Political Promoter For A Week, Rocker For A Night
How I spent a week immersed in politics -- and rock 'n' roll.
How did a young San Francisco radio station DJ go to Washington, sit in the President's chair in the White House Oval Office, then play rock 'n' roll piano with a dozen legendary performers?
It all happened to ME -- one October week in 1972, and especially one amazing night. Here's my Boomer Years experience.
My main thing is music. Many people love to listen to music. I love to make music, and when I can't do that, I love to present music. Love of music led me to a 20 years directing the programming of several music-format radio stations in San Francisco and Seattle, and also being on the air as a radio personality DJ (and behind the scenes working in production, engineering, and management). I also play pop music style piano at a good-for-an-amateur level, and these days I'm in a local rock band. But in 1972 my public identity was as "the radio guy".
In 1972 I was program director of radio station KNEW "Channel 91" in San Francisco, meaning I devised and managed what we put on the air -- music, news, talk, contests -- and oversaw the radio entertainers and reporters who presented it. The format was pop music with plenty of "oldies" from the previous 15 years, presented by personality-type DJs.
Join the party
Tom Campbell was a popular San Francisco radio personality who did KNEW's afternoon show. One day he made me an interesting offer. If he and I could take a week off, we could join a free concert series traveling to six cities, presenting six "legendary" rock/R&B acts -- all expenses paid. Tom would be the on-stage MC, and I would do promotion by visiting radio stations in each city to invite listeners to that night's show. As a fellow broadcaster from exotic San Francisco, I would likely be able to get past the receptionist.
The concert series had a mission -- two, actually. The year 1972 was the first time people age 18 to 20 could vote, and perhaps these new voters could make a big difference in the next election. Or, maybe they wouldn't vote at all -- people under 30 were not known to vote much. So the first goal of our musical tour was to attract young people to a free show, then urge them to vote.
The second goal was to urge young voters to re-elect President Richard Nixon. The concert series -- including my "all expenses paid" participation -- was being produced by Young Voters for the President (YVP), an offshoot of the Republican Party's Committee to Re-Elect the President. YVP was started a few months earlier by Ken Reitz and eventually grew to about 3,200 active members. (In 2007 Reitz worked with senator/actor Fred Thompson on his presidential bid.)
You might be thinking, Nixon? But his Watergate scandal and downfall were months in the future. In 1972, President Nixon was well-regarded and his re-election was almost a sure-thing. The chance to join the President's team, even if just for one week, was too interesting to pass up. I quickly said "yes."
And so, there I was, the "advance man" for Legends of Rock 'n' Roll concerts sponsored by Young Voters for the President. Our roadshow the first week of October 1972 hit six major mid-west cities: Milwaukee, Chicago, Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, then a final show in Washington, DC suburb Falls Church, Virginia. And what a show it was...
Live on stage...
The YVP concerts were free, but the performers were well worth paying to see -- calling them legends was no exaggeration.
Bobby Lewis belted out his huge hits Tossin' And Turnin' and One Track Mind -- what energy! I had met Bobby several months earlier at a huge concert my radio station sponsored in the Bay Area, where I gave him one of our station t-shirts. So imagine my surprise when, as I walked toward my hotel room, he popped out of a distance doorway, shouted "Hawkins!", ducked in then popped out holding the t-shirt I gave him. He brought it along when he heard I'd be part of the show. He said his daughter had worn his to college, got wonderful reaction, and could I send her a new shirt. Of course! (The t-shirt graphic was a large heart, the border repeating "KNEW Channel 91", and inside our catch-phrase "I May Be An Oldie But I'm A Goodie". The t-shirt became so popular we sold it in Bay Area department stores.)
Danny and the Juniors brought down the house with monster hits At The Hop and Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay. During the tour I enjoyed hanging out with Juniors singer Bill Carlucci. I didn't make much of a connection with leader Danny Rapp, who always seemed a tad grumpy. (Whatever was bothering him, in 1983 he took his own life at age 41.)
Gary U.S. Bonds rocked with his huge hits New Orleans, Quarter To Three, School Is Out, Dear Lady Twist, School Is In, Twist Twist Senora, Seven Day Weekend, and more. The performers all traveled by chartered bus from city to city, but Gary Anderson (his real name) didn't like this much. As they piled off in Indianapolis, a shiny Cadillac convertible pulled up and Gary let out a whoop. It was his car, driven up from New Orleans by a friend he'd called. For the rest of the tour, Gary traveled in style and comfort.
The Coasters was the fun band, with Charlie Brown, Searchin', Poison Ivy, Yakety Yak, Along Came Jones, Smokey Joe's Cafe and other classics. The band had many members over the years, but leader Cornell Gunter was an original in every meaning of the word. One evening on the band bus we had a wonderful chat about the crazy 1950's R&B music scene in L.A., and all the groups he was in and records he did. (Sadly, Cornell was murdered in Las Vegas in 1990; Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis, Jr. paid for his funeral.)
Johnny Thunder had just one big hit, million-seller Loop De Loop in 1963. But as a past member of the Drifters and the Ink Spots, he gave a strong performance every night of the tour.
The Five Satins sang their big hit To The Aisle, and legendary slow dance "belly rubber" In The Still Of The Night. One night on the band bus, group leader Fred Parris told me how he wrote it, literally in the still of the night at 3AM while on Army guard duty in Pennsylvania. He and some friends recorded it in a New Haven church basement -- the reason it doesn't exactly have that "studio quality" sound. The song came out as the B-side of a 45, and no one was more surprised than Fred when many months later it became a hit. (And few noticed there are only four singers on this Five Satins song.) While not actually a huge nation-wide hit, everyone knows and loves this ultimate 50's doo-wop ballad. Fred brought down the house every night he sang it.
On stage, introducing the acts and reminding the audience to get out and vote, was my DJ colleague Tom Campbell. While Tom worked the nights, I worked the days.
My road-show gig
My role in the musical caravan was "advance" man. Instead of riding the band bus from town to town, I'd hop a plane each morning with one or more Young Voters for the President leaders. We'd get to the next town, rent a car, then drive to local radio stations that served the youth market. My job, as "the radio guy", was to go into the stations and convince them to promote that night's free concert. In some cases, they just took notes. In other cases, I was put on the air live to chat about the show.
It's common and fun for broadcasters to visit each other's stations, but one stands out. In Indianapolis, one station's program director said he would be happy to run a recorded commercial "spot" to promote the concert. I suggested a montage of the big hits featured in the show, plus some announcer promotional "VO" (voice over). I quickly wrote some "copy", then dug through the station's record library and found the songs they should use in the montage. The station's production guy then tried to put it together, but it was not working out.
Finally I said, "Can I do it?" I sat down in the studio at a massive control board I'd never seen before, having noted the production guy's use of switches, buttons and knobs to run various equipment. I grabbed the "stack of wax" (records) and quickly created the 60-second radio spot. As I stepped out the the production studio, I was surprised to see a crowd had gathered -- they could see and hear what I was doing -- and even more surprised when the program director said, "Do you want a job?" But I already had two jobs -- my old job at my San Francisco station, and my new job as "political operative."
Though I spent every day visiting radio stations, and every night hanging out with the musicians, I also got immersed in the political part of the road show.
For instance, the Indianapolis concert on October 5 was preceded by a reception where I met Julie Nixon Eisenhower, daughter of Richard Nixon and wife of David Eisenhower, grandson of President Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower. It was Ike who named the presidential retreat in Maryland "Camp David" after his grandson.
At the evening show, Julie spoke briefly to the audience of about 2,000 young people. "Many of you will be voting for the first time. This election year presents the clearest choice of the century. That is what my father said." She noted that President Nixon hoped first-time voters for him would "look back in future years and feel it was one of your best votes."
Throughout the trip I had some wonderful conversations with Pamela Powell, chairman of Young Voters for the President. Pam was a couple of years younger than me, cute, smart, and fun. She was also (I learned via whispers), a Hollywood "name", because her parents were actor and director Dick Powell and actress June Allyson. Pam herself was Miss Golden Globe 1972, and just before our road show, she had acted in an episode of TV show Cannon. Pam was also seen on TV opening a session of the Republican Convention in Miami. (In 1973 Pam joined the White House staff, and was President Gerald Ford's Director for Youth Affairs 1975-1977.) When we chatted on flights and over meals, it wasn't about show biz, it was about the exciting world that was unfolding to us 20-somethings and how we might be able to really make a difference.
In the odd twists of politics, Pam Powell wasn't the only Hollywood connection of the 1972 presidential election. It pitted Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford against Democrats George McGovern and Sargent Shriver, the father of Maria Shriver (her mother is Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of John F. Kennedy). Maria became an NBC journalist, who married Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who later became California Governor.
After investing all this time, talent and the Republican Party's treasury, how did the 1972 election turn out? Well, I don't know the impact of Young Voters for the President or our six-city music series, since only half of the newly-empowered 18, 19 and 20 year-olds turned out to vote that year. But of those who voted for the first time, nearly half chose Nixon. In fact, Richard Nixon was re-elected President by a landslide, 60.7% of the popular vote, the largest-ever.
It was exciting to meet and work with so many good people who were passionate about their political beliefs. Nixon's Watergate scandal and downfall many months later was devastating to all who believed in him, especially the YVP enthusiasts. Of course, the problem with belief is the ignorance it rests on, often contradicted by facts. When someone expresses shock that I "worked" for Richard Nixon, however briefly, I point out at that point in history, we were all optimistic but naive.
Since then, I've become cynical about politics, and wonder if what distinguishes Nixon from other politicians isn't what he did, but that he got caught in an era when it was shocking. Today it might seem like just another daily headline. As an independent voter hoping to discover some truth in politics, I usually hear the best ideas from people who claim to be Libertarians, striving for less government and more personal liberty. If they do not secretly serve special interests I'm for them. But of course this means they can't get elected.
Politics aside, the best part was hanging out with important and/or famous people, visiting new cities and radio stations, and getting to know performers whose music was embedded in my soul. Showing-off my radio production skills in Indianapolis was fun. But my personal best moment wasn't in politics, it was one night in Washington.
A night to remember
Our final show was in Washington, DC. When our traveling troupe arrived from Pittsburgh we piled onto a tour bus. A guide pointed out famous sites, then we visited Young Voters for the President headquarters in a storefront near 17th and Pennsylvania. Ominously, we also drove by the Watergate building.
Finally, we pulled up to the gate of a rather impressive home -- The White House. It was amusing to see guards and Secret Service trying to do a security check on a busload of loony musicians, but we were soon inside. On a private after-hours tour we met various Nixon aides, some who later became (in)famous.
At one point, we wandered into the unoccupied Oval Office (President Nixon was wisely not home). I remember taking turns with members of the Coasters as we each sat in the President's chair, Cornell Gunter giggling the entire time.
Then we explored the Cabinet Room, noting that the President's chair is taller than all the others. Under the table at the President's spot we discovered buttons, and gleefully pushed them. No missiles were launched that I know of. But later, when the Watergate scandal erupted, it was revealed that many conversations were secretly recorded in those rooms. I still wonder if one of the buttons we pressed activated microphones, and whether our silly comments ended up on the infamous Nixon Tapes.
After showing perhaps too little respect in the White House, we were bussed to a theater in suburban Falls Church, Virginia for the final show. We stayed at a nearby Holiday Inn, and had a little end-of-tour wrap party in its basement meeting room.
In the corner was a piano, and that's when the fun really began. Gary Bonds sat down and started tinkling the ivories. Somehow it evolved to Gary trying to play Neil Sedaka's classic Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. The gathered musicians were trying to sing it, but Gary's piano effort wasn't working. So I leaned over and said, "Can I try it?"
By this time I knew the musicians, but to them I was just "the radio guy". So, amid looks of amazement, I sat down and banged out a pretty good rendition -- good enough that everyone sang along. Then someone shouted out another Neil Sedaka hit and I played it too. Several members of the Coasters band dashed away and returned with their instruments, and suddenly we had a rockin' band -- and I was the piano player! Talk about a dream come true...
I don't know how long we played or what songs we did, but it was surrealistic to be surrounded by the Coasters playing horns and guitars, with singing and backup from Danny And The Juniors and The Five Satins and Gary Bonds. It seemed to go on all night. Wow!
Now it's your turn -- tell us a story
I don't have a recording of that night, or even a photo of that week, just memories. But that's what so many Boomers have -- interesting, unusual, unique, life-altering, and just plain fun memories. Please use the Contact Us link on this page to contribute to the ever-growing library of Boomer Years stories.