By Jay Jay French
A year ago I wrote an article in this very column called “Loving The Beatles (In Real Time).” I wanted to explain to my readers what it was like for me to be 10 years old and have The Beatles fed to me through the radio via the No. 1, Top 40 radio station in New York City. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Youtube.
Of course, there were only three ways to connect with your rock ‘n’ roll heroes:
1. The newsstand specialty magazines (which popped up seemingly overnight the minute The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show),
2. Buying the 45s and albums (if you could talk your parents into it!), and…
3. The voices on AM radio that fed you a steady diet of the music and information about the artists.
The disc jockeys of the day were our connection to the current hits and the hits to come. The voices of the deejays at that time were (and are) cemented into our musical references and individual histories. It was 1964, I was living in NYC, and I was glued to 77 WABeatleC, “The No. 1 station in the nation!”
Of all the jocks on the station, there were three who had the greatest effect on me: Afternoon jock Dan Ingram, early evening jock Scott Muni and the nighttime jock, who also did the weekly Top 40 countdown, Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow).
I recently sat down with Bruce Morrow for an interview about what it was like to be one of the most important deejays of the era. I wanted to know what it was like to be the first person to bring The Beatles into our homes; what it was like to meet The Beatles for the first time; what it was like to introduce them and Ed Sullivan at the Shea Stadium concert; and I wanted to know Morrow’s thoughts on rival deejay Murray the K (“The Fifth Beatle”).
Bruce did this interview at the SiriusXM studios in NYC where he has a radio show. At 82, his energy rivals that of 20-year-olds and his voice — that voice — is exactly the same as it was when I was 10 years old. He may be the sole working deejay who remains from that golden era when AM radio ruled our lives. His graciousness and warmth toward me was incredible.
A couple of days after the interview, I realized that, in addition to my questions about The Beatles and Murray the K, I wanted to know the answer to one more question: how it was to experience and broadcast the trauma on November 22, 1963 — just five weeks before The Beatles were played on WABC for the first time — the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Jay Jay French: What was it like to be on the air the night of the Kennedy assassination?
Bruce Morrow: I remember I was in my car on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn with my wife. (Dan Ingram was on the air.) After hearing about the assassination, we pulled over (illegally parked) for an hour trying to catch our breath. I went into work at WABC that evening in a very somber way. I didn’t go on as “Cousin Brucie” with all the sound effects and jingles. Our program director Rick Sklar took off all commercials (for the first and only time) and we just played ballads and I was very sad on the air. The audience felt the same as I did.
Shortly after the announcement that afternoon, the news crew took over for Dan’s time slot. No promos, no shtick. Just very somber. This lasted until the following Monday.
JF: Your first job at NY radio was at WINS. How did you move over to WABC?
BM: In 1961, I was a producer at WINS. AFTRA, the union that represents on-air talent, went on strike and as I was “management” — but with previous radio on-air experience (a year on the radio in Bermuda at station ZBM). They asked me to take a radio shift. That proved so successful that they put me under contract immediately following the strike. About a year in, on a cold winter’s night in late ‘61, I took the nickname Cousin Brucie. [A story for another time.]
WABC wasn’t a pop music station yet; WMCA was the other music station playing music a little bit.
I moved to WABC shortly thereafter in 1962, when it became a pop music station.
JF: The Beatles entered the WABC chart at No. 35 for the first time on December 24, 1963. The next week, it jumped to No. 1. Why? Could you feel it? What was going on?
BM:The station management turned down The Beatles several times in early 1963. We (the management) couldn’t hear it, didn’t understand it. Then we started noticing that there were riots overseas. Our eyes started popping. We really started listening a little more.
JF: So what really happened?
BM:The hype started. We started to listen to The Beatles’ music (on various independent labels) on Swan (“She Loves You”) Vee Jay (“Please Please Me”) and Tollie (“Twist and Shout”).
The Beatles were not given to us by God. They were really talented but the Lord didn’t say, “Here are The Beatles, thou shalt enjoy them and feast!” No. It’s called money. Money makes the world go round. A lot of hype and a lot of promotion.
The first time I played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (which had to have occurred on either December 24, 1963 or a day later), a record company promotion man — accompanied by an armed guard — came to my show with an attache case handcuffed to his hand with the record. I wasn’t allowed to play it before 9pm (a nationally imposed debut broadcast order by the record label) that particular evening. It’s important to note that WABC was the most powerful [meaning that the station had 50,000 watts of broadcasting power — most others had only 5,000 watts] and in the evening you could hear WABC in 40 states!
At exactly 9pm that night I put on “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (interestingly a cartridge, not a 45rpm single), and the place went wild.
At 9:03:22 (actual song time 2:22) I put it on again. I played it 8 times in a row! The phones went crazy. Record stores were calling. Radio stations all over the nation asked us to send them our actual on-air recording of the debut so they could replay it. We were the first ones (nationally). The hype started. The record company spent huge amounts of money behind it for promotion. It went to No 1. because it was like an express train. There was excitement. I was more excited than the fans! The Beatles were a light in the night to save our industry!
It went to No. 1 because of record sales, pressure from the record company and phone calls from listeners to the station.
JF: So how did Murray the K usurp every other jock in the U.S. and become “The Fifth Beatle” — and how did you feel about this?
BM:This is typical Murray the K. The poor man is gone. The way he died (cancer) was pretty bad. They (The Beatles) did not like that he was calling himself “The Fifth Beatle.” His ratings at WINS were not good but he latched onto something. He did very well with it.
JF: Were the charts manipulated in those days by outside forces that were not just record sales?
BM: Yes. The numbers were moved (by Rick Sklar, program director) to reflect many competing forces.
[Note: At this point in the interview, I showed Bruce a WABC chart from early April 1964. The Beatles had held the No. 1 spot for four solid months, with 30 Beatles songs on the charts and the Hot Prospects list. Only Louis Armstrong knocked The Beatles off the No. 1 position with “Hello, Dolly!” a couple of weeks later that April.]
JF: Was there ever a point where you (or the station) had Beatle fatigue?
BM: No. We were so grateful that something was happening in the industry that was going to save our asses! Pop radio had gotten tired. Everything was now changing because of The Beatles.
Then all those other artists (i.e., the British Invasion) came over.
JF: When you interviewed The Beatles for the first time, what were your impressions of them?
BM:John was very interested in my questions and really paid attention. Paul, not so much. He seemed to give pat answers. Ringo and George sat on the arms of the couch in the hotel and didn’t talk very much, but they were all very nice to me.
JF: Did you see The Beatles live?
BM:Yes. I introduced Ed Sullivan, who introduced The Beatles at Shea Stadium. That is some story: we were all in the dugout waiting for The Beatles to get to the stage. It was crazy — 50,000 kids. This never happened before in concert history. It could have been a disaster. It really was kind of scary.
John turned to me and asked me if it was going to be all right. He really was scared. So was Paul. I said, “John, it’s going to be fine.” Honestly, I had no idea if that was true but that’s what I said.
As we walked to the stage, Ed Sullivan turned to me and asked me if we were going to be safe. I turned to Ed and said, “Pray, Ed. Pray!”
The kids were screaming. You couldn’t hear anything above the screams but they were all just so happy that they shared the same space as The Beatles.
It could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.
JF: Were you amazed at the evolution of The Beatles?
BM:Yes, if you go back to ‘63, ‘64 — as soon as I got involved, I saw what was going on and I saw the excitement of the audience. I go by my gut. I don’t like numbers. I’m not a numbers guy. I want to know what people are thinking. I knew right away that the audience was going wild (for The Beatles)
In all my career, I’ve never ever felt anything like this. Did I know they were going to be sociologically significant? No. I’m not that smart — musically, yes — but I didn’t know that they would take over our lives!
JF: Thank you, Cousin Brucie!
Jay Jay French is the founding member, guitarist and manager of Twisted Sister. This is French’s first Now We’re 64 Beatles-related column for Goldmine. French is also a motivational speaker and writes a business column for Inc. com.