Saturday, April 30, 2011
DON DURANT - SEAL ROCK
I first discovered this tune from an old aircheck of Mad Daddy on WJW Cleveland in 1958. If you're not familiar with the Mad Daddy story, he was an absolutely BRILLIANT disc jockey (yeah I know....that's a contradiction in terms) who basically took over the Cleveland/Akron area when Alan Freed left to go to New York. Mad Daddy's real name was Pete Myers, and he was a wild man on the air, talking a mile a minute and (at the same time, mind you) rhyming EVERYTHING he said. He also put his voice through an eerie echo, courtesy of tape delay. He broke many important artists in the Cleveland area, and was the first to champion Andre Williams and the Fortune label outside of Detroit (Andre's "The Greasy Chicken" was a fave of Mad Daddy's). After a year at WJW, Mad Daddy broke his contract and switched to Cleveland's most powerful station, WHK, where he had the station's highest-rated show, playing his special brand of rock and roll that he sometimes called "wavy gravy".
After a year at WHK, Mad Daddy was ready for the big time, and asked to be transferred to WHK's sister station in New York, WNEW-AM, following Alan Freed's example (Freed started in Akron, at WAKR, moved to WJW, where he became immensely popular, and then to WINS and WABC in New York). It was about this time that Freed started having trouble with the payola scandals, and so Mad Daddy felt the time was right to make the jump to New York. He arrived there in July, 1959, to do his first Mad Daddy show on WNEW.
Unfortunately, Myers/Mad Daddy gravely miscalculated NY radio audiences. In Cleveland, he could jump to any station he wanted to and the kids would follow him, no matter what the station played the other times of the day. But in New York, there was a more standard line of demarcation. People tuned to certain stations to hear certain types of music, and that was that. If you wanted to listen to rock and roll in New York, you tuned to WINS, WMCA, or WABC (and WNJR if you were on the Jersey side). WNEW was a "beautiful music" station, which played the "pop" hits of the day by folks like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, etc. The hoi polloi of New York society made WNEW their choice of stations. Imagine their surprise when they tuned in on July 4, 1959, and heard this maniac ranting and raving, playing crazy records that even Alan Freed wouldn't touch, and screaming lines into the microphone like, "my show is never dull, as long as the winky light burns in my SKULL!" The phones lit up at the station, but not in a good way - complaints came in by the hundreds, asking who this crazy person was and why was he allowed on the air? After that show, management had a talk with Mad Daddy. He was no longer allowed to broadcast under that persona, and would strictly adhere to WNEW's regular playlist, under his real name, Pete Myers.
Since WNEW had an iron-clad contract, Myers shut up and did what he was told. But when the chance came in 1962 to resurrect his Mad Daddy persona on WINS, he jumped. So, for 2 glorious years, Mad Daddy was on the air in New York. Unfortunately, by then the music had changed, and so did radio. Myers couldn't program the wild, weird records he found, because radio had tightened up in the wake of payola. He still did amazing radio, but without the craziness of the music, the Mad Daddy show wasn't quite the same as it had been in Cleveland. He was still an innovator, though - he was one of the first DJs to discover The Beatles (along with Murray The K and B. Mitchel Reed), and traveled to England to meet the group.
Unfortunately, Mad Daddy's days on radio were numbered. Westinghouse/Group W Broadcasting, who owned WINS, decided in late 1964 to switch the station to all-news (as it remains to this day), starting in April, 1965. It must have been the world's worst-kept secret, because both Murray The K and Mad Daddy resigned toward the end of 1964. Mad Daddy/Pete Myers got his old job back, at WNEW, but he was very unhappy with 'NEW's playlist, still stuck on the same Sinatra/Bennett/Mathis format. There were a few small stations that still craved the Mad Daddy, and he would tape Mad Daddy shows for them, but the magic was gone. Rock and roll had become less guttural and more ornate, and "wavy gravy" became a clown. Literally. Myers continued at WNEW for a couple more years, but when his ratings began to slide, and he was moved to an early evening shift, he knew the end was near. On October 4, 1968, on the first night of his new airshift, Myers got up and dressed for work. He never made it. As he strolled into the bathroom of his apartment to freshen up one final time before work, he took a shotgun with him. His wife heard a blast, and rushed into the bathroom to see Myers on the floor with a gigantic hole in his chest. By the time the ambulance arrived, Mad Daddy was dead.
Going back to that 1958 aircheck, the songs played by Mad Daddy were, to say the least, off the beaten track. He spun obscurities like "The Springer" by The Dells, "Juke Box" by The Coeds, and "Teen Age Machine Age" by The Travelers. Many of the songs were B-sides that Myers liked better than the more "normal" A-sides, and this Don Durant record was one of them.
Don Durant wasn't just some obscure singer, though. He was actually quite the Renaissance man. Born in Long Beach, California in 1932, Durant learned to shoot and ride horses at an early age, and soon heard the call of Hollywood. He worked as a singer and bit part actor, but also worked at RCA as a technician. He was also on the team at Warner Brothers that developed their first kinescope recorder and stereophonic sound recorder. In his spare time he taught actors how to ride horses and shoot pistols. Shortly after he recorded "Love Me Baby"/"Seal Rock" for Fabor Records (then picked up nationally by Challenge Records, the Gene Autry-owned label), he was cast in the title role of the CBS western "Johnny Ringo", which was one of the most popular shows of the 1959-1960 TV season, but, strangely, was cancelled after only one season because there were too many western TV shows on the air at that time (like, 30). Durant never had another high-profile role again, but took the money he did make and invested wisely, becoming a real estate magnate and a multi-millionaire. He passed away in 2005.
The above record is obscure, to say the least. It took me years to track down the record (because, unfortunately, Mad Daddy was ahead of his time in the sense that, like today's DJs, he rarely announced the title or artists of the records he played), and once I found out it was Don Durant, I was surprised that NONE of the online pages about him even mentioned the record (though IMDB.com has updated their Don Durant bio to include it). It's so goofy, I'm surprised it DIDN'T become a hit.
If you ever want to hear Mad Daddy in full rotatin' motatin' zoomeratin' roar, go to the great aircheck site www.reelradio.com. You'll have to pay a nominal member fee, but it's SO worth it if you're a classic radio junkie like me.
Don Durant - Seal Rock (Challenge 59003) - 1958