Welcome to the Rock of Chicago

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE IN 2018

My first show day at WLS was Monday April 1st, 1985. USA for Africa’s “We Are the World”, Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” and more singles from Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” album got heavy airplay. The hot TV shows were “Miami Vice” and “Moonlighting” and the big movie in theatres was “The Breakfast Club.” Women sported Reebok gym shoes on walks from the train station to their offices where they changed into dress shoes while suited businessmen wore yellow print patterned power ties. Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his second term as President.

When picking up the newspapers that first morning I took it as good sign that on the cover of the Sun Times was the photo of someone I knew well. Amy Beja, the sister of my longtime friend Todd Beja, was pictured holding a fanned out selection of Chicago Cubs tickets as their home opener was approaching. I signed in at the security desk in the Stone Container Building at Michigan and Wacker just before 2 a.m. and took the elevator to the 5th floor. Despite being in disbelief of all this heady radio stuff, I kept it together because Larry was very businesslike on everything. My job was to help him get the best listener ratings possible so the ABC Corporation could sell their commercials for top dollar and make lots of money and we could keep doing the same. I could not play the role of geeked-out fanboy because there was work to do.

Still, the halls of the radio station echoed of the famous voices of the past. The walls had framed photos of stars like Dick Biondi, Clark Weber, Ron Riley, Art Roberts, Joel Sebastian, Dex Card, Yvonne Daniels, Bob Sirott and John “Records’ Landecker. Not to mention the current names, besides Larry, there was Tommy Edwards, Fred Winston, Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, Brant Miller and Jeff Davis. Any time of the day or night I was tuned in to any and all of these guys. How many nights did I not mind only having only AM radio in my car because Jeff Davis was playing the latest hits and classic Stones and Doobie Brothers songs for me to rock out to? For years I listened to all these people and was now aboard the good ship WLS, a legendary and still vibrant radio station. I went from fan to fellow co-worker. It was like the little leaguer who idolizes the New York Yankees and one day he’s putting on the pinstripes and taking batting practice alongside Derek Jeter.

1985 WLS AM Stars- Front row L-R Jeff Davis, Turi Ryder, Fred Winston, back row Tommy Edwards, Larry Lujack, Brant Miller.

In 1985, newspapers and the newswire stories were the lifeblood of radio content for most personality based radio shows. It was a matter of taking a single edged razor blade and slicing out the local gossip columns and other entertainment related news along with stories of interest and sports and circling the best information with a red flair pen. I would read through all sections of the papers and strip the best newsy meat off their bones to find things to talk about. Jeff Hendrix, the deep voiced news anchor who along with Catherine Johns made up a double barreled delivery system of the morning news on Larry’s show handed me the newswire copy of more offbeat stories.

Jeff and Catherine had a fast rhythm of pin-balling the reading of news stories between each other. They sounded like a news station and aspiring radio newscasters could learn much from listening to their air-checks. Personality wise, Hendrix was the resident cheapskate who once replaced the bumper of his VW Rabbit replaced with a two by four plank of wood. I saw that so called bumper, it was weird looking but economical. Jeff played lots of golf with Larry. Catherine Johns played the role of the young single woman and her dating life would sometimes be talked about on the show. It was by no means in the ‘ditzy bimbo’ way, Catherine was smart and a good foil to Larry during their interplay.

The physical set-up of the show was Larry seated in Studio A (the same one I watched him and other dee-jays do their show in while standing on the other side of the hallway glass for years) and opposite him in the control room was Larry’s button pushing engineer. Engineers worked an hour then were off an hour, so we had a rotation of at least two engineers per show courtesy of the Illinois Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Jeff and Catherine flanked Larry on his left and right and sportscaster/reporter Les Grobstein had a stand up microphone and copy holder behind Jeff.

Unlike most radio producers, I wasn’t stationed in the control room area or engineer’s side during the show. Instead I was in Larry’s office with a bank of studio phone lines on my desk. I could take listener calls, handle contests or buzz-ins from the hotline and had a side phone for me to call him directly with the push button punch of the numbers 5363. Funny how that stuff stays in your head after all these years. The stereo in Larry’s office was wired so I could listen to the show live and not hear it on the seven second delay that was activated while we were on the air. From Studio A to our office, you had to take a left, a right and a long left to the office where I was stationed. Being on the opposite side of the WLS office suite like that sharpened my listening skills and kept me locked in the only way that was needed, by sound. Larry told me when I first started to keep my eyes and ears open and I’d learn lots very quickly. He was right.

In less than an hour on that first day I was on the phone talking to Larry and the listeners. He needed me to preview a couple of callers who wanted to chime in with their thoughts on a story brought up about how April 1st was the day to have sex if you wanted to have a baby that was born on New Year’s Day. I spoke calmly and with confidence and was on the air with the Larry Lujack show. My crazy radio journey was in hyper-drive and REALLY happening! Lord only knew what was next…

 

Young Radio Greenhorn, Meet Larry Lujack

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE IN 2018.

As last week’s post stated, I was about to interview for the job to be Larry Lujack’s producer on WLS AM. Larry called and recruited me for the interview and I was both excited and scared shitless.  

It was time to take the elevator up to the 5th floor of the Stone Container building and get buzzed in to the WLS lobby by the receptionist. I told her I was there to see Larry Lujack and a quick inter office call later, Larry was walking towards me. I asked to see his so called “Golf Hickey” he got the week before. On the snowiest, coldest day of the year, with a wind chill of more than forty below zero Larry Lujack made news by playing 18 holes of golf. The day got so cold and icy that chunks of slush stuck to his neck under his scarf and left something similar to freezer burn or a golf hickey as he called it. That golf stunt earned Larry a mention on Paul Harvey’s nationwide radio news show. This was a badge of honor for Larry Lujack as he was a huge fan of Paul’s.

Second to the right, the Stone Container Building, home of WLS.

Larry led me down two hallways to his office. Taking seats there I saw this was a hoarder’s paradise of old newspapers, magazines and other mess inducing items. Larry explained there was a need to hire someone who thought more like him, someone who could write in his voice and trite as it may sound “hip the show up a bit.” He explained the hours, starting with me being there at 2 a.m. to go through the newspapers and finding the most interesting articles and writing the entertainment items for his Cheap Trashy Show Biz Report and Animal Stories.

Then Larry turned things over to see what my story was. I told him like so many others have said in the past, he was the reason I was in the radio business to start with. Larry joked, “Hey, don’t blame me for YOUR messed up life!” I filled in some more of my background and interests as Larry listened intently.

Now here was the key moment in this meeting between the major market radio superstar and the young radio greenhorn. We were talking about the Cheap Trashy Show-biz report and I had the insane balls to tell Larry he missed the best part of a story he covered that morning. It was dirt on major league pitcher Dave Stewart who was arrested for getting into a hassle with a transvestite prostitute. Larry did the story on both his early and late in the show reports but left out a key item.

He asks what was missed. I said “The name of the transvestite hooker, it was Lucille! You could’ve mentioned her name then gone straight into the Little Richard song “Lucille.” Larry looked stunned. Had the great Larry Lujack been scooped? No way! So he starts rummaging through the mess on his desk looking for the newspaper clipping. I told him it was in the Sun Times. (Again, me being the media junkie, I was all over this story) Larry found the Sun Times report and sees that the hooker WAS named Lucille. For the next minute he kept saying “Damn, shit! (pause) Goddamn it! I can’t believe I missed that!”

Now who in their right mind has the stones to tell Larry Lujack that one of his bits could have been better and he missed something that should have been talked about? That’s like some back-up singer auditioning to be in Paul Mc Cartney’s band saying, “Um, Paul? I think that last verse you sang on ‘Hey Jude ’was a bit off. Try it this way.”   I didn’t care. This was my chance to shine and I sure did with this scoop and the way I played it.

1980’s promo pic of Larry Lujack

As we were winding things down I asked “Any problems with what you’ve seen, heard or smelled from me?” Larry laughed loud and said, “No, things are good and I haven’t smelled any odors coming from your body.” He liked my self-deprecating approach which was the path Larry himself often took.

I was given numbers of what the job would pay to start and more information would be discussed if I got the gig. He also noted this wasn’t a job guarantee but I was definitely the “leading candidate.” Larry also said if I get any other job offers before he makes his decision to let him know so he could consider matching it. This whole scenario was just so hard to believe. Larry Lujack is telling me he’d be willing to get in a bidding war to secure my creative services! He also qualified things by saying, “Now if someone wants to pay you two hundred grand for some job, I’m gonna tell you, “See ya and good luck.”

The famed Superjock walks me out and says he’ll call once he makes up his mind. This was at the end of January and lord only knew when that decision would happen. I figured it might be a few weeks but who knew? This was new territory for me.

From the day of that interview with Larry Lujack I was on a constant alert, waiting for a phone call from the famed Superjock. Anytime after ten a.m. when his show ended, if the phone rang at home, I’d wonder if it was Larry calling to offer me the producer’s job. This was in the days before caller ID, voicemails, cell-phones and texting. A simple call was all that was needed. Even when I’d be out all day and come home, I’d wonder if there was a written message to return Larry’s call. It was a tense time and I tried to shift my focus to my job at WKDC, my newspaper column, the record hops Jim and I did and my work at the record store. I even kept my eyes and ears open for any other job offers I could land that would force me to call WLS and tell Larry, ”Hey, got an opportunity here, what’s your story?” That didn’t materialize.

Finally time moved along to Tuesday morning March 26th 1985. I was in bed listening to the Lujack show and he left half an hour before his ten a.m. stop time. Larry was feeling sick and went to his office. Tommy Edwards came on early and even got an on air report from producer Mick Oliver that the morning show star was lying on his office couch on top of a pile of old newspapers. So Tommy takes things from there and I turned off the stereo. Around 11:00 a.m. the phone rang and my dad picked up the downstairs line at the same time I picked up the extension in my room. We both said “Hello?” and after a pause I hear “Oh, sounds like I got stereo.” I’m thinking this might be Larry so I speak his name and he says “Hey.” So I tell my dad I got it and he gets off the line.

Larry asks how things are and I’m like, “O.K.” and after a pause he asks “Do you want a job?” I blurt out, “Yes, I certainly do!” With that I was hired! Larry was hoping I could start working for him the following Monday and I said that would be no problem. All of this was of course a huge rush and big relief for me. Two months of waiting was over and I had the job of my young lifetime! There were details to work out so Larry asked me to meet with him that Friday and we’d lock up everything. I was given his home phone number just in case anything came up that I needed to let him know about. We get off the line and I went nuts with a scream and a huge ‘Woo hoo!” ! I’m going to be working for my favorite radio personality who also happens to be the king of Chicago radio!

NEXT WEEK- My first day on the air with Lar.

Poplar Creek Dries Up, So What’s Next?

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE IN 2018

I finished working the summer of 1984 at Poplar Creek and looked to other opportunities.

Poplar Creek’s season ended in early September of ‘84 with a Cyndi Lauper concert. After that, we spent two weeks working on closing the venue for the winter. Kiosks were taken down, restroom toilets had to be winterized with anti-freeze and we did other repairs so that next summer’s work crews would have well maintained amenities for a new season of shows. My exit interview evaluation graded me out as an “A” worker however I wouldn’t be back for another summer at Poplar Creek. It was a fun show-biz job but I had other things to do.

Next, I did six weeks at a telemarketing research job which was as awful as anyone who’s ever done that kind of work will tell you. I quit when my friend Dave Ross got a job managing an Orange’s Record Store that was opening in Elmhurst. He needed help prepping the place and I jumped at the chance to work close to full time hours and be around music again.

(Record Store work is a cool job)

At this same time other jobs were bringing me money too. I had my weekly music column for Press Publications plus Jim Turano and I were still doing a few record hops per month which paid well. We continued writing and mailing out the Hucklebuck Update since Jim still had two years left at Elmhurst College. I also landed my first professional radio job, hosting mid-days playing “Beautiful Music” Saturdays and Sundays at Elmhurst’s WKDC AM 1530. No fancy story on getting that job. I called to see if they needed help, came in for an interview and after a short off-air audition, the job was mine.

(I’m on the air at WKDC)

It was convenient because the WKDC studios were on York road, just a block south of Orange’s Records. Between all these small jobs I was making about $11,000 dollars a year. Living at home, I could pay my bills had some cash to spend on beer, movies and concerts and managed to save a few bucks too. By the start of 1985, despite this easy respite of doing what I liked for a living, I knew it would soon be time for me to chase the next big thing and hopefully find a full time REAL job in media. Little did I know that the full time job would come looking for me.

In late January of 1985, I came back from my lunch break to be told by a co-worker at Orange’s that I needed to call my mom. The message from home was WLS Superjock Larry Lujack phoned my house looking to talk to me about possibly working for him! I asked twice if this was a joke. Larry Lujack got my phone number from Press Publications; he knew I wrote for their paper because we always plugged my column in the Hucklebuck Update. Larry was ACTUALLY READING Mick and Jim’s Hucklebuck Update and was recruiting me to work for him! What the hell was that all about?

I called the WLS offices and was put straight through to Mr. Lujack himself. Larry remembered me being a fan of his who sent him Animal Stories and Police Beat news clippings. But the key to his interest in me was all he read from the Huckelbuck. I sent those newsletters downtown as a shot in the dark. The WLS superstar saw my humor and thought I was thinking like he did! Now some might ask “What about Jim and his part in the Hucklebuck?” That is a fair question. Still, it was me who sent the Animal Stories and other show material to Larry, and met him a couple of times. He also knew from the Hucklebuck that Jim still had more than two years of college to go and Larry needed someone who could work full time right away.

Larry Lujack’s producer situation was spelled out to me. He started with help from a guy named Mick Oliver but after some time he was replaced by Cindy Gatziolis, a WLS staffer. Cindy worked with Larry for awhile then opted to pursue other radio jobs so Mick was brought back. Still, Larry wanted to make a change. We made arrangements to meet downtown at WLS a few days later and I was asked to bring in samples of my newspaper columns. By the time I got off the phone I thought I was in some insane dream. Working for Chicago radio’s perennial number one rock radio personality was totally off my radar. I figured I’d chase small time radio jobs in the suburbs, work my way to Rockford or Peoria and keep crawling up the media ladder. This Larry Lujack job prospect was not even a consideration. Preparing for the interview, I realized how right I was two years earlier; there WAS something special about the “Hucklebuck Update.”

(Larry Lujack, circa 1985)

My head was spinning about this job prospect. Not only did I listen to Larry’s show whenever possible, so did most of Chicago. Larry Lujack was everywhere. WLS used to run a popular TV commercial for the Lujack show co-starring comedian Rodney Dangerfield. It had Larry throwing Rodney’s “No respect” line back at the comic. I also remember seeing him on with Oprah Winfrey when her show was just on in Chicago. Larry was on to talk about the Grammys and referred to Oprah as “Okra.” Little did he or anyone else know what a big deal she would become in a few years.

(Rodney Dangerfield doing a TV ad for Larry Lujack)

I drove down to WLS which at the time was still housed in the Stone Container building at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive on a Friday. I was thirty minutes early for the most important meeting of my young life. Killing time in the Burger King that was on the main floor while sipping a Coke, I looked over my briefcase of writings and resume’ that Larry requested to see and took lots of deep breaths. When the time came to go up to the 5th floor I kept telling myself, “THIS is your time, now show Larry Lujack who you are.”

NEXT WEEK: Young radio greenhorn sits down with the king of Chicago morning music radio.

 

Some Days are Diamond’s

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE IN 2018

This picks up where my last post left off as I spent the summer of 1984 working day maintenance at Poplar Creek Music Theater in Hoffman Estates.

Some Poplar Creek acts were a big enough deal to do two nights in a row there. For that summer those stars were John Denver, James Taylor, Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart. However, only one artist merited three straight nights and that was the darling of the Nederlander organization, Neil Diamond. I use the term “darling” because all the stops were pulled out when Neil came to town in late August. Plush new chairs and sofas were delivered to the dressing rooms. There was special wiring done backstage for better TV reception and we had to roll in a fire hose on a giant wooden spool to hook to a fire hydrant backstage to accommodate the lasers Neil used during his show. It was like the Pope was coming. Maybe some of this upgrade was due to Diamond’s concert contract rider demands, but being a fan of his, I was fine with the extra work. It was fun to be part of the big arrival for the “Jewish Elvis.” Would they call us Neil fans “Diamond Heads?”

(The Jewish Elvis, Neil Diamond)

Neil Diamond had the tightest security I saw at Poplar Creek. All summer, we maintenance workers could work and wander all over the seating area during artist’s sound checks, but not for Neil. Nobody was allowed to be within sight of the stage from any location. They had security on the north and south ramps to keep everyone from catching a glimpse of Mr. “Holly Holy” during his show prep. Even backstage, outside of Diamond’s dressing room two black curtains perpendicular to his door and the stage door were hung. The curtains were there so nobody would see Neil Diamond leave his private dressing room and push through to the stage door.

I asked one of his people why things were so buttoned down. The reply I got came down to there were some Diamond fans who had their minds bent to thinking he was singing only to them and they had a special “relationship in their minds” with him. Things could get a bit scary when they got too physically close to Neil. It also sounded like there had been some recent close stalker situations on this issue.

On the morning of the second Diamond show I led a crew to clean the dressing rooms. When we got to Neil’s lair, his stage clothes were hung on the racks and we snickered at his sequined shirts and vests. The glittery stuff seemed dated even for 1984, but he wore those shirts for years to come. I also spotted black hair dye stains all over the sofa throw pillows in the star’s dressing room. Neil must’ve had a pre-show touch-up and leaned back on the pillows while still not quite dry from the hair coloring. What price vanity, right?

 

Due to lack of night staff I was on the clean-up crew during the last of Neil Diamond’s shows. Midway through the concert I was summoned to bring a can of vomit comet to a section in the pavilion. Vomit comet was a powdery substance sprinkled down to deodorize the stench after someone else cleaned up a puddle of puke. In this case, the problem was the puddle was all over a woman who was passed out drunk in her seat after getting sick on herself. There was nothing to really clean off the seats or floor so I sprinkled the vomit comet powder all over the lap and blouse of the passed out woman. This countered the stench and everyone sitting near her could enjoy the show without gagging from the regurgitated wine and nachos. Just another of the guest services provided to you by the friendly and helpful staff at Poplar Creek Music Theatre.

(Nilosorb, or as we called it, “Vomit Comet”)

Neil Diamond wrapped up his last show and having to work early the next day, I slept on a stretcher in the maintenance office which was a double wide mobile home. The next morning I went to the dressing rooms to take a shower. Plenty of clean towels were around and I ended up using Mr. Diamond’s shower where there was liquid soap and his bottle of shampoo was left behind. So in a roundabout way you can say I shared a shower with Neil Diamond. Too bad I never got to relive this “Brush with greatness” with David Letterman. In modern days, I could’ve saved Neil’s shampoo bottle and sold it on E-Bay.