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I Never Had Me A Better Time And I Guess I Never Will
A Tribute to Scott Muni by Ray D'Ariano



Scott Muni was the most important person in New York rock and roll radio.

I first heard him when I was in high school and he was on WABC. The second you tuned in you were zapped with one of the station's relentless jingles, "He's an all American on… 77 WABCeeeeeeeeeee," punctuated instantly with his incomparable gravely voice, "77 WABC degrees! Scottso here, movin' and a grooving' with something new and great too, Roy Orbison's 'Pretty Woman!' Oh yeah, everybody digs one of those!" On a good night the terrestrial station's potent 50,000 watts blanketed half the country with the second wave of rock and roll. Monsignor Muni presided over the early evening services, the "teen jock slot," as it was called in the biz. From his pulpit, surrounded by heavenly waves of echo, he'd spread the gospel according to Phil Spector, Smokey Robinson and Brian Wilson.

All a young and impressionable believer needed to join the congregation was a small transistor radio. When The Beatles hit town in February '64, WABC embraced them and Muni was in the center of the storm. Somehow he maneuvered himself into their hotel room and, over the ear-piercing screams of the thousands of fans in the street below, he broadcast exclusive interviews with the lads.

Crisis hit when Ringo's St. Christopher medal was yanked from his neck by an over- zealous fan. Scott appealed to his listeners to help find the sentimental keepsake, and remarkably, it was found and returned to the drummer. Such was the innocent foolishness of Beatlemania, and the origin of the life-long friendship between Muni and The Beatles. For that full year, WABC was a huge booster of The Beatles and the entire British Invasion. Coveted spots on their Million Dollar Survey, once occupied by Jay and the Americans, The Drifters, and The Shirelles, were now overflowing with the likes of Manfred Mann, The Zombies, and a gruff group of hooligans called The Rolling Stones. Therefore, it was puzzling to most of the adolescent listeners when Louie Armstrong's "Hello Dolly" came in at number one on the station's Top 100 of the year. How in the year of Beatlemania, of WA-Beatle-C, did a Dixieland version a Broadway show tune beat out The Beatles? "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and "She Loves You," came in numbers two and three. The results seemed inconsistent and hypocritical.

During that year Muni had some heated exchanges with WABC Program Director Rick Sklar. The DJ felt the limited play list was killing rock and roll. And he was furious when months before "Hello Dolly" became the station's top hit of the year, it remained in the number one spot on their survey week after week. In his memoir "Rocking America," Sklar wrote that Muni demanded he "Get that song off my show!" He went so far as to challenge Sklar's record store sales data and threatened to go to the F.C.C., but when he complained about the short play list in front of Sklar's staff it was over. Muni left WA-Beatle-C. Over the next few years Muni did overnight fill-in work at WMCA and he found another night shift gig. On the New York rock scene it was the era of the Hammond B3 organ and the blue-eyed soul bands made popular by The Rascals. The Hassles featuring a young Billy Joel, The Pigeons who would become famous as The Vanilla Fudge, and The Vagrants with guitarist Leslie West played at a slew of rock clubs known as discotheques. There was The Phone Booth, Cheetah, Ungano's, and a club on East 48th where The Vagrants were the house band, Scott Muni's Rolling Stone.

Muni was a Scotch aficionado who had the ability to function flawlessly even after imbibing. One evening there was a brawl on the street out front. He intervened and discouraged the participants from continuing their aggressive behavior so close to his establishment. He did it with fewer words than the last sentence. A short while later he felt ill. He went home early only to twist and turn all night with a harsh pain in his lower back. The ex-Marine toughed it out, but was shaken the next morning when he awoke to see his sheets covered in blood. During a sober investigation he realized he had been stabbed while breaking up the fight. Later that night he was back on stage with the Vagrants. It was only rock and roll.

In 1966 the F.C.C. ruled that FM stations could no longer simulcast their AM station's programming. On July 30th of that year The Troggs were the first group played on New York's first FM rock station WOR-FM. The station was the alternative to WABC, broadcasting in stereo with a progressive approach to Top 40 and a much looser presentation. Here a low-keyed Murray the K played what he dubbed the "attitude music" of Tim Hardin and Janis Ian. It was a station where a solitary bass solo played under Bill 'Rosko' Mercer as he curved commercial copy into hip poetry, "Don't blow your cool. Blow your mind at The Cheetah." It was where Scott Muni became "SM on FM" and was no longer restricted to an undersized music playlist. "At three o'clock we'll be back with the Top 40 sounds, the numbers, the survey show, the best of the new sounds, some gold too, everything for you."

WOR-FM instantly appealed to the college crowd. It created an enormous boost in FM radio sales and was soon the hippest station in town. RKO, the parent company, knew not of hip, but they realized rock music on FM could be profitable and began to take it seriously. The hired a serious Top 40 programmer from the west coast. Under Bill Drake the presentation became slick and the music playlist short. Discouraged, Murray the K, Rosko, and Scottso quit.

While WOR-FM was experimenting with progressive Top 40, WNEW-FM's format focused on easy listening pop presented by an all-female DJ staff. Although pleasant, it never captured the imagination of the listeners. On October 29, 1967, Alison Steele, the one DJ who would survive the coming transformation, announced "We've got a big doing here tomorrow. It's a freak-out that starts tomorrow and will go on and on and on. Well, I'll let the man tell you himself." Then their newest hire let the psychedelic cat out of the bag. "Hello, this is Rosko. Frankie and Johnny were lovers. They lived in a yellow submarine. WNEW-FM has a surprise, a new happening on the music scene every night on 102.7 starting October 30, seven to twelve midnight. It's out of sight. So you'll have to listen."

With that promised broadcast the following night, New York's first free-form rock station was launched. Soon Alison Steele re-invented herself and became "The Night Bird." Jonathan Schwartz, and TV's "cool ghoul," Zackerle joined the air staff, and the man who became the station's program director, innovator, and guru for the next three decades, Scott Muni, started as the afternoon DJ. WNEW-FM's impact on the area's youth was phenomenal. The music was exciting and experimental. They were the first station to play Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, The Grateful Dead, and countless others whose art stretched far beyond the boundaries of a 3-minute single.

In the mid 70's I was an executive at MCA Records. Lynyrd Skynyrd's second album was out and they were kicking some serious butt down south selling out stadiums and the like. In New York, "Sweet Home Alabama," a great single, got played for a week on WABC before they dropped it. To be honest I was astonished they ever played a tune celebrating the deep side of Dixie, but 7 days of limited air play does not make a band a household name. As unusual, it was WNEW-FM's airplay from cut one, album one, onward, that broke the group in New York.

One summer morning I got a call from Skynyrd's management. The plan was to book the band into The Capitol Theater, a Fillmore East clone located in beautiful downtown Passaic, New Jersey. Their management wanted a broadcast on WNEW-FM. That way, in addition to the few thousand hard core fans at the venue, hundreds of thousands could hear Skynyrd on the radio. I was asked to set it up. Scott instantly agreed as he knew Skynyrd were great and destined for stardom. I bought advertising on the station promoting the date, their latest album, and the broadcast and to hype the live gig the jocks started playing Skynyrd more frequently. Overall it was a good promotion for everyone, the band, the record company, the promoter, the station, and the fans.

On a chilly night in "Rocktober," as WNEW used to call the tenth month of the year, Scott and I made our way to Passaic. He wanted a pop before the show and there just happened to be a funky workingman's bar behind The Capitol. When we entered, the watering hole was bursting with Skynyrd fans loosening up before the show. The DJ was instantaneously surrounded by fans who bombarded him with drinks, questions and observations on the current rock scene. As always he was genial and accommodating. As show time approached I decided to leave the party and check in with my act.

Soon as I arrived backstage the frantic promoter announced, "The group won't go on."

"Why not?"

"Nobody told them about the live broadcast."

In the dressing room I was greeted by guitarist Allen Collins screaming, "You fucked us!"

After that welcome I figured it would be better to talk to the group's leader, Ronnie Van Zandt, in private rather than take on the entire Skynyrd crew. We adjourned to the hallway. Fortunately Ronnie and I were friends and often, while on the road, would discuss everything from country music, UFO's, women, and fresh water fishing. So there was an established trust between us and at that moment backstage in New Jersey I needed it. He told me the band weren't playing because they "didn't know nothing about any live broadcast," and were concerned about sound quality. I explained that it was WNEW-FM who had broadcast The Allman Brothers on the final night of The Fillmore East. I told him it was to the station's advantage, as well as the bands, to have the concert sound great, after all they were turning hours of their programming over to the concert. He recognized that I was sweating and working hard to sell him on the concept. He said, "That's all well and good, but nobody informed us about a live broadcast and we ain't doin' it." I countered with, "Your management requested it. I assumed they informed you." He smiled and said, "They didn't." Then he went back to the dressing room and I ran back to the bar.

Scottso, still surrounded by his drinking buddies was having a fine time. I squeezed through the horde and caught his ear.

"We got a problem."

"What's that fats?"

"Skynyrd refuses to go on."

He downed his drink, stood up, and said, "Thanks everybody, got to get over to the show."

The ecstatic throng parted and as we strolled through them they applauded. We hastily walked to the theater and I filled him in. Inside the opening act were just about done. Soon as the anxious promoter greeted him Muni asked, "You got a fresh bottle of Jack around here?" Instantly a bottle appeared. You can get anything you want backstage at a rock concert. We moved into the dressing room where I announced, "Here's the man who makes sure your albums are played on the radio here in the north, Scott Muni." They were respectful and thanked him with hugs and handshakes. Scott made eye contact with Ronnie and said, "We need to have a conversation, like, right now."

We left the room and the two men moved to a remote corner. I couldn't hear a word spoken, but watched as the bottle of Tennessee whiskey was passed back and forth with each guy taking a slug before handing it off to the other. After about ten minutes they strolled back toward the dressing room. Ronnie entered and Scott announced, "Show time." Within minutes he was onstage with the band. "Good evening, I'm Scott Muni from WNEW-FM. Please welcome our friends from Jacksonville, Florida, Lynyrd Skynyrd." They tore into their opening number and the audience exploded with a great reception. We caught a few tunes from the wings before Muni said, "We're outta here." Our driver was blasting the broadcast in the limo and Skynyrd were rockin' loud and clear. Scott poured two stiff ones from the vehicle's bar, clicked his glass to mine and said, "It always sounds better on the radio."

That was his style, casual and confident, and he carried it into the studio every day. When the royalty of rock visited, as they often did, he relied on his relaxed laid-back delivery and winged it. As a result, often his questions sounded a bit interminable. All he wanted to know from George Harrison was how he got together with Eric Clapton for their tour. It came out like this: "George, you, um, you love to play music and you love to record music, but I think one of the problems, with a George Harrison, from our stand point, the public, we want to hear you all the time. Right? So it's not possible that you're going to be recording all the time, nor is it possible that you have a group. So how did this thing happen with Eric Clapton? You wanna tell me?" Most guests flowed right along with it, but there was a problem with John Entwistle of The Who.

I had brought the band and it's individual members up for live chats many times. Muni particularly hit it off with their drummer Keith Moon. He didn't treat Moon like the insane maniac he was portrayed to be. He offered courtesy and respect and their chats were always entertaining. Entwistle's interview didn't go well as Keith's. It was bad. In fact, it may go down in history as the single worst interview in WNEW-FM's 30 year history. Scott began with one of his wordy questions and said something like, "My guest is a member of one of our favorite, certainly one of the world's favorite bands, The Who. Although, today he's here representing his other group, a band called Ox, and, uh, he is, of course, he is the man in The Who known as The Ox, our friend John Entwistle. Now before you say anything we want to, uh, clear up any misconceptions about The Who. Although, you're in town with Ox and all, the fact is The Who haven't broken up, and you are still very much a member of that band. Correct?"

"Yeah," Entwistle sheepishly replied.

The next 40 minutes resembled an early Monty Python bit. Muni tried to draw conversation out of the rock star as Entwistle stared straight at him offering blunt single syllable answers.

"Yeah."

"No."

"Right."

Scott played a few cuts from The Ox album and mercifully the session concluded. There was an uncomfortable coolness as I rode the elevator with John. We both knew the interview was atrocious. Finally I managed a smile and said, "That was unique." The Ox exploded, "He wouldn't let me get a bloody word in! He didn't shut up for half a bloody second! He bloody wouldn't let me speak!" He was stormed out of the building, bolted into the waiting limo, and took off. It was too bad he was annoyed, but he'd be leaving town soon and I had to deal with Muni on a daily basis so I returned to the studio to see how the Professor was doing. Appropriately enough, "Won't Get Fooled Again" was playing over the airwaves. I smiled and said, "That was interesting," and Scott replied, "I couldn't get a God damn word out of him. I had to do all the God damn talking."

This was never the case with Elton John. His frequent visits were entertaining and memorable. Captain Fantastic and The Professor even had a running gag going. It became routine that sometime during his visit Elton would talk about the designer dress Scott was supposedly wearing. He wasn't, of course. The lovely black sequined number Elton described was a pure figment of his imagination and humor. The DJ just laughed it off.

But on one occasion Elton was caught by surprise. That day he entered the studio to witness Muni sitting at the controls wearing a cheap housedress purchased at Woolworth's. He wore it for the length of the show proving he too had a keen sense of humor. Another reason the flamboyant superstar loved visiting was because Muni allowed him to literally take over. He would become "EJ the DJ" and Scott performed the role of engineer/co-host. Elton selected the music while Scottso cued it up and worked the board.

During the broadcasts Sir John used to enjoy a taste of the bubbly. Professor Muni stuck to Scotch. Inevitably, Elton would let loose and speak his mind. One muggy August afternoon in '74 when he was in town for a week of sold out gigs at the Garden he was offended by a New York Times review written by John Rockwell. He wrote that the concerts "offered wallpaper music of the most banal sort." Between records "EJ the DJ" lashed back live on the air, "If you are listening now, you asshole, come down here and I'll destroy you. I'll rip you to bits on the air. The New York Times had delusions of grandeur." While this tirade continued Scott just smiled and let him go.

Such an outburst would have caused heart failure at WPLJ, WNEW-FM's rival across town. PLJ started out as a progressive rock station, but by the mid 70's they were a homogenized variation on the theme. They actually had higher ratings than NEW, but the artists and record labels remained loyal to Scott by supporting the station with advertising and making sure he had all the hot new releases and interviews first. The reason was simple; PLJ had no problem playing the superstars like The Stones, or Dylan, or, in the case of my label, Elton John and The Who, but they wouldn't touch the new stuff.

Scott, on the other hand, gave any band that was halfway decent the opportunity to be heard by the most knowledgeable and passionate audience in the world. Some made it, others didn't, but ultimately the fans decided and the new artists all got a chance. Bruce Springsteen, Queen, U2, and hundreds of others got their first exposure in New York on WNEW-FM.

PLJ had a Program Director named Larry Berger. He was a nice enough guy, but all the attention his lower-rated competition received used to get under his skin. One Friday night his station was sponsoring a concert in Central Park. I don't remember who the headliner was, but the opening act was a new group on my label, Joe Grushecky and The Iron City Houserockers. Scott was playing their debut album, and typically PLJ was not. I took Mary Anne McIntyre, WNEW's music director, to the show to hear the band live. On our way in she gave me a new promotional button, "Rock Lives…WNEW-FM." I pinned it on, didn't think anything of it, and we caught the Houserockers set.

The following Monday, Berger called and he was irate. He couldn't believe I wore a WNEW-FM pin to a WPLJ event. It was so petty I had to laugh. I said, maybe it was a PLJ event, but I was there to see my act and brought along the music director whose station is the only one in town playing that act. He went on and on about how I favored WNEW-FM. He was right, but I lied and said I treated all the stations the same. He didn't buy it and the call was a disaster.

As fate would have it, later that sunny afternoon I was strolling up 5th Avenue and Larry was walking toward me. When our paths crossed I smiled and offered my hand. He wouldn't accept it. He wouldn't even make eye contact and stared at the sidewalk. I offered to buy him a drink, but he declined and walked on. I stopped off for a cold one and was amused when I saw my reverse image in the mirror behind the bar and realized I was wearing a WNEW-FM t-shirt. Sorry Larry.

The next night I told Scott the story. He laughed, but didn't believe I didn't know I was wearing the shirt. Then he bought me a drink.