“Prince Charlie”




Gene’s Vice-President and General Manager at WTAC, appointed in 1964 just before my departure for Des Moines, was Charles Speights.

Charlie had originally grown up in Cleveland, Ohio; the single child of a prosperous shipping executive and his elegant wife. Understandably, the prominent couple had nothing in mind but the finest of educations and most fabulous business opportunities for their one and only son. Naturally, Charlie wanted to be a trumpet player. Completing college primarily to maintain parental subsidization of musical interests, Charlie was a “Young Man With a Horn”, somewhat like Kirk Douglas in that movie of the same name.

By twenty-one, handsome, blue-eyed, Aryan-child Charlie was hangin’ out with the “heavies”. He was wailin’ “blues”, smokin’ “reefer”, chasin’ “gigs”, blowin’ “chops” and generally enjoying a wonderful life.

He came along in time enough to catch the end of the “Big Band” years and joined several multi-piece orchestras, traveling along from town to town with wandering gypsy heart and carefree vagabond soul. He spent time with Ray Anthony, Jimmy Dorsey and Claude Thornhill.

It was on such tours he met his Doris Day.

Her name was Nancy Clayton, a wondrous woman. Her striking physical beauty was possibly only exceeded by her keen intelligence and talented voice. She was, as in the movies, a “singer with the band”.

It was a wedding band of gold, not one of brass and music, that Charlie placed upon her delicate hand.  They were both as deeply and truly in love as love is ever thought to be. Both were leaving the “other bands” behind forever. At least a while.

It was not on the road that two could settle down, with roots established and a family raised.

Nancy’s hometown was Lapeer, Michigan; a small community on M-15 twenty miles east of Flint. It was to Flint the newlyweds moved.

Charlie would have made an ideal candidate for executive grooming within the massive corporate confines of General Motors, which then employed more than two-thirds of those living in the town and was exploding with unimagined profits and unbelievable opportunities for all. After contemplating what sort of “day-job” would bring maximum financial return and minimal personal pain, Charlie answered an ad in the Flint Journal soliciting “radio sales people”. Naturally gifted in the art of conversation and persuasion, Charlie delightfully discovered that  radio possessed a “show-biz” quality unique to itself and was, in his own words, “the next best thing to not having a real job!”

Charlie sold well at WAMM and at WBBC and, at some precise point of predestined planetary alignment, met Gene Milner late one night in a dark Flint bar. More perfect a match cannot be conceived. Gene instantly hired Charlie for WTAC Sales. Charlie quickly earned rapid advancement and promotion.

They became almost inseparable personal and professional friends. That Charlie went on to happily survive such distinction offers no better testimony to his adroit skills and abilities, especially in the art of “Gene-handling”. Charlie instinctively knew most of Milner’s buttons with keen intuition and could effortlessly play them perfectly with polished precision.

They served as each other’s alter-egos.

Leader/Follower; Bully/Buddy; Orator/Audience; Fan/Musician; Starter/Finisher; Corpulent/Athletic; Aging Wisdom/Youthful Energy; Reigning King/Successor Prince.

Really, quite a pair!

Hey, Charlie, congratulations!”

“For what?”

“Gene’s memo says you’re the new General Manager!”

“It does?”

“Should I ask you questions instead of Gene from now on or what?”

“How should I know? I’m only the General Manager. I guess. Wait ’til Gene gets in. Where’s the memo?”

Charlie was constantly called upon to navigate troubled waters churned to maelstrom magnificence by Milner’s fondness for things craved and captured.

“Jesus Christ, Peter C.!   Jackie must have seen Gene’s Riviera parked out front and she somehow got the room number. She’s pounding on the door screaming, “Gene Milner, I know goddamn well you’re in there” at the top of her lungs. Gene’s so fucking drunk he thinks it’s funny. I drag Gene into the bathroom and he can barely squeeze his body into the tub. He gets down far enough and I give him some more scotch and cover him up with a blanket. I answer the door. She’s a little embarrassed, but says “where’s Gene?”
His body was in the tub, but Gene wasn’t there. I don’t know where the hell he was, but he sure wasn’t there!” I say: “Jackie, he let me borrow his car and I swear-to-God, Gene’s not here!” I didn’t even lie, as far as I’m concerned, ’cause Gene really wasn’t there. He was that far out of it, man!

I was lying in bed at four-thirty in the afternoon listening to Dusty Rhodes, an old Syracuse friend, on CKLW in Detroit. I was remembering how much fun I’d had in Flint and how Des Moines hadn’t really been a mistake since I’d really had no choice in the matter anyway. Flint never sucked. I was thinking about our new copywriter with the great ass. Did she suck? Whom might she suck? Illicit love had been blooming at WTLB of late. Only two nights before, the station bookkeeper had chased our Chief Engineer around the building with an axe. He was trying to break-it-off. She was trying to chop-it- off, decades before Lorena.  Both were married to others. His wife was a strict Italian-Catholic and wouldn’t give him a blow-job or get naked with the lights on. The bookkeeper was French. The phone rang. Eileen wasn’t home. I answered it.

“Hey, Peter! It’s Charlie!”

Charlie said that he and Bob Dell wanted to know if I’d be interested in returning to my old time slot on WTAC. The Communications Division of Fuqua Industries intended to be supportive of them in every way. As Gene Milner had headed to sunny Fort Lauderdale with pocketed profits and was now completely out of the picture, Charlie was really Vice President and General Manager and Bob was really Program Director. Great times were ahead in Flint. And in Florida.

Gene would purchase a little AM Daytimer which he dubbed “The Surf”, WSRF. There was this stupid little FM license which went along with it. He used this to build a station for his wife Jackie to “have fun with”. She chose call letters in honor of her gender. WSHE-FM, under Milner ownership, would eventually become the number one Rock ‘n Roll station in Miami.

Charlie offered a very attractive financial package and Bob, who was on the air, jumped in on the conversation between records to offer his own encouragement.

I told them I would call them back.

When Eileen arrived home with Laurie and Colleen, we discussed Charlie’s call. Eileen had never been particularly partial to Flint and, also a Syracuse native, had been glad when we returned to Central New York, with its rolling hills and sweeping scenery. By admitted comparison, Flint was flat and the epitome of a factory town, although the richest on the planet.

I had traveled back to Syracuse for our wedding May 23, 1963. We spent one honeymoon night at Niagara Falls, which was conveniently en route back to WTAC. I proudly pulled into town via South Saginaw Street on Sunday, May 24th. Our temporary destination was the Skylark Motel, which had been my happy home for the prior few months.

The Skylark was in Grand Blanc, Michigan and only a half-mile from the station. Mrs. Blodgett, the owner, also did all my laundry for a few extra pennies. She came in every day and cleaned my room, hung up my clothing and made cupcakes for me. Why get an apartment? In addition to rent, the only thing Mrs. Blodgett had ever asked of me was to “not let Mr. Knight bring those young girls over anymore.” Disc-jockey Terry Knight had “borrowed my room” upon several occasions while at WTAC and had left for WJBK in Detroit with several paternity suits trailing in his wake.

I really wouldn’t mind, Mr. Cavanaugh; but Mr. Knight’s girlfriends seem
awfully, awfully young!”

“Yes, Ma’am!”

My bride of one night had reviewed smokestack after smokestack passing in review and block after block of monolithic bricked and fenced factories. Their passage was broken only by a plenitude of coney-island restaurants, dozens of auto supply shops and score upon score of dingy bars, virtually all proclaiming, in flashing red neon, promises of “Whiskey!” “Liquor!” “Ice-Cold Beer”.

One could only wish the Gateway to Heaven welcomed sinners so well.

Where I saw rapture, Eileen found repulsion.

“Honey, this is a dirty city!”

“Yes. Well. Now. Perhaps. Possibly. Maybe. I suppose some could think it so.”

I had explained that what Eileen was seeing with troubled view was only part of Flint and that WTAC covered hundreds upon hundreds of gorgeous, unseen square miles. The beautiful waters of Lake Huron were to the east and the great, green forests of wooded Michigan waited to the north. The impressive State Capitol in Lansing, with its gleeming white dome, was to the west. The mighty metropolis Detroit, with its Lions and Tigers and parks and stores and museums, was only minutes away to the south. Eyes can deceive.

I had spent Sunday night with Eileen at the Skylark and left for work early next day. By the time I arrived back at the motel, Eileen had purchased furniture, found an apartment, signed a lease, packed everything except immediate essentials and announced a Tuesday move. Fine with me. Eileen could also clean, do laundry, pick up clothing and make cupcakes. A fine Irish wife. Bye, Mrs. Blodgett.

Eileen had also come to know that if she had not seen everything Flint offered that fine May day in ’63,  the city had revealed its soul with dazzling illumination.

“Whiskey!” “Liquor!” “Ice-Cold Beer!”

Charlie’s and Bob’s extended invitation was thus not greeted with unquestioned enthusiasm by the mother of my daughters fair.

“Oh, Honey. I just don’t know.”

Rather than repeat the standard Chamber of Commerce speech, which had only been of marginal success in any event thirty months earlier, I engaged a family finances/career trajectory/professional satisfaction approach.

The salary was a full fifty percent more than WTLB was providing and the union benefits even more valuable to our family of four. WTAC was much more in the mainstream of things. I had already established a large following in Michigan, which could fully be taken advantage of only with our return. Charlie and Bob were trusted friends. Flint was our future.

And as soon as we could swing it, she’d have her own car. They made lots of them there! Eileen’s reluctant assent obtained, I phoned Charlie and accepted the position. I called Bob Dell and he was excited by the news.

“Man, it’ll be just like before, only better; much better!”

2 Responses to ““Prince Charlie””

  1. Tom Furman Says:

    Peter C., BJ’s brother Tom here. Great stuff! Bummer being born in 58, I missed Sherwood Forest! But I’ve read they are doing a bit on you, as the founding father so to speak. It’s 08/27/2015. Wishing Charlie all the best karma I can send! Thanks man

    • petercavanaugh Says:

      Hi, Tom!

      I went to Madison Elementary with your brother, Billie. And B.J. has been a great friend for many years. I’m very flattered by the “Local DJ” project headed by Jim Baade, particularly since his award-winning documentary, “Flint’s Best Rock”, did such a remarkable job capturing the essence of that whole remarkable era. I’ve asked your sister if it’s OK if we have Jennifer Lawrence play her in the movie and B.J. says she’s giving it every consideration. Keep your fingers crossed. With best wishes always, “Peter C.”

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