Maybe I just lucked up on a convergence of really nice people in Chicago. But, that’s not likely because it was so consistent. The people at my new station, the people at the competition station, people in between; nice. Nice, helpful, generous people were to be found everywhere in that city, it seemed.
Oh, these Chicagoans were not syrupy-sweet about it. In fact, they were rather grumpy in their niceness, which is to say that almost any expression beyond a simple “Thank you” tendered in response to a kindness would elicit a curt wave-off, equivalent to, “Yeah, whatever…”
It was the wintertime of early 1971 when Phyllis and I, in my “Jimmy O’Jaye” radio identity, arrived in the Windy City. Jimmy O’Jaye had come into being three years earlier, the night before my music radio debut at WABQ/Cleveland. That persona had stayed with me through Houston and was still a part of me during that Chicago winter.
Eddie Morrison, who had done the calls on the Ray Bryant Trio’s 1960 release, “It’s Madison Time,” was my new program director at WGRT/Chicago, “The Great 98”. He had flown me in from Houston to have a look at the station and the city. Jack Gibson – later known as “Jack The Rapper” (a play on “Jack The Ripper”) during the time of his very successful industry tip sheet and originally having no connection to hip-hop – had put us together when I needed a job and Eddie needed a jock to replace the departing Jay Johnson.
I immediately fell in love with Chicago. It reminded me of home in its Midwest-ness. I was, as well, impressed with WGRT; very sleek for its time. The staff was uniformly nice. Of course, I was the potential new guy, so naturally… Anyhow, I took the job, Phyllis and I moved there and they remained just as nice.
Our receptionist, Gladys, would regale me with stories about Leonard Chess and Chess Records and about Ewart Abner, who I would later get to know in L.A., during his days at the legendary Vee-Jay label. These labels had histories and Gladys knew a good deal of it, apparently.
Phyllis and I stayed at the Sherman House Hotel, a block away from the station, which was situated right on the Chicago River at the corner of LaSalle Street and Wacker Drive. We were visited and welcomed to the city by, among others, Gene Chandler and my homie (still my homie), Earl Williams, who was living in the city and working as an intern for WGN.
The pay was good and the opportunities for earning additional money (Read: Hustling – not a bad word) were plentiful. The guys from my station schooled me on how things tended to work in my new environment. Even the guys from the competition, such as WVON’s Program Director, E. Rodney Jones, were eager to help me, introducing me to key people, pointing out ways that money – legitimate money – could be made. My immediate main man was our morning guy, Richard Steele who, years later in L.A., would be the first person to see me with a shaven head. Steele also later did cutaways on Public TV oldies concert presentations, which were great!
Daddy-O Daley, a Chicago radio mainstay and mid-day talk show host on WGRT, encouraged me to aim high. I told him I envisioned becoming a radio programming consultant. He told me to plan to become a station owner.
I was 20 years old. Advice was coming from all directions. But, it mostly aligned and, even in retrospect all these decades later, it was mostly solid and good.
Hillery Johnson, promo man for Capitol Records and someone I had met during my first week in Houston a year-and-a-half earlier, lived in Chicago. There, our friendly relationship strengthened into a real friendship. We, and our wives at the time, socialized a lot.
One of the hang-outs of the day was the High Chapparal, a night spot on Stoney Island near 79th. It was managed by a man named Clarence, with whom I had worked out a deal for Sunday nights wherein the bar would go to the club and the door to me and Phyllis, who was no novice, having worked for Houston night club entrepreneur, Ray Barnett.
My agreement with Clarence was a handshake deal, which was all that one would need. This was Chicago, after all, granddaddy of all corrupt cities, where people were honest and trustworthy. Contradictory but true.
Phyllis and I and, on one occasion, the two of us along with singer Bobby Hutton and his wife, made money at the High Chaparral. Clarence had at least one opportunity to breach his word for the sake of money. He did not. Our handshake prevailed.
Early evenings on Fridays, there would be a gathering at Ernie Leaner’s one-stop. Guys from WGRT, WVON, and occasionally other stations, would be there. So would various promo guys and the occasional artist. It was always guys; a men’s club. We would drink, play cards, laugh and talk, then go home.
As much as I loved that city and its people, I didn’t stay long. Paul Drew came with the offer I couldn’t refuse; to come to work on-air at KFRC/San Francisco. I did feel somewhat guilty for leaving like that after a mere four months, but Eddie Morrison and my friends understood.
The staff threw a little going-away party for me at the end of my last day and gave me a going-away present; a silver bracelet inscribed with the words, “To A WGRT Great Guy.” It’s one of my treasured possessions.
As it turned out, that was Jimmy O’Jaye’s final day on the air.
(Follow me on Twitter @jjsradioblog.)