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.
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 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."
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.