8 boss radio DJs who rocked the airwaves in the '60s and '70s
Image: Death Race 2000, New World Pictures
Today, podcasters are the celebrities of the airwaves. Music hardly has anything to do with it. But back in the era of AM radio, deejays were gods. Planet-sized personalities like Murray the K and Wolfman Jack helped make rock 'n' roll a part of American pop culture.
It's a big country, the day is long, and there are dozens of stops along the AM dial. There were loads of DJs. That being said, these celebrities helped make "Boss Radio" — a format that blended the top, hip hits of the day with boisterous talk — an essential part of Boomer youth.
Let's turn back the dial…
The Real Don Steele
Don Steele was massive enough to vault from radio to film. Here you can see him in Death Race 2000, the dystopian sci-fi action flick produced by Roger Corman in 1975. Steele — billed as "The Real Don Steele" — played Junior Bruce, the emcee of the deadly Transcontinental Road Race. His fame was such that he also popped up in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, Bewitched, Rock 'n' Roll High School and Gremlin. Steele blew up in the mid-'60s as the superstar of KHJ in Los Angeles, the pioneer of "Boss Radio." His afterschool slot in the schedule likely helped. KHJ made stars of much of its roster (there are more DJs below) but Steele was the one who got his own local L.A. television show, Boss City and later The Real Don Steele TV Show.
Image: Death Race 2000, New World Pictures
Coming to Los Angeles from Texas, Riddle joined the stable of hot jocks at KHJ-93. Riddle was also a celebrity on the small screen, hosting the music showcases Hollywood a Go-Go and 9th Street West. A few years later, he would team with "Mama" Cass Elliot to co-host 1970's Get It Together, another American Bandstand-like performance show that welcomed the likes of the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Like his colleague Steele, Riddle also played a race announcer in a popcorn movie, in the Elvis flick Clambake (1967). His pop influence carried over into the '80s and '90s, as he produced Star Search, the talent competition hosted by Ed McMahon.
Image: The Everett Collection
Art helped bring rock to Chicago. The big fish at WLS-AM 890, Roberts took over the 9PM to midnight shift from Dick Biondi at the peak of the British Invasion and embraced the time slot with his bedtime stories. A collection of them was released on vinyl called Hip Fables. The creative storyteller came up with kooky characters such as Hooty Saperticker, a sort of lazy ne'er-do-well.
Image: Quill Records
Moving across the Midwest a bit, we come to St. Louis, home of Johnny Rabbitt. Ron Elz found his real name a little hard to understand over the radio, so he whipped up the persona Johnny Rabbitt, a monicker reportedly inspired by an actual guy he knew in the city named Easter Rabbitt. Well, that's one origin story. It's more complicated. Another jock named Bud Connell claimed to have created the Johnny Rabbitt personality, a blend of Johnny Carson and a Playboy Bunny, in 1960. Whatever the case, KXOK-AM 630 quickly replaced Elz with Don Pietromonaco, a former child actor, as Rabbitt. "Don Pietro" turned Rabbitt into a sensation, also voicing another beloved character, the lazy teenager Bruno J. Grunion. Asking young callers to "Blab it to the Rabbitt," Pietromonaco made KXOK a ratings giant.
Image: KXOK / STLMediaHistory
Dr. Don Rose
A coast-to-coast sensation, Rose won "Disc Jockey of the Year" working both in Philly and San Francisco. His contribution to radio lies in the morning show, as he pioneered the concept of "morning zoo," bouncing around markets in Iowa and Georgia early in his career. Working in Atlanta, he was heard on the popular Cruisin' series of rock compilation albums. Rose relied on comedy and sound effects (barnyard animals, cowbells) to liven up his broadcasts. He was "shock jock" before that term was coined.
Image: Increase Records
Roger Christian, another KHJ superstar who came to L.A. after honing his craft in Upstate New York, did not just play rock 'n' roll — he helped make it. A lover of hot rods and poetry, Christian co-wrote several Beach Boys tunes, including "Don't Worry Baby" and "Little Deuce Coupe." He also penned loads of classics for Jan and Dean that celebrated California youth culture — especially motors — like "Dead Man's Curve" and "Drag City." Murry Wilson, the domineering dad of the Beach Boys, sent his brilliant son Brian to collaborate with Christian after hearing the DJ talk cars.
In May 1965, KHJ took out an ad in The Los Angeles Times announcing its original seven "Boss Jocks." That included Riddle, Steele, and Christian (not to mention an elephant) — as well as Mack, the afternoon disc jockey. Just how popular was the format change? "We went from 23rd place in the market to number one in 90 days!" Mack wrote. "It was fast-paced, with short breaks, great music, constant contests and promotions. And it just got bigger and better. Big-name artists dropped by just to say hello — Mick Jagger, Sonny and Cher, all of 'em"
Dave Diamond (yep, he worked at KHJ, too, in primetime) would show his influence on rock 'n' roll through his love of psychedelia. He not only spun acid-inspired music, but his show itself would also get out there. Take it from M*A*S*H writer Ken Levine, who counted Diamond as one of his close friends. "He realized that radio was the medium of imagination. He could create whole worlds. Which he did," Levine wrote on his blog. "Just as Jack Benny delighted listeners in the '30s and '40s with his trips down to his private vault where he kept his money, guarded by alligators and whatnot, Dave Diamond welcomed you to the Diamond Mine. Through poetic psychedelic imagery… he created this whole mythical Wonderland. And you didn’t have to take LSD to experience it!"