There no doubt were people of my generation who heard their first rock and roll on 45-rpm records, at home or at dances, or maybe even performed live. But for most of us, we listened to AM radio. And in my case, that was mostly on WLS, the 50,000-watt clear channel station that permeated the Upper Midwest and beyond.
I started listening to WLS sometime in the early 1960s, on my family’s old Philco combination AM and phonograph. It was the only radio we had, other than the one in our one and only car (until later in that decade, always a six-cylinder, three-on-the-tree Chevrolet).
That family radio was situated in the dining room, but it was plugged into the same electrical circuit as the kitchen fluorescent, which interfered with the radio. So we had to work around Mom’s need to work in the kitchen, which limited our listening.
Which may explain why my memory doesn’t quite jibe with what I found while researching WLS online. It didn’t take much Googling to find the excellent The History of WLS Radio website, which I heartily recommend to others who came of age listening to the station.
WLS was quintessentially a ’60s music venue, changing to a rock/pop format in May 1960s. That was quite a change for a station whose call letters originally stood for World’s Largest Store — as in Sears Roebuck.
The catalog giant later sold the station to Prairie Farmer magazine, which continued its predecessor’s service to the farmers with crop reports, the National Barn Dance and country music. (It also broke ground in news; the eyewitness report on the crash of the German dirigible Hindenburg — “Oh, the humanity!” — was done by a WLS reporter sent to cover the arrival of the zeppelin.)
The station did a 180 in 1960, after ABC bought it. The new owners brought in a bunch of “hip” disk jockeys — including the legendary (or maybe notorious) Dick Biondi — and a new format. The new regime debuted early that May morning with the song “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles.
I was still a captive audience listening to MOR on Janesville’s WCLO at that time. I would have thought that I started listening to WLS a year or two after its conversion to a rock station, but I seem to remember Biondi being history, fired allegedly for telling a risqué joke.
(According to the WLS history site, the accepted story behind that 1963 dismissal was urban myth, but the reality was almost as good as the “what if the bikinis get even smaller” apocrypha. Biondi, annoyed by the amount of commercials and news reports interrupting the rock, got in a literal fist fight with the general manager!)
But I well remember many of those WLS radio personalities from that time frame: Dex Card and his Silver Dollar Survey, Bob Hale (who signed off the air by saying “Hale and farewell”), Ron Riley, the very mellow Art Roberts, Clark “The Night Train” Weber.
Riley was my favorite; he often claimed he was doing his show from the windowsill, and I emulated him by perching in the window of my freshman Latin classroom. I took sides in his war of words with Weber, who referred to Riley as Ringworm.
Those were the voices who played the soundtrack of our teen years. We would often switch to Chicago’s WCFL when WLS went to its news break, and occasionally it would be WOKY in Milwaukee. Later in the 60s, late at night, we would listen to KAAY in Little Rock, Ark., for its Beaker Street program.
Mostly, though, it was WLS, which later in the 60s — like KAAY — picked up more of the underground sound of psychedelia and acid rock. That change was typified by the hiring of Larry Lujack, the DJ “who loves you,” in 1967.
Lujack was the MC at one of the first rock concerts I ever attended, a spring 1969 event headlined by Iron Butterfly. The opening act, REO Speedwagon, in my opinion upstaged the ponderous proto-heavy metal band; Lujack told the thousands sitting on the concrete floor that they would probably develop hemorrhoids as a result.
Later that year, I moved to Madison, and discovered FM radio, in the form of Radio Free Madison. Rock was moving from AM to FM at that time, and I didn’t listen to the amplitude-modulated stuff for a long time.
About 10 years later, though, I was listening to WLS again. In between newspaper jobs, I was driving a van and picking up employees of a sheltered workshop. Lujack had the early morning show, and did an “Animal Stories” daily bit that was just hysterical; I left early and drove fast so I could get to the top of the bluff where I could pick up the signal.
But that was about it for me and AM. When I wasn’t behind the wheel of that van, I was listening to gummint radio, or an FM rock station out of Rochester, Minn. FM had trended away from the Radio Free Madison model, to Adult Contemporary and Classic Rock, etc., and I listened to the radio less and tapes and (eventually) CDs more.
Satellite radio later rescued me from all that. But it’s fun to read the history of WLS, and remember when the station was mid-America’s “Bright New Sound.”