November 26, 2020

Those Who Pave The Way, Often Don’t Get Their Day

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Tom Donahue Tom Donahue

Trying to create anything that has never been done before usually ends up in failure. No one remembers the names of the people who tried to invent the first radio or record player and failed. Even if they were successful and didn’t get the credit because someone simply beat them to the patent office, they didn’t get any reward for their work.

Creating something from a mere idea takes painstaking hard work. You have to be prepared to fail over and over. Read the life story of some famous inventors and you will get a better understanding. They are driven by an inner passion that most people just don’t understand. Most of the time their drive doesn’t come from a desire to make money. It is just as well, since most often the pioneers in any field rarely get rich from their ideas.

Radio and rock music are no different. Those who came up with what became the foundation of Rock music, never made the kind of money that those who learned and/or copied their style of music. Look at some of the innovators.

Starting with the man who is considered by most to be the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Chuck Berry. Countless groups like The Rolling Stones have sold millions of records playing the music they learned by listening to Chuck Berry. The Chuck Berry library of songs includes songs like “Johnny B Goode”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Maybellene”, “School Days”, “Rock & Roll Music”, “No Particular Place to Go”, “Carol”, “Almost Grown”, and “”Nadine” that were all top forty hits. No surprise there. The surprise is that NONE of these songs made it to number one nor did any of them sell a million copies. As hard as it is to believe, Chuck Berry didn’t have a gold record or a number one hit until 1972! That hit called “My Ding-a-Ling” was not even close to being as good as his classics, but the novelty tune not only went to number one but became his first gold record.

The stories of Little Richard and Bo Diddley are even more amazing. I can’t tell you how many rock stars told me how Little Richard changed their life. The second they saw him or heard his records, they knew what they wanted to do for the rest of their life.

While Little Richard did have top forty hits with classics like “Tutti-Frutti”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Rip it up”, “Lucille”, “Jenny, Jenny”, “Keep a Knockin’” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly”, his records never sold as much as Pat Boone who covered his songs. Little Richard died without ever having a number one or gold record.

Pat Boone told me his versions of these early rock songs sold ten times as many copies as the originals. He had tons of gold records to his credit doing covers. While he never considered himself to be a rock star, he was happy that his doing cover songs of Little Richard and Fats Domino made a real contribution to the growth of the music.

Bo Diddley is even harder to believe. Virtually everyone has used what has become known as “The Bo Diddly beat” at one point in their career. For example, that beat helped launch the career of George Thorogood who went on to sell millions of records and has several gold records to his credit. Incredibly, Bo Diddley not only never had a gold record, but had only one hit record. The song “Hey Man” never made it to the top ten. It stalled at number 20.

Rock radio didn’t make a huge impact until the so called “Top Forty” format was created. Since I didn’t feel that “Top Forty” was really rock radio, I decided to become a pioneer in creating a new radio format

I wasn’t alone. Former” Top Forty” jocks Tom Donahue (who had been a top jock here in Philadelphia at the legendary WIBG) and Scott Muni, a former “Good Guy Jock” who worked at the best top forty stations in New York City, started their own version of a new format.

Tom Donahue, who had a real booming voice, took over a station in San Francisco. What better place to be in 1967 than the birthplace of the “Summer of Love” to start an album rock station. Despite being in the right place at the right time, the station failed.

Scott Muni didn’t have any more luck than Tom in New York. His efforts to get WOR-FM off the ground never took flight. I didn’t do any better at WIFI here in Philadelphia. Both Scott and myself had to wait to enjoy the success of album Rock radio.

It wasn’t until later that the idea of playing Rock music on FM radio really took off. When it did, it surpassed the big “Top Forty” giants and eventually put them out of business.

While on the subject of FM radio, the man who developed FM radio was Edwin Howard Armstrong. He was an inventor who had held 42 patents and received awards for his abilities including the first medal of honor awarded by the institute of radio engineers. Despite this impressive background, he couldn’t get the radio industry to take his new radio band seriously during his own lifetime. He gave up too soon.

For the most part, it takes a lot of time and effort to make a go of it in anything in life. Many give up just when success is right around the bend.

You may point out some exceptions. There were some Rock bands that were huge right out of the gate. The Doors, The Cars, Boston and Jimi Hendrix all had big debut albums. What many people don’t know is that Jimi Hendrix struggled for many years here in this country. It was Chas Chandler of The Animals who saw his potential and convinced Jimi to go to England. It was in England that Hendrix first made a name for himself.

One of the biggest debut albums of all-time, BOSTON, by the group of the same name, was years in the making. Meatloaf’s multi-platinum BAT OUT OF HELL almost didn’t get released at all. No record company saw any merit in the music and passed on it. The same was true of the first album by Bachman Turner Overdrive. It also went on to sell millions.

The first records by The Jefferson Airplane, The Doobie Brothers, The Allman Brothers (known as The Allman Joys), and Ten Years After were just a few of the debut efforts that didn’t sell well. All of these artists went on to sell millions of records.

For creative souls, the old adage of try, try again certainly applies. Where there’s passion for what you are doing, there is a way.

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