“Long Way To The Top”

acdc-high-voltage
CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

LONG WAY TO THE TOP

As exciting a year as The Bicentennial was from a national perspective, things had settled down to happy humdrum at WTAC in Flint. The station continued to maintain position against upstart WWCK-FM, even with their new ownership. In February, I attended a “Radio and Records” Convention in Atlanta which is primarily memorable from the absence of clear memory.

“Radio and Records” was the new hot weekly trade publication. “Radio Starship” had lost contact with Planet Earth after sailing out past the last moons of Pluto on cocaine overdrive. Record company suites were lavishly stocked and stacked. John Irons was in attendance and a number of us walked from the Convention site at the Peachtree Hotel to the Atlanta Underground against all advice. It was reputedly through the worst part of town. No one came near us, our behavior being too bizarre and boisterous to invite even malicious intervention.

We saw “Junior Walker and the All-Stars” at some dinky little bar. We visited what seemed like at least a dozen strip-joints and were asked to leave each one. Irons shot out at least a dozen street lights and killed a giant “Mr. Peanut” statue with three to the heart. It must have been “the worst part of town”. We didn’t see a cop for hours, and only then to politely ask directions back to the hotel. That a fine time was had by all is generally my best recall.

The Sunday concerts at Sherwood Forest were now a thing of the past. Although local Rock ‘n Roll bands were in plentiful supply, their drawing power was virtually non-existent. Audiences remained only interested in seeing their favorites. These were now exclusively available in five thousand plus capacity halls. I filled my weekend schedule with high-school dances, wedding receptions and other appearances which provided a steady income stream with no financial risk. I still tripled my radio station salary.

I was back at Sherwood Forest in June for the Southeast Michigan Fraternal Order of Police Private Party. I had become their regular disc-jockey for the annual affair. It was always scheduled from 9 ’til 1, but would normally end just before dawn. I knew most of the officers and could be counted on for great music, complete tolerance and absolute discretion.

Our big WTAC Spring Promotion was giving away a “Coca-Cola Denin-Machine”, which was really a prototype for “glamor vans” of the future. The son-of-a-bitch had everything. It was valued at over thirty thousand dollars when a brand new Cadillac could still be yours for under fifteen grand. We staged a “Super-Drawing” for the final winner at Flint’s Small Mall on South Dort. Over five thousand people showed-up, most since Bob Seger had agreed to personally conduct the drawing at my request. He was now officially a Superstar. Bob drove himself up from Detroit and we rendezvoused in the parking lot of the same Holiday Inn on Bristol Road which had housed The WHO. I whisked him to the drawing and back in under thirty minutes. He hated that sort of shit and had agreed only as a personal favor for which I remain deeply appreciative.

Although Robert Nottingham Hill and I continued to maintain a functional relationship, things were becoming strained with other staff members. Pete Flanders resigned, primarily because he couldn’t stand the man. The Cat” had established a successful disc-jockey service with several of his own employees and could afford departure. “Who needs the headache?”, inquired Peter.

Tom Roberts, an outstanding air performer, accepted a position in Knoxville, Tennessee rather than deal with “the asshole” any longer. Tom took the time to hide dozens of little notes all around the building which were still being uncovered years into the future. They said things like “R. Nottingham Hill Blows Goats” and other uncomplimentary allegations. After a few more years in Radio, Tom developed one of the most successful advertising agencies in the state, becoming a multi-millionaire in the process.

Hill was becoming universally despised. Sales people were quitting, clients were complaining, and union members were discussing a variety of collective notions. Bad management has always been organized labor’s best friend.

’76 gave way to ’77 with barely a bang, then the bucks started rolling in.

A sudden boom in the national economy was reflected in massive overtime for Flint auto workers and, as was always true in the past, local business exploded. WTAC was sold-out and monthly billings soared. The station had never done better financially and Fuqua Communications was delighted. Robert Nottingham Hill took virtually sole credit and felt enormous job security. He determined it was time to set a few things straight.

Friday morning, March 11th, I left the air and went to breakfast with several record people. Tom Gilardi and Kelvin Ventour were “Indies” or “Independent Promoters.” I had known them for years.

Ours had become a personal as well as professional relationship. I felt no particular rush to get back to the station. After a long and casual meal, they expressed disbelief that an “X-Rated” theater had just opened in the heart of downtown Flint. Naturally, lest my credibility be damaged, I felt obliged to bring them there. We spent forty-five minutes or so establishing the fact that the film being shown did, in fact, deserve “X” designation and then returned to the station. They bade me farewell in the parking lot and headed-out for Lansing and Grand Rapids. I entered the building and, walking toward my office, glanced at a spindle atop our receptionist’s desk.

“The spindle” is where phone messages were left for all. Normally, it would contain a dozen or so little pink notation slips”marked with appropriate information. This day, along with regular messages, there was one from R. N. Hill to Peter Cavanaugh, written in bold, angry slashes. It told me that I was never to again leave the building without his permission during regular office hours and that he was furious with me for having done so. He informed me that there would be no repeats or else. Fine, Mother Fucker.

Thursday, March 17th, was an unusually splendid St. Patrick’s Day. Joe Windsor had agreed to fly into Flint and meet with me the following day.

The next morning, I signed-off my final “Peter C. Cavanaugh” show on WTAC. The last song I played was “Houses of the Holy” by Led Zeppelin. I met with Mr. Windsor for five hours. At 5:25 p.m., an abundantly confident R. Nottingham Hill became aware of Joe’s presence in Flint. At 5:30, he was fired. I was appointed Vice President and General Manager. It had never been a position I had sought, but one that I would accept. It was a heavily qualified victory. I was the “boss”, but at a great loss. After twenty years in radio, I was off-the-air.

Mr. Windsor left town and I had a number of meetings at my home over the weekend with staff members. I had decided to allow Hill decent time to remove personal effects from the building.

On Monday morning, I arrived at the station to find Mr. R. Nottingham Hill still occupying the General Manager’s office. He informed me that he would be out possibly by the end of the week. I told him he had fifteen minutes to depart. At the end of that time, he and anything his property still remaining would be thrown in the trash. He left immediately.

I appointed Bob Vanderweil as General Sales Manager and Jay “Jammer” Johnson became WTAC Program Director.

Bob Vanderweil was not only our best producer, but the finest naturally- gifted salesperson I had ever met. He had been a driver, then union-organizer, and finally a member of management and Vice President with Vernor Ginger Ale in Detroit. The company was sold and he was blown-out in the aftermath.

He was in his early fifties. Don Mayle had hired him in 1969 to sell advertising for WTAC at a guarantee of one hundred dollars a week against a fifteen percent commission. For his first six months at WTAC, he didn’t even have his own desk. Bob would say, “All I know about radio is that it gets louder when you turn it up”. He was a tough, gnome-like Dutchman with a thick moustache and heart of gold.

After one year, Bob was #1 biller at WTAC. Following another few years, Bob was bringing in such an astounding amount that his personal income greatly exceeded that of the General Manager. This was a fact in which Charlie Speights had taken great pride and which R. Nottingham Hill had always openly loathed. I had always greatly admired and respected Bob and looked at him as a mentor. His sales technique was that he had no fixed technique. He just made friends and influenced people without ever really thinking about it. I was one of his “accounts” at the station for concert advertising.

At every “Wild Wednesday”, Vanderweil worked the gate and helped me out, refusing to accept any compensation. He did that sort of thing for all his clients. Late one night, after many drinks, I seriously asked him was his “secret” was in breaking every sales record in the history of WTAC. He didn’t hesitate in providing an honest answer. “It’s all the things I do for free”, he said. “The things I do for free!”

Vernon Popovich had started his radio career in Port Huron and sent an audition tape to WTAC in early 1974. I received dozens of such tapes every month and would listen to them all, most for less than ten seconds. When I put on Mr. Popovich’s tape, I played the entire five minutes. What? Huh? This guy sounded sensational! He had an extremely deep, resonant voice and exceptional announcing skills. We had an opening on the “All Night Show”. I called Port Huron and arranged an appointment with him for the following afternoon at WTAC.

When Vernon arrived, a number of staff members rolled their eyes as he walked through the building. What a straight-ass! He was wearing a suit and a tie and had really short hair. He looked like an accountant! I closed my office door and we talked. He was from the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, had gone to “radio school” and had successfully obtained his first job in Port Huron. He was looking to move-up, but there was one stipulation given. Popovich looked at me intently. He wished to tell me way up front that he would leave any station that gave up “Rock ‘n Roll”. That’s all he ever wanted to play. That was more important to him than shift-time, salary, call-letters or working conditions. I hired Mr. Popovich on the spot. We changed his name to Jay “Jammer” Johnson.

“Jammer” was only on “All Nights” briefly. I shot him right into afternoon- drive after four weeks. He was that good. Vernon quickly became “Jammer”. Out went the suit and tie. In came the faded-jeans and T-shirts. The hair grew long, not only on his head, but facially as well. “Jay Johnson” sported a great moustache and full “Jammer” beard. He combined enormous talent with incredible attitude and vast intelligence. There was no doubt he could become an extraordinary programmer.

“Jammer” and I would soon attend a “Radio and Records” Convention in Dallas. It was there at a cocktail party we met Dr. Timothy Leary. Here was another Irishman just hanging around. I asked him if he would care to step outside and smoke a doobie with us. He was happy to do so. I had saved some special smoke for just such an occasion. It was almost hallucinogenic.

A third absolutely key employee in my new administration was not a member of management and had almost been fired several times by my predecessor for “insubordination”, “bad manners” and “continual rudeness”.
R. Nottingham Hill had refrained from termination only because of raging insecurities brought forth in confrontations with this “terrible employee” (as he had noted in her personnel records) and a reluctance to interview other “ethnics” in searching for a replacement. R. Nottingham had also officially documented an instance when she had been “violent” toward him by throwing a pencil, the point of said object having become temporarily imbedded in his leg below the knee.

Bernice Fordham was WTAC’s Black receptionist.

“Miss B.” was the coolest. She was the smartest. She was incredibly “street-hip”, acutely perceptive and wonderfully aggressive. She had two sons at home of whom she was most proud and a husband named Tyrone of whom she was not. They were in the process of divorce. “Miss B” and I had always hit it off. We continually compared notes on life in general and the radio station in particular. I had come to value her friendship and trust her judgement.

On my second day as General Manager, I was heading to work on Hill Road when I noticed Bernice’s old Buick pulled off the road behind a Grand Blanc Township police car. There were two officers standing there with “Miss B.” She was handcuffed from behind.

I slammed on my brakes, leapt out of my vehicle and jumped right into the middle. She had been stopped because she was DWB in Grand Blanc. Driving While Black. . The police had run a spot-check and were arresting her. I was nose-to-nose with a red-faced, fat-necked, uniformed prick. I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs.

“You’re arresting her for fucking what? Prick!”

Admittedly, wild anger momentarily ruled-out common sense or even the slightest pretense of courtesy or respect. The handcuffs and their manner of application had done it.

I was told that it was none of my business and that I would be arrested at once if I didn’t leave immediately.

“Arrested? Fucking arrested? Asshole!! Cuff ME from behind! Maybe you just save that for Black WOMEN???

I wasn’t lost enough in fury to ignore certain cards. I played them all at once.

“I’m the fucking General Manager of WTAC and this is my goddamn receptionist, Bernice Fordham. If you don’t tell me what she’s doing with those cuffs on behind her back, I’m going to ask the same question on the fucking air in exactly three minutes! Start countin’!”

The other officer reminded me that I knew him. Shit, I did.

“Hey, sorry for the bullshit. This is a fine lady and my friend. What’s the deal?”

I was told that Bernice was stopped for a “routine check” and that a Bench Warrant had been issued for her in the City of Flint. Tyrone owed $12.00 in Income Taxes. That’s Twelve DOLLARS. They had filed jointly. She was busted in his absence.

I spoke further and with heat. The handcuffs were removed. Since they had already reported Bernice as “apprehended”, I followed them downtown to Flint City Hall. I had called Stewart Newblatt. He had called the Mayor. Things were expedited. I paid the twelve dollars and a ten dollar late penalty. Miss B. was released. We retrieved her car and went to work.

Later that morning, the Grand Blanc Township Chief of Police arrived at the station to offer profound apologies. I asked Miss B. to join us. His boys had been right, but wrong. She smiled. That same afternoon. Miss B. received a dozen red roses from the arresting officers. She smiled. At the close of business, a fifth of premium Chivas Regal appeared on my desk with a note from Miss B. It said, “Thanks!”. I smiled.

We worked together well. She was my eyes and ears. Nothing escaped attention.

I felt being a General Manager was nothing much. Although I was putting in twelve to fourteen hour days, it never seemed like “working”. I had always thought of ‘working” as wearing headphones and broadcasting. Anything else I had ever done seemed a prelude or postscript to an air shift.
It was like being the President of the Student Council again. It was organization and follow-up. Joe Windsor had brilliantly summarized my responsibilities with three simple instructions:

(1) Protect the license.
(2) Keep up the rates.
(3) Collect the money.

Interestingly enough, as verified through time, that does cover just about everything!

The Spring 1977 Arbitron for Flint was released in early July. For the first time in history, WTAC-AM was beaten by WWCK-FM in total listenership. WTAC dropped from an 8.8% share to a 6.0%. WWCK had risen from a 5.1% to a 7.3%.

Fuck!

We had successfully beaten FM Rock for over five years, holding on to our contemporary franchise far longer than most. Even the reknown CKLW had fallen to WRIF-FM in Detroit two years before.

This was no consolation.

Then, Elvis was dead.

The King of Rock ‘n Roll passed away on his Memphis throne August 16th. WTAC produced a “Tribute Program”, but we only played tunes from the Sun Records era and his first two years with RCA. The first cut we aired after news of his death arrived was “Mystery Train”.

Elvis had changed my life. The first record I ever bought was “Heartbreak Hotel”. I remembered playing it over and over again in wonder, intently focused on my bedroom mirror, frantically imitating his moves. I’d seen him on “The Tommy Dorsey Show” and on Ed Sullivan. I vividly recall contemplating the challenge of ever explaining to future generations his impact and inspiration. For a fourteen year-old Irish kid, this was a reflection even more curious than the one in the mirror. I did quite poorly. All my daughters thought Elvis Presley was a fat, tired, ugly old man.

The only truly outstanding and personally rewarding musical moment of 1977 came December 5th at the Capitol Theater in Flint. It was my last “Peter C. Rock ‘n Roll Presentation”.

I had become very enamored with a new band just before I left the airwaves. Ron Counts, representing Atlantic Records, knew my taste in music and had brought me an advance copy of their first release. I went nuts. I programmed almost every cut, especially one which sounded as though the lead-guitar had been replaced by a bagpipe. I told Ron that it was the best new product I had heard in years. The music was clean and raw, direct and basic. WTAC was the first station to play the band in America and the album had sold more copies in Michigan than anywhere else in the country as a consequence.

When the group announced their first U.S. tour, I called Joe Windsor.

Although I had agreed to abandon any future personal promotional efforts as part of my ascension to the new highly-paid and well-compensated General Manager’s position, I had to bring this group to Flint! I told Joe that I would do it as a benefit performance, with all proceeds going to Michael Moore’s Davison Hotline. Joe asked me to promise it was a one-time request. I did so without remorse. This was how I wanted to end it

I picked up AC/DC at the airport in Flint early in in the evening. No sooner had they all piled in my car, than someone fired-up something in the back-seat.

“Ya wanna ‘it, Mate?”

Sure. Why not?

It was a Winston.

These were boys from Melbourne, Australia. To them, an American cigarette was something to be shared. I took a “‘it” and passed it back.

A major snowstorm had moved into the area earlier in the day and it took forty-five minutes to reach the downtown area, triple normal travel time. Roads were becoming blocked by snow and attendance had been limited by conditions to less than five hundred. The group was still virtually unknown. Who cared? I knew the night would be historic.

I killed every light in the theater. Everything was jet-black. Atmospherics were utterly dark and ominously promising.

It started with a single, pounding, thundering bass note; droning in constant repetition.

Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum.

BAAAAAAAAAAAARRAAAAAANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGG!!

The screaming lead-guitar came in out of nowhere. It was “Live Wire”. Four spotlights instantly flooded the stage, all focused on and following a remarkably-strange, rapidly-moving, seemingly-possessed apparition. He wore knickers. He was dressed as a proper English schoolboy with necktie and knapsack. His head bounced as though about to become disengaged. He ran back and forth in circles around the other players, the intensity building and volume rising with every stroke of the guitar. He was sixteen years old. His name was Angus Young. His high voltage band had been christened in reference to alternating and direct electrical currents, both common in familiar Melbourne housing. It seemed a nice name. AC/DC had come to Flint.

They played for over ninety minutes. The audience was bordering on emotional orgasm and wouldn’t let them leave. AC/DC’s finale encore was the “bagpipe” song, the “bagpipe” being a guitar effect obtained through processing. Bon Scott belted-out the lyrics.

“It’s a Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock ‘n Roll!!”

I paid them a thousand dollars in cash. They wanted to try some “Arby’s Roast Beef”, so we stopped at the nearest location, still open despite horrible weather. They bought packs of cigarettes by the dozen and emptied-out several brands from a machine. They loved the Arby’s sandwiches, both for food and as projectiles. Since we were just about the only patrons and had tipped heavily, there was no problem. I dropped them off at their hotel and extended my sincere thanks. My last concert had been among the very best. They were equally appreciative. Their first U.S. appearance had gone well. They had enough American cigarettes for months to come, no matter what!

The war for listenership was now at fever pitch.

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