Early Syracuse Rock ‘n Roll Radio

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Note:

When I wrote the first draft of “Local DJ” in 1994, eight years prior to publication in April of 2002, the early “Syracuse Section” covered the first five chapters and ran around 7,000 words in length. More than two-thirds were abandoned in the last edit, which compressed Syracuse memories into “Chapter Two” in the final version.

What follows is from the original, extended manuscript, which includes various characters and incidents not contained in the Xlibris edition and released for the first time here.

Peter Cavanaugh

Oakhurst, California

March 26, 2009

Additional Note:

What the hell.

After formatting those early Syracuse chapters as “Blogs” (a word I truly hate), I must admit being persuaded that these are pretty cool mechanics, i.e., each individual segment can act as a literary “jump-start” to the rest of the manuscript or pretty much stand by itself.

And I can toss in pictures as I go along!

YES!

So I decided to keep at it and run through the rest of the original draft, all 72 chapters. Jesus. There are tons of new stuff here and some real names originally changed for formal publication in ’02. I’m finishing now, but will keep adding more images as I find things here, there and everywhere.

One possible point of serious confusion is the same thing you might encounter with e-mail. When examining that “Posts” column, the latest addition appears first.

So, for purposes of chronology, one should read Chapters from the bottoms up, as we old time drunks might say.

A better idea is to remember that every chapter includes these little dudes at the top:

“<” and “>”

I can’t remember what these are properly called, but < means “the chapter before this one” and > indicates “the next chapter.” All you do is click. As Dorothy did her ruby slippers.

Speaking of which, the chapters BEFORE this one are excerpts from “Uncertainties of Life”, my current project, in which I reference Dorothy and “The Wizard of Oz” as religious symbols. Hey. Don’t get scared! I’ve thought the whole thing through. A little.

“Uncertainties of Life” is kind of “Local DJ: Part Two”.

A little.

Peter Cavanaugh

Oakhurst, California

April 23, 2009

Michael Moore’s 55th Birthday!


Prelude to “Local DJ”

“I’M GONNA WRITE A LITTLE LETTER –

GONNA MAIL TO IT MY LOCAL DJ.

IT’S A JUMPIN’ LITTLE RECORD

I WANT MY JOCKEY TO PLAY.”

Chuck Berry

“Roll Over Beethoven”

(1956)

“LOCAL DJ”

A Rock ‘n Roll History
By
Peter Cavanaugh

Pioneering The Evolution Of FM Radio
Launching The Careers of Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper And Dozens More

Donald J. Cavanaugh with Peter Cavanaugh. Niagara Falls, New York. 1946

FOREWORD

From my earliest memories, I had always wanted to be “on the air”. That was all I ever had in mind. This was true even before my father died on the radio when I was six years old. Donald J. Cavanaugh was working for the Veteran’s Administration as Assistant-Chief in Syracuse by the summer of 1948.

Having always achieved the highest possible scores in Civil Service Examinations, he may well have attained higher organizational distinction were it not for several dedicated Irish predispositions, heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages not being the least impactive. The “Holy Water” had cost him a number of years of unemployment, but he had not taken a drink in over six months when he entered WNDR’s studios to narrate a program called “News For Veterans” on Thursday morning, July 29th. It was a long, thirty minute script. Halfway through, he paused for breath. He began gasping. There was a problem. He slumped back in his chair. It was a massive coronary.

He was dead at the age of 52, a chronological distinction I have surpassed. A transcription was being made of the broadcast. At my mother’s wish, it was destroyed. I was not allowed to attend the funeral, being “too young”. I stayed at home. With my radio.

wsyr-trans_bldg

”The Old Wired Woodshed”

Ed Murphy played nothing but Irish music every Saint Patrick’s Day on WSYR radio in Syracuse, a departure from his usual mix of selections from “The Hit Parade”. He had the most popular morning show in town. One of his sponsors was “Old Spice After Shave”. I use it to this day. Ed came on at 7 AM, right after my real hero left the air.

“The Deacon” would finished broadcasting from his “old wired-woodshed, Uptown and Down City” with the sound of a slamming gate. To be mentioned as climbing this gate for the program’s close was a public honor and envied distinction. I sent in dozens of postcards ‘til he finally said, “Whadyaknow, little Peter Cavanaugh’s on board today, too!”. It was my eighth birthday and friends and relatives were immeasurably impressed, even though the Deacon had started as a joke.

A young announcer named Bob Doubleday, condemned to reporting “Agricultural News” years earlier from 5 ‘til 7 each dawn back in the ‘40’s, decided to do his reports “sounding like a farmer”.

“Aye–yah. Bob Jones in Canastota’s been up all night with a new colt. Henry Rogers out by Oneida got this fox in his front yard with one shot. Jim Taylor’s wife over in Weedsport sent some jelly in and she sure didn’t have to do that, but it was real, real nice.” Then, he’d hit his “player-piano” for a tune or two or, most often, engage in prolonged telephone calls with listeners, only his side of the dialogue being broadcast.

He’d play scratchy barnyard sounds under his twangy recital of hog prices and frequently offer several minutes of silence while he visited “the house out back”. By the time his Program Director caught on, it was too late. “Deacon Doubleday” had the highest ratings on the station and held them for decades with an act begun in rebellion, ignoring all convention. His show pulled ages and lifestyles across the board, attracting even more listeners than the prior ratings champion for many a year. This was “The Rosary”, recited each weekday evening at 6 for a quarter-million Catholics residing within the Syracuse signal area. Whether they all listened or not, most faithfully reported they did so when questioned.

“Local DJ”

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CHAPTER ONE

“OCCASIONS OF SIN”

“My name is MacNamara. I’m the leader of the band!”

That was the first line in the first song I remember hearing and learning.

Although I was barely two and could hardly walk ( a condition I have since chronically experienced in similar surroundings through subsequent times for reasons other than infancy), my father would set me up on the bar to entertain his cronies with a fairly impressive ensemble of various Irish ballads, dirges and chants which I mastered even as I learned to speak. They would give me pennies and shot glasses of beer for my trouble. To this day, it seems like more than a fair exchange as I recall the laughter and the love.

My birthday falls upon the Eighth day in September. This is also, according to Holy Archives, the birthday of our Blessed Mother. That made her a Virgo.

Such a wondrous historical coincidence was brought to my attention shortly after I started attending parochial school at the age of ten by Sister Stanlislaus in the context of trying not to be a “bold, brazen thing”.

Cathedral Academy was “The Bishop’s School”. I, mixing with the offspring of prominent attorneys, doctors and other professionals usually several generations into the American experience, was economically “deprived”, one of but few admitted from “the area”. Retrospectively, I suspect they had a “ghetto quota”.

Our parish priest had intervened with the authorities on my behalf.

I was the leader of a small band of mischievous Irish boys, seeking fun with minimal funds.

One Saturday afternoon, the seven of us had a quarter. A new Tarzan film had opened at our neighborhood movie house, the Regent Theater on East Genesee. I bought a single ticket, then admitted my friends by opening a fire-door near the rear of the theater. I returned to the box office and announced that I had suddenly taken ill. I was in tears and obtained a refund. I was back in my seat within seconds through that fire door.

We considered the movie surely a masterpiece. It was the first time we had seen Tarzan use “flaming arrows”. Obviously, we would need to do the same.

The apparatus we assembled in my backyard was of the most basic construction, but undeniably proved functional. The “arrow” stuck near the very top of our neighbor’s garage. It was quickly evident I had applied far too much lighter-fluid. There was an almost instantaneous wall of flames. The garage burned to the ground and was totally destroyed. So was a brand new ’51 Dodge parked inside. The police were called. Someone informed. Our doorbell rang.

It was Catholic School or else.

Lee Hilton was also from “the area”. At the Cathedral, a dress code was rigidly enforced. On our first day of school, Lee wore a paper tie displaying, in red-crayon, the words “Times Are Tough”. For this public admission of honest misfortune, Lee was soundly slapped. The little Sister thought that Lee was being provocative. He was merely wearing what his Mom had made. He had no tie of cloth. I was more fortunate, taking mental note of certain new realities.

Mrs. Hilton’s failed expectations at surely invoking the sympathetic understandings of Christ’s own bride notwithstanding, I was to spend seven years of my academic career at Cathedral. I graduated in 1959 as President of the Student Council with a New York State Regents’ Scholarship. This would enable me to obtain four years of superb Jesuit training at Le Moyne College in Syracuse.

It was in 1957 I had begun my dance with the devil.

“Have you lost your faith yet?”, snarled Father Shannon.

I had been unceremoniously released from an assignment and high honor which the good Father himself had arranged on my behalf at WHEN radio. It was there I presented the “Saints of the Week” as part of the “Catholic Hour”. This gave me license to exit an ever more confining classroom three hours a week and hang around a radio station, simultaneously earning what was then referred to as “major brownie points”.

I was asked to take my leave when WHEN’s Program Director heard me on WNDR, the “Rock ‘n Roll Station”, playing “that music” with “those people”.

Father Shannon had earlier been a big Syracuse “radio star” in his own right as a singer (“Smilin’ Jackie Shannon”) on WFBL and later on the CBS Radio Network. Around age thirty, for reasons never given other than implied divine intervention, he left the business to enter the seminary. Following ordination, “Jackie” was eventually made “Director of Communications for the Diocese of Syracuse”, stationed at the Cathedral where all the hierarchial action was.

I was sort of a “discovery” for him, I suppose. He had often discussed my potential as a candidate for the priesthood. He felt betrayed that Peter, an altar boy for six years, had become involved in “popular, common, vulgar entertainment” . Far worse, it was “Negro Rock Music”, a new, clearly insidious invasion by forces undefined, yet surely Satanic in origin, dedicated to the decay and destruction of America’s youth.

We had been told at Cathedral by Sister Cecilia that listening to Don and Phil’s “Wake Up Little Suzie” was a mortal sin since it implied that “a boy and girl were sleeping together without having partaken in the Sacrament of Marriage”, an interpretation which had never even remotely dawned on her students.

This era of Catholic education stressed a highly structured, excruciatingly well-defined philosphy regarding matters sexual in nature. Even the word “sex” was never openly uttered other than in extremely hushed tones and then only after the “boys” and “girls” had been separated for “frank discussion” of “certain private things”.

The tight confines went along these lines:

To have brief “impure thoughts” was a venial sin.

To willingly enjoy “impure thoughts”, let alone engage in “impure acts”, was a Mortal Sin.

Both sins could be forgiven if fully confessed to a priest who was empowered by God to grant penance and absolution.

If you died with venial sins unforgiven, you’d need to spend a certain amount of time in a place called Purgatory before finally going to Heaven. Think of it as waiting at Detroit Metro in mid-January for a flight to Hawaii with a blinding blizzard delaying all planes. Every venial sin one carried would be six more inches of snow and another twelve hours in the terminal.

A Mortal Sin, however, brought a far, far darker fate.

Death’s arrival with an unforgiven Mortal Sin damning the soul would mean burning in the raging, searing, blast-furnace, blow-torch fires of Hell for all Eternity.

There were the “heavy spins”.

“And how long is Eternity in which the soul and body burns forever?”

“If there was a giant steel ball the size of the planet earth suspended in space and if every one million years a small, gentle dove flew past this giant solid-steel ball the size of the planet earth and the very tiniest tip of its feathery little wing just barely brushed against the giant ball, a few teeny-tiny, itty-bitty molecules of steel completely invisible to the human eye being brushed away with each passage every million years; by the time the giant solid-steel ball the size of the planet earth was completely severed in two by the small, gentle dove flying by every million years taking a few microscopic molecules with it each and every time, ETERNITY WILL HAVE JUST BEGUN!!””

“And what part of the body burns the hottest in Hell??”

“THE PART YOU HAVE SINNED WITH!!”

There was a finale.

“Is anything besides commiting a sexually impure act a Mortal Sin?”

“Yes!” “Wanting To!!”

There I was being told “wanting to do it” was the same as “doing it” with an identical penalty. The punishment was, pardon the expression, Sister, a stiff one at that. I intellectually came to a painful realization that I was confronted with two mutually exclusive moral positions:

Either (a) I was condemned to be a Mortal Sinner throughout life with my only hope for Salvation being a friendly comet nailing me at light-speed velocity just seconds after leaving a Confessional or (b) I could explore my God-given conscience and honestly conclude that the Church was flat-out fucked on fucking beyond belief.

My Uncle Vince was the one who helped me straighten it all out.

Vincent was my father’s older brother and had studied for the priesthood. With my father’s death, he had become my mentor. He and my Aunt Louella lived above us on Ashworth Place in Syracuse. He didn’t have much money either.

Vincent had been noticed as a very young man by the nuns and had been educated in the finest schools at Church expense. While in Rome completing his education and just prior to ordination, Vincent felt obliged to enlist in the U.S. Army. World War One had started. He fought in the trenches of France and was gassed several times by German forces. It was a good thing he had that mask. He gave it to me on my seventh birthday.

When the war ended, Vincent decided that he didn’t want to be ordained after all. Still, he owed the Church something. Debts must be paid. He spent many years teaching Greek and Latin at Mount Saint Mary near Baltimore. Mount Saint Mary was a major seminary where a significant number of “Diocesan Priests” in America received final training. He had instructed many of the Cathedral clerics and several of his students would become future Bishops. He had remained a single man into his early fifties.

Vincent would visit Syracuse on vacations and stay with his sister Molly. My Aunt Molly was married to George Bassett. The Bassett family lived on a farm near Syracuse to which we all would travel every so often. The Bassett family had owned the land since before the Revolution. There was a farm girl who had been orphaned at a young age and adopted by the Bassetts. No one was quite sure who her father might have been.

Louella was in her late thirties and had been married briefly to a traveling salesman. He had abandoned her in Detroit. She had obtained a divorce. She was not very polished. She had just managed to finish fourth grade. She was barely literate, but could draw beautiful pictures. She was a Protestant. All these things were fine with Uncle Vince. They fell in love and were married.

As expected, the powers-which-were went wild.

Having married a divorced-woman, Uncle Vince lost his job with the Church. He moved on to Cornell for six years and was a Professor of Philosophy there. He came to the conclusion that he probably didn’t know anything at all. He left teaching when he turned sixty-five.

My Uncle Vince moved back to Syracuse and became a night desk-clerk at the old Howard Hotel in the very worst part of town. He told me he liked “hangin’ out with the other bums”. They didn’t mind it if he said “ain’t”. He would bring me to the library all the time and choose “important books”. I read “Gone With The Wind” when I was seven and “Ulysses” before I was ten and burned-down that garage. I would sneak out of my room in the middle of the night and study the stars with him through an old, dusty telescope he would set up on his porch.

Vince’s first-cousin was Dr. John McGrath. He was Director of Music for the Diocese and played organ in the Syracuse Cathedral. For some reason I never knew, there was a bit of enmity between the two. “All he needs is a monkey”, Vince would say.

As I would ask him of life, Uncle Vince would answer all of my questions with questions. I later came to know he practiced the “Socratic Method” of instruction. He loved Socrates and would sign that name to many articles submitted to the Syracuse Herald-Journal and Post-Standard Editorial Departments. He was published all the time incognito. He hated Republicans.

It was from Uncle Vince I learned of Ireland. He spoke of it incessantly. His only sorrow in life was that he would never visit the “Old Country”. He said he was “too tired” and “too poor”. He said that none of the Cavanaughs had ever “gone back”. The only promise he ever asked of me was that I would “return” in memory of all who could not. He said, “All we dead Cavanaughs will go along for the ride, if you don’t mind”. He said it would be important to remember that. I assured him I would do so, but hoped he would live forever. There was sorrow in his eyes. He said that was not a problem.

When I questioned Uncle Vince about sex, he asked me how all the priests and nuns who said it was sinful had gotten started.

I just couldn’t begin to think of Sister Cecilia’s parents in bed, or holding-hands, or even being aware of each others’ existence. It was far more than innocent contemplation might endure.

14 Responses to “Early Syracuse Rock ‘n Roll Radio”

  1. Kenexcess Says:

    Great site this petercavanaugh.wordpress.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

  2. Dr Tom Arno Says:

    Having grown up in Syracuse and listening to you at NDR, and the rest of the crew–loved your book. Nice to know, I am not the only person that hates the word ‘blog’

    A big ‘Aye–yah’ from Meadville, PA

  3. Bobby Caldwell Says:

    Pete, this is cool news. Word has it around here that Michael Moore’s wife wanted to film your book. Whatever happens, I would love to see it get to film. Should this happen, please use south eastern Michigan period music for the score. As you know, radio has turned to crap. In your day, it was the best and local DJ’s were all celebraties. My wife works for Regent Commuications with Jay Patrick and that bunch. It’s just a computer, consultant pack of shit. I talked to Pete Flanders recently and we both thought that with the ecconomic crunch, it would be great to see independant owned stations with the DJ’s running their own shows. Good luck, Bobby Caldwell P.S. Regent is right at bankruptcy. ha

  4. Ralph Guild Says:

    Peter,
    Just read your email. It got side tracked into Junk Mail by gmail while we were on vacation. We got home last night. Talk about a labor of love and the good news is that it’s recognized by publishers and perhaps movie producers.
    Best wishes to you and I hope you continue to produce more of the history of our generation of broadcasters. I keep getting the urge to attack it from the sales side, but just haven’t gotten myself motivated yet.
    Ralph Guild

  5. Kevin Potter Says:

    Peter,

    This would have been great in the book! I hope you’re able to produce more of what was left out!

    Thank you!

    Kevin

  6. Dan Deeb Says:

    I remember working at NDR when Mac&Maude did morning just ahead of Big George Plavocos and we’d do Deacon impersonations and jokes and listen to WSYR in the newsroom just to hear Deacon say “looks like they’re foolin around out there in Dewitt this mornin'”.

    Sure brings back good times … keep goin’ Peter C

    • petercavanaugh Says:

      Hi, Dan!

      There were a handful of other “Deacon” types in various markets across the country. Their most significant point in common was incredible presentational presence, a powerful evocative transcendence which drew early radio audiences with irresistible appeal. “Rock ‘n Roll” being primarily attitudinal (in my view), “The Deacon” was, for me, Syracuse’s first Rock Star. Fred Jeske was right up there too. And Glenn Williams with the news.

  7. Bob Green Says:

    Peter:
    Thank you so much for sending this on…wonderful writing. Rosary hour…brought back memories of my first radio job in 1958 in near by Rochester at WSAY. Between the hits of the Big Bopper & Paul Anka, the family Rosary Hour (done in half an hour). One night father Chirincconi had a few extra beads when he intoned…”holy Mary…blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of the loom…Jesus”. Truly. Aside from that on Thursdays at 10:30 PM was “Radio Revival” with Dr. Glen V. Tingley…who opened the show with the musical question…”If radio’s slim fingers can pluck a melody from the air and toss it over a continent or sea…why then should mortals wonder that God hears our prayer?” Being a bunch of teens..we. naturally, inserted a “Why not?” No one ever called to complain.

    • petercavanaugh Says:

      Hi, Bob!

      Thanks for the nice words!

      WSAY! Another fine Gordon Brown station! I always heard so many stories about this dude, but never had the pleasure of meeting him. “Tommy Tune?” “Mike Melody?” Etc.

      Best wishes,

      Peter C.

  8. Joan McLean Says:

    I loved finding this detail after I googled a phrase I had lodged in my mind from my five year old memory, and wanted to see if it was real. I remembered hearing these words spoken in a gruffly tender voice “This is the Deacon speakin’ here from the wired woodshed” and my parents would laugh and listen to him religously. We lived on the outskirts of Syracuse, New York, in a small town called Jordan. I am looking now to see if anyone else remembers hearing him say, and “grab it and slam it and see ya in the morning” when he closed his broadcast. Thanks for the memories! Beth Kelso
    3/13/12

  9. Charles Walker Says:

    Turns out the “Speakin’ Deacon’s” real name was Elliot Apodnoz. Dick Case wrote about him not long ago. The “nom de radio” was adopted becasue he and the management at WSYR didn’t think the farming public wouldn’t accept a Jew doing the farm news. I had completely forgotten about Mr. McGrath. He lead the combined parocial league choirs at the Cathedral. I recall him being a real twink. Peter C., I just came across these old posts. I guess the Xanax must be working.

  10. petercavanaugh Says:

    That Xanax IS working. As far as I know, the “Elliot Apodnoz” story screams “Urban Legend”. Bob Doubleday and his family lived about a block away from my aunt, just off Nottingham Road. His kids went to school with my cousins. This is the first time I’ve ever heard about “Elliot”. Given Bob’s phenomenal success as “The Deacon”, I’m confident such a “secret” would not have remained so for long.

  11. Ross Says:

    Our cows had Deacon on every morning day after day in the barn on the family farm outside Fulton N.Y. The first action for starting the milking was turn on the lights in the barn and then the old beat up plastic cased radio. I haven’t heard Bub Ballou being mentioned.

    • petercavanaugh Says:

      Bud Ballou came along via WOLF after I’d left Syracuse, but he was a great DJ and even scored a “Bandstand” type show on Channel 9 after it signed on the air. He sadly passed away when he was still quite young after suffering a brain aneurism. Death was instantaneous. I never met him.

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