Sunday, April 10, 2016

The night it all changed!

It started off like a normal Thursday evening back in 1968. I pulled up in my lime green Plymouth behind the squat cinder-block building that served as the remote studio for WCOS radio at Doug Broome’s Drive-In restaurant. The sunlight was fading on Two Notch Road near Beltline as I flipped the main equipment switch and watched the equipment come to life. Turntable #2 was a little balky the night before so I left it running in the hopes that in the fifteen minutes before air time it would loosen up and behave. I made a mental note to talk to Milton, the station engineer about it if it stayed sluggish.

Outside, the cruisers were gathering at the teletrays off to my left and the small pile of requests was growing as one by one, the high school kids passed by the open back door. The wire tray holding the Top 40 records was in place on the left side of the control board desk. The cartridges with the new commercials were placed in the small Lazy Susan wire rack on the right side of the control room replacing the ones that had completed their schedule and were going back to the main studio to be recycled. Last cross check as I heard the news sounder on the air monitor and Mike Rast began reading the 7:55 PM Top of the Hour Newscast. The disturbing lead story was that someone had shot Martin Luther King Jr an hour earlier on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I remember thinking that this was not good news and hoping he would be OK.

The crowd outside had grown to a slightly larger than usual size with the first row and last row completely filled. Those in the first row were there for the show and songs. The last row did send in some requests but they were there for the marathon make-out sessions that were the hallmark of the row up against the fence. The requests were coming in fast and furious. It was going to be another good night playing the top of the pop and the cream of the crop. I decided to add Joan Baez’s 1963 song “We Shall Overcome” into the first “Solid Gold” slot at 8:15 on my playlist in honor of Dr. King. The rest of that half hour will filled with Elvis, The Beatles, Johnny Rivers and the tunes from Motown. The joint was jumpin’ and the cars making the cruise between Doug’s and Gene’s Pig and Chick where WNOK had their booth running over on Blossom Street. It was all good until 8:30.

It was time for the 8:30 headlines and I pitched it back to Mike in the Cornell Arms Studio. I knew something was wrong the second I heard his voice. Dr King had died on the operating table at St. Joseph’s Hospital 25 minutes before. Bad news spread quickly indeed. Even before the newscast ended, I noticed a line forming at the two pay phones on the brick wall near the entrance to the restaurant. The kids were checking in with their parents and many were leaving immediately afterwards, sadly waving at me as they drove past the booth.

I was faced with a dilemma. If my memory serves me, I had “Valleri” by the Monkees on one turntable and “Cry Like A Baby” by the Box Tops on the other turntable. “Wow,” I thought “this won’t do!” We had been taught to come out of every newscast with a “kicker,” an upbeat feel good song. From my experience broadcasting at WUSC the evening that John Kennedy was shot, I knew that needed to change. I don’t remember what songs I put up in replacement but they were similar to “Forever Came Today” by Diana Ross and the Supremes and “The End Of Our Road” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. The rest of the evening’s songs were down tempo and somewhat muted.

It was shocking to see how quickly the scene changed and soon the parking lot was empty, even the back row. Within the hour, the bustling evening traffic on Two Notch Road had slowed down to a trickle and most of them were police cars. Looking over to my left, through the parking lot of the A&W Root Beer drive in next door, I could see the same was happening over on Beltline Blvd. Several of the car hops at Doug’s the A&W next door came by to tell me goodbye as they were let off early and went home. Little did I know then but that would be the last time that I would see some of them.

As the street traffic slowed down many of the lights on the businesses, even the Burger King across the street and those on Doug’s own storefront went out and the staffs began to clean up after the day. My little booth soon became the only bright spot on the street. The warm friendly evening became a cold, dark and somewhat scary night. I began to feel very exposed. That says something because I had experienced some, shall we say, interesting times a month or so before, like when the Hell’s Angels decided to pay me a visit, circling my booth and the front row of cars. It turns out that were there to request a up and coming song we had as an early album release; “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf.

By the time the show ended and I packed up all the records and stuff to head back to the warm confines of the studio, I was becoming almost paranoid and feeling very exposed. The news that Mike read was not helping; already there was unrest in some cities. These would explode into major race riots during the summer of 68. As I drove Mike to his home in the Rosewood area, he and I wondered about the effect this would have on us. Remember that this was still several months before the Robert Kennedy Assassination; we had no idea that was coming. We talked about what kind of precautions we needed to take. The only thing we could think of was to ask Doug Broome’s manager to keep all their outside lights on. That seemed very inadequate to me.

As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. I was called in to the station the next afternoon for a meeting with our Program Director and General Manager. When I arrived, the manager of Doug’s was there as well. We decided to move the show back to the main studio for the time being. The following week, the city police department issued Media ID Cards to the on air and engineering staffs of all the stations. They turned out to be necessary as shortly after that, a citywide dusk to dawn curfew was issued. I am glad to say that we did not experience the race riots that assaulted many other towns around the country; a fact that I attribute to the clergy and city leadership. But the cruising culture, a mainstay of my high school and college years as well as those who came before, was forever ended. I never did another show from Doug’s. They tried to resurrect the show from the original Doug’s location on Main and Confederate in the early 70s but it never came back. “Happy Days” for the future generations would be only a show on Television, not a real experience. Oh MY!


  1. We had stumbled from Kennedy's assassination through the Vietnam war, only to confront the loss of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy -- and whatever innocence just evaporated, with Manson waiting in the wings. Thanks Rick. We need to be reminded, about another time and another place.

  2. You are spot on, Frank! It is hard to believe but the folks who remember these events are at least in their 60s now. It is good to get these things recorded while we still can.