Jim LaBarbara on the air in Cincinnati, 1980s.
Jim LaBarbara: A Life Amplified
Through Radio and Rock 'n' Roll
By Randy McNutt
When the golden age of the 45-rpm single is re-examined, future historians will undoubtedly give proper credit to local disc jockeys who made and played the hits. One of them is Jim LaBarbara, late of Erie, Cleveland, Denver, Cincinnati, and other cities. Not only did he play the hits, but he interviewed and knew many of the singers and musicians who recorded them. He also has the distinction of being a major air personality in two great Ohio music towns.
One of the most knowledgeable air personalities in radio recalls his long career in Jim Labarbara, The Music Professor: A Life Amplified Through Radio and Rock 'n' Roll. It's not just another DJ book, nor is it a superficial one. It is a personal and career memoir, a rock history, and a tribute to the radio industry that employed him for fifty years. And it's also a lot of fun to read. Its many photographs give a sense of being there.
The radio industry that he discusses is mostly gone today. When he started in it in the late 1950s, the business was still wacky and wide open to people with big ideas. In the 1970s, I used to listen to LaBarbara--the Music Professor--on WLW Radio in Cincinnati, when he played the hits and then interviewed their artists. (I find it hard to believe that the same station today is mostly talk radio, but then that has happened all over the country.) If I missed his show, I thought I possibly missed something special. More recently, he played oldies on the popular WGRR in Cincinnati. Lately he has turned to chronicling his career, and with this book he proves that he can write with flair. He weaves his own story--a college kid wants to get into radio in the late 1950s--with the concurrent stories of singers who were making hit records in the early days of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. Over the years, he interviewed hundreds of them, including Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, Neil Diamond, John Denver, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. And yes, the book offfers anecdotes about dozens of them. Those anecdotes, including the ones he tells about himself, make the book interesting.
He worked in a time when radio was still exciting and creative. His radio career began at small stations in Pennsylvania, his home state. "I drove my new . . . light-blue 1959 Jaguar XK150 with red leather . . . 150 miles to Erie on a few hours sleep," he writes in a chapter titled "J. Bentley Starr," his on-air name then. "The receptionist laughed when she saw me. She still had all the postcards I sent. I was so tired, but I wanted to go on from seven to midnight. I felt terrific; my adrenalin was pumping, and about eleven o'clock that tnight, I got an idea. I was going to hijack the station. WWGO had the transmitter controls in the same area as my on-air studio. I had control of the station. They couldn't take me off. When the all-night man came in, I locked him out after putting the news microphone in the hall. He was a college student and didn't care; he studied. I put a huge desk in front of the door and stacked cabinets on top and barricaded myself in the studio. I was replacing a guy who left to go across the street to 'Jet,' the number-one station. It was shameless self-promotion: 'Hey everybody, look at me! Here I am.' It worked. The next morning by 9 a.m., the whole city knew I was in town, but my boss wasn't happy because I missed playing some commercials. [While on the air] he fired me a couple of times, but I had to tell him to watch his language because I had the news microphone in the hall turned on. A local high school team came to break the door down. During most of that time, I played one record--"C'mon and Swim" by Bobby Freeman--and introduced it differently every time . . . It drove me crazy; I can just imagine what listeners thought." When the marathon ended thirty-some hours later, his boss agreed to keep him. When LaBarbara finally went to his car to go home, however, he found a lot of parking tickets waiting.
Eventually, he became the station's music director as well as a DJ. He stayed in Erie into the British Invasion, when he played both a British and American countdown show every night. When the Beatles visited Pittsburgh in 1964, he asked them before the show, "The 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah' in the song 'She Loves You,' was that inspired by your Liverpool friends Gerry and the Pacemakers' song 'I Like It'? Where did you get it? They all stood up [from the interview table] and mocked me, singing, 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.' Everybody got a good laugh."
He left Erie in 1966 to work for WKYC, a 50,000-watt Top 40 station in Cleveland, and WIXY. He used his real name. That year, WKYC promoted a Rolling Stones concert. The opening act was the McCoys of "Hang On Sloopy" fame. [Now the official state rock song of Ohio.--RM] LaBarbara writes: "The McCoys told me, 'We heard you on the radio last night. We're not from Dayton, Ohio, we're from Union City, Indiana.' They were upset, but that's what their record company told me. Their hit . . . was a giant, and I played it a lot. Yes, it bothered me a little that these high school kids, instead of saying, Thanks for playing our records. By the way, we are not from Dayton, but we were discovered in Dayton by the Strangeloves ("I Want Candy") when we did a concert with them, chose to be abrasive." But that's not all that bothered LaBarbara that night. "A teenage listener of WKYC won a contest," he continues, "and was invited backstage to meet the Rolling Stones in their dressing room. She made a cake and was excited to give this to her favorite band. The Rolling Stones took the cake from this little, bubbly thirteen-year-old, laughed about the cake, and proceded to throw it into a nearby toilet and flush it. She started to cry while they continued to giggle. We all thought they were jerks. I made a comment to one of my fellow jocks that I'd never play another one of their records. Of course that was difficult to do, but I sure didn't go out of my way to play them. They were dispicable in every sense of the word."
He changed his opinion of the Stones, however, when he saw them perform in 1972 in Denver. "They were a lot more professional than six years earlier," he says. "Mick [Jagger] worked the audience like Wayne Newton playing to the blue-haired angels in Las Vegas. I became a Rolling Stones fan . . . ."
LaBarbara was impressed and shocked at times by what he saw on stage and behind it. Once, "I got shocked for the first time on stage . . . I was standing in a little puddle of sweat when I grabbed the microphone to take off [stage] a soaking wet Mitch Ryder. It hurt, but I kept it to myself."
He is reminded of a conversation he had with Jerry Lewis, who visited the radio station when his son Gary had some hits. "What advice did you give Gary?" LaBarbara asks him. "He said, 'Just make sure you can look at yourself the next day in the mirror.' A simple sentence but more complex than you might think."
In the '60s, LaBarbara was excited to work in Cleveland, one of the nation's top radio markets. In 1967, he says, he and Ken Scott tied for second place behind the popular Jerry G. in a Billboard magazine radio response rating for the city. "I was flattered to be in that company," he says. Cleveland was one of America's top radio markets.
Another LaBarbara story comes from Sonny Bono, just after he and Cher had divorced. The incident reveals the way the entertainment business works. To the public, Bono had went from big star on records and television to nobody, he tells LaBarbara, with people asking what he would do now that he didn't have Cher. People saw her as the major part of the act. "I had built this whole thing," he tells Jim. "I had written all the songs--ten million-selling songs. I had written the show I had created; I worked eleven years, devoted to this act. And when everything was shaken down, I came out really holding a fig leaf. You know, I thought, I don't ever want to do that again. So, I want to do things, and at least get recognized for what I do."
Turning to politics, Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs and later a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He later died in a skiing accident.
Another telling incident came years later, when the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum recognized famous DJ Bill Randle, LaBarbara's good friend and the man who once brought Elvis to Cleveland. "I was asked to sit on the dais," LaBarbara says. "As I sat there on stage, I thought about the irony. The one place I knew he had total disdain for was the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He told me that seventy-five to eighty percent of all the people [enshrined or noted] in there are accused or convicted felons. He certainly didn't like the politics involved with the selection process."
When the 1960s ended, and campus life erupted in violence, LaBarbara decided to move to Cincinnati, where he did a radio show that allowed him to conduct interviews with recording artists and play records. He became Jim LaBarbara, the Music Professor.
Class is still in session.
Coming soon to Home of the Hits blog: More tales of rock 'n' roll and AM radio days from Jim LaBarbara's new book. He will be making appearances in Cleveland and Cincinnati to promote it.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Jim LaBarbara, the Music Professor:
A Life Amplified Through
Radio and Rock 'n' Roll
Author: Jim LaBarbara
Publisher: Little Miami Publishing, Milford, Ohio.
Pages: 400; hardbound
Photos and illustrations: 50-plus
Publication date: October 1, 2011