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Sunday 21 Jul 2024

Father of Classic rock
from the Dick Summer Connection Blog

It wasn't "Classic Rock" all those years ago; 20/20 hindsight provided the label. The music was current, but nameless. Mostly, it was a new music, with a definite message for the baby boomers. It was music on fire. Hendrix, Morrison, Clapton wailing away. Jimmie Page, of "Led Zeppelin," often doesn't make such lists, but he played this music, as a kid, before "The Beatles."

When I heard it for the first time, it took me a week to get my eyes closed. Here's the perspective. AM radio was king; the revolution of FM was years away. Big 50,000-watt flame-throwers, such as WBZ, in Boston; WABC, in New York; WLS, in Chicago, and KFI, in Los Angeles ruled.

Most of these stations depended on a tight top-forty base. In fact, the play list at WABC and WLS was more like the top twenty, and the emphasis on the top three. "All Hits All the Time." Jingle, jangle, jingle. The format ruled; the format was the book. This was the style of Rick Sklar and John Rook, who programmed WABC and WLS, respectively. Not as restrictive the Drake Format, Rook and Sklar also built on predictability.

WBZ was the exception. Now, the truth comes out. WBZ didn't even have a format. The number one station in the number four market didn't have a format!

On-air, we played whatever we wanted to play. This included records from personal collection or tapes from local artists. Between the music, we had fun.

Oh, we had fun. Listeners loved it, up and down the east coast and as far west as the Rockies. A top radio station, today, pulls around a 10 rating in a major market. WBZ consistently pulled north of a 25 share.

The mouths at WBZ belonged to Carl deSuze, Dave Maynard, Jay Dunn, Jeff Kaye, Ron Landry, Bob Kennedy, Bruce Bradley; the company was good. The mind and the heart of WBZ, in the 1960s, belonged to Program Director, Al Heacock. Al was smart and quiet. He made money in the stock market, but didn't care about the stock market. Al cared about WBZ.

For those of you who never heard the station or, if you who work in radio and are curious, here's how Al programmed his music. Each month there was a staff meeting. At the meeting, Al would remind us to play some of the top tunes he left in the rack in the studio. Then he'd say, "I don't want to hear two records back-to-back. We pay you ... to entertain. Entertain." What a joy it was, what an honour to work at WBZ, with Al Heacock.

It's not a surprise to learn WBZ was a station with "tude," as in attitude. When we broadcast from the mobile studio, which was most of the time, we proudly wore our station blazers. Sure, we were Dick Summer or Bruce Bradley or Carl de Suze, but we were also part of WBZ. It wasn't unusual for one of us to drop in on somebody else's show to kibitz for a while. Team-based entertainment, which meant working as a team, was the goal of WBZ. When you went to a beach, you didn't need to bring a radio, everybody would have WBZ turned on, and up to stun level. If you stopped your car for a red light, you heard WBZ coming from the car stopped next to you. The "tude" was infectious.

Here's where the "Heacock as the Father of Classic Rock" comes in.

Boston is a big college town, with a strong folk music tradition. On WBZ, we were always playing original tapes of unreleased songs. "Sounds of Silence," by Simon and Garfunkel, aired first on WBZ; so, too, was "The Urge for Going," by Tom Rush, and all kinds of stuff by Dylan, Baez, who's from nearby Belmont, and Sweet Judy Blue Eyes Collins. "Sounds of Silence" aired on WBZ before the decision to add strings.

I was doing a weekly MC gig at the Unicorn Coffee House, a major folkie spot in town. I began noticing some of the artists were going electric. I invited Heacock come along one night, and he immediately understood.

The next day, he started the only compulsory music rule at WBZ. "One 'Liquid Rock' song, that's what he called the new music, an hour" from now on. Immediately the new music picked up the nickname "Underground Rock." The name was the only part Al got wrong.

Heacock set aside two hours on Sunday evening for the first major Underground Rock radio show, "Dick Summer's Subway." Then Dylan went electric, Eric Clapton formed "Cream" and Woodstock forged a new musical and political conscience for America, and it went roaring out over WBZ, 50,000 clear-channel watts. The "Subway" reached the Caribbean and northern Canada, and bounced from Boston to Midway Island, in the Pacific Ocean.

The suits at Group W Radio were aghast. It wasn't top forty. They wanted it stopped, right now.

Al quietly said "no." Even the suits didn't want to mess too much with a 25 rating in Boston.

Arlo Guthrie had a hit with "Alice's Restaurant." The lyric featured a line about the "mother rapers and the father rapers on the Group W bench." The reference, no doubt, was to the military contracts that made Westinghouse billions of dollars, and still does.

The lawyers at headquarters freaked. The President of Group W took a flight from New York. Somebody had to talk sense to this crazy program director, Heacock, in Boston.

"Get it off the air now," the executive ordered. Al quietly said, "No."

It was a classic Radio Guy versus Big Suit. Mr. Suit blinked. The order changed to, "well at least edit that line out." Heacock quietly said, "No." Al was sure consistent.

Mr. Suit decided to drop in on me on the "Subway" show. Just "for a friendly visit," he said. The engineer called Al to alert him. Ten minutes later, Al was in the studio. He asked Mr. Suit to join him for a quick meeting, just outside the studio. That's the last I heard of the problem.

Shortly after, Al transferred to WINS, in New York. A few months later, Group W turned off the music at WINS, and started a successful all-news station. Not long after, Al died while taking a shower. They called it a coronary. I think they just broke his heart.

The great Tom Donahue climbed on "Underground" music, on KMPX-FM, in San Francisco, and changed radio. In Boston, Classic Music WBCN went FM rock; WNEW-FM, in New York, joined the trend. Eventually, FM killed the AM king. It probably would have happened anyway. The point is that when you hear "Stairway to Heaven" or "Light My Fire," on radio, you're hearing the echo of the quiet but firm "No," so often voiced by Al Heacock, PD of WBZ, all those years ago.

Some of the details may be blurry, but Al Heacock made a huge difference. Most radio people never heard of Al. Most listeners hear the progress he guided. Al Heacock is my nominee for "Father of Classic Rock."

Rest in peace my friend. You taught more than just the joy of being on the radio. You were a lesson in how to be a real man.

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