Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – “AND SO, DEAR FRIENDS, YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO CARRY ON. THE DREAM IS OVER.”

Doug Thompson headshotI’ve been interviewing musicians, singers, actors, authors, record producers, session players and songwriters for almost 40 years…everyone from ABBA to Frank Zappa.  I’ve also produced over a thousand hours of radio programs that have been heard around the world.  Every interview and program has a story behind it.

This is one of them.

Pirate-logoIn 2005, I was working at Pirate Radio & Television in Toronto in a new division called PEG, which stood for Pirate Entertainment Group.  Our mission was to create long form radio programs as well as short form sponsor-based programs.  Since 2005 would have been John Lennon’s 65th birthday and it had been 25 years since he was murdered in the alleyway of The Dakota, this was a pretty major anniversary year.  My PEG partner, Peter Miniaci and I, travelled to New York several times to conduct new interviews with Lennon associates.  One of the first we contacted was Pete Bennett, the former head of Apple publicity and close friend to John and Yoko as well as George Harrison.  In a cover story, Performance Magazine called Pete, ‘The World’s Number One Promotion Man’ (I think Pete actually called himself that).  Pete never tried to downplay that title.  He was proud of his accomplishments, so much so that he often carried several binders with pictures of artists whose careers he’d helped along the way.  Pete met us in our hotel room in midtown Manhattan and spent several hours with us.  He gave us an amazing interview, then took us to dinner at Patsy’s Restaurant PeteBennetton West 56th Street.  Naturally it’s an Italian restaurant, since both Pete Bennett and Peter Miniaci were Calibraise Italians.  It was a delightful night of pasta, Pinot Noir and Pete.

Both Peter and I stayed in touch with Pete since 2005 and got together with him many times, both in New York, in Toronto (he visited Buffalo and Toronto regularly), and occasionally, Orillia, Ontario (where he had a girlfriend).  Every moment with Pete was an adventure.  He knew everybody and everybody knew him.  Pete died last year after having worked with legends such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison separately and Pete even worked on the inaugurations of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon (you remember his # 1 smash hit, “I’m Not A Crook!”?)

terry o reillyBrainstorming with Pirate Radio & Television’s Terry O’Reilly, Peter Miniaci and I came up with what we thought was a great radio idea for these John Lennon anniversaries.  We’d start off with a three hour radio special, focused on The Beatles years up until John went solo in 1970.  That one would air on or close to John’s birthday on October 9th.  Then, we’d write and produce a second three hour special that covered John’s solo years, his 5 years of retirement from 1975 until mid 1980), his death, the aftermath and the years after that.  In between, we’d produce one minute features that included an interview clip that we hadn’t had time to include in the two three hour specials.  These would run every day between the two specials, so from October 9th to December 8th, they would always be a John Lennon feature on the radio stations that carried the series.

Now, there have been many specials on John Lennon over the years (including the six previous ones that I wrote and produced) and we really wanted this to be special, so we made a list of who we thought would make a great host.  It was a relatively short list of celebrities.  We picked Graham Nash, who was a long time friend of Lennon’s and someone who could bring an air of authenticity to the project.  Pete Miniaci tracked down Graham’s manager in Los Angeles, we worked out a fee, and Graham Nash came on board.

The problem was, Graham was on the final leg of the Crosby, Stills & Nash World Tour, but there were occasional off days that we could possibly record.  We sent Graham the first three hour script that I’d written and all of the 65 one minute features that Terry O’Reilly wrote.  Turned out, Graham had a day off in San Francisco early in September and so, off I flew to one of my favourite cities in the world, the city by the Bay.  I’d been to San Francisco many times, but its beauty and crazy streets never fails to surprise me.  Our Pirate co-ordinator, Tyna Maerzke had booked a recording studio for the next afternoon, so we were all set.  I arrived the day before the session and Hotel_Fairmont_Nob_Hillchecked into the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, the same hotel Crosby, Stills and Nash were staying in.  Now yes, we could have recorded via ISDN with Graham in San Francisco and me back in Toronto, but there is nothing like personal contact in recording sessions.  Besides, we had the travel plans in the budget, so it all worked out (especially for me as you’ll soon see).

After dropping my bags in my room, I decided to go for a walk.  I love walking in San Francisco, so I trekked down to Chinatown (Hey Bob, there’s a song we could write together “I Trekked Down To Chinatown”) and San-Francisco fisherman's wharfwalked all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf before turning around and heading back.  The walk took several hours and I’d forgotten how steep Nob Hill actually was, so returning to my hotel, I needed to stop several times on the way up to catch my breath.  Now, I could have hopped on a cable car and ridden it up the hill, but where’s the fun in that?  If my heart had burst on the walk up the hill, well then my relatives could always say that ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’.  (I was wondering just how I was going to work the title of that classic Tony Bennett chestnut into this piece.  Now I know).

Next morning, I had breakfast in the hotel restaurant (saw David Crosby having brekkie as well), then at noon, headed for the studio.  Graham and his manager were arriving just as I got there.  I’d interviewed Graham several times in the past and he was, as always, delightfully charming.  I handed over the cheque to Graham’s manager and all was right with the world.  His manager told me Graham had been reading over the script for the past few days, so the session should go smoothly.  I silently said to myself, “I hope so”.  We’d booked the studio from 1PM until 6PM just in case, but in the end, we didn’t need it.  Graham situated himself in the voice booth as we chatted about his memories of John Lennon – One of the Beatles recording sessions Graham had been invited to was on February 10th, 1967 for “A Day In The Life”, the final song from the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.  There was a full orchestra there, along with invited guests such as Donovan and Mick Jagger who came with Marianne Faithfull.  Keith Richards also showed up, as did Mike Nesmith of The Monkees, who was staying with the Lennon’s.  All the guests were given movie cameras and asked to shoot ‘whatever they felt like’.

We started recording the script and any reservations that I might have had about Grahams’ narration skills floated out the window and down Powell Street towards the ocean.

Graham NashGraham was utterly fantastic.  Just a pick up line here or there and an occasional change in the script (I always do that in the studio.  It sometimes drives the voice talent crazy).  We wrapped the first three hours in about an hour and a half.  The first half of the 65 short features took less than an hour.  It was a delightful session, as recording sessions go.

Graham and I chatted for a couple of minutes before his manager returned and whisked him back to the hotel.  I said I’d have the final 3 hour show script ready in a couple of weeks.  As he was walking out the door, Graham called out, ‘See you then”.

The Crosby, Stills & Nash World Tour ended in New York on September 17th after which Graham flew home to Hawaii.

True to my word, upon my return to Toronto, I finished writing the final three hour script in about a week and a half.  I called Graham and the 2005 Summer PBS Television Critics Press Tour - Day 2conversation went a little something like this:  (Isn’t that how comedian Bob Newhart used to start his brilliant monologues?)  “Hi Graham, it’s Doug Thompson in Toronto.”  “Oh hi Doug”  “The script’s finished Graham.  We just want to know where and when you’d be available to record”.  “Anytime you like mate, the tour’s over and I’m just relaxing at home’.  But I have to tell you that I’m not going anywhere.”

‘Beg pardon?”

“I’ve been on tour for nearly a year.  I’m home and I’m staying home.  If you want to record with me, you’ll have to come to Hawaii.”

Could my life get any better?

Turns out, it couldn’t.

So the good news was, I was going to Hawaii to record Graham Nash.  The bad news was, our time for production on the final three hours was so tight, that I wouldn’t be there very long…and by long, I mean less than 36 hours.

Venice_Falls_Maui_HawaiiC’mon Hawaii.  Gorgeous beaches, pineapples, sugar cane and Steve McGarrett.  It was where Steven Spielberg shot the first “Jurassic Park” movie.  It was where the TV series “Lost” was filmed (and I still don’t like the final episode of that show, thank you very much Executive Producers J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse).

Pirate Radio & Television’s miracle worker Tyna Maerzke somehow managed to find a recording studio (hah!) on the small island.  Actually, it wasn’t so much of a studio as it was a converted garage.  Oh, it had Pro Tools, an excellent microphone and a small voice booth.  Wait, small is totally inaccurate…it was tiny…minuscule even.  Graham had to lose about ten pounds just to fit inside (and Graham was in great shape just having finished the World Tour).

studio_vocal_boothOh, and I forgot to add, there was no air conditioning in the booth.  This is Hawaii, for cryin’ out loud, where the average daily temperature is between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit and a microscopic enclosed space.  It was pure torture for Graham, but trooper that he was, he managed to get through it with many bottled waters and a break after every page of script.  We wrapped up in just under three hours and after a quick photo, I thought Graham would shake my hand, say, ‘thanks’ and split for home, but Graham Nash is not like any other rock star I’ve ever met.  He is without doubt, the most down-to-earth, genuine person I’ve ever met.

He invited me home for dinner.

2005 Doug Thompson (l) and Graham Nash 2Mind you, he forgot to tell his wife Susan that I was coming (although she knew he was recording with me that day), so when I drove up their long driveway and got out of my rent-a-car, she had no idea who I was until I introduced myself.  Graham arrived about half an hour later having stopped in town to pick up some supplies. (Pictured – Doug and Graham)

Graham gave me a tour of their home and if I hadn’t known who owned the place, there would have been no indication that a Rock and Roll legend lived there.  There were no gold and platinum records on any walls, no rock posters to be found anywhere, no Grammy Awards, nothing.  There was Eye to eye - graham nashhowever, a lot of photography books and equipment – Graham is a master photographer.  He’s published books of his photographs, held art exhibits and sold thousands of numbered, signed prints of his work.  For about 15 years, Graham owned an IRIS Graphics 3047, a large format ink-jet printer that cost over $125,000.  In 2005, he donated that printer to the National Museum of American History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institute.

While the inside of the house was gorgeous, nothing compared to what I saw when Graham took me outside.  Graham’s property borders on a U.S. National Park, so there won’t be any squalid sub divisions popping up to spoil his view.

And what a view it was.

hawaii waterfallThere, maybe about a half mile or a mile away from the house, was a spectacular waterfall cascading down thousands of feet.  It was absolutely breath taking.  Now this is where I want to live.  Hell, this is where I’d like to go when I die.

After a wonderful home cooked dinner and great conversation for several hours, (we discussed a mutual friend Graham and I had in common who had died a year or two before.  His name was Don Gooch and he’d been a board operator at CHUM in the mid ‘60’s, who later went to work for Motown Studios in Detroit, then on to LA, where he eventually became Graham’s personal recording engineer until his death).

After a wonderful, wonderful evening, I thanked Susan and Graham profusely and drove back to my hotel.  The direct flight back to Toronto left bright and early the next morning and I couldn’t miss it, I was scheduled in the studio the following day to start assembling the final three hours.

RadioShowWestwood1CDUSAF1We networked the John Lennon series through Sound Source in Canada and Westwood One in the U.S.  It aired on several hundred radio stations in North America.  Tom Rounds at Radio Express (one of the co-founders of Watermark Syndications and “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem) ably handled the series for the rest of the world.

I suspect that after creating seven radio specials on John Lennon, this one will be my last.  There’s nothing left to say…and this one was an experience like no other.  Working with Graham Nash was a joy.  And the following year came the icing on the cake.

The following September (2006), I received an e-mail from the New York Radio Festival that the Lennon program had won a prize.  They didn’t say what, just that it had won a prize and would I come to New York in October for the ceremony.

Would I? (There’s a very old joke in there somewhere, but you can figure it out)

paul harveySo a few weeks later, I drove to Buffalo, parked my car at the Buffalo airport and flew to New York.  The ceremony was being held in the Marriott Hotel in midtown Manhattan.  I walked in and there, sitting at a table, was Paul Harvey, the legendary ABC broadcaster (one of this years’ Super Bowl spots for Dodge Trucks featured a Paul Harvey recitation on farmers).  His son, Paul Aurant, was receiving the Hall of Fame Award that night and Paul Sr. was there to congratulate him.

As the night began, I was only slightly nervous.  I’d won over a hundred awards by this point in my career, but this one was special.  They finally got to my category and the second three hour Lennon special won a Silver Medal.  Second place, but still cool.  I accepted the trophy, then sat back down again.

Whew, I could relax now, that was that.

Not so fast bucko.

A few minutes later, in another category, the first three hour special won the Gold Medal.  Wow, I certainly hadn’t expected that.  Got the trophy, sat down again, now I could absolutely sit back and take it easy.

But there was one more surprise ahead for me….a really, really big one.

At the end of the night, they honour several of the Gold Medal winners with the Grand Award, a gigantic silver punchbowl with a plaque attached.  I NY Radio Festival Awardsreally wasn’t paying much attention when they called my name and the John Lennon special again.

What the hell!

Of all of the Gold Medal winners, the John Lennon special (first three hours) had been honoured with one of only four Grand Awards that night.  The judges had said that my special was the best in the world and I was now the proud owner of a gigantic silver punchbowl, plus  the Gold and Silver medals.

Well as I’ve learned in life, you get rewarded…and then you get punished.  Next morning, I woke up in my Marriott Hotel room after celebrating with other award winners half the night to find out that there was a massive blizzard in Buffalo and all flights in or out of that city were cancelled.

Great!  How was I supposed to get my awards and punch bowl home now.  Called American Airlines – they could get me to Pittsburgh.  ‘But’, I explained relatively calmly, ‘my car is at the Buffalo airport’.

airport snow‘Sorry sir’ was the replay, ‘there are no flights into Buffalo for the next couple of days, but we could get you to Toronto if you like’.  Yes, please.  I’d get my car later (it turned out to be four days later when Buffalo was starting to recover).  Got to the airport with

my trophies and my small suitcase, passed through customs without so much as a ‘What’s in the cardboard box sir?’  Amazing.

When I finally got on the plane and was about to place the box with the gigantic silver punchbowl in the overhead compartment, the stewardess airline-food-412came up to me and said, “Sir, our flight isn’t very full, so if you’d like to put that box in the seat next to you, that’ll be fine.”  I did have to put a seatbelt on it though.  Couldn’t manage an extra meal for the box though, the skies weren’t that friendly.

What a long strange trip it’s been (apologies to the Grateful Dead for ‘borrowing’ that line)

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“THE LEGEND LIVES ON…”

As I’ve mentioned before in previous blogs, I began my radio and television journey in Alberta at CJCA, the number one Top 40 radio station in Edmonton at that time, in May of 1964.  It was a part time job after school.  My first full time radio job was at CHUM Toronto starting in February, 1965.  I worked there four separate times for a total of 15 years.  I learned one hell of a lot from some legendary broadcasters at both stations.  During my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with several individuals who’ve since been inducted into various Halls of Fame.  That includes Allan Waters, Allan Slaight (Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame), David Marsden (who’s one of 3 Canadian radio personalities honoured by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland), plus CHUM Radio Toronto’s Duff Roman, Bob Laine and Roger Ashby.

I want to congratulate the soon-to-be newest member of the Canadian Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame as well as long time friend, John Donabie.  John is one hell of a broadcaster – truly, one of the very, VERY best!  There isn’t a format around that John hasn’t mastered.  He’s proven himself time and time again at radio stations that played rhythm & blues, rock & roll, jazz, country and news/talk.  He’s the king of AM and FM.  John is also one of the very best interviewers on this or any other planet in the solar system.  Artists love to be interviewed by John Donabie.

Why?

JOHN_DONABIEBecause John knows his stuff.  If he didn’t, he’d research it until he did, but he usually doesn’t have to because music is in his blood.  Plus John would never embarrass an artist with an off colour or accusatory question.  Oh, he’ll dig into areas they might not be comfortable with, but John has never been an ‘in-your-face attack dog’ style interviewer.

Congratulations John.  You so deserve the Allan Waters Broadcast Lifetime Achievement Award.  I’m proud to call you my friend.  I just hope you’ll still take my phone calls after you receive your Hall of Fame award in March

=DT=

Doug’s column appears here every 4th Friday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

DBAWIS ButtonDoug 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.

2 Responses to “Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – “AND SO, DEAR FRIENDS, YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO CARRY ON. THE DREAM IS OVER.””

  1. Loved your blog on the Lennon show, Doug! Yes, what a wonderful, strange trip that was, and I’m glad you’ve documented it. Graham Nash was a superb narrator and a consummate pro. I remember meeting someone from Mexico a short time later, and he told me the Lennon special was one of the best radio shows he had heard. It was amazing to think the show was heard around the world. But it couldn’t have come to life without your talent and your astounding archive of interviews. A fantastic show, and a great memory. Even if I didn’t get to Hawaii!

  2. Doug Thompson Says:

    My year at Pirate was a very special time for me and it couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened without you. I can’t thank you enough.

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