A look back at Montreal's English radio heydayBy Joel Goldenberg, The Suburban May 10, 2017
When artists and groups recorded a hit single in the 1960s, the first priority when mixing it was that it had to sound good on a portable mono 45 RPM record player and, especially, the radio. AM Radio is as far from good sound as one can get, and the already limited sound is further compressed by the radio signal. And yet, that was the way most people heard the great hits of the day.
But that’s only half the story. The era also produced legendary disc jockeys, who at breakneck speed and frequently with heavy echo effects added to their voices, introduced those big hits. In the U.S., think of Alan Freed, “Cousin” Brucie Morrow and well-known “Fifth Beatle” “Murray “the K” Kaufman.
Pointe Claire resident Ian Howarth, a former high school teacher and freelance journalist who has written for The Suburban and several daily newspapers, explores Montreal’s own formidable ‘60s to early ‘80s English-language AM, as well as FM, radio scene in his new book Rock ‘n’ Radio: When DJs and Rock Music Ruled the Airwaves. He spoke to and gathered information about such figures as American expatriate Ralph Lockwood, Dave Boxer (a co-introducer of the Beatles when they played the Montreal Forum along with competitor Buddy Gee), British expatriate Doug Pringle and many others on such stations as the former CFOX, CKGM, CFCF, CJAD and CKGM-FM, which became CHOM. (My own personal favourite was Lockwood, who sounded like he was having loads of fun on the air.)
Howarth, 66, said he was inspired to write on the topic from his remembrances of AM radio in the early 1960s.
“I had one of those rocket-shaped crystal radios with an earbud, where you could lie in bed and listen,” he says. “I’d be seeing what stations I could bring in, and there was some music I liked. One song that stuck in my mind was the Marcels’ Blue Moon (1961). Then I started to look for more songs like that. By the time I upgraded to a transistor radio, there were some hour-long shows… with a top-40 format.”
Howarth points out, as was the case in the States, that the personalities of the DJs was key when introducing top-40 hits, a format which evolved in Montreal in the mid-1960s.
“Canada was slow to catch up to the U.S., but when they did, they embraced it,” he adds. “CFOX in Pointe Claire was the first station to give up their regular format — community-based broadcasting and country music. In 1965, the owner, Gord Sinclair Jr., was talked into going 24/7 with a top-40 format. They were the first station here to do that.”
But Howarth gives Boxer, over at Canada’s oldest station, CFCF, credit for launching top-40 in the city with a more than four-hour show.
“He wasn’t necessarily what became known as the fast-talking top-40 DJ, but he was tremendously successful — he even had a fan club,” Howarth explains. “He was a legitimate top-40 radio star. If there was Twitter then, Boxer would have had tens of thousands of followers.”
The book goes over what was then a more free-wheeling format, compared to the more structured radio of today — not only on AM but in the early years of CHOM, at a time when FM was freeform, and not restricted to a corporate-determined playlist of songs repeated ad nauseum.
Luckily, Howarth was able to interview many of the DJs of the time, most of whom are still alive, thanks in large part to former DJ Marc “Mais Oui” Denis,” who has his own CKGM 1970s tribute page at www.marcdenis.com/ckgm.asp.
“On that website, a lot of alumni of CKGM left email information, so through him, I was able to get in touch with a good number of DJs, and there was some word of mouth as well,” Howarth explains. “I wound up contacting about 30 people who were either DJs, in management or were news readers, and even a couple of bands from the mid-1960s, like The Haunted and J.B. and the Playboys.”
And not only has Howarth written about the era in his new book, his website (https://rocknradiodays.com) contains a treasure trove of photos, newspaper clippings and soundbites from the era. They provide a multimedia experience when reading Rock ‘n’ Radio, and remembrances of an era when AM radio did not just contain talk and sports and FM was more unpredictable.
Rock ‘n’ Radio is published by Véhicule Press. A book launch is being held Thursday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the former RCA Victor facility, 900 Lacasse corner St. Antoine in St. Henri. For more information call 514-844-6073.