Playing Hits, Making Hits and Back Again: Rock Deejays

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Courtesy of Getty Images

Radio DJs are like major league managers who never played in the big leagues but wind up managing awful teams. Both must think, “If they made the big time, why can’t I?  I can be just as bad as they are—and get paid really good.”  Then there are the DJs who stop spinning hit records to make hits themselves.  Lou Reed was the host of his college radio station show called Excursions on a Wobbly Rail (named after a Cecil Taylor Quartet song).  Sylvester Stewart left his DJ days at KSOL when another San Francisco DJ, the beefy Tom Donahue, hired Stewart to be the staff producer for his record label, Autumn Records.  Stewart, who now went by “Sly Stone,” produced Bobby Freeman’s “C’mon and Swim!” a hit novelty song that Sly may have not deemed cool enough to play on his own radio show.

B.B. King’s career was launched when he became a DJ at WDIA, the first all-black-operated radio station in America.  He knocked on the West Memphis station’s door and said he’d like to make a record only to be told that they play records, not make them. But, the station had been hired to promote a product called “Pepticon” that needed a jingle. B.B. told them, “I can write a jingle. I’d do anything to get on the radio.  So I came up with ‘Pepticon is good.  You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.’ And it went well but I didn’t find out why until fifteen years later when I was told Pepticon was 12% alcohol. And that’s how I got on radio.”

Rock DJs who morphed into stars include the Big Bopper (DJ at KTRM in Beaumont, TX) and J. Geils’ Peter Wolf who toiled at Boston’s WBCN station where his whacky DJ name was “the Woofa Goofa.”

But before rock stars were worshipped by millions, they were music-loving teens who learned their craft by locking their bedroom doors and gluing their ears to a radio, despite their parents telling them to turn it down.

Tom Petty confessed to a strained relationship with his macho father, Earl.  Petty said Earl saw his son as, “This real sort of tender, emotional kid, more inclined to the arts.” It’s doubtful that Earl, who got much younger women to date him after bragging he was Tom’s father, would’ve listened to his son’s excellent radio show, Buried Treasure, which Tom claimed “puts the peyote in your coyote.”  For twelve years and 251 hour-long episodes, Petty hosted shows that he said were “very much what you would have heard at my house the night before.”

Petty also threw in a few jibes, like proclaiming that Paul Revere (of Paul Revere and the Raiders) didn’t deserve a band to be named after him or even be in the group and that singer Mark Lindsay tolerated Paul’s presence because “he might have just owned the van and the equipment.”  Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Bob Dylan hosted his own radio show two years after Petty’s show launched, with Tom joking, “Yeah, he copies me.”

Unlike Bob’s never-ending tours where he gives the impression that he’d rather be at anybody else’s concert but his own, Dylan is an engaging and jovial host on his Theme Time Radio Show where he’s asked, “I mean, does anybody even still have a radio? Some folks might even be listening on a smart toaster.”

Dylan and Petty lead a crowded field of rock stars on radio.  These include Little Steven Van Zandt, who shares his encyclopedic knowledge of rock on Sirius radio’s Little Steven’s Underground Radio Show, Randy Bachman (Vinyl Tap) and the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones (Jonsey’s Jukebox).  Then there are the musicians who school each other on rock ‘n’ roll, as was the case when Tom Waits popped into Iggy Pop’s BBC-6 radio show on December 3, 2023.  The pals shared their fondness for the Beastie Boys, about whom Waits gushed, “Every time I hear them, they get me off my perch.”  After playing rapper Lil Mama’s 2008 hit “Lip Gloss,” Waits succinctly said that the song reminded him of the Trashmen’s 1962 hit “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.”

Iggy turned Tom onto bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s “Sad Days, Lonely Nights” and imparted what Junior said of his music: “My songs have one chord.  If I find another chord, I save it for another song.” The show ended with Iggy spinning Johnny Paycheck’s bizarre “Colorado Kool-Aid” record, a Tarrantino-ish tune that includes a Reservoir Dogs-like ear-cutting scene.

There should be more radio shows comprised of a couple of rockers just sitting around and talking.  Maybe Robert Plant and Jimmy Page will one day host a show called “Led’s Lawsuits” featuring the songs and artists involved in the six plagiarism lawsuits successfully filed against Led Zeppelin. Then again, probably not.

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Tom Petty (Getty Images)

Mark Daponte is a copy/blog writer for an advertising company and has published/sold four short stories, three full length screenplays, nine short screenplays (including two animation scripts) and punches up screenplays—because they don’t punch back. He has had six short comedic plays performed by various theater companies, including one in Los Angeles, (Sacred Fools) and Sacramento, CA (Sacramento Actors Theater Company). When he isn’t sinking down to a thirteen-year-old’s level to make his teenaged sons laugh, he can be found seeking signs of intelligent life in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY.

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