Tuesday

THE CKLW 50TH ANNIVERSARY REUNION


SUMMIT MEETING: Station veterans Bill Gable, Johnny Williams, Charlie O'Brien and JoJo Shutty MacGregor listen attentively as fellow alumnus Lou Henry pays tribute to his one time 20/20 News colleague (and husband of Shutty-MacGregor), the late Byron MacGregor at the CKLW 50th Anniversary reunion, held in Harrison Township, Michigan on Saturday the 17th of July. Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell has the story below (Photo by Michael McDowell) (Click on above image to enlarge).


THE TOWER AND THE POWER:
CKLW VETS CELEBRATE
THE BIG EIGHT'S FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY

It has been said that in adversity there is strength.


The Apostle Paul inferred as much in Romans 5:3-5, in which he referred to developing endurance and character in the face of trials and tribulations. And such was the case in the early months of 1967, when the Windsor, Ontario-based AM radio station, CKLW opted to try its hand at improving its presence in the flourishing Windsor/Detroit market.


CKLW did so not only with the legendary WKNR Keener 13 holding a decisive lead, but by taking on a relatively new approach that had been the subject of no small amount of controversy when attempted in other markets, the Drake format.

Conceived by the late programmer Philip "Bill Drake" Yarbrough and his one time American Independent Radio business partner, Lester Eugene "Gene" Chenault, the Drake format (an offshoot of sorts of their earlier Boss Radio concept) emphasized such fundamentals as time and temperature checks and call letters, in place of the inventive and animated patter that brought personality into the forefront in rock and roll radio. Dead air (radio silence) was forbidden in even the smallest of increments, and it was incumbent upon the respective announcer to get the job done within a relatively truncated time frame.

The concept itself almost seemed laughable in a market that had long set the precedent as a hallmark of innovation in radio. As early as the mid-1950s, the much missed WJBK (1500 AM) had firmly established itself as the pinnacle of rock and roll programming, with such giants of the industry as Casey Casem, Robert E. Lee, Clark Reid, Bob Edgington and future first generation garage rock visionary Terence "Terry Knight" Knapp (as Jack The Bellboy) having passed through their ranks throughout the ensuing decade.

WJBK's leadership in that respect was most respectively matched by the world class team at WXYZ (1270 AM) in suburban Southfield, including Fred Wolf, Mickey Shorr, Joel Sebastian, Don Zee, Lee Alan, Joey Reynolds, Dave Prince, Steve Lundy, Marc Avery, Pat Murphy and Jim Hampton. Their frequent broadcasts from the Walled Lake Casino (which regularly featured live performances by a wealth of rock and roll greats) did much to increase their profile exponentially.

All of which made the commanding take over of the market in a mere ninety days by Dearborn's beloved WKNR Keener 13 (1310 AM) an unprecedented phenomenon. Despite two key setbacks that could have derailed the momentum of even the most well thought out endeavors in any field (the horrific assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas a mere twenty-three days after WKNR had replaced Detroit Tigers flagship station WKMH on the 1310 slot, as well as the early 1964 on air meltdown of popular morning man Mort Crowley in response to perceived harassment of the station and its operating practices by the area telephone service provider), WKNR nonetheless enjoyed the fastest climb to the top slot in radio history.

Keener's success was due largely to its on air mission statement, retroactively termed "intelligent flexibility" by station mastermind and principal architect (and 3-7PM Key Man Of Music) Bob Green. The concept generally involved drawing from the cream of on air talent (preferably those with backgrounds as a Program Director), and then allowing them free reign within the general parameters of the format to sustain the momentum as they saw fit.

To do so, WKNR literally brought on board the absolute pinnacle of seasoned radio talent, with WKMH holdovers James "Jim Sanders" Beasley and Robin Seymour (future host of CKLW-TV's enormously influential Swingin' Time series) joined throughout the coming months by Bill Phillips, Jerry Goodwin, Gary Stevens, Scott Regen, J. Michael Wilson, Ted Clark, Paul Cannon, Jim Jeffries, Sean Conrad, Gary Granger and the late, great Frank "Swingin'" Sweeney. In the process, WKNR became one of two "test market" stations nationwide (which broke records on its weekly WKNR Music Guide weeks and sometimes months ahead of other markets) and ultimately became the recipient of a number of industry awards.

Although WJBK and WXYZ had both graciously conceded defeat by that time, WKNR continued to hold that commanding lead in the Windsor/Detroit market in the early months of 1967. In part, that is why the ultimate success of CKLW's left field decision is remarkable in and of itself. Up to that point, CKLW had persevered with what its future traffic reporter JoJo Shutty-MacGregor astutely referred to as a "folksy" format.

However, several extraneous factors gave CKLW an open door, which it walked through with unprecedented success. Despite its overall aesthetic triumphs, the one weakness indigenous to WKNR was its broadcast limitation, a 5,000 watt directional signal bordering Dearborn and Allen Park that generally aimed for the west side of suburban Detroit and was often unable to reach the city's critical east side (not to mention neighboring Windsor).

In turn, the growing societal unrest across the United States at large was giving rise to a different format in the form of the so-called "FM underground". While presenting itself as an "alternative" to the existing fare, in reality, the FM underground methodology was little more than a cynical, smug and elitist approach that misled the listener with a low key delivery that blithely dismissed whatever music did not meet its rigid parameters of acceptability as a byproduct of "the man". Nonetheless, the followers of the negative climate of the times found solidarity in such outlets for a season.

Even so, CKLW and Drake/Chenault did not go forth without preparation. The Drake format had already proven its effectiveness when applied to such unlikely targets as Los Angeles' KHJ-AM. The experiment then proved successful at New York's WOR-FM, Boston's WRKO and San Francisco's KFRC. In the case of KHJ, the viability of the experiment was validated beyond question when such personality rich radio veterans as Don Steele and Robert W. Morgan tried their hands at it, without compromising their artistic integrity.

All of which gave CKLW food for thought. If such a seemingly counter-productive concept could succeed under those terms, and if an unproven commodity such as WKNR could dominate such a major market at the expense of two such formidable giants as WJBK and WXYZ, then with the right initial steps, there was no reason why CKLW could not follow suit, especially in light of the aforementioned challenges to the status quo.

With that, CKLW made its debut as the latest Drake affiliate in April 1967, with relatively little fanfare. The station immediately began publishing a weekly CKLW Big 30 music guide, with a template modeled after that used by KHJ in Los Angeles. Comprised of thirty singles and several up and coming releases that were deemed Big Hitbounds, the premiere edition of the CKLW Big 30 music guide featured the Monkees on the cover. Succeeding editions pictured Frank and Nancy Sinatra (whose duet single, Something Stupid on the Reprise label was a sizeable hit at the time) and Big 8 jock Tom Shannon (whose extensive background in the record industry included production credits for the Rockin' Rebels on the Swan label, as well as hands on involvement with the 1968 Marquee label singles Soul Clappin' and Here Come Da Judge by the Buena Vistas).

As was the case with WKNR, the key to CKLW's triumph with such an unlikely experiment was its on air talent. And if WKNR's Keener Key Men Of Music would succeed with their cerebral insights in the upbeat atmosphere of "intelligent flexibility", then CKLW's Big 8 jocks would hopefully do likewise by making it incumbent upon cream of the crop level on air veterans (such as the aforementioned Tom Shannon) to state their case just as effectively within the relatively more rigid parameters of the format.

And it was a wealth of some of the most impacting and influential exponents of that unlikely undertaking that gathered at the Mount Clemens Fraternal Order Of Eagles Hall in Harrison Township, Michigan on Saturday the fifteenth of July to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of that triumph. In addition to the aforementioned JoJo Shutty-MacGregor (who still actively plies her trade via her Eye In The Sky Communications corporation, and can still be heard on such key Detroit-area outlets as WWJ-AM), a wealth of CKLW Big 8 air talent from all phases of the station's run were on hand, including Ric Allen, Bill Gable, Johnny Williams, Len Robinson and the evening's host (and long time dear friend of Blitz Magazine), Charlie O'Brien, as well as CKLW 20/20 News alumnus Lou Henry.

This was the fourth such annual gathering, which also served as a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House Charities. The event also featured a number of special guests, including Mike Jackson (who heads the Michigan Music internet site), Jim Feliciano of Motor City Radio Flashbacks, renowned radio industry chronicler Art Vuolo, latter day WKNR Keener 13 Key Man Of Music Greg Innis and Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell, along with long time Blitz contributor Jerry Schollenberger (who is also one of the industry's premier musicologists, with involvement in various production and advisory capacities with such musical greats as the New Colony Six, the Reflections and Question Mark and the Mysterians) and his long time significant other, Charmaine Davey.

Despite the overwhelmingly optimistic prognosis for the event, traveling circumstances and road conditions for the various participants involved made even basic participation in the six and a half hour event seem daunting at the onset. To wit, host Charlie O'Brien and colleague Bill Gable (who commuted to the event together from their respective home bases in Essex County, Ontario) encountered traffic delays at the border crossing. In turn, Ric Allen (who is also a key contributor to Mike Jackson's Michigan Music) flew in from his current home in North Carolina, only to experience transportation difficulties at the airport in neighboring Romulus (he was thankfully rescued in that respect by Jackson in time for the event). Blitz Magazine's Michael McDowell and long time contributor Jerry Schollenberger likewise encountered numerous traffic and construction delays en route to the event.

Nonetheless, the gathering of nearly two hundred attendees was most receptive. In turn, they were treated to a wealth of insights and information from the key participants. With Charlie O'Brien's trademark dry wit and JoJo Shutty-MacGregor's relentless optimism continuing to play off one another as co-hosts as well as it did on air more than four decades ago, the crowd was treated to inspiring live personifications of that which fueled the Big 8 in its prime, from Ric Allen's comedic banter (including a good natured swipe at his colleagues with Jack E. Leonard-like acerbic wit) to Len Robinson's account of life as a producer/board op in the station's pre-Drake days to his acclaimed on air presence in the 1970s, and Lou Henry's fond recollections of working on the news team alongside JoJo Shutty-MacGregor's late husband and Calgary, Alberta native, Gary Lachlan "Byron MacGregor" Mack.

Likewise, highly respected Big 8 vet Bill Gable recalled the highlights of working with some of his extraordinary colleagues.

"We were crazy", he said.

To that effect, he underscored the point by recalling how former Big 8 jock Ted "The Bear" Richards was fond of returning to the station's Ouelette Avenue studio after his shift at week's end to collect his paycheck, wearing a heavy fur coat even during the sweltering heat of summer.

Conversely, JoJo Shutty-MacGregor brought a moving account of her life with CKLW 20/20 News anchor and director Byron MacGregor to light by not only playing his landmark spoken word 1973 Westbound label single, The Americans for the crowd, but by recalling the many innovations that he brought to radio news casting during his tenure with the station.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening came from the detailed and most welcome accounts by Johnny Williams of his groundbreaking work with first generation garage rock legends, Tim Tam And The Turn-Ons. As Tom D'Angelo, Williams composed the group's beloved December 1965 Palmer label signature single, Wait A Minute with the group's late lead vocalist, Rick "Tim Tam" Wiesend.

"Rick was my best friend", Williams recalled.

"He came to me one day and said, 'I would like to make a record' ".

Williams went on to recall how he, Wiesend (who had also recorded previously as a solo artist under the name Rick Reason) the Turn-Ons (whose ranks included Nick Butsicaris, a relative of NFL legend Alex Karras and a regular fixture at the Detroit area record collectors conventions hosted in the closing years of the 1970s by the late Stu Shapiro) and their world class backing band, the Satellites worked out the arrangement for Wait A Minute in the studio. Weisend handled the song's irresistible and inventive keyboard solos, with a group of first generation garage rock aspirants that came to be known as Bob Seger and the Last Heard cutting what was to ultimately become their Hideout and Cameo label signature single, East Side Story in an adjacent studio. Tim Tam And The Turn-Ons went on to record three additional singles for Palmer, Cheryl Ann, Kimberly and Weisend's solo Don't Say Hi, all with Williams' involvement. Williams also had high praise for the great WKNR legend Scott Regen, who likewise spent two years as a member of CKLW's air staff before returning to Keener.

Many in attendance also brought various station memorabilia for the event's featured personalities to autograph, including a wealth of CKLW surveys. The reappearance of one particular edition brought about a humorous exchange between Ric Allen and Blitz Magazine's Michael McDowell.

During the station's peak years, CKLW published two separate, poster-sized editions of a Top 300 Singles Of All Time countdown, which was supposedly compiled from listener requests and votes. One of those lists generated no small amount of controversy upon publication in the late 1970s, not only for the fact that less than a dozen of the 300 records listed were released in the 1950s (thereby largely ignoring a most crucial phase of rock and roll's development), but that on that list, it was deemed that the number one song of all time was the unlikely 1974 Twentieth Century Fox label novelty single by Jamaican-born vocalist, Carlton George "Carl" Douglas, Kung Fu Fighting.

"I suspect that was Rosalie", said Allen, in reference to CKLW's long time Music Director, the highly influential Rosalie Trombley. Nonetheless beloved by all who knew her, Trombley (who has been in ill health in recent years) was saluted with a spin of the Bob Seger's 1973 Palladium label single, Rosalie, recorded as a tribute to her overall remarkable acumen in her professional capacity.

Also seen in abundance were copies of the 1970 and 1971 two-LP sets on the Post label, CKLW Solid Gold, which each contained thirty singles of enduring interest among the station's faithful, from the Crests' Sixteen Candles and Shelley Fabares' Johnny Angel to Funkadelic's I'll Bet You and Bob Seger and the Last Heard's Heavy Music.

However, conspicuous in its absence was the astounding and recently released ten CD set, CKLW Hits, produced by the same team that compiled the landmark eight volume WJBK Hits anthology series and the essential 21 CD WKNR Hits compilations. With covers featuring reproductions of various weekly Big 8 weekly surveys, each volume of the CKLW Hits collection includes original station jingles and an average of thirty per volume rarities that graced the CKLW charts at various points in time, augmented by year of release and CKLW chart peak data. All selections were digitally remastered and are presented in stereo whenever possible. The richly diverse selections cover both the pre-Drake period and the late 1960s to mid 1970s peak, ranging from the Capitols' Zig Zagging, Lloyd Price's Peeping And Hiding, Jimmy Delphs' Almost, Ed Bruce's I'm Gonna Have A Party, the Dynamics' And That's A Natural Fact, the Gants' Smoke Rings and the Secrets' Here He Comes Now to such Can Con staples as the Hood's Cause We're In Love, Bill Amesbury's Rock My Roll, Major Hoople's Boarding House's I'm Running After You, the Guess Who's Silver Bird and Chester's Make My Life A Little Bit Brighter.

Despite the occasional minor distraction (such as the inclusion by the contracted outside DJ service of re-recorded renditions of familiar standards by Martha and the Vandellas, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and others, prompting O'Brien to deadpan to Blitz Magazine in an aside, "Don't you just love these re-sings?") and brief technical concerns during the Facebook simulcast, the ongoing chemistry between all concerned was readily apparent.

So much so, that it inspired a brief moment of relentless optimism between Gable and O'Brien.

"We can still do this! We've still got it!", Gable enthused.

"Yeah, we can!", said O'Brien, before pointing out the reality that several years ago, the Federal government in Ottawa significantly tightened the restrictions on the work visas that made such a joint venture between Ontario and Michigan possible four decades earlier.

Nonetheless, it was an event that mesmerized, moved and inspired all concerned, drawing high praise on the spot from Jim Feliciano, Mike Jackson, Art Vuolo, Jerry Schollenberger and others.

"I'm in heaven", said Jackson.

"This is a dream come true".

For participants and observers alike, indeed it was.