Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chuck Buell

Chuck Buell was a jock on WLS, the Big 89, in the late 60s and early 70s.  He is still working as a voice over artist. (

Rick: Those of us that grew up in Chicago during the 60s and 70s have such fond memories of the Big 89. It's hard to describe to people today how big the station was during your time there. How would you describe it?

Chuck: WLS was (is) a 24 hour a day, 50,000 watt, clear channel, non directional, AM radio station that not only easily covered all of Chicago, but a vast majority of the continental United States and several foreign countries at certain times of the day too. It was, however, first and primarily focused on broadcasting, serving and providing top quality current-based popular entertainment to Chicago and had a huge impact on the city. This singular programming approach also offered those well outside the metro area and country the opportunity to “listen in” to the music, news and events going on in the second largest city in the U.S.

While we paid exclusive attention to our home town on the air, it was always fun to hear from those who were listening thousands of miles, and at times, an ocean away! (Remember, this was well before the world-wide blanket of the Internet!) I once heard from a girl who listened to our evening radio shows in Chicago as she was getting ready to go to school in Australia “the next morning!” Some US Navy radio communication specialists once wired up their ship’s radio shack receiver on their Naval battleship off the coast of Vietnam to listen when they could. One night, they actually called me on the phone, ship-to-shore, shore to landline, landline to satellite, satellite to land, and landline to Chicago! We had to yell at one another to be heard. Over!

Rick: You arrived in Chicago during one of the most tumultuous times in Chicago history: 1968. Being one of the most popular jocks on one of the most popular stations for young people at a time when young people were rebelling against authority must have been wild. What are some of your memories from that time?

Chuck: There was much to rebel against then, from high school student protests against their school’s codes opposing collar-length hair for guys and mini skirt hem lengths for girls, to college admission forfeitures caused by a Chicago teacher’s strike that delayed Senior’s final exams, to the following year’s “never trust anyone over 30” mass political protest gatherings in Lincoln Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention (photo), and the not-to-be forgotten assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F Kennedy.

That same year, Spiro Agnew was elected as Vice President and was quoted as saying that the pop music we were playing was “brainwashing young Americans” by “allowing a creeping permissiveness.” It was a remarkably tumultuous and contentious time.

Rick: Clark Weber wrote a great book about those days, and the thing that sticks out to me after reading the book, was the way the record labels wooed radio in those days. Big time rock stars routinely stopped by the radio stations. Who were some of the people that stopped by to talk to you?

Chuck: One day, a record label rep stopped by to introduce me to a artist they had recently signed and asked me to listen to his new record release. Nice kid, tousled hair, funny glasses, real down to Earth and like me, loved Colorado. We talked on end about how great it was and he shared with me his dream to build a house somewhere up in the Rockies near Denver someday. I asked him if he loved Colorado so much, how come he was singing about going home to West Virginia?! Nevertheless, “Take Me Home Country Roads” became a Number One Song in many parts of the country and, in answering my earlier question, John Denver followed that song up with another Top Ten hit, “Rocky Mountain High,” all about Colorado!

Another rep thought I would truly enjoy meeting Shel Silverstein (photo), who was brilliant at drawing amazing adult-themed cartoons featured in the leading men’s magazine (Playboy), writing fascinating best selling children’s books about lights in the attic, giving trees, and where sidewalks end, and scoring extremely unique Number One hits in both Pop and Country about unicorns and mermaids, and a boy named Sue.

We spent several memorable hours at Hugh Hefner’s Chicago Playboy Mansion while he was a guest there talking on end about so many things. Later on, I visited him where he lived on his houseboat moored at a dock in Sausalito, California. He, in turn introduced me to Dr. Hook, who lived up the hill, and for whom he had written their first hit “Sylvia’s Mother,” following that up with “The Cover of the Rolling Stone!”

Another rep brought in a young girl who was the daughter of one of the partners of a major book publisher, but who didn’t have any interest at all in following in the publishing business. She just wanted to be a singer. And following the initial success of her “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” the legacy of the co-founder of Simon and Shuster Publishing, Carly Simon’s musical career definitely began.

There was also David Cassidy, the “Mony, Mony,” Hanky Panky” boys of Tommy James and the Shondells, Donovan, The Carpenters and many others. One night, as MC at a Chicago area teen club, I introduced the hot local band of the evening, immediately left the stage and headed home. Within a couple of years, “CTA” became better known as “Chicago” and turned out one big hit after the other for decades. And although I was extremely instrumental in introducing “Maggie May” to the world, Rod Stewart and I have yet to meet!

Rick: The other thing I remember from that era was the intense competition between radio stations. It wasn't just a friendly rivalry--it was war--especially between WLS & WCFL.

Chuck: It was a genuine and fierce rivalry. In the late-sixties, the “Big Ten” (WCFL) was definitely challenging “The Big 89” (WLS). WLS still had an “older” sound even though they were playing Top 40 music. ABC felt a younger presentation was needed to match the music and the times. So abandoning their long-time policy of not hiring anyone under the age of 30, they brought in Larry Lujack from ‘CFL’s overnights for afternoons, Lyle Dean to do local news and a promising young 20-something hot shot from Denver by the name of Buell to hit the air in the early evenings. Within the first rating period that followed, the dominance of “LS” was unquestioned.
(Photo: Back row left to right, Larry Lujack, Chuck Buell, Jerry Kaye, Front row, Art Roberts, Clark Weber,  and Kris Erik Stevens)

So much so that a few months later, another “young kid,” was brought in to fortify this new nighttime “youth movement,” and (Chuck) Buell and (Kris Eric) Stevens, following the strong lead-in from afternoons, were rockin’ the Windy City back-to-back non-stop for eight big hours every night!

Rick: Some of the greatest radio performers in Chicago history worked during that time, including yourself, Clark Weber, Art Roberts, Larry Lujack, John Records Landecker, and many more. I know that you've heard all of them. All were creative, talented, and fun--but you must have an opinion about who was the best. I'd love to hear your take on your contemporaries.

Chuck: Art Roberts was a legendary nighttime air personality. Warm, friendly, natural, relatable, remarkable. I used to listen to him at nights when I was in high school in Rapid City, South Dakota on those ideal evenings when WLS could be heard from off in the distance. When I first went to Chicago years later to follow this iconic radio star who had been doing evenings up to that point, I didn’t know whether to shake his hand or ask him for his autograph! It was a brilliant idea moving him to mid days where all the former high school girls who were then young wives and moms could continue to listen to him on their schedule. (Photo: Art Roberts with the Lovin' Spoonful)

Ron Riley knew exactly how to fuel a “feud” with Clark Weber and to deliver a dry one-liner. Clark Weber knew Chicago and you knew what was happening just by listening to him. And then there was Lujack. On the air caustic, sarcastic, sharp, penetrating, disarming, intimidating and gut-busting funny! From him, I first learned how to do powerful and meaningful show prep. I never had, nor ever did afterward, work with a guy who put so much into his show before he walked into the studio each day. I built on that valuable lesson from then on, tweaked it, did daily show-prepping in my own style and never went on-air again without knowing what I was going to do that day. It made being “impromptu” so much easier!

Rick: Are you still in touch with any of your former Chicago colleagues?

Chuck: Kris Eric (Stevens) and I will exchange the occasional email, but that’s about it.

Rick: You've been out of the traditional radio business for awhile now. What are your thoughts about what radio has become since you left?

Chuck: People ask all the time if I miss being on the air. I was fortunate to do mornings for the last decade or so that I was on air in great cities like Denver, St. Louis, and San Diego where I could still meet the daily challenges of being personable, relatable, creative, humorous, helpful, informative, involved and the like. After morning shows now though, there’s no longer the opportunity to have fun and, most importantly, be entertaining. Unfortunately, “What I miss does not exist.”

Rick: I know you've been a voice over artist for a very long time, and you've done the voice overs for some of the most famous radio commercials ever. Talk about how you ended up as the voice at the end of the iconic Coca Cola commercial "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."

Chuck: Other well-known radio personalities at top rock stations in many of the major markets across the country had been tagging those spots for some time then. I always looked forward to playing those musical commercials when they were scheduled on my show because they were so well done at sounding just like a hit song. I always thought it be so great to be asked to do one myself. While in Chicago, there was a business associate who knew the music director of the New York ad agency who wrote and produced all those great Coca Cola artist spots. He thought I might be a good fit at doing one too so he suggested me to him.

I ended up tagging B. J. Thomas, The Brooklyn Bridge and some others, and it was pure luck that I was chosen to do the most famous one of all. It ran for two and a half years! What some people don’t know is that it was a commercial song written especially for the New Seekers first, and became a hit song second.

(VIDEO: The New Seekers performing the song on the Mike Douglas show.)

Rick: What are some of the other famous Chuck Buell voice overs we may have heard over the years?

Chuck: My focus is more on narrative endeavors providing voice for business, medical, commercial, real estate developments, industrial, travel and tutorial presentations. For instance, I voiced Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana’s “RT Trainer,” a device to improve one’s passing skills, PGA Champion Golfer Ernie Els “Rockroller, a teaching apparatus to help develop better golf putting, and, if you work for a nationally-known chain of consumer electronic stores, I may have explained how you can be highly knowledgeable to your customers about a home movie making computer program! In addition to these product introductions, services and training videos, I’m still available for, and do, various radio and TV commercials.

Rick: Chuck, thanks for taking the time for doing this. I still have vivid memories of listening to you on my little transistor radio saying Da-Buell-El-Ess, and it's fun to talk to you all these years later. Is there anything else you'd like to say to your Chicago fans?

Chuck: I certainly appreciated their enthusiastic support. They’re the ones who made it so much fun to be on the radio. To them, I say, “Thanx for listening!” Oh, and you know, that fun still pops up once in a while. Every now and then, I get an email totally out of the blue from someone who used to listen back in the day and just wanted to drop me a line to tell me so! To them, I say, “Thanx for the lette . . . I mean, emails!”