Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – ON THE ROAD AGAIN

So, when we left off last time, my pal David ‘Geets Romo’ Haydu and I were in a cow pasture a couple of hours south of Chicago.  It was the summer of 1970.

It was early morning when I pulled my ’67 Mustang back onto Route 66.  It was starting to get dark as we headed into St. Louis, we were listening to KMOX when one of the newscasters said to be careful in downtown St. Louis at night as men with guns were jumping into cars at stop lights, robbing the victims and taking their cars.

WTF? 

We were two naive (sort of) Canadian boys who’d just received directions to Route 66 from a burly Chicago cop who had his hand on his gun the whole time and now there are armed thieves on the streets of St. Louis.  In 1970, you had to drive through downtown St. Louis on Route 66.  I can’t remember exactly which one of us was driving, but we immediately locked the car doors and if we came to a red light, we just slowed down, made sure no cars were coming the other way and booted it on through.  Thank goodness we didn’t see any cops that night, armed or otherwise.

We continued to drive without incident until both Dave and I started to notice that every time we’d hit a bump or a small pothole, there was a slight clanging noise coming from the back of the car.  We didn’t pay much attention until we got to the Ozark Mountains.  We stopped at a gas station and I asked the mechanic to take a look at what was making that sound.  He quickly checked under the back end, came up and said, ‘You’ve got a loose bracket on your rear shock mount.  It’s not dangerous, but you should get it tightened at some point’.  I said I would, the next chance I got.

I owned that Mustang for another two years and never did get that bracket fixed.

So, back on Route 66 we go.  We passed through Tulsa, Oklahoma then on to Oklahoma City.  Again, it was the second night of our trip and we were not stopping for anything other than gas and food (usually at a Stuckey’s for their incredible pecan pie).  No cheap motels on this trip – we alternated driving while the other one slept with the radio as our constant companion.  Nearing Oklahoma City, I was flipping around the dial to see what I could find and WHAM!  This really hot sounding station came on.  They were in the middle of a song and coming in clear as a bell, I thought surely this was a local Oklahoma City station, possibly KOMA.  Turns out…it wasn’t.  At the end of the song, on came a station jingle…

It was CKLW.

That signal from Windsor to Oklahoma was absolutely incredible.  Can’t remember the name of the jock that was on, but The Big 8 honked out the hits for nearly an hour before we started to lose it.  We listened to local station KOMA for awhile, but it wasn’t anywhere near as exciting as CKLW had been.

Morning had broken (thank you Cat Stevens) as we drove out of Oklahoma City and as I looked at the scenery passing the car, I kept seeing this incredible amount of red clay.  It was everywhere.  So much red clay.  Dave and I had never seen anything like it.  The clay got into  everything – under the car, on the tires.  There was still some red clay residue by the time we got to LA.

On we went through Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Gallup, Winslow, Flagstaff and Kingman, Arizona.  Now if the Eagles had released “Hotel California” in 1970 instead of ’77, we would have stopped in Winslow and taken a look around.

While it wasn’t actually on Route 66, both Dave and I decided to take a detour to see the Grand Canyon.  When we were about a half hour away, we came upon this rather large pond and since neither one of us had showered in two days (and my car was not equipped with air conditioning), we parked, stripped down to our skivvies and dove in.  There were a lot of other travellers who seemed to have the same idea as it was actually quite crowded.  Once we towelled off, and got dressed, it was on the Grand Canyon.  Dave was driving and while there’s nothing wrong with his eye sight, he is blind in one eye, so we’re driving along the South rim of the Canyon and Dave’s driving at least 70 MPH.  And there were NO guard rails on this road.  I kept looking over the edge, far down into the Canyon and wondering if that was going to be our final destination.  But I should have had more faith, Dave is an excellent driver and there was never a chance we’d go careening down that Canyon wall and die a horrible, fiery death with only rattlesnakes and pack mules as eye witnesses.

That was just my morbid imagination.

Since we were in the neighbourhood, we also visited Hoover Dam on one of the hottest days of the year.  It was so damned hot!  It was August after all and we were in the desert.  We spotted an ice cream stand and a phone booth right across the street from each other near the Dam.  Dave wanted to call his girlfriend Barb back in Toronto and check in, so we grabbed two cones and started to walk across the street to the phone booth.  There was a lot of traffic on the dam so we had to wait about a minute.  It was so hot that by the time we reached the other side, the ice cream had literally melted.  Dave made his call and we hit the road, jack.

Once we got to Barstow, California, I knew our trip was nearly at an end.  Of course, when we crossed over from Arizona to California, we had to stop at the California Border Inspection station to declare that we were not harbouring any strange fruits or outlawed vegetables that might carry dangerous bugs that would do irreparable damage to California crops.  We so declared and were sent on our merry way.

By the way, anyone who’s ever driven through Barstow during the 1960’s or early ‘70’s would know that calling it a one-horse town would be an insult to one-horse towns everywhere.  It was a tiny strip of houses, a few shops, an A&W and not much else.  I hear it’s grown up since then.  Frankly, there was no point in even stopping there as we had plenty of gas, we weren’t that hungry…and damn it, we just wanted to get to LA.

Finally by mid morning on the Wednesday (we had left Toronto early Sunday morning), we arrived at my apartment in LA and proceeded to sleep for the rest of the day.  During his vacation week, Dave and I did the usual LA tourist things – visited Disneyland, took the Universal Studios tour, drove down to the Santa Monica Pier, swam in the Pacific Ocean and checked out a couple of recording studios.  One afternoon, we were in Santa Monica with nothing to do, so we decided to see the Stanley Kubrick film, “2001: A Space Odyssey at a local movie house.  It must have been a slow day as we were the only two people in the theatre.

It was my first private screening.

We also did a helluva lot of driving.  You really can’t get anywhere in Los Angeles without driving.  One day, we were on Harbour freeway in downtown LA and not really knowing exactly where we were, I just picked an exit and ended up in a maze of streets.  I turned left, I turned right, I didn’t know where to turn next.  We ended up driving down a street that had a few boarded up doors and windows.  It was this close to being what would be called a slum.  There were several groups of young African Americans sitting outside on their steps…I mean a lot, on both sides of the street.  I thought ‘perfect, I’ll stop and ask how we get back to the freeway’.

Wrong move Bekins.

We started to slow down and all of a sudden, a dozen or so of these African Americans got up and started walking towards my car…my 1967 powder blue Mustang with Ontario plates and two naive (sort of) white guys sitting inside.  They did not look happy to see us.  Dave and I looked at each other as those rather mean looking gentlemen got closer and closer, but before we could say anything, there was a loud ‘Whoop! Whoop’ of a police siren.  The mob quickly scattered – the cop pulled up behind us, stopped, got out and walked up to the drivers’ window.  I will never forget his words as long as I live.  He said, “Where are you guys from?”  Dave and I told him “Canada” (I would use this excuse for many decades to come).  “Do you know where you are?” was his next question.  We said, almost in unison, “No!  We were just trying to get back to the freeway”  “Well” he said, “You’re in Watts.  You’d better follow me out of here or you might not get out alive”.  It was only five years after the Watts Riots of 1965 when 34 people died and over 3000 were arrested with over $40 million in damages.  The area was still a racial powerkeg when Dave and I mistakenly drove down its streets.

Dave flew back to Toronto the following week and I continued working at Ted Randal’s during the day.  One of the greatest things about working in LA in 1970 was that I got to listen to KHJ most of the day.  My favourite DJ though was the afternoon jock, the Real Don Steele.  Truly, one of the hippest jocks I’ve ever heard.  He made it sound seamless.  Occasionally for lunch, I’d head over to Nickodells, a restaurant just outside the Paramount Studios gates on Melrose Avenue.  It was also situated right beside the KHJ building and was the ‘Boss Jocks’ home away from home, when they weren’t at Martoni’s.  Many times while I was there, the KHJ gang was there, Robert W. Morgan, Don Steele, Bill Drake, Betty Brenneman (music librarian) and a couple of others I didn’t recognize.  There was an magical aura around their table that I didn’t see again until CHUM in the 1970’s when Tom Rivers, Chuck McCoy, Duke Roberts, Scott Carpenter and Roger Ashby were sitting at a table in Rooney’s or Seniors Dining Nook.

Toiling on Randal’s tip sheet, writing record reviews and shipping out new product to client stations took up most of my days.  Most nights I spent in a tiny downstairs studio in the Chuck Blore complex, transferring 45 rpm records to reel to reel tape.  This studio was so small, there was room for an AMPEX stereo tape recorder, a basic console, a turntable and a chair to sit in.  My job was to take Ted’s massive 45 RPM archives, tape them and turn them into what became known as ‘The Randal Tapes’ that Ted eventually used as an ‘oldies’ library for his client radio stations.

A few weeks after the final tape was completed, Ted announced that he was shutting down his company.  He wound up moving to Canada where he became a successful program director for stations such as CHFI in Toronto.

So, my job was done.  I could have stayed in LA, I suppose, but I had this dream of building my own creative company to produce radio commercials for national ad agencies and clients back in Canada.  My time as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ during Chuck Blore sessions in LA had fired me up, so in the fall of 1970, I handed in my notice to my landlady, packed up the Mustang with my clothes and a couple of hundred albums that I’d collected plus several boxes of reel to reel tapes (mainly radio station jingles and Chuck Blore commercials…and headed north.

This time, there was no one to share the drive with me.  I didn’t have much money and certainly didn’t have any credit cards.  There was just me.  I was 25 and to this day, some 40 years later, I still don’t know how I did this, but I managed to drive non-stop (save for stopping for gas and snacks), all the way from LA to Detroit.  I hasten to add here that I don’t take drugs, don’t drink coffee or any other stimulants.  The trip took 3 days.  The first night, I took a short time out in Arizona.  The night sky was the clearest I’ve ever seen in my life and the stars were simply magnificent, so I stopped at a rest stop, got out of my car, lay down on the hood and watched the stars for about an hour.  It was a magical night.

I vividly remember that by the last day, I was slapping myself silly and pinching myself trying to stay awake.  In hindsight, it was stupid not to stop and get some rest, but I wanted to get back to Toronto as soon as possible and start my company.  Little did I know it would still be a couple of years before that happened.  When I finally got to Detroit, I pulled off the highway to call my friend Mike Marshall, who’d I’d worked with at CJCA in Edmonton.  He’d moved to CKLW in Windsor and was using the air name Frank Brodie.  Again, I had no idea where I was and saw an open phone booth on a side street, (there was no glass box surrounding it), pulled over and started walking towards the phone.  A man had just finished using the phone and was walking away.  There were a couple of African-Americans sitting on the steps to their house near the phone and one of them said to me, “That phone don’t work”.  Stupidly, I replied, “But I just saw someone using it”.  I can’t believe how stupid that was.  The guy spoke again, this time a little more forcefully, “I said, that phone don’t work.  You best move on”.  He didn’t have to tell me a third time.  After the Watts situation, I got the message, walked back to my car and left.  I did manage to find a phone booth in the business section and reached Mike, who told me to come over and crash at his place for the night.  I wrote down his address, crossed the border, found his apartment, said hello to Mike and his wife, brushed my teeth, headed for his couch and slept the sleep of the dead for the next 12 hours.  I don’t know what I would have done without Mike that night.  I simply could not drive another minute and didn’t have enough for a hotel or motel.

Next day, I was back in Toronto with no job, no prospects and even less money than I’d had the day before (cars gotta have gas).  Dave Haydu came to my rescue and offered me the basement apartment in his house, near High Park.  I gratefully accepted.  Dave lived there with his mother and grandmother and about a week later, I was downstairs, when the door to the basement opened and Dave’s grandmother yelled down, “Boy…phone for you”.  It was Dave at CHUM who told me Bob Wood (CHUM’s Program Director) wanted to see me.  I called Bob, set up an appointment and wound up back at CHUM in the Production Department working with Warren Cosford, who’d gotten my job as Production Manager when I moved to LA.

And another amazing adventure was about to unfold.

Doug’s column appears the first Friday of every month.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

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.

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