Today is the 89th anniversary of the first day of WLS radio in Chicago.
WLS today is a news–talk station. For three decades, though, beginning May 2, 1960, WLS was one of the United States’ premier pop and rock music stations.
One reason was WLS’ 50,000-watt signal, which at night could be heard in, according to WLS, 48 states and 23 countries.
That signal brought to towns big and small WLS’ disc jockeys, including John Records Landecker:
If you listen to the clips (including the cool echo effect, which makes the DJ sound even bigger), you’ll notice that the music is, well, good and bad. The music had less to do with WLS listenership than the personality of the station, including Landecker, who may have had the station’s largest audience given the fact he worked nights for most of his time there.
Landecker had several regular bits, including “Press My Conference” (here assisted by WLS’ Larry Lujack) …
… “Americana Panorama” …
… “Can I Get a Witness News” (featuring weird news stories in the pre-Internet days), and, of course, the nightly live, no-seven-second-delay Boogie Check:
Landecker also wrote a couple of parody songs, “Cabrini Green (Rent’s Dirt Cheap)” to the tune of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” and “Jane (Beat the Machine Dame),” to the tune of Jefferson Starship’s “Jane.” Both songs were about Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne.
Landecker has written a book, Records Truly Is My Middle Name (because it is — his mother’s maiden name), and he’s been pushing his book on every media outlet he can find. And most of them probably are happy to put him on because Landecker inspired a lot of people in radio …
… and because most media people are really good interviews.
From Radio Ink:
Why did you decide to write this book?
Landecker: That’s a very good question. That’s a question I ask myself many times. I didn’t have a job for a while there. I had attempted to segue into talk radio. That didn’t seem to be panning out. Other attempts at employment didn’t work out. I thought about this a lot. For somebody like me, who has spent his entire life going into a radio station and doing a show every day, and that being somewhat of a creative process, where you put yourself out there, if you stop doing that, you don’t feel right. I think the book is actually one big show. It’s a radio show, only it’s on paper. Before, if I wrote something down, it became part of the radio show. It has elements in it that I think if I were in a certain type of format today, I would include as part of my show. I think other people who are in certain types of format include it in their shows … where they came from, who they are, their family, their foibles, sex, drugs, rock and roll. You know, that kind of thing.
RI: Why do you think people are going to want to read it?
Landecker: Because the stories are entertaining. That’s it. It has nothing to do with the fact that I was on the radio or that my middle name is Records, which is all in there, of course. It’s entertaining. I will just give you a small idea of what I’m talking about. My first wife and I were getting divorced. I had two small girls. I decided, as a responsible father, I should take them on a vacation to someplace secluded, where we could have quality time. I contacted a travel agent who booked the three of us on a small island in the Bahamas. They only had one dining room in the whole place. There weren’t many other tourists there. However, there was a group from Playboy Enterprises shooting centerfolds for their Italian edition. I’ll let you read the book and find out what happens after that.
We had a very special guest in the studio that day; Stevie Wonder. Stevie was a big star at the time for Motown Records in Detroit, but he also supported a local school for the blind in Lansing, so he came to town semi-regularly. The music director at WILS (Craig Dudley) knew Stevie, and knew that he loved playing disc jockey, so he invited him to come to our station, sit at the control board, play records, and talk on the air.
I was there that day, and was lucky enough to watch him in action. It was just an amazing sight. He cued up the records, turned the knobs, turned the microphones on and off; you name it. Even though he couldn’t see a thing, he knew exactly what he was doing. There were a few Motown Records employees with him, but he was doing it all by himself. I was standing in the back of the studio watching the whole thing, in awe of his abilities.
That’s when the news came across the wire that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.
At first it wasn’t clear if King was dead or not, but we all suspected he was. An instant tension filled the room. The Motown executives didn’t say a thing. None of the radio station employees (including me) responded, and neither did Stevie. But we all knew we were experiencing a significant moment.
Even though this clearly affected him, Stevie was a total pro. He finished the show.
The Wisconsin State Journal’s Doug Moe must have been listening about the same time I was:
I heard about the book from my friend John Roach, the Madison Magazine columnist and television producer. Like me, and many other southern Wisconsin baby boomers, Roach grew up listening to WLS-AM/890, a Chicago Top 40 hits station with a powerful signal and colorful DJs like Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, Bob Sirott — and John Records Landecker.
Madison had its own smaller market version: WISM-AM/1480. The DJs had names like Clyde Coffee, Charlie “Rock and Roll” Simon and Jonathan Little.
Little is still around town, and I’ve kept in touch with Simon, whose real name is Larry Goodman. He moved to San Diego and has a successful career in radio sales. Larry took a piece of Otis Redding’s doomed plane with him and traded it to the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas for a Paul McCartney autographed guitar.
WISM was cool, but WLS was the big time. There was no Internet, streaming or satellite radio. Big city stations with strong signals ruled. The other day Roach recalled sitting in his room in Madison listening to the WLS DJs talk about bands like the Rolling Stones coming to Chicago. “It seemed exotic,” John said.
Later, when Roach got a job out of college at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Ill., he met the WLS DJs who did live shows from the park.
John Records Landecker — who handled the 6-10 p.m. shift for WLS through much of the 1970s — came to Great America to open a ride called the Tidal Wave. In those days both Roach and Landecker would take a second drink, which they did, after the promotion. It turned out each had been a high school sprinter, and you can guess what happened next.
“We raced through the darkened streets of Great America,” Roach said. “I won. I’ve never let him forget it.”
Last week Roach put me in touch with Landecker, who spoke about his life and new book with good cheer, though his life has had downs as well as ups, and the book reflects it.
(I grew up also listening to the aforementioned Little and Simon on WISM, and in Little’s case later on WZEE, Z104, when Little left WISM and turned Z104 into what WISM used to be. Little only has one of the greatest radio voices of all time, and Simon’s wasn’t far behind.)
Landecker was on WLS-TV’s “Windy City Live” when he got his own Boogie Check. (Click on the link.)
The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan interviewed Landecker for print …
Kaempfer spent many, many hours interviewing Landecker, coaxing stories and anecdotes out of him. He also conducted interviews with 30-some people who had known, worked with or admired Landecker. This group is a who’s who of local radio — Kevin Matthews, producer John Gehron, program director Mary June Rose — offering telling memories and assessments.
Former radio personality Don Wade says: “(Landecker) really works at his craft. He may come off like he’s goofing off, but trust me, he really works at it. He takes it very seriously.” …
Landecker now hosts evenings on WLS-FM 94.7. It is the same station, the same shift that he had when he arrived here in 1972 and became a star. This was the big time, Top 40 tunes blasted across the country to millions of listeners, introduced and interrupted by the voices of such folks as Bob Sirott, Larry Lujack and Landecker, who now writes, “I didn’t realize how big we were in the 1970s while it was happening.” How big? As one of the station’s former general managers, Marty Greenberg, puts it, “We were the New York Yankees and we didn’t even know it.” …
The book is filled with many such honest reflections, terrific photos, some of Landecker’s funniest parody songs and snippets of favorite interviews. It’s peppered too by a self-effacing tone: “Maybe I’m just a guy writing a book about the times we all lived through.”
His WLS show might not dominate the ratings like it once did, but in so many important ways it doesn’t really matter.
… and video:
I have not read the book other than online excerpts. However, I have not read a single review of the book that doesn’t practically gush. That’s probably because, in addition to his being apparently a great storyteller, Landecker hearkens back to the days when rock and roll was more real, and DJs were live and local. (And, for me, when I wanted to do what Landecker was doing. I didn’t.)
Landecker is still on WLS. The FM version, that is, whose signal does not go out to 48 states and 23 countries, but it does go over the World Wide Web. WLS-FM also has Brant Miller, who was on The Humongous 89 at the same time as Landecker, and WLS’ first nationally known DJ, Dick Biondi. (After doing mornings on WLS-FM, Miller is the meteorologist on the 4:30, 6 and 10 p.m. news on WMAQ-TV in Chicago. Apparently Miller doesn’t sleep.)
Back in 2010, when Chicago played at the EAA in Oshkosh, I sent Landecker an email at his previous station (a talk station in Indiana) mentioning I’d been listening to him since the 1970s. He replied by thanking me for listening “all these years.” Which I imagine made us both feel old.