I got wind of an honor that is being bestowed upon Bob the other day. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy. He also sent me this picture from more than fifty years ago...
The pic is from 1959 when KRIB's rock and roll format was one year old. It was taken at my weekly record hop at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.
The original interview follows...
Bob Hale is a legendary radio and television broadcaster who spent most of his career gracing the airwaves of Chicago.
Began at WHA-AM/FM/TV Madison Wisconsin while at the University of Wisconsin in Madison – 1952-1957
1958-KRIB Mason City , Iowa as RnR DJ. In February of 1959 was emcee of the Winter Dance Party of ’59 after which Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Big Bopper and pilot Roger Peterson were killed in the plane crash that shocked the world!
From there, I joined WMAY, Springfield in Fall of 1959…and 4 months later joined WIRL, Peoria .
In April of 1960 I joined WLS –Chicago as the host of East of Midnight; one of the original Swinging Seven who changed the sound of Chicago radio.
In Spring of 1964 I went to WMAQ Radio and stayed with them until 1966 when I joined WFLD-TV, as their first announcer. Also did weekday sports, and weekend news anchoring.
April 1967 I was offered a contract from WMAQ-TV as host of Today in Chicago, remaining there for 16 years.
I went to WLEX-TV In Lexington, KY as Principal News Anchor for 6 years, returning to Chicago to join WJJD in 1989. I retired in 1996 when WJJD changed to satellite talk and then switched formats to become The Score!
Since then I have been doing freelance writing and photography. Travel is a pastime – USA , South America, Europe primarily.
Rick: I know you've had to answer this question a million times, but please indulge us by answering it one more time. You were the Master of Ceremonies on February 2, 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa--the last concert by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Describe the scene backstage for us, and explain your part in that ill-fated coin-flip.
Bob: The bus with Valens, Holly, Richardson, Dion, and Frankie Sardo arrived in the late afternoon…actually around 6PM . We hurriedly got them something to eat, and then all pitched in to set up for the performance. Those days were pre-high-fi days, so we had to deal with only one microphone. The tour manager was Sam Geller of the GAC Corporation (which would go on to purchase Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus). As the set-up was taking place, Buddy was playing the piano. Sam and I were listening and he said to me, “This guy is going to be one of the greatest popular music composers of our time. He’s so talented – he can play so many instruments, and he creates such interesting music.”
Buddy’s talents were put to use during the concert as he played the drums during the Dion set. The regular drummer, Charlie Bunch was in the hosp[ital in Green Bay , Wisconsin , having suffered frostbite on the broken down bus! Buddy would play the drums for Dion’s set, which began the second half of the show. The first half was Frankie Sardo, and Big Bopper.
The second half, Dion and the Belmonts, followed by Buddy.
When Dion’s set was over, I sat down with him on the riser in front of the drum set and asked him to introduce his musicians. (Photo: Dion & The Belmonts 1959) When it came time for the drummer Dion said something like: “This fellow is taking the place of Charlie Bunch, our regular drummer who is in the hospital in Green Bay suffering from frost bite. Um...let’s see…the drummer’s name…is…ah, oh yeah! BUDDY HOLLY!”
Buddy jumped up, grabbed his guitar and began singing “Gotta Travel On.” The backup men quickly changed places and joined Buddy before he was half way through the first stanza.
There was some drama taking place off-stage, even before we got started, actually. At one point Bopper (photo) was sitting with my wife, Kathy, and me in a booth. Kathy was expecting our first child, and Bopper said something like, “That’s what I miss most…being around my wife when the baby moves. Kathy, may I feel your baby moving?” Kathy took Bopper’s hand and placed it on her stomach as the baby moved. Bopper smiled: “I can’t wait to get home to do that.”
Interestingly, no such conversation took place involving Buddy. We didn’t even know at that point that Maria was expecting.
During intermission the back-and-forth conversation between Bopper and Waylon Jennings took place, resulting in Waylon giving up his seat to Bopper. At that point Waylon uttered a phrase that would haunt him all his life – “Well, OKAY, but I hope your plane crashes!”
Years later, at a social gathering in Kentucky, Waylon (photo) and I recalled that night. He said: “Man, there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t wish I could take back that comment. The next day when I got the news in Fargo, I went nuts. I cried, I yelled. And I began to drink. Drugs helped along the way. Of course, I realized years down the road I was killing myself, so I quit. I don’t know, maybe deep inside I was so damned guilty, I was trying to kill myself!” He admitted that no matter how long he'd live, he’d always be haunted by Feb 3rd 1959.
After the show was over that night, Tommy Allsup, pressured by Ritchie Valens, said, “Let’s flip a coin.” It’s at this point that two versions of the coin flip emerge. Tommy maintains he flipped the coin; I maintain that as soon as he suggested it, he reached into his pocket and realized he had no money – he was still in his stage clothes. He asked me if I had a coin. I took out a 50 cent piece, said to Ritchie, “OKAY, Ritchie, you want to go, you call it.”
“Heads it is, Ritchie, you’re flying.”
Tommy said, “OKAY,” and went out to the car to retrieve his bags which he’d already put in Carroll Anderson’s car. Regardless which version of the coin toss you hear or accept neither Tommy nor I demand “ownership.” We’ve talked about this, and have no emotional investment in either version. What we agree on is that night was a tragedy and an extremely emotional one for us all.
Rick: What was that next day like?
Bob: February 3rd would be a painful day for family, friends, fellow-musicians, and for those who attended the Winter Dance Party. Within minutes of my announcing the plane crash – I was pulling the 9 to noon shift on the 3rd, teens began arriving at the station (KRIB) just to talk. It became a day-long wake, Pepsi and Coke distributors brought extra cases to our studios – we had so many people just “hanging around.” Parents came, too. Many had been at the Surf the night before. It was the custom of Carroll Anderson to invite parents to the weekly record hops free of charge. Many teens and parents were in tears.
Some students from Waldorf College had been at the Surf the night before. Some came to the studios. I interviewed college as well as high school students. What I didn’t know at the time was that Waldorf, a two-year Lutheran college, did not condone dancing! The school had a rigid Danish-Lutheran background which was extremely conservative in social activities – “Sad Danes,” they were called in Lutheran circles. When the school heard about the students who’d been to the Surf, they immediately suspended the dozen or so students for a couple of weeks. No comments on the deaths – just on “school policy.” Fortunately time has given Waldorf a more enlightened school administration, as well as transforming the college into a four-year, well respected liberal arts college.
On the way home in the afternoon, after conducting about two-dozen telephone interviews with radio stations across the country, I drove by the crash site. The bodies had still not been removed, as the ambulances were still in the corn field. I could not bring myself to walk the hundred yards to the site – and to this day, I’ve not been able to make that walk!
Rick: One of your former colleagues from WJJD, Bob Dearborn, also became known for a connection to the Buddy Holly story in a way. His analysis of Don McClean's "American Pie" (a song inspired by the Buddy Holly plane crash) is considered by many to be the best and most thoughtful one out there. I'm sure the two of you discussed the subject a time or two. What is your feeling about that song?
Bob: Bob Dearborn (photo) and I have talked about his analysis of "American Pie." While I take McLean at his word when I asked him about the several theories out there - " Oh, heck, I took words that rhymed, and some thoughts I had, and tied them together. If they sounded good I kept them in."
I think Don has begun to see the value in all the "deciphering" going on - it's good for sales, even today! - that he's backed off that open and honest statement these days. But, As far for which one strikes home the most - Dearborn's, as far as I am concerned. Of course, I have to be up-front here; I am hoping to get Bob to the Surf next year for his interpretation presentation.
Rick: You were one of the original rock jocks at WLS in 1960. Talk about those early days and the way the city embraced the WLS personalities. Do you still run into people who connect you with that time?
Bob: Oh boy...this could a long bio-piece, but I'll cut to the chase, as the cliché goes. In early 1960 I had moved to WIRL in Peoria. At KRIB and WMAY I was sending a tape every two weeks to Sam Holman the to-be-program director of WLS. One afternoon, home in bed with a fever, and a couple of shots of Dr. Jack Daniels with honey and lemon - the late winter cold had struck - I received a call.
"Bob, it's Sam Holman at WLS, in Chicago."
Instant sobriety! INSTANT!
"Yes, Sam, how are you?" Actually, I didn't care how he was; I wanted to know why he called!!!
"Bobby, (right then I knew I was in! - 'Bobby') I'd like to come on to be my all-night man starting May 2nd. Interested?" Oh yeah...was I interested! "Besides, Bobby, you keep sending me all those tapes---I've got no room for more."
Dick Biondi and I were brought in early so that the three of us could make the rounds of newspaper people, record promoters and writers. Within 20 hours of that call two record promoters drove from Chicago to "meet me, and say hello." I had arrived!
When I came to WLS that first day at the old Prairie Farmer Building on West Washington Blvd, Sam and Dick and I were taken to lunch at Fritzel's--THE place to be seen! We weren't there more than 10 minutes, guests of Archie Levinson, well-known record promoter and husband of Fran Allison, of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame, when we were joined by Milton Berle! I leaned over to Sam and said, "I wonder who they'll fly in tomorrow to impress us?"
(Photos: Steve Allen with Bob Hale in WLS Studios)
That night Sam, Dick and I hung around WLS after midnight sign-off and the new chief engineer, Fred Zellner, fired up the transmitter out in a south-west suburb (Tinley Park) to see how far we were reaching. We'd take collect calls from anywhere in the US. Oh boy, did we run up a bill, fast. Calls from, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and a couple of ships-at-sea. And, I, as the in-coming midnight man, and Biondi as the incoming 9 to midnight man, knew we had a tiger of a radio station to play with! Damn, that was fun!
Biondi is the only one of the "old crowd" I see on rare occasions. Other than Dick, Jim Dunbar and me, the rest have died: Sam Holman, Mort Crawley, Ed Grennen, and Gene Taylor...all gone.
(Photo: Gene Taylor, Bob Hale, and Sam Holman at 1985 WLS Reunion)
Rick: What was that like working there in those days?
Bob: The midnight shift at WLS was incredible – we reached 42 of the 50 states. Signals just roar in the nighttime, especially when you have 50,000 watts on a clear channel, as we did back in 1960. I had a fan club at a secret Air Force base near the Arctic Circle . The guys called sometimes via a link up with an air base in Indiana . I had to promise to NOT dedicate anything to a name. I’d couch it by playing a tune for some of my “nightly listeners north of Chicago, who I know are listening to me with one ear, and other conversations with the other ear.” They were monitoring the Russian airwaves!
Two extras came my way. First, the record hops. It wasn’t long before promoters were calling to hire the WLS DJs for outside activities. The station approved them, knowing it was great promotion. Because I was working nights, Friday and Saturday night hops were out for me…unless I could make short appearances. I did many Sunday hops…sometime three on a Sunday. Some weeks we could match out salary. Biondi (photo) could match all our salaries put together!! (even today, he’s a hot commodity! Seventy-five going on 23!)
Secondly, the Lutheran youth association, called the Walther League, asked me to write a monthly column in the youth magazines. From that I was invited to local youth rallies, and our International Walther League conventions in such places as Fargo , Squaw Valley , and Washington D. C. On Sundays I’d drive or even train to Midwest youth gatherings. I wasn’t there to play records, but rather to speak, sometimes as a keynoter. My interest in theology helped me make sufficient cogent points. I found that to be the most satisfying addendum to the radio on-air work.
Rick: How did you make that transition from radio to television?
Bob: In 1964 I made a switch to WMAQ radio, the NBC station in Chicago. They were trying to regain lost listeners from their very low-key and bland format. I remained with them a year and a half, and while I was there, in January of 1966 I joined WFLD-TV, which was owned by the Sun-Times and Daily News.
WFLD was a UHF station – Ch 32 – in a heavily VHF market. That's where I made the switch to news. I did street reporting, weekend anchoring, and weekday staff announcing and on-camera sports reports. I also did many interviews. At the same time I joined WFLD, WMAQ-TV asked if I could do a once a week youth interview program. I was given permission by WFLD to do it, and that slot was the entry-point for a full time WMAQ-TV spot a year later. I filled in for the host of Today in Chicago, 6:30 AM to 7AM weekdays.
I was told on my first fill-in day that it was actually an audition, and that if I handled it well, I’d be offered the job full-time. After that first broadcast I made a comment that I liked the format, and that I was hoping to shape something similar at WFLD in the near future. The next day – my second fill-in day - I was met by the program director who never showed up at 7AM before! He called me into his office and made an offer I could not refuse.
That same day I went back to WFLD and submitted my resignation (three weeks hence). Coincidently our General Manager, Red Quinlan, also submitted his resignation that day, for reasons I never did learn. The conversations centered around “WFLD is now a sinking ship when two of the officers jump ship.”
I remained at WMAQ-TV for 15 years, adding a Sunday two-hour version of that program, and serving for a year as the Midwest Editor for the network’s TODAY Show with Frank McGee and Barbara Walters (photo: Today Show set in New York). Eventually new management came in to replace retiring “good guys.” The new GM dropped my three contracts I had with Ch 5, and I was out of work.
For a year or so I was traveling host of the Illinois State Lottery drawings, which had weekly jackpot drawings in various locations around the state.
Rick: This was the early 80s?
Bob: Yes. In 1981 (I believe) I accepted a position as Principal Anchor at WLEX-TV in Lexington , Kentucky . They’d hired an expanded staff to get them out of the 4th place in a three-station market that they’d sat in for a few years. Six new people were hired, and after three years we got to number 1. Two years later, they decided they could make just as much money as #2 or #3 and let four of us go.
Rick: Is that when you came back to Chicago?
Bob: Actually, Kathy was offered a job that we’d been looking at for many months. In Chicago the new Lutheran Church in America was shaping itself after the merger of three Lutheran bodies. Kathy, as a CPA became the head controller for the Lutheran Foundation – which supported many universities and institutions around the world. As I was being let go at WLEX, she was being asked to come to Chicago . So, after all the previous moves based on my employment, we “came home” because of her career. She remained in that spot for 13 years.
Rick: And you ended up back on the radio...
Bob: Yes. Thanks to some help from Dick Biondi and Clark Weber (photo) – former WLS teammates – at WJJD-WJMK. They pitched me to do vacation news for both stations, and that resulted in an offer to be the drive time DJ at WJJD at the end of the summer replacement period. I held on there for six years, even through a format change that saw WJJD drop all music and import talk shows from the two coasts. But when the union contract ran out in 1999, we accepted a nice buy-out offer.
Rick: Even though you're out of radio now, you're certainly not retired, are you?
Bob: No, I hit the free lance trail. I immediately hooked up with a firm that was looking for freelance photographers for their work on high school year books. I am in my 8th year with them. I also write a travel column for Midwest Today magazine (located in Iowa ) and I do a once a month travel radio piece for the radio edition of the magazine.
Rick: Thanks, Bob. This has been a pleasure.
Bob: If all this information results in a movie offer, I’d be happy to play myself!