between AM and FM in Cleveland was Billy Bass, who worked at WIXY, WNCR, and finally, MMS. Wain raised his profile and then some.
Norman Wain, the owner, said, “I don’t know what people see in you, you’re not a good jock, but for some reason people like you so we want to give you a shot at WIXY.” Of course I wanted to do it, but could I do it? Could this no-talented, untrained person be in the same room with the greatest disc jockeys in the world, Chuck Dunaway, the Wilde Childe, Mike Reineri, Larry Morrow, Lou “King” Kirby, Chuck Knapp? I forgot the biggest guy: Jack Armstrong. I was scared to death, and Norman said, “Look, I’m going to put you on all night, midnight to six, but I’m going to give you your own show from 6 to 10 on Sunday nights to do whatever you want.” WHK-FM changed call letters to WMMS in 1968. I said okay; I did the WIXY format on the weekdays overnight and learned how to be a Top 40 jock, but on Sunday I did Billy Bass and Friends. At WMMS, I thought I was popular. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the audience I had on Sunday night at WIXY 1260. If ten people heard me on WMMS, a thousand people heard me on WIXY. WIXY became a way of life. —Billy Bass, DJ
“If ten people heard me on WMMS, a thousand people heard me on WIXY. WIXY became a way of life.”
The WIXY Allstars was a basketball team that played high school staff for charity, also played teachers. We never lost a game. Billy was there from ’69 to around ’72, and wherever I took the Larry Morrow Allstars we packed the place. Everybody wanted to see Billy Bass. When he was on NCR—this predates MMS—he was playing, like, the twenty-minute cut of Iron Butterfly’s “In a Gadda da Vida,” and nobody was doing that. When MMS started, Billy Bass was the reason MMS became so popular. I remember telling Walt Tiburski, who was my intern at WIXY, who then became the general manager of MMS, that Billy Bass ought to pull down his pants and have every one of the MMS disc jockeys kiss his butt for what he did for the station. —Larry Morrow
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, free-form, or underground, radio was giving DJs the opportunity to personalize their programming by playing long, experimental album cuts. The era of Top 40 and the 45 rpm single was passing.
Bass and I used to get together on a regular basis for breakfast at the Forum Cafeteria on East 9th Street, just south of Euclid Avenue. Bass was doing his all Sunday night WIXY thing at the time, we’d go to breakfast at 7 in the morning. There was one morning where I’d just finished reading a long Billboard article on the FCC saying stations that simulcast their AM programming on their FM signal had to become more diverse and play separate programming on their FM station. So I said to Bass, why don’t we start a radio station? I suggested to Bass that we go see Perlich. We pitched the idea to Martin and we came away from there agreeing that I would write up a programming proposal and present it to Nationwide [Nationwide Insurance, which then owned WGAR and WGAR-FM].
Nationwide hired some college students from CSU. It worked out so well that they called us again, and Bass suggested they hire Martin as a first step; they did, and that worked out so well, they came back and hired Bass. That was kind of like the first phase of the history of NCR-MMS, a continuum. —Larry Bruner, former manager of La Cave
In 1970, the year Scene began publishing, Bass was riding high at WIXY. But he couldn’t refuse the NCR offer.
The general manager offers me the program director’s job at WNCR, like $500 a week. I was doing well at WIXY, but this was actual salary. So I took that job and hired Martin Perlich and David Spero and put the first woman on the radio in Cleveland as a disc jockey, Shana Zurbrugg. Now, the counterculture has grown. We got people working at banks who are antiwar. We got politicians who are antiwar, people on TV being antiwar.
So now we could take an antiwar stand on the radio twenty-four hours a day, and basically WNCR’s purpose under my direction was to entertain the people with music, but most importantly it was to raise the consciousness about ending this horrible nightmare for all of these friends and relatives getting killed over in Vietnam. I’m not as smart as Martin Perlich; I wasn’t feeling it from a geopolitical point. I was just feeling it from people I knew; my own half brother went to Vietnam and died there, and none of this was making any sense to me, so whatever I could do in my little, small way, that was what it was all about. —Billy Bass
By 1973, the classic MMS lineup was in place, with Bostonians Denny Sanders and John Gorman in charge as, respectively, program director and music director. They hired legendary DJs such as Kid Leo, Bass, Spero—and, over the years, Ed “Flash” Ferenc, Jeff Kinzbach, and Matt “the Cat.”
At the beginning, MMS felt like a new community:
I was so a local kid, Euclid senior high and Cleveland State University. Got my degree in civil engineering. Our college radio station spawned Kid Leo, Matt the Cat, Betty Korvan [Bez Korovan], Ed “Flash” Ferenc, and myself, all came out of Cleveland State’s closed-circuit radio station. It was awesome, and so two years in I discovered these guys, first time I smoked dope and six months before I graduated realized I wanted to make my life doing radio and my brother told me to finish school so I would be a marketable commodity. Three days after graduating with a civil engineering degree, I was working at the record store [Music Grotto, on East 24th Street], probably for about $1.75 an hour. —Larry Bole, fan (Cleveland)
This was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to really get in before FM was all that important—remember, this is 1973—and that was it. We got in before anybody paid attention to FM radio so we were able to create an image. The chemistry was fabulous. Everything worked. And for ten years there was barely an on-air lineup change. That never happens. —Denny Sanders, former WMMS program director
Denny and I had radio experience and a staff that hadn’t had much radio experience, so we were able to sculpt the station to something that was unique. Right from the beginning, we said we wanted to be the biggest radio station in the country and we could see the possibilities. We were going to play music for its merit, we didn’t care if it was old or new, it wasn’t, as a lot of people feel, a free-form station. The staff had a lot of freedom to play what they wanted, but you had to play something from category A, B, and C, which forced everybody to play different kinds of music.
The one thing album rock stations did is they were programming strictly to a counterculture. You’d go to Coventry; it was a tiny counterculture but it was there nonetheless. But you could see this was a city ready to break out, and as we started playing acts like the Alex Harvey Band, Suzi Quatro, Roxy Music, we started getting this response from our audience. And we realized we were hitting upon something. We were not only reaching the counterculture, we were converting the culture, period. We were turning people on to a wider variety of music than since the days of Top 40, and Cleveland did have great Top 40 radio. —John Gorman, former WMMS music director
“We were not only reaching the counterculture, we were converting the culture, period.”
MMS was your touchstone. WMMS and Scene magazine for people of that age, and in terms of us, our growth pattern, they needed something positive or something they thought was positive, something to get above the bullshit they were living in. —Michael Stanley, musician
The Bird Is the Word
When I first moved here, I moved to East Cleveland. At night I’d hear gunfire. My drive to and from work was going down Euclid and the station was at 55th and Euclid, roughly. There used to be a sign at 55th and Euclid saying you’re entering Mayor Perk’s Model Cities program, and the sign was half-faded. As soon as you drove up to that railroad bridge where the sign was, it really was Desolation Row, it was like the Bronx, and you didn’t really see any sign of life until East 105th and Euclid. Other than Severance and Case, it was a pit. It looked like a dying city. And the original WMMS had no windows. It was like a bunker. You’d get out at the end of the day, get in this parking lot where people were constantly having their cars stolen.
One day Denny and I were talking about the WBZ logo [a famous symbol of Boston radio] and that night I’m driving home. It had to be January, February, a particularly lousy gray day and you’re reading about these Fortune 500 companies moving out and how Mayor Perk raided the school funds, and what would you expect to see flying over the city but buzzards? And all of a sudden it makes sense. The next day, we talk and Denny likes the idea. The salespeople said, “You’re trying to praise Cleveland’s failures.” I’m saying, “Exactly. Why not tell the truth about this frigging city?”—John Gorman
The Belkins, the Buzzards, and Budweiser were like a three-legged stool.
Everybody was pulling the rope at the same time. Everybody was working together; it was a client-based, band-based, record-based relationship. Everybody had an agenda, but everybody’s agenda was one another’s. So it was all tied in, so people like Kid Leo would say go see this band, people would go see it. —Barry Gabel, promoter
It was absolute synergy. This couldn’t happen again. What put Cleveland on the map was, everything did line up right: the music scene, the musicians, retailing, lifestyle, radio stations—none of them could have made it on their own as successfully or for the length of time.
“What put Cleveland on the map was, everything did line up right: the music scene, the musicians, retailing, lifestyle, radio stations”
The Agora was perfect as an MMS outlet because of Hank’s ability to get to the right bands and with the record people. Record companies were either trying to break new acts or records or get airplay, with Hank going to MMS to do live broadcasts and letting him be the key sponsor. Again, it was everything tied together, and the fans all wanted to be part of this. He put the fans closer to their music. You could always rely on them having good music, and there was this trust that the music MMS was going to play was going to be good, they were going to introduce you to the best of the best, the Agora was going to play it. When you walked into a Melody Lane or Music Grotto, it was “what’s new this week?”—”Daffy Dan” Gray, owner of Daffy Dan’s
There was that period of time during the ’70s and part of the early ’80s where the sports teams all sucked in town; the Indians were crap, the Browns might have some seasons where they were sometimes OK, and the Cavs had some sort of the miracle of ’76. Some of the guys at MMS were kind of superstars to people like me, like Kid Leo, Denny Sanders, Matt the Cat. We had a radio station that broke Bowie, and Springsteen always comes here, breaking acts like that; even during those years when they were winning all those contests in Rolling Stone, I never had any problem with their stuffing the ballot box because there weren’t any rules that said you couldn’t.
People could ride your ass for being from Cleveland, but you could always say we’ve got great radio; somebody would come out with a new album, they’d have the world exclusive. The station had given the city of Cleveland, for a number of people, some sense of pride and identity they could latch on to despite the river burning, the mayor’s hair on fire, the city in default. For a while they gave the city something to feel good about. —Chris Jacobs, fan (Rocky River)
I came of age in the mid- to late ’70s, when rock and roll in Cleveland reached its zenith. My girlfriends and I lived for Fridays at 6 p.m. when Murray Saul did the weekend countdown on MMS capped by his “you gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta get DOWN dammit!” routine, followed by the era’s rock anthem, Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” With the radio blaring in my bedroom as I got dolled up for a night cruising up and down Lorain Avenue with the girls in my friend Maureen’s Impala, it was thrilling and sexy and, for those days, kind of subversive.
WMMS was our touchstone—everything revolved around the oh-so-cool radio station and its rock-star-like DJ personalities. I was in love with the raspy-voiced, dark-haired Kid Leo, and remember a visit to the station as editor of my high school newspaper. He and Matt the Cat genially posed for photos and signed autographs for the geeky high school press; I was in heaven. To cap it off, they gave away albums by a new artist I had never heard of. I took the album home and was blown away by Meat Loaf’s operatic, over-the-top Bat Out of Hell. Cleveland was one of his breakout markets. —Patty Sheehan, fan (Strongsville)
Murray Saul and his “Get down” made waves—for years.
Murray Saul would go on a rant, a rampaging rant. You could hear the spit flyin’ off of him, and I remember him saying ‘It’s bee week, eat your honey.’ He would put everything into it—he sounded like he was having a coronary every Friday at five o’ clock, and then they’d play ‘Born to Run.’ ”
Once, at a free concert in 1977 featuring Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, I saw Saul standing off by himself.
He was definitely an older guy in a crowd of young idiots who were partying and having a good time, so I walk over to him and I say, “Hey, Murray” . . . he was real cool. And my girlfriends walk over and it’s like, what are you doing with this old guy? We’re all like sixteen or seventeen. And I said, you guys, it’s Murray Saul. They start screaming, and I go, “Do it.” They want him to do a “Get down.” He got angry and he said no. I didn’t blame him at all; he would have been mobbed. He was sitting back with a joint and he did not want to bring attention to himself. That was it. It’s a fond memory. My girlfriends respected the fact that he didn’t want everybody to know who he was. —Carole Singleton-Chase, fan (North Olmsted)
What radio station did I listen to? WIXY 1260. The other station I used to like was KYW, now WTAM. They used to have a disc jockey named Jerry G, he kind of had not as deep a voice as Larry Morrow, not as resonant. He seemed to really relate to the kids kind of thing. To me, however, the all-time disc jockey in Cleveland was Johnny Holliday, WHK. I think it’s because he was the top DJ in town when I first discovered music, which would have been early ’62, ’63, right before the Beatles. My sister was seven years older and I used to think the music she listened to was horrible—Elvis, that type of thing. The first people I liked were the Beach Boys, Beatles . . . Meet the Beatles was the first album I bought, at Zayre’s.
“You usually associated early FM radio with free-form music. But to me it was as much about the personalities as it was the music.”
Johnny Holliday was the fastest-talking DJ around. He was the guy who helped me discover music. WHK was fabulous. And then WIXY came in. After WIXY, there was FM. By the time I got back from college, there was MMS. You usually associated early FM radio with free-form music. But to me it was as much about the personalities as it was the music. But the way they blended, it was kind of a gestalt kind of thing. It had such a blue-collar kind of attitude to it; that was another element that made it what it was. I think people huddled around music, that’s why that radio station was such a big deal at that time. —Ed Watkins, fan (North Olmsted)
Deflating the Buzzard
I’m the new rock critic at the Plain Dealer and Jeff and Flash ask me to come on to talk about the previous night’s rock concerts on the Morning Zoo on MMS. I wanted to create an audience for myself and make people aware I was the new guy in town, and get a reading audience for myself. But after a while, it was tough to get up after a long night at a concert; they wanted me in probably between 8 and 9, they probably considered their [segment] prime drive time. So I start doing it and realize I don’t really like these guys or what they’re doing. After I did it for a couple of months, I thought, what am I getting out this? Nothing. So I called them and said I’m not going to do this anymore. They were like, how dare you? We bought you lunch. That only gave me more resolve. I’m like, I’m not on your payroll. So I just quit doing it and they started criticizing my reviews on the air. Jeff Kinzbach got on this thing where no rock bands will ever come here because Michael Heaton’s mean to them. Then I would write a column making fun of Jeff Kinzbach for saying that about me.
A kid named Steve, who was the weekend engineer at MMS, lived in the same apartment building as me. One time he’s over at my apartment watching the Steelers game and he said to me, “I saw a memo that came out that’s in everybody’s mailbox that seems to indicate that they stuff the ballot box on this Rolling Stone number one radio station in the country contest.” My reporter antennae went up. “What do you mean by that?” He said, “There’s a memo in everybody’s mailbox, it just said everybody please come and help Joe and Sally; Sam’s going to pick up the 10,000 Rolling Stones and there’s going to be pizza there.” I said, “If I drove you down there right now, could you get me a copy of that?” He said yeah. I’m parked in my car with sunglasses on. He went in, made a copy of the memo, came back out, jumped in my car.
We sat on it a little bit because they were waiting to announce they had won the contest for the tenth year in a row. I went to the head of MMS at the time and said we’re going to run a story tomorrow, etc. He says that’s a lie, I deny it, if you print it, we’ll sue you. Then I show him the memo and he reads it and he says everybody does it. I wrote it down. The day the story ran, Jeff and Flash spent four hours ripping me up and down, and Jeff started repeating his thing of no rock and roll would ever come here because of Michael Heaton. The thing that killed me—and I wish I had it on tape—he said, if I was you, meaning the wider audience of MMS listeners, the next time I saw Michael Heaton at a concert I’d go up and punch him right in the face. —Michael Heaton, Plain Dealer columnist and reporter^ top
Excerpted from the book Cleveland Rock and Roll Memories, copyright © Carlo Wolff. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Carlo Wolff
Music fans who grew up with Rock and Roll in Cleveland remember a golden age. We were young, so was the music, and the sense of freedom and excitement the Rock and Roll scene delivered was electric. This book collects . . . [ Read More ]
Carlo Wolff writes for numerous publications including Goldmine, Billboard.com, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Sun Newspapers and Scene. He specializes in music . . . [ Read More ]CarloWolff.com