November 11, 1927 – June 7, 2016
In November of 2006, Eileen and I drove across the country from Michigan to California in a twenty-two foot Penske Rental Truck containing all of our earthly belongings, including two cats and a cockatiel named Clancy. Every few hours Charlie would call as he tracked our journey West from his condo in Palm Desert with pins in a map. He was glad we were finally moving closer. We visited Charlie and his wonderful wife, Toby Meyers Speights, a number of times in subsequent years, including an extended stay with them at Incline Village on Lake Tahoe, where Charlie and Toby had rented a place over the 4th of July Weekend in 2008. Charlie was in his 80th year, but was still running all over the place. I could barely keep up. We bought this cool German Shepherd several beers at a cowboy bar in Truckee.
I reference Charlie a number of times in “Local DJ” and thought I’d share a few sections here to hopefully provide — in some small way — a slight sense of my oldest and dearest friend, seemingly gone now like — snow on the water.
Gene Milner’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 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 brass or music, that Charlie placed upon her hand. They were both deeply in love, but 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-24 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 unimaginable 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 some 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 to perfection.
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, Peter C.?”
“Gene’s memo says you’re the new General Manager!”
“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.
After my first P.D. gig at Milner’s KSO in Des Moines and returning to Central New York and WTLB as Morning DJ, 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. 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 Day-Timer, which he dubbed “The Surf”, WSRF. There was this stupid little FM license that 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 & Roll station in Miami and one of the most influential facilities in the entire country.
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 — home to the highest paid industrial workers in the history of the world.
Charlie Speights — Wild Wednesday 1970
In early July, I was at home randomly scanning the dial on a new multi-band Panasonic radio I had recently acquired when, roaming through telephone frequencies and hoping to hear wild sexual exchanges, I happened to accidentally come across even more interesting communications. Instinctively and illegally, I recorded around thirty minutes worth. There were actually several different conversations involving the highest echelons of General Motors.
The President of Buick Motor Division was speaking on his car phone with superiors in New York and Detroit. Many serious things were under discussion. The executives were obviously privy to governmental information that had not yet been made available to the general public. There was talk of strained relationships with Opel in Germany, pending safety standard guidelines and price control data. There was also an abundance of corporate intrigue evident in factual variations presented in the accounting of specifics to different individuals and assessments volunteered on the efforts of others. I was most intrigued by the fact that they didn’t sound like typical milquetoast General Motors types at all. How refreshing. At the top of the pyramid, they talked like Rock & Roll promoters!
“Those fuckin’ Germans are a complete pain in the ass!”
“We’re sayin’ we’ll put the goddamn things in for cost, but there’s twenty-five points in every one of those cocksuckers!”
“Sure Ed’s secretary’s got big tits! She’s top-pick for the top-prick. Ha-ha-ha-ha!”
What wonderful men. Actually, they seemed quite likeable. Did they know they were “on the radio?” I thought not.
I should just call up the President of Buick Motor Division and slip him the word. Why not? What goes around — comes around.
As partially expected, I was stopped at the lowest rung of the Buick internal communications ladder by some junior executive who needed to know specific information before I could possibly be referred upward. He was a snotty little jerk. To tell him anything seemed ill advised and indiscreet. An indirect method offered solution.
Dan and Dave West’s dad was an artist at Buick. Dave made “West Amplifiers” for all the cool Michigan rock groups. Dave’s dad had been at Buick for thirty-some years and was looking forward to retirement. I called Dave and asked him to stop over. Dan would have wanted to make two thousand copies of the tape and throw them off Flint bridges at every Buick passing underneath. Dave was considerably steadier and infinitely more responsible. I played several minutes of the tape. Dave couldn’t believe his ears.
I told Dave I had tried to reach the primary conversationalist, but wasn’t allowed through. He did believe that. I suggested that Dave simply tell his Dad that telephone car communications could be a sensitive thing and why. No specifics regarding content were to be shared. I would be glad to confirm interception only with those involved.
Dave called his Dad early the next morning and within a very short time Buick Motor Division’s Director of Public Relations was on the phone to our WTAC Vice-President and General Manager, Charlie Speights. I was still on the air, but had briefed Charlie earlier about the curious affair. He was utterly fascinated.
As the story had rapidly raced up through the Buick high command, it had become radically enhanced. Charlie was told that a WTAC employee named “Peter Cavanaugh” had recorded hours of secret corporate conversations and was “playing them at cocktail parties all over town”. What’s more, these tapes were going to be “broadcast on the radio” and “offered for sale”. No threats were made, but it was quite clear to Charlie that any assistance he could offer in limiting damages would be greatly rewarded by the corporation.
Oddly enough, Charlie said, the main thing the Buick boys wanted to do was listen to the tapes. You bet.
Although I had no intention of taking the matter of the tapes any further that I had, adventure is where you find it. Charlie and I discussed an approach. We called the Director of Public Relations on Charlie’s speaker phone.
“Hi, Jerry Rideout!”
“Jerry? This is Peter Cavanaugh!”
“That’s goddamn right! Did you just call my fucking boss?
“Ahhh. Ummm. Errrr. See. I’ve known–known Charlie for years and he’s an old–an old friend–and–”
“You called my fucking BOSS??????”
“Now. Well. You see–”
“You get your ass out here!
Within seconds, Charlie’s private line rang.
Charlie told Jerry that I had gone completely berserk when informed of his call. Charlie said that, while I was normally “a fairly nice kind of a cat”, I had a vicious Irish temper and was given to bursts of uncontrollable rage — “as is true of many performers”, Charlie observed. He reported that I was running around the building screaming about having my job threatened. Charlie said I had so far shared the entire tape with no one, not even him. Now I had a call in to Ralph Nader and was talking about making copies for all the networks here and overseas, especially in Germany. “Whatever that means”, added Charlie.
All because the Buick Motors Division Director of Public Relations had FUCKED UP!! Mr. Rideout was looking at a one-way ticket to No Snatch, Saskatchewan.
The Director arrived at WTAC within minutes, perspiring heavily and minus his coat jacket that, for a General Motors executive, was like not wearing pants. Or shorts underneath. He had literally run to his car and headed south on Center Road.
At the time, I looked quite anarchistic. My moustache was Fu Manchu and my hair was shoulder length. I was wearing sneakers, torn jeans and a T-Shirt that read — “So What?”
In spite of every effort to maintain practiced composure, Mr. Rideout couldn’t help but radiate the feeling he was in the presence of a genuine bomb-thrower. An honest-to-God terrorist was holding the keys to his career in one hand and preparing to crush his balls with the other. This hadn’t been addressed at General Motors Institute.
“Jerry, I’d like to cover a few things quickly and cleanly.”
“Absolutely, Mr. Cavanaugh. Absolutely!”
“Jerry, I’m of Irish descent and like to handle things in Irish ways.”
“My wife is part-Irish. She’s a wonderful woman!”
I couldn’t resist.
“Well, that’s good, Jerry. That’s very good. And you screw Irish gentlemen too?”
“Oh no. No. No-no-no-no-no! That’s not what I meant at all.”
“Jerry, when you called Charlie Speights, you were trying to screw me. Charlie happens to be just about my very best friend in the world, but you didn’t know that. You thought you would call my boss and tell on me. Do you know what that’s called in Ireland, Jerry?”
“In Ireland, Jerry, that’s called informing! Do you know what happens to informers in Ireland?”
“In Ireland, Jerry, INFORMERS STOP INFORMING! At WTAC, you’re in Ireland.”
“And here’s the Irish deal:
“First, the next time you have a question for a common Irish worker, you will ask him directly and to his face. You will not contact his “better,” for there’s no such thing! Is that understood?”
“Secondly, there is absolutely no way you or anyone else connected with Buick is going to listen to any recordings which may be in my possession, except the President of the Division if he should so choose and only then to verify the extent of his vulnerability. He should watch it on his goddamn car phone. That’s my only message here.”
“And lastly, Jerry. You seem like a decent guy. Tell your people I’m erasing the tape and that you talked me into it. You came right out here and behaved respectfully. You may come back to Ireland any time you wish.”
“To Ireland. Yes. Yes. Then, we don’t have to worry about—
“All you need worry about, Jerry, is keeping your wife happy. Irish women are creatures of deep passion. The tape will be erased.”
The Director of Buick Public Relations left WTAC in a state of joyous relief.
Charlie and I fell on the floor in hysterical laughter.
By the close of the day, all car phones were removed from every executive vehicle in the entire Buick fleet.
I played the tape for no one else.
It was not erased.
On our WTAC Client Trip to Las Vegas, Charlie Speights, again a single man, seemed to be changing female partners every twenty minutes. Everyone stopped keeping track. John Smith lost his toupee on the giant bumper cars at Circus Circus and made them stop the action so a thorough search could be conducted. It took five minutes. A crowd of spectators grew to several hundred.
Word filtered though that there had been a fatality on the ride. A crowd of over a hundred gathered watching Smith look for his wig. Some little kid found the hairpiece tightly wedged under a tire. It looked like a small, dead animal. John put it in his pocket and abandoned pretense of disguise for the rest of our stay.
We all went up to Mt. Charleston, just north of town, and rode horses.
We all rented dirt bikes and took them out into the desert.
My wife Eileen spent four consecutive hours at the nickel slots.
John Smith spent ten hours at the dime slots.
Billy Coleman spent no time at the slots, but ten minutes at Blackjack netted him seven hundred dollars. He retired from further gambling for the duration.
We partied. We drank. We smoked. We laughed. No one slept.
On the last night, Charlie was missing.
We split up into “teams” and combed the casino area. No Charlie.
We checked in his room. Billy popped the lock in less time than to read that he did. No Charlie. We looked in several other rooms where it was suspected he might be. Three were empty. A fourth revealed a naked couple enjoying oral sex. Billy produced his fake FBI badge and apologized for our presence. No Charlie!
Around four-thirty in the morning we abandoned our search and decided to have last call at the top of the Landmark. As we exited the elevator and approached the lounge, a wailing trumpet could be heard high above the din. It rose and fell in ecstatic release.
He had brought his horn along to Vegas just in case. He had talked his way onto the bandstand and had been playing there for hours. He told us all later that he was sick of radio and had always wanted to play horn in Vegas. He said that he was going to move there, and pretty damn soon. He wasn’t kidding.
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 at any given point in time 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.