Chapter 1: The Early Years ...
Ian Howarth publishes a new chapter of out takes from his book Rock ‘n’ Radio ~ When Rock Music and DJ’s Ruled the Airwaves.
Like the making of a film, where a lot of footage winds up on the cutting room floor (an old expression from the analog days of film), likewise there’s plenty of intrigue behind the writing of a book. When I set about writing a book about the so-called Golden Days (so named by me) of Montreal Top 40 and FM rock radio, I had no idea that the research and interviewing process would take me on an adventure, dealing with cloudy – and sometimes confused – memories, feisty egos, and misconstrued perceptions of my “agenda.” And the pure joy of mining and igniting memories from careers that went back more than 40 years. Plus the investigative logistics of tracking down the dozens of people connected in various ways to the radio biz in Montreal of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. Some were more than happy to share, others reluctant to step back into history. A few needed some gentle coaxing, but ultimately, all of them were united in their love of the music, the one thing that brought them to the mic in the first place. It was the beginning of a new era in AM radio, one that began in the late ’50s in some prime US markets. So, it took Canada a few years to catch up, but when they did, it was balls to the wall in.
So this is what is called a behind-the-scenes look at the writing process, some of the stuff that wound up on the editor’s floor and my take on the great discoveries made – and yes, some disappointment and distress – during and after the four years of work that went into the writing of Rock ‘n’ Radio: When DJs and Rock Music Ruled the Airwaves.
To begin, let’s take a look at my birth place, Port Credit, Ontario.
Port Credit Days
With four boys stacked into a three-room bungalow, sharing was a necessity, not necessarily done with grace or aplomb. My younger brother, who I roomed with, snored and I perfected rolling up my stinky socks of the day in a ball and whipping them at his head to get him to stop. There were territorial disputes, clothes “borrowed” closely followed by punishment from my older brothers, both of whom enjoyed a reprobate reputation for having early signs of becoming legit juvenile delinquents. Because of them, it wasn’t only Doug Jones’s parents who had a “Don’t play with the Howarths” dictum. But they were my brothers and as the middle of four I looked up to them. They protected me when neighbourhood bullies came after me. Sometimes, their reputation helped me get out of some dicey situations or if harm was done to me, one of my brothers would go on retribution patrol to restore the balance of power, sometimes even with my mother’s encouragement and endorsement.
I was more the all-Canadian Howarth, a Cub Scout, pain-in-the-ass Sunday school devotee; hockey and lacrosse were sports I excelled at. And though Toronto-born, I was a die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan. I was an average student, probably leaned towards ADHD. In today’s classroom, I would be one of those who collected his time-release Ritalin during recess. I was more of a wise-ass than a rebel in class. One day, Doug Jones and I had tried the patience of our teacher to the point where she tied us both into our desk seats. Not tied too tight though, we both forgot we were tied in, bounced out of our seats – broke loose really – only to be rounded up and tied in again. In grade 4, I had a very serious authoritarian teacher, Miss Izawa, probably still angry about the outcome of WW II, who was so exasperated by my verbal outbursts, she Scotch-taped my mouth shut, only taking if off for recess drinking fountain time. In those days, teachers got away with some pretty serious breaches of the UN Childhood Charter of Rights. I never said a thing to my parents; in the iron-fisted days of teacher is always right, I understood that it was my fault and that I would likely get no sympathy at home.
There was one TV and a big cabinet type radio in the living room and while the TV got a lot of the attention, I was left to hang out with the radio, spinning the big dial back and forth looking for…well, I didn’t know really. I was just waiting for something to catch my ear. I knew I wasn’t looking for Bing Crosby, but rather Elvis or Fats Domino or even Bobby Rydell, Bobby Darin, or Bobby Vinton. There were a lot of Bobbys in the early days of rock. (On Saturday night, however, we were all, except for my mother, in front of the set watching another Bobby, Bobby Hull, The Golden Jet, at that time with the Chicago Black Hawks. Hull was one of the first NHL players to use the slap shot, and when he came in over the blue line, sweater rippling in the wake of his sheer speed, and when he wound up to shoot, players, except for the poor goaltender, scrambled to get out of the way.
My father, a salesman for Allied Chemical, travelled a lot, often away for weeks at a time, leaving my mother to deal with the boys. Over time, this would wear her down. In the early 60s it was Montreal that was the center of commerce for Canada. In the summer of ’62, he was transferred to Montreal and we all packed up and left for a bigger house in a city I couldn’t even find on the map. My second oldest brother Bruce was not happy and took himself hostage by tying his arm to the bunk bed. He wasn’t going anywhere. It was a noble attempt, but he relented, sulking in the car all the way to Montreal. My mother, though less demonstrably – at least for the time being – was also not happy about the move. It was a new chapter for the Howarth family, one that would prove that you can untie an arm, but not the mind.
Bee stings and cigarettes..
I make a good interview subject. But when you know your life is going to be a part of a book, you wonder how much to include. Not to forget the book is about rock radio, not the problems you had with acne in high school (though here I will say it wasn’t a factor.) So in this blog, I attempt to add some meat to what I wrote in the book, a little juice if you will.
I spent my first 11 years in the Toronto suburb of Port Credit, Ontario, at the time a small community built on the land close to the Credit River. If it ever was a port, it was before my time. It was a childhood spent close to the earth; grass stains, soakers, bee stings, Cowboys and Indians, underground forts, fist fights, farts, knee scabs and petty theft. (My good buddy Doug Jones and I stole a carton of cigarettes from the local grocery store, smoked them, puked, then got busted. His parents claimed I was a bad influence and he was not allowed to hang out with me after that. His father, a school principal, had some firm ideas about right and wrong. We got around that rule easily.)
Port Credit was the home to the St. Lawrence Starch Company, the makers of Bee Hive Corn Syrup and the sponsor of the Ontario Junior B Hockey League’s Dixie Beehives. Some made it to the NHL, like Fred Stanfield, one of 7 boys in the family. I played my share of hockey (sponsor: IGA) when Fred’s younger brother Vic was my teammate. I played lacrosse and still have a dent in my head to prove it.
I took my little crystal radio, ready to hook it up to a brand new array of radio stations in Montreal, a new adventure in dial spinning. It would be two years before two Montreal stations presented Top 40 hits shows with freshly-minted – and converted – shirt and tie announcers as rock DJs, CFCF with Dave Boxer and CKGM-AM with Buddy Gee. By then I had upgraded to a transistor radio and like thousands of young listeners, I became an immediate fan of The Dave Boxer Show from 6-11 pm, sometimes spinning over to 980 AM for Buddy Gee on CKGM when I wanted to hear a better tune. A legitimate competition for the adolescent market had begun. The British Invasion was in full swing. There was no going back to Patti Page.
In our new two-storey house with one extra bedroom, I was still rooming with my younger brother Scott, while my older brothers, the seniority family clause rule invoked, got their own bedrooms. We were the second family in a brand new suburban development in the West Island of Montreal. It was pioneer town with brand new homes being built to meet the demand of the post-WW II generation making families. That summer was lonely, no one to hang with until I discovered the established part of the community not far from where we lived. I went to where the people were. My brother, the sulking one, was not happy and I too wondered what the hell we’d wandered into. Also not happy was my mother, who would never really settle comfortably into her new home. But that’s another story, a new chapter with more angst, adventure and conflict.
Musical notes 1951 – 1962
The year I was born, you have to look deep into the Billboard Top 100 Hot Hits of 1951 to spot a record that resembled rock ‘n’ roll. Not surprising, given that the term hadn’t yet entered the lexicon of popular music. The term “rock ‘n’ roll” would come in the late 50s when legendary DJ Alan Freed coined it on his “Moondog House” radio show in Cleveland and NYC. Near the top of the charts for ’50-’51 were artists like Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Patti Page and Les Paul & Mary Ford. Les Paul became a legend, not because of his singing prowess, but for the electric guitar he named after himself, still considered the Monet of guitars today. Strangely, Les Paul & Mary Ford and Patti Page both recorded a song called “Mockin’ Bird Hill”, which came in #13 and #14 respectively on the Billboard ’51 year-end Top 30 hits.
Just about eleven years later, as the Howarth family headed east to Montreal (the geographical metaphor is just too hard to ignore here; everyone goes west to find fame and fortune, not east) rock was in a slow but steady invasion of the radio airwaves. Still, there was a mixture of ’50s cheese amongst some genuine rock pioneers who were getting a lot of attention thanks to Elvis. The end of ’61-’62 saw an instrumental called “Stranger on the Shore” by Acker Bilk, a clarinettist and singer from England earning the Number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. But behind him – many who would have a lot more staying power than Mr. Bilk – were names like Ray Charles (I Can’t Stop Loving You), Dee Dee Sharp (Mash Potato Time), one of my all-time enduring faves, Little Eva’s “Loco-motion”, The Shirelles (Soldier Boy), Dion (The Wanderer), Neil Sedaka (Breaking Up is Hard to Do), Chubby Checker, who got major mileage out of The Twist, and The Four Seasons (Sherry.) The Beach Boys were just on the cusp of fame and fortune (out west) and Billboard has their song “Surfin’ Safari” in at #100. Oh yeah, and the head of the cheese on 1962’s Hot 100 was “The Theme From Dr. Kildare” sung by the star of the doctor-as-good-guy TV show, Richard Chamberlain in at #39. The Top 40 (10, 40, 50 or 100) charts was a true democracy where artists came to live for a bit, some surviving longer than others, but many, one-hit wonders or not, took a kick at the can. To hear your song on the radio, see it on the charts, was better than sex, though success seem to increase the opportunities. Perks of the biz.
Excerpt from prologue 'A Boy And His Rocket Radio'
My Story- (Prologue to book) – Ian Howarth
A boy and his radio
My first radio was a rocket-shaped crystal with one slippery, plastic ear bud and a cord with a claw-like attachment that I hooked up to the nearest metallic object – usually at night while lying in bed when the signals were strongest. Any station that was surging the night’s airwaves won my attention until the signal faded. I was in charge, not spinning the records, but the next best thing: the dial.
I was a natural-born dial spinner. It was the early sixties, and finding something good on the radio was a crap shoot, the airwaves clogged with a lot of adult talk and sanitized middle-of-the-road music. But every once in a while I’d hit on a station playing something that struck a chord in me. In 1961, a group called The Marcels had a number-one hit called “Blue Moon,” a doo-wop version of a Rodgers and Hart song written in 1934, covered by Frank Sinatra then re-worked by Elvis in 1956. I had no idea The Marcels were black or that this was a doo-wop-styled song. I was ten years old and it sounded great. I was hooked on radio.
Our parents’ music
Most Baby Boomers know who Perry Como is or can maybe even hum a few bars of “Catch a Falling Star.” Released in 1957, it was the first single to be certified Gold by Billboard Magazine, which became the pop music bible for rankings (Billboard’s Hot 100 lists are still the industry standard today.) Como, much to his surprise, was making musical history.
My father was a big Perry Como fan and, like thousands of other white North American men in their mid-thirties for whom Como’s signature long-sleeved, buttoned-up cardigan and white shirt was the wardrobe du jour that went perfectly with a post-workday martini, he would sing along at every opportunity. I was six years old when “Catch a Falling Star” came out, and I can still sing the first verse and chorus six decades later. I’m not sure how this happened (brain research calls this phenomenon “reminisce bumps”), the power of music to make memories.
Como and other pop singers like Pat Boone, Patti Page and Andy Williams played major roles in the soundtrack of the mid-fifties. Page’s “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” was so ubiquitous on the radio and TV, it was impossible to ignore. The new post-WWII demographic was not quite consumer-qualified, but when we did come into some money – our allowance – we weren’t buying Perry Como singles. That was what our parents listened to. Sure, our parents’ music seeped into our consciousness and stayed there like the first two lines of a popular Christmas carol, but it wasn’t by choice. As children, we weren’t in charge of the music we listened to. It was delivered by the radio stations older people listened to and by the records in the modest collections of our middle-class parents, which in any case we weren’t allowed to put on a turntable without supervision. Nevertheless, we were little young sponges.
My parents’ record collection was mostly a motley assortment of 78 rpm records probably passed on to them by their parents. They broke easily, my three brothers and I discovered. The home collection was occasionally updated, however, some records bought by my mother in a valiant effort to educate her four sons. I was the third, born in 1951. I remember being quite taken by one particular record my mother introduced me to, “Peter and the Wolf,” a narration of the famous story told using various musical instruments, each representing a different character. I have warm memories of listening to it in front of our heavy wood-encased radio and turntable unit, typical of those days. I played it over and over again. Only later in life would I realize that my mother must’ve liked it particularly for the twenty-five minutes it kept me out of her hair. It was the equivalent of sticking a young child in front of the TV today – with PBS on, of course.
Discovering my love for radio
While the family turntable may have been off-limits, the radio was not, since it wasn’t nearly as delicate as those 78s. My generation was very radio-centric, though the TV would eventually become radio’s entertainment companion and competitor. The radio, like a campfire, drew families together. The dials were nice and big for little hands, and I fired that red needle from one end of the dial to the other and back again, trying to find something that held my attention.
With four kids and two adults crammed into a small suburban Toronto bungalow, I didn’t get much alone time. Though I did have the radio to myself for brief moments, it was located in the living room, a heavy traffic area, so it was hit or miss for my burgeoning love affair. I finally asked my parents for one of my own, so I could do my dial spinning uninterrupted in the privacy of the room I shared with my younger brother.
My little rocket-shaped crystal was my connection to the outside world. Late at night, I would lie in my bed, manoeuvring the dial tuner with the precision of a surgeon, except my best work was done in total darkness, lying on one side so the ear plug wouldn’t slip out.
As I fiddled with the station dial, the strongest signal always won out, of course, but nevertheless I turned it back and forth repeatedly to see what I could bring in. Some U.S. stations with strong signals faded in and out as if on the whim of the wind. If conditions were right, I heard WABC in New York City, which on a good night could be picked up in thirty-eight states and Canadian border towns, WKBW in Buffalo, WBZ in Boston, WJR in Detroit, CHUM-AM in Toronto and CKLW in Windsor, Ontario.
Unfortunately, the AM stations with the strongest signals played mostly easy listening late at night. It seemed they actually wanted their listeners to fall asleep. Still, every once in a while, I would get a radio station that had more of the Blue Moon–type music I loved. At night, I was in my own private radio world.
Then my parents sprung for a transistor radio for me, which opened up even more possibilities. That transistor had its own cachet, much superior to my little rocket radio, and in addition to spinning the dial, my nightly bedtime activity included turning the radio itself every which way to capture the signal of a good station. I fell asleep every night to my radio, after I grew weary of switching stations. In the morning, the radio still on, I’d awaken to find I’d pushed my transistor batteries to their limit. I left it to resuscitate itself during the day, though I discovered worn-out batteries did not fully recover with rest. After school and on weekends, that transistor went everywhere with me, including on my bike, where I locked it to my handlebars with my thumb. Each turn of the bike required a radio-position adjustment so I could listen while I pedaled. Neighbours could hear me coming from blocks away. I was my own mobile DJ.
New city, new frequencies
My family life (and my radio-listening habits) took a sudden turn to the east in the summer of 1962 when my father was transferred to Montreal. It was not an easy exit since my parents’ roots were in Ontario and my two older brothers had an established network of friends they didn’t want to leave behind. When the movers came, my older brother tied himself to his lower bunk bed, refusing to go. My parents tried quiet persuasion at first, but after a few too many refusals they cut him loose and he sulked all the way to Montreal. I thought of it as an adventure. I’ll be damned if I even knew where Montreal was, but I was a co-operating family hostage, sitting beside my sulking brother for the drive to a bigger house and bigger money for my father.
We moved into a brand new two-storey house in what looked like a construction frontier town, the second family to move into a suburban work-in-progress. It was the beginning of the early-sixties movement towards the suburbs that came about as post-WWII families outgrew the humble, cramped bungalows, their income increased and the burgeoning Canadian middle class explored the suburbs as a better place to bring up their families. I had brought my portable friend with me and a whole new world of dial-turning opened up. New frequencies to discover, new voices and music to take in.
A city in transition
Though I was marooned in the ‘burbs, the radio kept me in touch with other places and worlds. Montreal was putting itself on the map as a vibrant, happening city, with a larger population than Toronto. The city was on the precipice of a renaissance, a building boom. You could see it reflected in the transformation of the cityscape and the ubiquitous construction cranes.
In 1962, the forty-five-storey Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (now CIBC) building opened as the tallest in Canada. This is where my father would start his new job with Allied Chemical Canada. The first time I was allowed a downtown visit, I was impressed by the view from my father’s twenty-second-floor office. (Not so enthusiastic, however, were the employees on the higher floors who were reluctant to go anywhere near the windows. A brave soul who was apparently tagged to show employees that they were in no danger went from floor to floor hurling himself at the windows to pacify paranoid office staff.) As for my father, he was probably feeling the vibe of the times, which was that the taller the building, the more bragging rights the city had.
Only a few months later the CIBC building lost its tallest-in-town tag – by one storey – to Place Ville Marie. In just one year Montreal had opened the two tallest buildings in Canada. The province, meanwhile, led by a new Liberal premier, Jean Lesage, was also flexing its new sense of identity and pride with the opening of a twenty-seven-storey head office building for Hydro Quebec in Montreal. This was part of some preliminary political moves labelled the “Quiet Revolution.” The Champlain Bridge, Montreal’s connection to its south shore, opened in 1963, the same year the city built a brand new concert hall, Place des arts. Montreal was on a roll.
Montreal’s three important early radio stations
CFCF-AM laid claim to being the first radio station in Canada to have gone on the air. With the call letters XWA, its owners, The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, went on the air in 1920 with a whopping 500 watts of power at their disposal. Eventually, the station settled in at 600 on the AM dial in 1933 with 2,000 watts of power. These would be the call letters that thousands of English-speaking Montrealers would become familiar with as more and more people bought their own crystal sets for the home. But CFCF had plenty of time before it would eventually play its first rock ‘n’ roll record.
In December 1959, Newfoundland-born entrepreneur Geoff Stirling, under the Maisonneuve Broadcasting Ltd. banner, started CKGM-AM a little further up the dial at 980 AM, with 10,000 watts day and night. With this launch, Stirling, a self-made millionaire and free spirit with uncanny business acumen, was tapping into Montreal’s early growth. Four years later, he launched a sister station, CKGM-FM, which Stirling would take a particularly personal interest in towards the end of that decade; his FM station would eventually change the whole radio landscape.
Way out on the right end of the AM dial was CFOX 1470, which came on the scene in 1960 with 1,000 watts, ostensibly to serve the budding West Island of Montreal population that in the summer of ‘62 added six more people, the Howarth family, to the census. Owned by Gord Sinclair Jr., the son of Toronto TV and radio personality Gord Sinclair, the station started out playing down-home country music. Though it came in loud and clear for my nightly dial-spinning ritual, country was not what I was looking for.
All three of these stations would soon find themselves fighting tooth and nail for the young listening audience of Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll music, which was about to explode their conservative programming formats into one of the most exciting eras in Montreal AM radio.
Alan Freed and the U.S. rock ‘n’ roll market
U.S. radio stations broke rock ‘n’ roll ahead of the Canadian market by a significant margin of time. It took longer for the R&B/rock ‘n’ roll sound to trickle across the 49th parallel. Announcers in the states had become “disc jockeys,” a term coined in 1935 by American radio commentator Walter Winchell, combining the words “disc” as in records and “jockey” for the operation of the equipment. Deejays or DJs, these were the guys who were spinning the hits of the day. In some U.S. markets, DJs became legitimate stars, Alan Freed being one of the most famous in the 1950s. R&B music, pejoratively called “race music” in the United States, was played largely in southern black communities but rarely in white America. Freed, at WJW in Cleveland, soon began mixing white and black rock music as a centerpiece of his broadcasts. He began his program in July 1951 and would later start calling it “rock ‘n’ roll” music. He would also pioneer a new kind of “DJ talk,” riffing on the hipster/jazz music/beatnik argot of New York City. “Yeah, daddy,” he would say, “let’s rock and roll!” He was twenty-nine years old at the time and poised to become a bona fide radio star. His late-night show, “The Moondog House,” soon became popular with the young kids – black and white – of Cleveland and beyond. Freed soon moved up to WINS New York, the biggest radio market in the United States. There he established himself as a force, parlaying his radio career into TV and film work while promoting musical revues that showcased R&B artists like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, The Drifters and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
Sadly, Freed’s run would end badly by the end of the decade, becoming a cautionary tale that had future DJs revising the way they did business with record-label promoters. Facing charges that he accepted bribes (payola) to play certain records (Freed called it “consultation fees”) as well as tax evasion charges, his radio carer was never the same. He died in 1964 – a broke and broken man – of kidney failure due to complications from alcohol. But Freed had introduced R&B to white and black America, and in 1989 he was one of the first inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
The Alan Freed payola scandal was a setback for the fledgling rock radio business, which was run by conservative radio executives, some of whom believed rock ‘n’ roll was the devil’s music and who seized on the scandal as an excuse to tone things right down. R&B was too sexual. Even the term rock ‘n’ roll mentioned in some black artists’ songs was code for sex. It was “jungle music” to radio programmers, too risky to play for fear of alienating present or potential sponsors. For a few years, rock radio went with safe, white, sanitized rock music.
Most mainstream radio stations in the U.S. and Canada took to playing the Bobbys : Darin, Curtola, Vinton and Darin. Pat Boone made a whole lot of money with his pasteurized version of Chuck Berry’s “Tutti Frutti.” Perry Como was still hanging in there along with some Elvis knock-offs like Ricky Nelson. And then there was Elvis. Nobody touched Elvis. He got away with his gyrations and jungle sounds. He was, after all, a good lookin’ white boy from the south who used to sing in church with his mama. But Elvis, in the prime of his rock ‘n’ roll ascendency, was drafted into the U.S. army in 1958. When he came back two years later, it seemed that experience had knocked the Jail House Rock right out of him. Presley, though he no longer rocked the way he had early in his career, turned out to be a durable performer, still charting into the 1970s. Meanwhile, in another example of a derailed rock star, Richard Wayne Penniman, a.k.a. Little Richard, decided in 1957 to forego his rock music career to join the ministry. It would be five years before he came back to his music, but he never again regained the momentum he’d had in the early fifties.
With those two rock pioneers gone, radio stations looked in other directions to fill the airwaves. There were plenty of musicians ready to step up to the plate and hit a number-one record out of the park. Artists like Chubby Checker, Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Ben E. King, Lesley Gore, The Four Seasons and The Beach Boys, along with the beginning of a wave of girl groups like The Shirelles, The Chiffons and The Ronettes (who introduced the legendary Wall of Sound, the brainchild of a young producer, Phil Spector) edged their way onto the early-sixties Billboard charts.
And as for me…
I ate up all that music, when I could find it, on my trusty transistor. I didn’t have anything to play 45s on and though they were only 99 cents, that was beyond my pre-pubescent budget, but my older brothers seemed to have more purchasing power and if the timing was right, I could sneak into my oldest brother’s bedroom and play his 45s on his portable red and white RCA Victor record player. There would be hell to pay if I left any trace of my presence in his bedroom or was caught in the act of trespassing. Ultimately, I inherited that RCA player and played the hell out of my meagre collection of 45 rpms. Finally, I was spinning my own music.