Backstage: Road Stories From Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: Florida foibles... 

My wife, Alisa, and I recently did our annual road trip up to Eastern Tennessee, and because we chose to travel via I-95, past Daytona and Cocoa Beach and through the sprawling outer reaches of Jacksonville, it sparked some memories of many years past, when I took that same route as part of my rounds as a Florida promotion rep for Capitol Records. I'm no Keith Richards, but I can say I bore witness to a few scenes that

bordered on outright debauchery. Without affirming that I participated

in such degradation, I will admit that back in the '80s, the

radio/record company dance sometimes became a rather intriguing


When Alisa and I were driving past Jacksonville, my mind flashed back to several such escapades. The Capitol group Little River Band were especially popular up there thanks to my predecessor, who made that city the site of the group's big breakthrough. The guys would go on to have a string of national hits -- "It's a Long Way There," "Reminiscing," and the like -- but Jacksonville was the place it all started locally, and as a result, whenever the band members came to town, they felt at home. Likewise, my company colleagues knew their way around a much more rural Jacksonville, which had a particular stink and aura to it, thanks to the local paper mills. The local radio guys had names like "The Ape Man" (who, not so coincidentally, worked at WAPE) and "Moby" (possibly in deference to Moby Dick, as he was a somewhat rotund lad), and in the days before Howard Stern, they were the symbols of radio outrage. Indeed, post-Jacksonville, both men would gain national prominence and some scandals to boot. 

Jacksonville women were always such a welcoming lot, and it didn't matter if you were a rock star or a record company rep; they treated everyone with the same affection. They were motivated by the music, to be sure, but their appetite for partying carried them far into the night, way past the performance and well beyond the local venues.

I remember on one occasion receiving a knock at the door of my hotel room at 3 a.m. by one of the local lovelies. "Ah, a nightcap," I thought. "Come on in and keep me company!" On another occasion, I recall being whisked away to a communal apartment on Jacksonville Beach where we were made to feel right at home. Passing that exit again, I had to carefully consider my smile of recognition.

Still, Jacksonville wasn't the only domain of willing women and vice. Most program and music directors expected promotion people to entertain them in exchange for airplay consideration -- and the lavish meals and after-hours activities certainly affirmed that fact -- the late Tom West, who ran Orlando's Top 40 powerhouse WBJW, took it upon himself to entertain us! We'd end up at his house in the suburbs, and he would arrange for the catering, and eventually we'd end up bunking there for the night. One trip, West, my regional boss, and myself ended up sharing a hotel room with West's assistant. She was always friendly enough and mildly attractive, but I never really saw her randy side. Not that I was completely naive to these possibilities. I'd seen my boss' extremes on quite a few occasions, and he never got out of bed in the morning without some kind of substance inducement. (When I first met him, he was in bed and under the covers with his wife.) This time, the woman in question wasn't his wife. Not surprisingly, then, he and Tom welcomed the opportunity to pounce on this willing woman and her offer of successive favors.

There were other areas of the state that had their own individual character -- Lakeland, for example, where the affable program director at radio station WQPD, bless him, always guaranteed a pleasant visit, adding our records without hesitation and foregoing the arrogant attitude often affected by his colleagues. He was gay at a time when gay men rarely came out of the closet, especially in the macho music industry. In fact, he was a pure delight and one of the few individuals I actually looked forward to talking to on a hectic and stressful Monday morning. 
On the other hand, the program directors over in Tampa could be an arrogant bunch, due to the fact that they knew that the market wielded a lot of influence -- practically as much as South Florida, in fact. I remember one particular program director who would always answer my pleas to add my records with the retort, "Geez, you're coming on too strong!" using an inflection that sounded midway between Rodney Dangerfield and Yogi Bear. A dinner at the ultracostly Bern's Steakhouse was a prerequisite, but it was quite a treat for all concerned. It was the only steak house I'd ever been to where the menus gave detailed descriptions of the meat's preparation, complete with paragraphs that differentiated among rare, medium rare, medium medium rare, medium well done, and so on and so forth.

Damn, it was hard to get airplay in Tampa -- even just dealing with those prickly personalities was difficult -- but an excuse to have dinner at Bern's on the company dime was almost worth the aggravation.

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