Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ron Britain

Ron Britain was one of Chicago's most popular personalities. He worked up and down the AM and FM dial, most famously for Super-CFL in the 1960s.

(Photo by Kelly Mackey)


WHAS-Louisville 1949
WKLO-TV Louisville 1953
WINN-Louisville 1954
WKAY-Bowling Green 1954
WIEL-Elizabethtown 1954
WSAZ-TV Huntington 1956
WFMT-TV Ft. Monmouth NJ 1957
WLBS-Monmouth NJ 1957
WKAZ-TV-Charlestown 1959
WSAI-Cincinnati 1960
WHK-Cleveland 1964
WCFL-Chicago 1965
WIND-Chicago 1970
KCMO-Kansas City 1974
WLS-FM Chicago 1974
WKRC-Cincinnati 1976
WCFL-Chicago 1978
Satellite Music Network-Chicago 1980
WJMK-Chicago 1984
WTMX-Chicago 1992-1994
WRLL-Chicago 2002-2003

Rick: Your real name isn't Britain. How did you end picking that name or did someone pick it for you?

Ron: I didn't use that name when I first started in radio. I was only 14 years old when I hosted a show in Louisville, a teen show called "High Varieties." This was during a different era in radio. It was one of those old time radio shows performed in a huge studio with a script and a full orchestra, and I went by my real name, which is Ron Magel.

It wasn't until I got my first big break in Cincinnati that someone suggested I change my name. Right after I was hired, I was having breakfast with the Program Director Jim Lightfoot, and he asked what I was going to call myself. I said "How about Ron Magel?" He thought it sounded a little too ethnic, and wanted something more showbizy. We started brainstorming possible names, and he asked me to tell him a little more about myself.

Well, I told him that everyone liked to kid me about being such an Anglophile. You have to remember, this was before the British Invasion. It seemed a little unusual at the time. I drove a Jaguar, which I still do by the way, and I dressed like an Englishman. He said, well let's go with "Britain," like the country, and from that point on it was my name. The name took off. In Cincinnati, I leased a supper club that seated like 10000 people, and I had a big banner with the Union Jack British flag, and I did record hops, and it was a huge hit. At one point in Cincinnati I had 72% of the listening audience.

I remember one time, when I was doing morning drive in Chicago at WIND, I flew into town from Louisville, and I saw a whole fleet of trucks, one after the other, with huge British flags on the side and my name, Ron Britain written in the middle of it. That was really something.

Rick: You were also known as King Bee. Where did that come from?

Ron: The King Bee thing started in Cincinnati. I had all these teen clubs, and I couldn't stand it when the kids called me Mr. Britain and they didn't feel comfortable calling me Ron, so they started calling me King Bee. I liked it, and started using it myself.

Rick: You arrived in Chicago with a big splash in 1965 at WCFL. That had to be an exciting time. Thanks to you and a few other talented jocks at WCFL, your radio station really was on the cutting edge, wasn't it?

Ron: It really was. It was really exciting. I had been a big fish in a small pond in Cincinnati, but I really wanted to go to New York. I had a few interviews in New York, and I told them how hot I was in Cincinnati. I had a great audience, and a hit record ("Are we going to wail Tulu"), and they said "That's great. You should stay in Cincinnati."

Well, I had a brother in law who worked in radio in Cleveland, and I called him up, because I figured that if I made it in Cleveland, they'd take me in New York. I did make it there, but New York didn't call. Chicago did.

So I flew up to Chicago and met with the folks at WCFL. I thought, you know what? This is a great radio town. Maybe this is where I should go. Ken Draper, the guy who hired me, and Jim Runyan drove me into the city. All these lights were lit along Michigan Avenue, and they told me that they decorated the city just for me. I took the job, but I was scared to death.

I had never worked at a place that had so much talent. It was just unbelievable—I was intimidated by it. They had guys I really respected like Jim Runyan and Joel Sebastian. I thought, how I can work alongside great talent like this? I was so scared when I went on the air the first time—I didn't know what to do. I thought what I had been doing before wasn’t good enough. My first night on the air, I was using squeaky toys, and I got a note from Ken Draper. The note said "We hired Ron Britain not Pinky Lee." Of course, he was right.

I had a long chat with Joel Sebastian about it, and he said, "Play me a tape of what you used to do." So I played him this tape of a quick-draw old-western bit. Two gunslingers would meet and one would say, "This town ain't big enough for the both of us. On, the count of three, draw. 1, 2, 3..." After that I played sound effect records of an entire war going on, bombs, machine guns, explosions, for like three and a half minutes, followed by a second of silence. Then the guy would say-- 'ha ha you missed'.

Joel listened to the tape, and asked me why I didn't continue to do that sort of thing. Getting that advice from someone like Joel Sebastian really gave me the confidence I needed. So, I started out with a few sound effects, fanfare, and crowd noise, and I went into the hallway where people used to watch the show, and recorded those people applauding, and saying yeas, and that sort of thing. After that, I was off and running.

(Rick's note: Thanks to Rick Johnson who sent me these awesome classic WCFL jingles from this era. They don't make 'em like this anymore... WCFL 1, WCFL 2, and WCFL Ron Britain)

Rick: Your approach to doing a radio show was completely radical. Your show was like Phil Spector's Wall-of-Sound. All these sounds and noises were coming at you fast and furious and you reacted to it...all over the intro of a record. I haven't heard anything like it before or since... it was almost like radio scat singing. Take us behind the scenes and explain how that all worked.

Ron: I used to think that it would be great to have three or four things going on at the same time, and it just went from there. It was a combination of knowing what was coming, and my engineer Al Urbanski just throwing stuff at me. I had the bits prepared, and Al would have a general idea what was coming, but he was given the freedom to add whatever he wanted.

Rick: I worked with Al at WJMK. He was an absolute sweetheart of a man.

(Rick's note: I've previously written about my memories of Al here)

Ron: Yes, he was. He was a dear, dear friend. I still can't believe he's gone.

Rick: Was he your only engineer?

Ron: Most of the time. There were others, but Al was the one I really clicked with. On days when Al was there, I'd ask him for something, say—Jungle sound effects—and he would know what was coming. I had a character named Taboo and his faithful companion Harold, who only said one word—"Yeah." Well, Al knew when I was talking to Harold to hit the "Yeah", and Al knew that Taboo was eventually going to get attacked, and he had the freedom to do it whenever he wanted, so I could react to it.

Al knew what I was doing, and played along. I didn't like things that were too set up and scripted, like another guy on WCFL at the time, Jerry G. Bishop. I thought that approach was a little too concocted. I wanted it more free form.

But on days Al wasn't there, some of the other guys thought that it was funny to just load up and fire stuff off willy nilly... and it wasn't as good. For instance, I had a burp cart that should have been used discreetly, and the guy who subbed for Al used it too much. With Al, Some things were set up and some weren't, and it was fun to feed off those things because it was like another person on the air with me. We would laugh until our sides hurt. One critic said it sounded like I was going on the air just to entertain myself. He meant it as a slam, but he was right. I thought everyone else was in on it, and the people that got it, got it. It was just a wonderful thing.

Rick: The 60s was also an incredible time for rock and roll music. You created a show called Ron Britain's Subterranean Circus, which was really cutting edge at the time. What was the inspiration for that show?

Ron: I went over to Mercury Records in London in 1966, and they wanted me to produce a follow up to the hit song Winchester Cathedral. When I was over there, I was told about this guy who was the next great thing. I met him and we hung out, and I knew he was selling records, but even though he was an American, he wasn't getting played on the radio in our country. His name was Jimi Hendrix.

Anyway, when I came back, I asked CFL to let me play a few songs that were selling but weren't getting airplay, like Hendrix, and to be honest with you, I think they only let me do it because they figured if they gave me that show, they wouldn't have to give me a raise. And they were right.

It aired on Sunday's, and we recorded it in this little production studio. Al would be on one side of the glass, and there was a record turner in there with him (which was still the union requirement), and I was on the other side. Well, the first week we did it, it didn't sound right. It sounded like I was making fun of the music by playing all of my sound effects, and I didn't want to do that because I loved the music so much.

So, the next week I used a Ravi Shankar music bed as the backdrop, and that sounded much better. It fit the tone of the show. I just talked about the music, and why I loved it. On the other hand, Al didn't have anything to do except play the Shankar cart. So he would try to do things to make me laugh. Sometimes it worked. People that listened to the show would hear me giggle or laugh and they thought I was high—even though I wasn't.

Rick: You had everyone on that show. Which guests do you remember most fondly or least fondly?

Ron: Well, we had Zappa (photo) on the show once, and I was scared to death of him, but he turned out to be the nicest guy in the world. Most of the people we had on were really nice people. The only people I didn't get tuned into were Van Morrison—I don't know what planet he was from, and Doug Engle from Iron Butterfly. I don't know if he was stupid, or if he was just pretending to be, but he and I didn't click at all. The others were all great—Blood Sweat and Tears was fabulous. Janis Joplin was great. The guys in the band Chicago used to listen to me when they were practicing on Rush Street. It was a wild time.

Rick: And the British Invasion guys?

Ron: I did a few shows with the Beatles, and hung out with them a few times. I introduced them on stage. After the show, I was looking for something of theirs to sell—remember they were selling everything they touched in those days—even the sheets they slept on, so I went on stage and thanked the audience for coming out...and I saw that Ringo had left his drumsticks on the stage. I put them in my pocket and gave them away on the air the next night.

Another time I was with the Beatles at a press conference and they were getting all the same stupid questions, and I could tell they were completely bored, so I took out a sketch pad, and drew a picture for John. Somebody took a picture of us laughing...and then Paul took a look to see what John was laughing about, and someone snapped another picture. Then there was a picture with George, and then finally Ringo. That was the pecking order of those guys; John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and there were pictures of me with all four of them. I was happy about that because I was never the kind of guy who could ask for my picture to be taken with celebrities, because it just didn't feel right. So, I don't have pictures of myself with very many of these great rock stars, but I do have those pictures with the Beatles.

Hanging out with them was a strange experience. When you were with them, it was like being in prison. They had a whole floor in the hotel, and security was everywhere. One time I talked to Ringo for about three hours about pirate radio in England, which we both thought was very cool. I also told him that I called everybody "Tulu," and asked if he would say "Hi Tulu Baby" on tape for me. He wouldn't do it because he said it was "too commercial." So I asked John, and he said "Sure." Well after John agreed, they all did, and they went in their usual pecking order; John, Paul, George, and then Ringo agreed too.

Rick: You also interviewed the Rolling Stones. I heard that you wouldn't let Mick Jagger drive your Jaguar. Is that a true story?

Ron: Yes it is. My wife and I drove up to Montreal to get some driving lights on the Jag, because they weren't selling them here in this country at the time. Anyway, around 3 am we stopped at a Howard Johnson's and the Stones were there, eating breakfast. I had done a show with them before, so they knew me and invited us to eat breakfast with them, which we did. Anyway, after breakfast they came out to check out my car, and Mick really wanted to drive it. I said no way.

Rick: Is it because they were bad boys?

Ron: No, not really. Nobody drives my Jag. I mean, they did have this bad boy image and I must admit, I didn't like them the first time I interviewed them. Mick was playing with a Slinky the whole time, and it was a rough interview. But as I got to know them better when I did all these concerts with them, I really got to like them. Especially Mick.

Rick: You are one of the most influential rock jocks in radio history. Your name comes up all the time when I'm interviewing jocks about their influences. My radio hero, John Records Landecker, considers you the greatest jock of all time. Who are some of your radio influences, and who do you admire of the jocks that have followed you?

A guy named Bob Puhl in New Orleans was a guy I really admired. He used these Spike Jones drop ins and things, and he was really funny. I'm sure there were others, but he was the big radio guy. I was probably just as influenced by the Marx brothers though. They were always my favorite. As for the guys who have followed me, there are a lot of great ones, including John Landecker.

Rick: Of course, you've worked at many other stations on the Chicago radio dial, including WIND, WLS, WJMK, WTMX, and WRLL. Some of the stories of how you left those stations are still being discussed in town. Let's go over a few of them. Talk about the day you quit WJMK.

Ron: Oh boy. Well, about a year before I quit WJMK, I went up to Harvey Pearlman, the GM, and asked for more money because they had taken a big promotional job away from me, and I needed to make that up somehow. Harvey said, "If you can find somebody else to pay you that kind of money, by all means, take it."

He didn't think I would, and it took me a year to do it, but I did. Nobody knew I was leaving except for John Patton at WTMX. I wanted to get the word out, so I decided to do it live on the air. The plan was to record the last part of the show saying where I was going on the dial, and then hopping in a limo, and finishing the show on the other radio station—which was WTMX.

The only wrinkle was that Harvey Pearlman, who usually left at 4:00 in the afternoon, was still there at 5:30. I decided to turn the microphone on while I played the recorded bit, and then if he stormed into the studio and started swearing and trying to hit me over the head with his vodka bottle, it would all go on the air.

He didn't go in there, but I did go over to WTMX. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the wrong station for me. I should have gone to a station that was playing the same kind of music. The music wasn't quite right for my fans that had been with me all those years.

Rick: Harvey never forgave you for that. I remember a WJMK Christmas first one there, it must have been 1993 or so. You showed up to make amends with him, and he had to be physically restrained from going after you. Do you remember that night?

Ron: (Laughs out loud, long, and hard) Yeah, I remember that. I'm a manic depressive and I was in a manic moment, and I just wanted to say Happy Holidays to Harvey. So I hopped in a cab, and saw it. You know, I always liked him in a Don Rickles sort of way, and I know he liked me, and that's probably why he was so upset by that move. But he told me to take it if I got that money from someone else...

(Rick's note: I've previously written about a few of my encounters with Harvey Pearlman here, and here.)

Rick: Your last turn on the radio dial was at Real Oldies WRLL, which was at a dial position I didn't even know existed, 1690 AM. When you quit there, you did it very publicly, releasing your resignation letter to the press. How did all of that go down there?

Ron: John Gehron, who was running the show at Clear Channel in Chicago, was a guy I always wanted to work with, but it turned out that I didn't really deal with him. Tommy Edwards was the PD, and Tommy wanted to control things. The thing that hacked me off was that I wanted to show everyone that you could a funny show without being dirty, and I never really got that chance. Because I was recording the show and sending it in hours before it aired, they had time to listen to it all, and edit out whatever they didn't like.

One of the first things I did was a Halloween party bit, and when I opened the door to the party, people were dressed up like the scary radio managers I had worked for, like Harvey Pearlman. They cut that out. I told them when I took that job that I just wanted to do my thing, and when they wouldn't let me do it, it was time for me to go.

Rick: One last question. I know you're a little disenchanted with the current state of radio—as I am. What do you think that radio needs to do to get its act together?

Ron: I don't like to say this, because I absolutely love radio, I really do. But it's run by the accountants these days, and that's why it has lost its personality. The kind of radio I loved, that's like Vaudeville, man. I think it's all over.

Radio is a personal thing and they took all of the personal out of it. I could feel those listeners were right there with me all those years. Radio isn't connecting with them anymore. Clear Channel owns like 10 stations here in Louisville, and they're all in one building. All the call letters are up on the wall, but there's nobody inside.