Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER
When I first started in radio in 1964 at CJCA in Edmonton (while still attending school), then, in February of 1965, being hired at CHUM Toronto, the station I’d dreamed of working for since I was 13 years old, I never for one second, ever imagined I’d become a professional rock and roll interviewer. Of course, that was and is only part of what I did and continue to do.
At CHUM, I was a board operator. They call them technical producers or simply producers now and they don’t exist in most music stations anymore (except for the union stations and sometimes the morning show). It was the board op’s job to make the DJ on air and the station sound great. I think I did my job very well. My shift was 6PM to Midnight for the most part, which was when CHUM rocked the most, so I had a lot of fun.
In the fall of 1966, an opening came up in the CHUM production department and it was offered to me. I jumped at the chance, since I’d been producing commercials and promos since my Radio Club days at Queen Elizabeth High School in Edmonton. That’s when I started to meet a packet of pop stars, including Lulu, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Frankie Avalon, Herman’s Hermits lead singer Peter Noone, Petula Clark, Roy Orbison, Bobby Vinton, Spencer Davis, Glen Campbell and so many others I can no longer remember them all. Most times, they came in for an interview with one of CHUM’s DJ’s and I recorded it. Occasionally, I’d have to take a tape recorder out and record a short interview or some public service announcements, station promotion liners and such at whatever venue they were performing. If it was just the artist and I, I’d have to coach them when they were doing PSA’s or station liners to get the best performance out of them. I did the same thing with the CHUM announcers when I produced commercials or promos. Didn’t think much about it – just did it, it’s always seemed second nature to me.
In 1970, Ted Randal, CHUM’s LA based consultant, offered me a job working for him in LA. He had many clients around the world and was planning to start a production service in addition to his weekly tipsheet and music servicing. I was to be Ted’s on-staff producer for promos, ID’s or whatever the client stations needed. Once again, I jumped at the opportunity (I tend to do that a lot actually). Not only to work in LA (I’d visited the year before for the first time and was fascinated by Los Angeles and the Hollywood mystique), but because Ted’s offices were at 1606 N. Argyle Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. Hollywood and Vine was a block away, the Capitol Records tower was a mere block and a half. The Hollywood Paladium where Lawrence Welk taped his TV shows was at the end of the street (not that I ever watched Lawrence Welk mind you, but my mom was a fan). The Aquarius Theatre, where the play “Hair” was being performed nightly, was across the street from The Paladium on the other side of Sunset Boulevard. The other reason I took the job was because Ted’s offices were in the same building as Chuck Blore Creative Services. In fact, Chuck and his then partner owned the building. I was a HUGE fan of Chuck. Now those of you who don’t know who Chuck Blore is (he’s in his 80’s now, but still brilliant), he was and is one of the most creative individuals on the planet. Over the course of several decades, his company won 2000+ awards for creative excellence. His commercials were ground breaking, innovative and incredible (all at the same time). I wanted to learn at the feet of the master as I had another dream of starting my own national production company in Canada one day (which I did, but that’s another story for another column). I flew to LA and began work at Ted Randall Enterprises on Monday February 2nd, 1970. The production service was slow off the ground and in fact, never really launched, so I was expected to write 45 singles and LP reviews for Ted’s tipsheet as well as package up the new release 45’s that the record companies sent us and ship them off to client stations. There were only 4 of us in the office – Ted, Mary (his assistant, secretary and later his wife), Mike Lundy, the General Manager and yours truly. We were a tight little group and worked well together.
In the early afternoon of my first Friday, Ted called us into his office and said we were all flying to Las Vegas that night to see Elvis Presley at the International Hotel.
HOLY CRAP! One week in LA, and I’m going to Vegas to see Elvis? You’ve got to be kidding me. Turns out, Ted wasn’t. So after work, we all drove over to Burbank Airport (in Mike’s car as I recall). As happens from time to time, I had to pee, so after receiving our tickets, I headed for the mensroom. I was the only person in there and while I was standing at one of the urinals doing my business, another man walked in and stood two urinals away. I remember this very distinctly. Now normally, I don’t look around at other guys at the urinals, but for some reason, this time I did.
HOLY CRAP # 2 (although as I said, I was actually doing number one), it was freakin’ STEVE McQUEEN. OK, don’t panic Doug. Finish up and leave. Make sure you wash your hands (I did and so did Steve). I rushed over to Ted, Mary and Mike and told them who was in the mens room with me. Well, that was certainly cool…but it was about to get even cooler.
We boarded the plane and it was one of those commuter flights (no first or business class), just three rows of seats on either side of the aisle. Ted, Mary and Mike sat together near the front of the plane. I sat one row up from them in the aisle seat. The two seats beside me were empty. Just before they closed the gateway doors, two men walked in. One was rather large and the other quite short. The large guy sat in the window seat of my row and the shorter guy sat beside me. I didn’t look at them as they entered as I was reading a magazine, but when the shorter guy sat beside me, I quickly looked over and HOLY CRAP # 3, it was the very same STEVE McQUEEN from the urinal. He nodded to me, then didn’t say a word the entire flight. Turns out the large man was Steve’s bodyguard.
I’m sitting beside Steve McQueen for just over 45 minutes as we fly into McCarran Field in Vegas and we didn’t say one word to each other. Nothing! Nada! Zippo! What an idiot I was!
So we arrived in Vegas, took a cab to the hotel and had a quick bite to eat before Elvis’ show. As we entered the showroom for the performance, Ted greased the palm of the maitre’d and suddenly we were seated at one of the long tables right by the stage. Just before show time as the lights began to dim, who should sit down directly across from us at the long table but Colonel Tom Parker and Priscilla Presley.
Am I on Candid Camera?
Where the hell is Allan Funt?
Well, the band began to play, then after a few minutes, out came Elvis in a brilliant white suit, wearing a red sash wrapped around his waist. He was in incredible form that night, jumped around the stage, joked with the audience, seemed to be having a lot of fun. About halfway through his set, he introduced a few special guests, including the aforementioned Steve McQueen, who was sitting in one of the closest booths to the stage (but he wasn’t as close as we were). Steve stood up, waved to the the audience and Elvis, then sat down.
I never saw him again.
At the end of the concert, we went back out into the casino and Ted informed us that he hadn’t booked any hotel rooms, so we’ll have to stay up all night until our flight the next morning.
Wasn’t a problem for me. My adrenaline was pumping so much, I could have stayed up all weekend and floated back to LA. Who needed a plane?
After work one night the following week, Mike Lundy took me to a bar two blocks up from the office on Cahuenga Boulevard. The place was called Martoni’s. Segarini’s mentioned it a few times in his columns. It was a legendary music business watering hole. As you walk in, there’s a bar by the entrance, then tables off to the right and slightly behind a wall. Sonny Bono was sitting at the bar that night talking with Bill Drake. Frank Sinatra used to hold parties in the private room upstairs. Mike and I sat down that first time, I ordered a ginger ale and a bowl of peas with butter (my eating habits are legendarily bizarre and I won’t bother going into them at this time). We’d frequent Martoni’s at least once a week, usually on a Friday. During the many months that I popped in for a quick bite, I saw dozens of celebrities, including the legendary (and now infamous Phil Spector, who’s usually haunt was Cantor’s Delicatessen on Fairfax, near Fairfax High where Phil went to school). I used to see Harry Nilsson practically every night, but he mainly frequented a bar on Sunset down the block called The Jolly Roger. The waiters got to know my standing order so well that they’d bring me a bowl of peas with butter and a ginger ale almost as soon as I sat down. I guess that’s what’s called a regular.
God how I loved that town.
I should mention here that I was living in Mary’s apartment, as she’d moved in with Ted by this point. It was located on Laurel Canyon on the Hollywood side, not up in the Canyon. That was for rich rock stars. For some strange reason, I didn’t think I’d need a car in LA, so I’d left my ‘67 blue Mustang with my girlfriend back in Toronto.
What was I thinking?
It wasn’t really that far, and only took about 40 minutes, so I used to walk to work in the morning and walk home at night. Obviously, I was not the inspiration for the Missing Persons song “Nobody Walks In LA”. Every day, I walked past Hollywood High School and everyday some hippie would be panhandling beside the school. Usually Wild Man Fisher (of Rhino Records and Frank Zappa fame) would also be panhandling nearby a little further down Sunset.
One night, I was walking home up a side street called Selma, which was just outside Ted’s offices. A couple of blocks up, as I walked by an open door, there was a guy standing there, leaning against the wall, taking a break. I could hear amazing music coming from inside. The guy asked if I had a light. I didn’t smoke, so I said ‘Sorry, no’. I asked what the music was. Turns out, it was Wally Heider’s Recording Studio and they were mixing Crosby, Stills, Nash’s & Young’s first album together, “Deja Vu”. We chatted for a bit and in the course of our conversation, he asked what I did. When I told him I worked for Ted Randal, he suddenly got friendlier. I guess most people in the music business knew who the radio consultants were in town. Turns out, the guy was an assistant engineer at Heider’s and he invited me into the studio for a listen. As anyone who’s ever heard that album knows, it had such phenomenal songs as “Teach Your Children”, “Almost Cut My Hair”, “Helpless”, “Woodstock” and “Our House”.
That was the first time I met Graham Nash, who was there that night. It wouldn’t be the last.
After more than 40 years, I honestly can’t remember what song they were mixing during the time I was there, but I do know that it wasn’t one of the ones I’ve already mentioned. Graham seemed interested that I was from Canada and we talked about Toronto for awhile. I left after about an hour with an invitation to pop back anytime. I never did.
After Mary gave up her apartment, I moved to a smaller one bedroom located at the corner of Fountain and Seward, a couple of blocks from the RCA Records building on Sunset. At the end of Fountain where it intersects with Vine Street, was an ABC Television Studio where they taped ”American Bandstand” on weekends. Somehow (it may have been a friend of Mike Lundy’s or Ted Randal’s), I had met a production assistant on the show and she invited me to watch them tape anytime time I wanted. Since I still didn’t have my car and it was cheap entertainment, I spent many a weekend watching kids dance on “American Bandstand”. Sometimes I was actually on the floor, behind the cameras, sometimes in the control room.
It was the first time I met Dick Clark. It wouldn’t be the last.
In late July, after almost six months of walking everywhere, I flew back to Toronto to pick up my car from my girlfriend. After finishing his all night shift on CHUM-FM, my best friend David ‘Geets Romo’ Haydu and I drove back down to LA. We stopped in Chicago to visit with a friend of his that Dave had worked with at ARC Sound in Toronto recording Terry Black and Anne Murray. Gary Starr was, by then, an engineer at the legendary Chess studios in Chicago. We had dinner at the Starrs’ apartment, left around ten o’clock, then drove around Chicago trying to find where Route 66 began. Both Dave and I had long hair down to our shoulders at the time (where did my hair go anyway?), so I suppose we could have been mistaken for ‘dirty hippies’. We saw a police officer walking his beat, so we stopped to ask for directions. As we slowed the car down near the cop, his hand started to reach for his gun.
We asked as politely as two scared shitless Canadian boys could, how we could get to Route 66. The entire time he was giving us directions, his hand remained on his gun. We quickly thanked him and drove off to find the yellow brick road that meandered through the heartland of America, otherwise known as Route 66.
Dave took the first driving shift, but he had been up all night doing his CHUM-FM program and hadn’t slept on the eight hour drive from Toronto to Chicago. I was in the passenger seat and quickly fell asleep, with my head resting against the window.
I woke up around dawn.
We weren’t moving. There was something right outside my window and it was rather large and imposing. Couldn’t be that Chicago cop, we left him behind hours ago. I slowly turned my head in the objects direction and found myself staring into the eyes of a black and white cow. In fact, as I looked around, there were dozens of cows. What were cows doing on Route 66? Well, they weren’t.
We were in a cow pasture.
Dave had gotten tired around 5AM, and decided that instead of falling asleep at the wheel, he’d pull off the highway and curl up in the back seat. That’s exactly where I found him, still fast asleep. He told me later that he was so exhausted, that he didn’t know where he was when he exited Route 66 and just found the first quiet spot he could. It just happened to be a cow pasture. So, quickly gathering my wits about me, I moooved over (sincere apologies, but I couldn’t resist that one) into the driver’s seat, put the car in gear, manoeuvred around the cows, found my way back to Route 66 and hit the gas pedal.
Another amazing adventure was underway.
Doug’s column will be appearing the first Friday of every month.
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Doug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work. He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.
Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers. One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.