I really loved being on the radio. Those were the days, and nights, when I first ran into Big Louie, his own bad self, The Chief Mustard Cutter of the Louie-Louie Generation. His theme song, Louie-Louie was the star of most of the record hops in those days. Any time the party got dull…it was Louie to the rescue.
But there was another kind of music born in the sixties. It’s mommy was the blues, and it’s daddy was rock and roll, and the people in power said it was conceived in sin. It was music on fire. Hendrix, Morrison, Clapton. When I heard it for the first time it took me a week to get my eyes closed. Today, you’d call it Classic Rock. And there’s something most people don’t know about it and…you should. Most people don’t know about the man who got that music on the air. His name was Al Heacock. And he was a man in the best sense of the word. Here’s the story. I know it because I was privileged to work for Al…and he was my friend.
Once upon a time…all the way back in the sixties…AM radio was still king. Big 50,000 watt flame throwers like WBZ in Boston, WABC in New York, WLS in Chicago, and KFI in Los Angeles ruled. Almost all of them were built on tight top forty foundations. In fact, the play list at WABC was frequently more like the top twenty, with the emphasis on the top three. “All Hits All The Time.” Jingle, jangle, jingle. The FORMAT was the GOSPEL. Except at Boston’s WBZ. Now it can be told…this is something that most radio professionals won’t believe…but it’s true. WBZ never had a format. The guys on the air played whatever we wanted to play, including records from our own personal collections, and tapes from local artists. And in between every single record/tape, we had fun. Oh we had fun. And people loved it.
Today’s top radio stations pull around a ten rating in a major market. WBZ consistently pulled north of a twenty five. The mouths at WBZ belonged to Carl deSuze, Dave Maynard, Jay Dunn, Jeff Kaye (and later Ron Landry) Bob Kennedy Bruce Bradley and me. But the brains, and a lot of the heart of the station belonged to the Program Director, Al Heacock.
Al was smart. He was a quiet guy who made a lot of money in the stock market. But he really didn’t care about the stock market. Al cared about his radio station, WBZ. It was a station with “tude.” When we broadcast from our mobile studio, which was most of the time, we proudly wore our station blazers. It wasn’t unusual at all for one of us to drop in on somebody else’s show and kibitz for a while. When you walked down the beach, you didn’t need to bring your own radio, because everybody around you would have ‘BZ turned on and turned up to stun. If you stopped your car for a red light, you could always hear ‘BZ coming out of the speaker in the car stopped next to you.
For those of you who never heard the station, and for those of you who work in radio and are curious about the legend that was WBZ, here’s how Al programmed his music: Each month there was a staff meeting. At the meeting he would always remind us to play some of the top tunes he left in the rack in the studio each week. And then he’d say, “I don’t want to hear two records back to back. We pay you guys to entertain. Entertain.” What a joy it was, what an honor to be one of Al’s guys on WBZ.
Here’s what that means to you. If it weren’t for Al Heacock, a man who knew how to say no…and stick to his guns…Classic Rock might never have been born. The rest of that story coming up.
Dick’s Details Quiz – All answers are in the current podcast.
1- What does a major league catcher do about 150 times during a game ?
2- What kind of glue do Eskimos use ?
3- We think best at 60 degrees. What do we do best at 90 degrees ?
Dick’s Details. They take your mind off your mind.
Al Heacock knew that there are times when you’d better say yes if you want to keep your job, but you’ve got to say no if you want to keep your self respect.
Boston has always had a strong Folk Music tradition. At WBZ we were consistently playing original tapes of unreleased songs like “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “The Urge for Going” by Tom Rush, all kinds of stuff by Dylan, and Baez, and Sweet Judy Blue Eyes Collins. I was doing a weekly MC gig at the Unicorn Coffee House, a major Folkie spot in town. And I noticed that some of the artists were beginning to go electric. I invited Al to attend one night, and he got it. Right away. The next day, he instigated ‘BZs only mandatory music rule: “One ‘Liquid Rock’ song per hour.” Al called the music Liquid Rock. Almost immediately the new music picked up a different name… “Underground Rock.” The name was the only thing Al got wrong.
He gave me two hours on Sunday evening for the first big time “Underground Rock” radio show. He called it, “Dick Summer’s Subway.” Then Dylan went electric, Eric Clapton formed “Cream” and Woodstock forged a new musical and political conscience for America…and it went roaring out on WBZ’s 50,000 watt clear channel signal from Massachusetts to Midway Island in the Pacific. (I have an air check.)
And the suits at Group W Radio in New York were aghast. It wasn’t top forty. It wasn’t anything they recognized. They didn’t like it. They wanted it stopped…right now. Al just very quietly said no. He stood up to the top brass, and said no. For a while, even the suits didn’t want to mess too much with Al’s 25 rating in Boston. Then Arlo Guthrie did a song called “Alice’s Restaurant,” featuring a line about the “mother rapers and the father rapers on the Group W bench.” The lawyers at Group W headquarters in New York freaked.
The President of the Group took a flight from New York to talk sense into this crazy program director Heacock. “Get it off the air now” was the order. Al very quietly said “no.” It was a classic Radio Guy vs. Big Suit. And Mr. Suit blinked. The order was changed to “well at least edit that line out” Al very quietly just said “no.” If you’re a radio professional, you’ll realize how far out of line that was. So Mr. Suit decided to drop in on me personally one Sunday night, “for a friendly visit.” The engineer saw what was going on, and called Al to alert him to the situation. Ten minutes later, Al was at the studio. He asked Mr. Suit to join him for a quick meeting…out of the studio. That’s the last I heard of the problem.
Shortly after, Al was transferred to WINS in New York. A few months later, Group W turned off the music at WINS, and started a highly successful all news format there. And just a few weeks after that, Al was found dead in his shower. They called it a coronary. But I think the suits just broke his heart.
A few months later, the great Tom Donahue climbed on “Underground” music on his FM station out in San Francisco, Classical Music WBCN went FM rock in Boston, WNEW-FM went rock in New York, and in a little while, FM killed the AM king. It probably would have happened anyway. But the point is that when you hear “Stairway To Heaven”, or “Light My Fire” you’re listening to one of the many echos of that quiet but firm “no” WBZ’s Al Heacock said all those years ago.