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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.

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Lee Zimmerman

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