Uncle Lar at Work

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(Pictured: a modern view of Chicago in autumn.)

Thursday, September 23, 1971, was the first day of fall. News headlines that morning included accusations that President Nixon had lied about the purpose of recent bombing raids in North Vietnam. A new report suggested that the earth’s climate was cooling. A coroner’s jury ruled that a woman who fell from the 90th floor of Chicago’s John Hancock building died accidentally. The Pittsburgh Pirates clinched the National League Eastern Division championship the previous day. In the wake of the recently announced move of the Washington Senators to Dallas, Senators fan Nixon told reporters he would switch his baseball allegiance to the California Angels.

Larry Lujack was on the air at WLS in Chicago, where he’d held down mornings for a year. I recently came across an aircheck of the 7 to 8AM hour of that show. The aircheck is unscoped, which means it contains complete songs and newscasts as well as full commercial breaks. Such airchecks are comparatively rare; it’s more common for airchecks to be “scoped”—that is, to have jock-talk only, with music, commercials, and news edited out.

Many of the songs on the aircheck are hits of the moment: “If Not for You,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but also Dawn’s charming “What Are You Doing Sunday,” which WLS charted as high as #3 while it was making only #39 on the Hot 100. It also includes the Fifth Dimension’s version of “Never My Love,” which prompts Uncle Lar to say it’s so good he wants “to take the cartridge out of the machine and eat it.” Also heard: Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” by Jerry Reed, which Lar misidentifies as “Amos Moses,” Reed’s hit from earlier in 1971. On the Klunk Letter of the Day, a regular Lujack feature, a listener writes to say that Lar blew her mother’s mind on an earlier show by playing a Roy Orbison song, so he plays “Candy Man,” which he calls Orbison’s best song ever. The last song heard on the aircheck is an oddball: “Who Will Answer” by Ed Ames, a 1968 hit that is trippy enough for the late 60s and straight enough to appeal to the housewife demo.

The aircheck includes a full newscast on the half-hour by Lyle Dean, who anchored news from the 60s to the new millennium alongside Chicago legends: not just Lujack but Clark Weber, Fred Winston, and Bob Collins. The Cubs and White Sox scores get mentioned a couple of times within the hour, as does Nixon’s transfer of baseball allegiance. The Senators’ move is also the subject of Howard Cosell’s regular Speaking of Sports commentary, which is also heard in full.

As a kid, I was weaned on my hometown station’s morning show, which unfolded so precisely that we never had to look at the clock—we knew what we needed to be doing by what we were hearing. So when the aircheck got to the regular morning broadcast of The Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy (a two-minute serialized superhero parody created by advertising genius Dick Orkin in the wake of the legendary Chickenman), it felt like time for the bus to be getting to school. Back then, when Cosell’s commentary came on at about 7:55, we would often get off the bus, just minutes before the first bell rang. And on that Thursday morning 46 years ago, I was almost certainly listening, on my way to another day in sixth grade at Northside School.

Lujack does quick bits in and out of songs, goofs on the weather, the traffic, and a laundry soap commercial, and talks about a recent jock meeting at the station. “We have them every couple of weeks,” he says, “so the program director can tell us we’re not as great as we think we are.” At this one, the staff teased night jock Kris Erik Stevens for his flowered shirt and his long hair, calling him a hippie communist.

Larry Lujack, on a normal day in his natural habitat, rasps and pauses and smirks and sometimes sounds like he’s badly in need of more coffee. He was not the honey-voiced fast talker of Top 40 legend (not like Kris Erik Stevens, whose delivery I have imitated for 40 years whenever I want to “sound like a DJ”). But by September 23, 1971, he was one of most important people who would ever come into in my life. At the age of 11, I already knew that I wanted to be on the radio, just like my old Uncle Lar.

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10 responses

  1. Random thoughts on a great post:

    -WLS liked “Who Will Answer.” It made #9 there, #19 nationally.

    -The timing of service elements was important and, I think, something that is lost on today’s listeners, especially younger ones. I told my Intro to Radio class this fall about reading the school lunch menus in Macomb, IL – which they didn’t understand the importance of. “Why not just look them up?” Because you couldn’t, and it was our job to give them to you, on time. Even at my last gig I preferred to talk about school closings rather than send people elsewhere for them, hoping they’d come back for the much less important stuff I’d be offering.

    -Lujack was the guy that all us wanted to be and none of us could manage. In going back over old tapes of mine it’s interesting to hear just how much I was trying to steal – poorly – from Lujack, Landecker et al. Perhaps that asserts their importance.

  2. Whenever I fill in on the morning show, I’m kind of fanatical about getting the newscasts on at :15 and :45. If the slip a minute, I can live with that, but two minutes bugs me—and never more than a minute early.

    I think I realized early on that Lujack was impossible to imitate. I borrowed some from good old Stan Neuberger at hometown WEKZ, Bob Dearborn at WCFL, and a guy in WZOK in Rockford whose name escapes me now, but who had a kind of smooth and sardonic air I really liked. Like Lujack, Bob Collins was impossible to imitate, apart from striving to match his utterly relaxed style. He sounded like a guy offering you a second beer on a summer afternoon.

  3. Thanks for the unscoped aircheck. What really rang my bell were all the commercial jingles. I miss those. Also it was great to hear a full Lyle Dean newscast, which reminded me of Paul Harvey (who was in the same building, no?) but on a local level.

  4. Hey JB! I worked with Kris Erik on many occasions in the mid-’80s when I was producing syndicated radio specials for ABC, CBS & RKO radio. He was a great guy, always easy to work with and, as you intimated, had a very distinctive sound. So much so, that after a tracking session when Kris would cut the wraparound narrative for the show I was producing, my engineer and I would lapse into impressions of him. Whenever he paid you a compliment or received one, his phrase was, “Super, Babe!” Those impressions were not derisive in any way, they were more affectionate nods to Kris Erik’s idiosyncratic superlative. To this day, when an affirmative, DJ-like response is required, I am still prone to utter, “Super, Babe!” He was a big part of Top 40 radio history. When I Googled him recently I was happy to see that he is still doing well in L.A. http://kriserikstevens.com/

  5. P.S. I always enjoy your blog. And I’m so glad you do so I don’t have to!

  6. The closest thing I had to this sort of experience was James Francis Patrick O’Neill, who did mornings on WLW in Cincinnati in the 70s. There was some but not lots of music, and various recurring skits. The one I remember most was a detective spoof called “Bentley Brusselsprout.” Its intro was the Peter Gunn theme, played on a bass that just petered out. He was a pretty funny guy. I would really enjoy listening to something of his akin to what you describe here. Died in 2004; found a nice reminiscence of him when he was in Minneapolis, before he moved to Cincy: http://twincitiesmusichighlights.net/oneill/

    1. As an avid KDWB listener, JFPO (“The Professor”) was *the* best. Lots of character voices and fun, especially for afternoon drive. He bailed for WLW when Crowell-Collier sold the station to a local firm.

      I remember being quite surprised to hear him one morning on the Big 700 later that winter: “So *that’s* where he went!”

  7. When I finally got around to joining my college station as a junior, I was more than a little surprised to find “Who Will Answer?” in the station’s flashback 45s library, nearly four years after it had been a hit. My MD predecessor told me a few years ago that when he’d taken over the position at the beginning of 1970, he’d inherited a playlist and library rife with the likes of the Lettermen and the Vogues. I’ll have to ask him how Ed Ames managed to avoid the hatchet when he immediately righted the musical ship.

  8. Great throwback post, Jim. Lyle Dean With The Chicago Report was must-listening fare for me when I was still trying to imitate Lujack, with not an inkling that some day I’d be in the nooz biz and not the jock biz. I got to meet Lyle many years later, at some radio thing, and told him how much his work meant to a kid who listened to him every day back in the 60’s. He was completely gracious. I told him that when I was essentially forced into being a noozman mid-career, I dredged up my recollections of how he did the nooz, and even sought out airchecks (which, as you pointed out, unscoped and containing newscasts are awfully hard to find) to listen for style points, pacing, et.al.

    Radio got deep into our consciousness back then, didn’t it? We loved it so much….

  9. Peoria had the great Robyn Weaver who I believe intro’d one of the above-mentioned records as “The Night We Held Young Dixie Down.” Maybe that never was funny, but being twelve years old you could have fooled me…….

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