Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – GET BACK TO WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED (Thank you Paul McCartney)

It was now late 1970.  I’d returned from Los Angeles and was hired back at CHUM as a producer by Program Director J. Robert Wood.  I was working with Production Manager Warren Cosford, who’d replaced me when I left for LA in late January.  Warren was a Winnipegger and a pretty cool guy.

So I’m back producing commercials and promos for 1050 CHUM and CHUM FM.  CHUM always had great writers, so it was always fun every time to create great radio, especially for CHUM FM.  When the new ‘underground’ music format launched in 1968, replacing classical music, I experimented like crazy.  The format was brand new, and the same old style and sound of commercial just wasn’t going to work.

For one commercial, I played the music underneath the spot BACKWARDS to see if anyone would notice.  Another time, I did a lot of quick cuts and one of the sounds was of a tape rewinding.  The first time it aired, the announcer stopped the cart midspot (yes, spots were still on carts in 1968).  He thought it was a mistake.

It wasn’t.  You have to continue to push the boundaries and experiment or run the risk of getting stuck in a rut and that’s one thing I never want to happen.

Warren Cosford was working out of my former studio, right beside the AM control room and I was near the rear of the CHUM building, in a tiny closet of a studio someone later named ‘Studio 54’.  Two people standing was the maximum this room could hold.  I started working closely with an amazing writer, Bill McDonald, who’d also come from CJOB Winnipeg (as had Warren and CHUM’s copy chief Mike Kornfeld).  Bill and I got along well together – our minds worked in the same way when it came to radio advertising.  Be unique.  Be different.  Be bold.  I’ve never met anyone who can write like Bill.  He is absolutely brilliant.  Bill and I left CHUM a couple of years later to start our own national production company and win numerous awards, then a few years after that, he’d move to LA and win even more…but that’s still to come.

Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity around the cinder block halls.  Warren and I were called into a meeting with Bob Wood.  It seems CHUM’s chief Toronto radio rival at the moment, CKFH, owned by hockey play-by-play broadcaster Foster Hewitt, had purchased the History of Rock and Roll special from Drake-Chenault in Los Angeles.

Bob Wood was an incredible Program Director.  He knew what was happening on CHUM every second of every day, as well as what was going on at the other stations in the market.  So in this meeting (Bill McDonald and Mike Kornfeld were there as well as I recall), Bob said we needed to create a radio program that would lay waste to the Drake History of R&R.  Oh yeah, we only have a couple of weeks to get this done and on the air.

Yikes.

We couldn’t do another History of Rock and Roll, that would feel like we were copying CKFH and CHUM NEVER did that.  Besides, we had done a 28 hour special called “CHUM’s History of Rock and Roll” in 1969.  Written by Larry Solway (who didn’t particularly like rock and roll) and produced by your humble author, it was basically script and song, script and song, song and song.  It didn’t have a lot of interviews in it, mainly because CHUM didn’t have an extensive interview archive yet, although I tried to spice it up with whatever I could find.  It took about three weeks to produce the 28 hours.  A few years ago, when Bob Laine and I began compiling the CHUM Archives, I found all 28 of the original master tapes of “CHUM’s History of Rock and Roll” hiding in a corner office at 1331 Yonge Street…with my handwritten cue sheets still inside the tape boxes.

So back to the problem of creating a once-in-a-lifetime radio special.  The Beatles had recently announced that they were splitting up, but they were still the biggest band on the planet, so it was decided to create a 12 hour history of The Beatles.  Bill McDonald was assigned the daunting task of writing the special.  Nobody could do have written it better.  In 1970, there was only the Hunter Davies ‘official’ biography of The Beatles available as research (and several years worth of The Beatles Monthly fan magazine), so Bill set off to tackle the project.  Bob Wood immediately ordered all of the bound volumes of Rolling Stone magazine for additional research material.  They arrived a few days later.

Promos started airing on CHUM announcing the fact that our special was coming.  We’d beaten CKFH to the punch…at least so far.

Warren and I started planning how we were going to handle the work load.  He recommended that he’d produce the middle 4 hours of the 12 total hours, plus handle all the day-to-day commercials and promos and I’d concentrate on producing the first 4 hours and the final 4.

Cool.

We obtained a bunch of Beatle interviews from CFOX in Montreal.  Roger Scott, a British DJ had worked there and had met and interviewed The Beatles.  Additional Beatles interviews were found and secured.  A list was made up of people to call to interview.  That list included the legendary hair guru Vidal Sassoon and TV show host Ed Sullivan.  I recorded both of those interviews with Bob Wood interviewing.

We didn’t have the time to send someone to New York and/or Los Angeles to interview them, so we did them over the phone.  Vidal Sassoon basically whispered his interview as his new baby was sleeping nearby.  Ed Sullivan was a different cat altogether.

I’d watched the Ed Sullivan Sunday night CBS TV program faithfully since 1961.  He always had on the latest pop star and the usual dancing bear, acrobats and plate spinners, Senor Wences or that little talking mouse, Topo Gigio.  My brother Tom and I sat transfixed in front of our TV set in Edmonton, Alberta on Sunday night February 9th, 1964, when ‘old Stone Face’ presented The Beatles to North America for the first time.  Yes, I know Jack Parr had previously played a video clip of them performing as had Walter Cronkite on CBS News, but this was the first time North American audiences got to see them perform live and in person (or at least through the TV screen).  What I didn’t know until much later, was that Ed had been in a near fatal car accident in 1956, and since that time, he had been taking medication to try and mask his pain, so that’s why he sometimes didn’t make a lot of sense.

The way we recorded phone interviews at CHUM was the interviewer sat in the announcer booth in production, made contact with the interviewee, then put the phone on hold.  The producer in the control room clicked the lit button on the phone, brought up the pot on the board and the call could then be recorded.  Bob Wood went into the CHUM production voice booth and dialed Ed Sullivan’s home number.  Ed answered.  There was that famous voice, right before my ears saying ‘Hello”.  Ed was expecting the call and Bob explained that we wanted him to recall that first show with The Beatles.  Bob then said, “Mr. Sullivan, I’m going to hang up the phone here, then you go ahead and give us your memories”.  Sullivan, a little confused probably from his medication replied, “Do you want me to hang up on this end too?”  Bob and I nearly burst out laughing.  I still have that dialogue on tape somewhere in my archives.

Bill McDonald had completed the brilliant script and announcer Chuck Riley was flown in from Indianapolis one weekend to narrate.  Chuck was one of the promo and ID voices for 1050 CHUM at the time .  He’d also narrated “CHUM’s History of Rock and Roll” in ’69.  Chuck was, and there’s no other way to say it, a curmudgeon.  Plain and simple.  A great guy otherwise, but a curmudgeon nonetheless.  In a restaurant, Chuck’d send back water if he didn’t like the taste.  And believe me, all of us who knew him have seen him send back a lot of food over the years.  Sadly, Chuck’s no longer with us, but I worked with him again in LA on John Candy’s weekly radio show in 1989 – 1990 and he hadn’t changed a bit.  Chuck had been the afternoon jock at WIBG in Indy, then a few years later, he moved to LA, where he became the backup announcer to ABC promo voice Ernie Anderson (“The Looooove Boat”).  Then, CBS hired Chuck as their main promo voice.  Chuck did alright for himself.  He was extremely talented and he did have an incredible voice, but recording the Beatles script that weekend in late 1970, Chuck would often be…difficult.

We recorded all day Saturday and into the very late night.  Bob Wood was there every second.  In fact, it was Bob who went out and bought food and brought it back to the studios at 2 AM.  This was one incredible Program Director, let me tell you.

We eventually got through all 12 hours of the script without any of us killing each other (although I do freely admit there were times when Chuck tested our patience).  Warren Cosford had recorded Chuck’s voice tracks for his 4 hours and I’d recorded my 8 hours.  It took us the entire weekend, but Chuck Riley gave us what we asked for and he hopped a plane back to Indianapolis late Sunday night.  And so, with a final script, a cache of interviews and Chuck’s narration…we were ready to start production.

We knew it was going to be heavy slogging and a lot of late nights since we were down to exactly seven days before the first hour aired.  Bob Wood suggested we all get a good night’s sleep and start climbing the mountain first thing Monday morning (actually Bob didn’t say anything about climbing anything, that was my metaphor, but he did recommend sleep).

On Monday morning, I headed into CHUM at 9AM ready to tackle the first hour.  There was a lot of exposition in the script about the birth of the Fab Four…and I mean the literal birth of John, Paul, George and Ringo that was woven around the sounds of World War II which was raging during the years when they were all born.  It took a while to get into the producing groove, but once I did, it all came together quite well I thought.  The only real problem was the fact that my production studio had not been equipped with remote starts for the three tape recorders, so that meant that I had to stand for most of the time.  I was so into the production and the fun and excitement of it all, that I didn’t notice the time.

It was 4 AM.

‘Well’, I thought, ‘might as well keep going for a few more hours, finish up hour one, then head home for a few hours sleep’.  It didn’t quite work out like that.

By the time 7 AM rolled around, I wasn’t feeling sleepy at all, in fact, I was still charged with adrenaline.  Hour one was complete, so I did take a break and head home, but on the way there, I decided to just have a quick shower, then come right back.  I still had 7 hours to finish and there were only 6 days left until it started airing.

What to do?  What to do?

Well, what I did was just keep going.  I produced around the clock Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and only went home each morning at 7 AM to have a quick shower and head back into CHUM.  I honestly don’t know how I did it.  I don’t take pills (well, I do now, but they’re prescribed by my doctor) and I don’t drink coffee.  All I can say now, looking back, is that I was 24 years old, I had lots of energy and I wasn’t about to let my team down.

It’s not something I could do today.  But something happened on Monday night that slowed me down over the next few days.  I used to wear Hush Puppies (hey, I was wild and crazy) and since I was standing most of the time, I scraped my ankle against the wheels of my chair, which was off to the side of the studio.  I really didn’t notice anything until the next day when my foot started to swell up.  It didn’t stop swelling until my foot was twice its normal size.  Warren Cosford said he knew I was coming down the hall by the clump, clump, clump of my swollen foot.

But I couldn’t rest.  By Friday morning, I was existing on fumes, but I finally produced the last segment of hour twelve.  My friend David ‘Geets’ Haydu (from the LA trip and later Pete’N’Geets fame) said I really needed to go to the hospital, but I was obsessed with finishing the last hour.

It was around noon when I made the final edit.  I locked the tapes in my studio cupboard and Dave and his then girlfriend Barb (now Dave’s wife of 30+ years), drove me to Toronto Western Hospital on Bathurst Street, where a nurse immediately slapped me on a gurney and inserted an IV drip hoping to get the swelling down, otherwise I was told, they’d have to lance it.  That didn’t sound good, but at least it wasn’t an amputation, which I was actually worried about.

A nurse shoved me in a room off the Emergency area.  Then she went off shift…and didn’t tell anyone I was in there.  An hour went by.  Dave and Barb started to wonder what had happened to me.  They went to the Emergency desk and they couldn’t find any record of my being admitted to a room.  Dave started to open some doors in Emergency and finally found me.  The IV had finished its drip and since it’s a vacuum, the blood had started flowing out of my body and up the tube into the IV bag.

I was pretty much out of it by this point but I’m told Dave carved the Emerg staff a new one.  They finally admitted me to a private room and the IV drip worked its little elixir magic and my foot slowly returned to its normal size.

Here’s the final kicker to this story.  Actually there are a couple.  One is that when I locked the tapes up in my production studio, I had the only key with me in my coat pocket.  Hour 1 was scheduled to start that night (Friday November 13th).  Warren and Bob Wood had to break into the cupboard to get to the tapes so the first 4 hours could make it to air.

As the old showbiz saying goes: The show must go on…unless the cupboard is locked.

My hospital stay was just under a week and CHUM was quite concerned about my health.  I had a great many visitors, Geets and Barb, of course, Warren and Program Director Bob Wood, who brought me a cooked baked potato from Senior’s restaurant just north of CHUM on Yonge Street (it closed earlier this year after some 50 years).  That baked potato was the greatest gift I’d ever received while in a hospital.  You see, I’m a baked potato junkie…I admit it.  You put a baked potato down in front of me, anytime, anyplace and I’ll eat it…everytime.

“The Story of The Beatles” was well received by CHUM listeners, so much so that the station repeated all 12 hours in January of ‘71.  CHUM then syndicated the show around the world.  It was heard in England, Australia, the U.S. and many other countries.  But all I remember is my damned foot swelling up.

NEXT TIME:  My interviewing days begin (finally).

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.

8 Responses to “Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – GET BACK TO WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED (Thank you Paul McCartney)”

  1. Great Story Doug!!!!! Thanks for sharing. dm

  2. What a surprise! Who knew you could write?
    Well done, my friend.

    • Doug Thompson Says:

      Oh Howard, you crazy kid. Some day, I’ll write a monthly column for your magazine (oh wait, I already did for FOR TEN YEARS).

  3. Steve Mortenson Says:

    It is still, quite arguably, the finest STORY OF THE BEATLES ever produced for its time. In 1972 the BBC, with host Brian Mathew, put together quite an indepth, early anthology on the Beatles..around 16 hours or so. However…this CHUM-produced 12 hour special, from November 1970, still shines after an astounding 42 years. Thank you Doug! Well done! To Warren Cosford, Bill McDonald, J. Robert Wood, and to the memory of Mr. Chuck Riley…Well Done All!

  4. […] you’ve read one of my previous blogs, you’ll know I spent 6 days straight producing “CHUM’s Story of The Beatles” in 1970.  No […]

  5. Rick Del Rio Says:

    Hi Doug, I just purchased a set of twelve Scotch 175 10.5″ 2-trk reels of your 1970 show called “The Story of the Beatles” and these old tapes still sound really good and loud. Right now I’m also trying to locate a set of reels of your other 1969 show called “CHUM’s History of Rock and Roll”.

  6. Rick Del Rio Says:

    Hi Doug.. I had forgotten that I wrote the message above. I sent an email to doug.t@rogers.com but I haven’t gotten a reply yet. So do you have an extra copy of “CHUM’s History of Rock and Roll” to sell? I’ve been looking for a good quality copy of that show. Preferably a set of original master reels.

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