Happy Birthday, John Peel! A Salute to the World's Greatest Disc Jockeys

John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, better-known as John Peel, was one of the preeminent English disc jockeys of the past half century. Born August 30, 1939, Peel was an important tastemaker in the history of music. Peel's distinctive musical voice was formed by his eclectic musical predilections and willingness to nurture dozens of up-and-coming bands.

One of

the first U.K. disc jockeys to play prog rock and the psychedelic sounds

of the burgeoning late '60s English underground, Peel went on to promote

punk, indie, alternative, hip-hop, dance, and metal music without regard

for what other programmers seemed to favor. He also initiated a program

called the Peel Sessions, which offered a preview of material

that was recorded exclusively for his show. These sessions were later

released on the Strange Fruit record label, an enterprise partially

owned and operated by Peel himself. In addition, he founded Dandelion

Records, an avenue for his production work and home for some of the more

adventurous acts of early '70s British music.

Ironically, for such an iconic Englishman, Peel spent his early professional years in the U.S., landing his first professional gig on KLIF in Dallas, Texas. Due to the so-called "British invasion" of the time, he became the station's official Beatles correspondent. Returning to his native country in 1967, Peel quickly immersed himself in the early underground scene, filling his programs with commentary about his various musical encounters.

In August 1967, he was recruited by BBC Radio 1, where he initiated the Night Ride program, playing music and interviews with artists from outside the fringes of the pop mainstream. Still, his programming choices often drew him into conflicts with the station's hierarchy, particularly when he began delving further and further into the punk movement that was springing up in the mid- to late '70s.

Indeed, his show and cult of personality became a mecca for many of the younger musicians of the day, and eventually he became a media star whose writings and pronouncements held sway over other tastemakers of the day. Peels' personal favorites tended to be equally esoteric, with the Fall, the White Stripes, the Undertones' anthem "Teenage Kicks," and the ironically dubbed the Misunderstood, an obscure '60s California band that he later managed, all perched at the top of his personal playlist. 

When Peel passed away on October 25, 2004, the victim of a heart attack suffered while on holiday in Peru, he joined a prestigious list of other late, lamented DJs who helped further the cause of popular music through bold pronouncements and commitment to the cause. What follows are others of Peel's ilk.

Alan Freed
Freed, also known by his radio name "Moondog," began as a disc jockey with a stint on WJW in Cleveland and was later propelled into the national spotlight on the nation's biggest powerhouse, WABC. He is credited by most music historians for championing such early rockers as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Although he helped bring black music to the young white teenaged masses and starred in many of the budding rock 'n' roll movies of the era (chief among them, Rock Around the Clock), Freed's career was tainted after he was charged with accepting payola (a practice common among radio personalities who took cash and other gifts for playing certain records).

It was further damaged when he hosted a television dance show that captured young black singer Franke Lymon dancing with a white teenaged girl (Hairspray, anyone?). He subsequently suffered a humiliating downward spiral and eventually ended up working for a series of smaller stations, including a monthlong tenure on WQAM in Miami. He died a broken man in Palm Springs, California, in January 1965.

Murray the K
The self-proclaimed "Fifth Beatle," the former Murray Kaufman gained fame as a flamboyant showman throughout the '50s, '60s, and '70s with his robust rock 'n' roll rants. However, he reached his peak of success after penetrating the Fab Four's inner circle during their initial trip to New York and subsequent American tour. He went on to introduce Bob Dylan when the musician went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 -- "It's not rock, it's not folk, it's Bob Dylan," he said at the time -- and successfully segued into the emerging FM radio realms. Later, Murray introduced a new type of television show that featured numerous pop stars of the day in a video format that prefigured MTV by a good decade and a half. Sadly, he succumbed to cancer in 1982.

Dick Biondi
Nicknamed "The Wild I-tralian," a handle that would definitely stray from the realms of political correctness these days, Biondi was one of the original "screamers." A radio wild man who boasted of being fired no fewer than 23 times, Biondi was also credited with being the first American DJ to play the Beatles, initially spinning "Please Please Me" on Chicago's WLS in February 1963. He later introduced the Beatles and the Stones at the Hollywood Bowl while working at KRLA in Los Angeles. 

Casey Kasem
Kemal Amin Kasem, otherwise known simply as Casey Kasem, has one of the most distinctive voices in modern radio. Best-known for his nationally syndicated show American Top 40, he offers a weekly countdown to the top hits of the week and educates the American masses on the songs and artists dominating the airwaves.

Frankie Crocker
Given the nickname "Hollywood" for his unapologetic self-promotion, Crocker gained fame for his on-air duties at soul station WWRL and later top 40 ratings magnet WMCA. He climbed to even greater heights when he took over WBLS-FM as program director and brought the station to the top of the ratings during the late '70s. 

He also served as a major champion of disco, taking advantage of all the extravagance the era had to offer. When Studio 54 was at the height of its popularity, Crocker rode in through the front entrance on a white stallion. He'd sign off for the day by lighting a candle and inviting female listeners to share a candlelight bath. Crocker is credited with coining the phrase "urban contemporary" to describe his particular radio format, and it's said he also introduced as many as 30 R&B and disco artists to the musical mainstream.

Wolfman Jack
With his distinctive rasp and wild howl, Wolfman Jack added his own distinctive hipster style to the airwaves and made himself an enduring personality. In the process, he gained fame on a border radio station, XERF and, at 250,000 watts, his transmissions could be heard nationwide. It was said that a listener could drive from New York to L.A. and never lose the signal. After moving to KDAY in Los Angeles, he got picked up in syndication and was eventually heard over 2,000 stations across the country. 

Wolfman also made a marked impression on the music business himself; he released two albums and inspired at least two tribute songs -- the Guess Who's "Clap for the Wolfman" and Todd Rundgren's "Wolfman Jack." The Doors' song "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat" was supposedly directly influenced by Wolfman's early broadcasts, and the Grateful Dead's "Ramble on Rose" boasted the lines: "Just like Crazy Otto/Just like Wolfman Jack/Sittin' plush with a royal flush/Aces back to back." He loaned his voice to several other songs as well, including various chart contenders by Sugarloaf and Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids. He died of a heart attack on July 1, 1995.

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