“Snow On The Water”

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CHAPTER FIFTY

SNOW ON THE WATER

I introduced “The Guess Who” in April at the I.M.A. Auditorium. Burton Cummings sounded great, but Randy Bachman had left the group and was recording with a new outfit called “Bachman Turner Overdrive”. They would shortly release an album called “Not Fragile”. It would enjoy phenomenal success.

A New York promoter brought The New York Dolls to the I.M.A. in June
and lost a fortune. Less than one hundred tickets were sold. The next day, I called the A.T.I. booking agency and contracted with the opening band for a November 10th date at Delta College near Saginaw.

I had entered an agreement with the college to use Delta’s gymnasium for a few productions in the new school year, needing a venue larger than Sherwood Forest for continued and slightly expanded enterprise. Although five months distant, I had been blown-away by what I saw. The opening group for the New York Dolls had their initial release coming out shortly. They were four nice Jewish boys dressed-up in the weirdest possible way,  had unusual and highly creative stage effects, and played basic, three-chord, ball-kicking, hard-core Rock ‘n Roll as loud as the MC-5. If instinct demands,  you just have to gamble. I obtained them for a guarantee of one thousand dollars against fifty percent of the gate, including all expenses for sound and lights. I thought I would take a chance with a band called “KISS”.

Our first ’74 “Wild Wednesday” had been scheduled for June 26th at Sherwood Forest. With Bob Seger again heading the Michigan roster, I decided to close the show with a new band which had recently obtained enormous national radio exposure with their first album. They seemed just perfect in chemistry and content. A single release, “Rock The Nation”, was in our WTAC “Top Ten”. Tracks called “Bad Motor Scooter” and “Rock Candy” were getting tremendous request action. The group was named after lead-guitar player Ronnie Montrose. The lead-singer for “Montrose” was Sammy Hagar.  In later years, Sammy would enjoy considerable fame as a solo artist, then find permanent membership with “Van Halen”.

The last “Wild Wednesday” crowd exceeded ten thousand and was a financial and artistic triumph. Everything went perfectly within the park.

One mile to the west on Davison Road, an ambulance raced toward Sherwood Forest late in the day. It had been summoned by phone to a “drug emergency” which was never later verified. It may well have been generated by a crank call from some anonymous “irate citizen” seeking to impact the day with unfavorably publicity. There had been many such calls.

A soft, light rain had started falling which went almost  unnoticed on the grounds. It was enough. The ambulance slid out of control at a high rate of speed and the driver and his assistant were killed, leaving wives and children behind.

Media coverage didn’t directly place blame on the concert, but the aftermath provided an emotional rallying point for those who sought to have “Wild Wednesdays” ended. Postures were again assumed. Everyone went to Court. Nothing was decided. Expensive litigation would have gone on for months. I voluntarily pulled the plug. The latest controversy converged with the changing nature of the rock promotion industry. 1974 would have been our last season, regardless of community climate. Rock ‘n Roll had outgrown Sherwood Forest and an era had passed after five short, exciting, wonderful  years.

It wasn’t alone in change.

On September 20th, Charlie Speights announced his immediate departure for Las Vegas. He was packing all his worldly belongings in a ’74 Buick Station Wagon and heading-out. Charlie was taking along with him our twenty-one year-old, strikingly-attractive station receptionist, “B.J.” Furman. She would provide comfortable company.

“B.J.” stood for “Barbara Jean” and she deeply resented casual joking about any other interpretation her initials might suggest. Ironically, “B.J.” had lived only two blocks away from me in Syracuse when I grew-up. Being a dozen years my junior, our paths had never crossed until she started working at WTAC in Flint. What a small world. She thought Charlie was just about the coolest guy she’d ever met.  Charlie was equally enamored.

Charlie thought he probably wouldn’t miss radio at all. He felt the whole business and, in fact, much of which seems important in life was only “snow on the water”.

The phrase is from an Incredible String Band song called “Big Ted”.

Big Ted’s dead and gone. Gone like snow on the water. Goodbye.”

A horrible corporate accident accompanied Charlie’s resignation.

Fuqua Communications President Asa Stallworth had died of a heart-attack a few months earlier. Fortunately, he was not felled by another FCC inquiry into “D-J Datebooks”, but a sudden coronary brought on by normal broadcasting stress and strain, combined with high blood-pressure and decades of fine, deep-fried, home-cooked Southern food. He had been replaced as President by the Vice-President and General Manager of Channel Nine in Columbus, Mr. Joe Windsor, a tight, taciturn man with a sparse, grey crew-cut.

Mr. Windsor had briefly stopped in Flint for no more than several hours in the midst of a whirlwind tour of all the broadcast properties via corporate jet and was understandably not that familiar with the operation. All he knew was that WTAC’s Vice-President and General Manager was resigning to “play horn” in “Vegas” with “B.J.” in tow. The corporate chart indicated an immediate successor was available and one who had already secretly campaigned for the position behind Charlie’s back.

Robert Nottingham Hill  had been hired by Charlie as National Sales Manager after Don Mayle had left to pursue station ownership. Later, “R. Nottingham”, a sniveling,  supercilious bore with beady eyes,  was made General Sales Manager just to stop his whining. He was from Chicago and had sent his resume directly to Asa Stallworth, who had passed it on to Charlie. Charlie was impressed with the fact that Hill had worked for Taft  Broadcasting, a corporation which enjoyed high reputation within the industry. He’d been released from employment following a “personality conflict” with a visiting engineer who, unknown to R. Nottingham, was  a Corporate Vice President. Shit, they should wear uniforms or something!

Hill was regarded by Charlie, most of the Sales Department and all of the Programming people as our “Station Honkie”. We borrowed this Black term of derision since nothing else said it better.

R. Nottingham had made it plain that he wanted to be a “Vice-President”. It appeared to matter not of what.  He hated long-hair, rock music and “hippies”. He despised “decadence, “decline” and “drugs”, although he considered copious consumption of Jack Daniels a refreshing adult pastime. He walked out of Pine Knob Music Theater, just north of Pontiac, during a performance of “Hair” since they “desecrated the American flag”. He had openly wept when Nixon left office.

Hill had been much excited over the appointment of a new Fuqua President since he hadn’t made much of an impression on Asa Stallworth, who always thought his name was “Hillingham”. R. Nottingham had composed a “Confidential Memo” which he sent to Mr. Windsor. This discussed at length all the things wrong with WTAC and Charlie and, importantly, how Hill could straighten it all out. He said all the right things. The arrival of this communication coincided with Charlie’s resignation. Joe Windsor thought the best thing to do was to set Charlie loose and give “Hillingham” a try. He immediately flew to Flint to effect the decision.

A staff meeting was called. Joe announced Charlie’s resignation to a surprised staff and Hill’s appointment to utter silence. I stood up and shook R. Nottingham Hill’s hand in congratulation. Then, I resigned on the spot. Five others followed suit immediately.

After several weeks of negotiation, we all returned.

I had agreed to tolerate the appointment, but only if I could report directly to Joe Windsor on any matters concerning programming. Mr. Windsor had spent more time in Flint than planned, hearing negative testimony regarding his new General Manager from a number of employees. I met privately with Hill and told him he was a fucking jerk-off, but that I was prepared to accept him as “our fucking jerk-off”, providing he stuck to Sales and developed “product appreciation” in an evident and demonstrable manner. Excited over his new designation as “Vice-President”, he willingly agreed. I made a mental note which has never been altered. People who seek titles are usually the last to deserve them.

In November, “KISS” drew a crowd of eight thousand at Delta College with a five dollar admission. Between my booking and the date, their first release had sold a million copies in its first few months and they were on television all the time. We had stopped selling tickets a week before the show.

I picked them up at the Tri-City airport and we headed for the gig, smoking several joints on the way. They were out of make-up and were playing “Name That Tune” with each other. I joined in and stumped them all with “The Theme From Navy Log”. They had just seen “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” the night before and had been impressed and inspired. We drove past a large, cement, windowless building and they asked what it was. I had no idea, but told them it was the “Michigan School for The Blind”. I had them for about three seconds. Gene Simmons then called me an “asshole” and we fired up some hash. They gave a great performance and fried the audience. These were some awfully bright boys who sat down one night and tried to figure out what it would take to “make-it”. They exceeded their expectations many times over in becoming, arguably, the greatest rock “show-group” of all time. Get the “Firehouse”!!!

On December 19th, I presented Jim Dandy and “Black Oak Arkansas” at the I.M.A. in partnership with Don Sherwood. Don had been good to me at “The Forest” and deserved a chance to remain in the action. The group cost ten thousand dollars and, with percentage and expense considerations, we each made around fifty bucks. The margin was disappearing. I was not allowed to open with a Flint or Michigan act.  Any future concerts would have to be carefully structured and craftily booked with minimal risk. For the first time since 1969, nothing was planned for Christmas Night at Sherwood Forest.

Another New Year’s Party at the Cavanaugh’s ushered in ’75 with clamor and class.

“B.C.” got stuck crawling down a  laundry chute. “Goodbar” accidentally locked himself in a broom-closet with two female WTAC employees and had to pound for release (an experience, I pointed out, with which he was undoubtedly quite familiar). Jessie Scott had brought along three beautiful young ladies whose names he couldn’t recall. Pete Flanders got his van stuck in the backyard a little before sunrise.  Mike Kahn dramatically produced a large tray covered with baking powder drawn into lines, which he immediately “accidentally” tipped-over. He tried to pretend it was spilled contraband covering the beer-soaked, whiskey-stained, hardwood floor. “B.C.” warned him about being sacreligious. Who could have a better night with fine friends? Well, I could. And only four weeks later!

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