A Tribute to the Real Father of Classic Rock Radio

Read more at MMONE about radio institution Dick Summer here.

It wasn’t “Classic Rock” all those years ago. It really didn’t have a name at first. But it was definitely a new kind of music. It was music on fire. Hendrix, Morrison, Clapton. When I heard it for the first time it took me a week to get my eyes closed. Here’s the perspective: AM radio was still king. Big 50,000-watt flame throwers like WBZ in Boston, WABC in New York, WLS in Chicago, and KFI in Los Angeles ruled. Almost all of them were built on tight top forty foundations. In fact, the play list at WABC was frequently more like the top twenty, with the emphasis on the top three — “All Hits All The Time.” Jingle, jangle, jingle. The FORMAT was the BOOK. Except at WBZ. Now it can be told: WBZ never had a format. The guys on the air played whatever we wanted to play, including records from our own personal collections, and tapes from local artists. And in between every single record/tape, we had fun. Oh we had fun. And people loved it. Today’s top radio stations pull around a ten rating in a major market. WBZ consistently pulled north of a twenty five. The mouths at WBZ belonged to Carl deSuze, Dave Maynard, Jay Dunn, Jeff Kaye (and later Ron Landry) Bob Kennedy, Bruce Bradley and me. But the brains, and a lot of the heart of the station belonged to the Program Director, Al Heacock. Al was smart. He was a quiet guy who made a lot of money in the stock market. But he really didn’t care about the stock market. Al cared about his radio station, WBZ. It was a station with “‘tude.” When we broadcast from our mobile studio, which was most of the time, we proudly wore our station blazers. It wasn’t unusual at all for one of us to drop in on somebody else’s show and kibitz for a while. When you walked down the beach, you didn’t need to bring your own radio, because everybody around you would have ‘BZ turned on and turned up to stun. If you stopped your car for a red light, you could always hear ‘BZ coming out of the speaker in the car stopped next to you.

For those of you who never heard the station, and for those of you who work in radio and are curious about the legend that was WBZ, here’s how Al programmed his music: Each month there was a staff meeting. At the meeting he would always remind us to play some of the top tunes he left in the rack in the studio. And then he’d say, “I don’t want to hear two records back to back. We pay you guys to entertain. Entertain.” What a joy it was, what an honor, to be a WBZ D.J.

Here’s where the “Father of Classic Rock” stuff comes in. Because it’s a big college town, Boston has always had a strong Folk Music tradition. At ‘BZ we were consistently playing original tapes of unreleased songs like “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “The Urge for Going” by Tom Rush, all kinds of stuff by Dylan, and Joan Baez, and Sweet Judy Blue Eyes Collins. I was doing a weekly MC gig at the Unicorn Coffee House, a major Folkie spot in town. And I noticed that some of the artists were beginning to go electric. I invited Al to attend one night, and he immediately understood. The next day, he instigated ‘BZ’s only mandatory music rule: “One ‘Liquid Rock’ song (that’s what he called the new music) per hour.” Almost immediately the new music picked up the nickname “Underground Rock.” The name was the only thing Al got wrong. He set aside two hours on Sunday evening for the first big time “Underground Rock” radio show, “Dick Summer’s Subway.” Then Dylan went electric, Eric Clapton formed Cream and Woodstock forged a new musical and political conscience for America… and it went roaring out on WBZ’s 50,000 watt clear channel signal from Massachusetts to Midway Island in the Pacific. (I have an air check.) And the suits at Group W Radio were aghast. It wasn’t top forty. It wasn’t anything they recognized. They didn’t like it. They wanted it stopped… right now. Al just very quietly said no. For a while, even the suits didn’t want to mess too much with a 25 rating in Boston. Then Arlo Guthrie did a song called “Alice’s Restaurant,” featuring a line about the “mother rapers and the father rapers on the Group W bench.” The lawyers at headquarters freaked. The President of the Group took a flight from New York to talk sense into this crazy program director Heacock. “Get it off the air now” was the order. Al very quietly said “no.” It was a classic Radio Guy vs. Big Suit moment. And Mr. Suit blinked. The order was changed to “well at least edit that line out” Al very quietly just said “no.” So Mr. Suit decided to drop in on me on the Subway show “for a friendly visit.” The engineer called Al to alert him to the situation. Ten minutes later, Al was at the studio, and asking Mr. Suit to join him for a quick meeting… out of the studio. That’s the last I heard of the problem.

Shortly after, Al was transferred to WINS in New York. A few months later, Group W turned off the music at WINS, and started a highly successful all-news format there. And just a few weeks after that, Al was found dead in his shower. They called it a coronary. But I think they just broke his heart.

The great Tom Donahue climbed on “Underground” music on his FM station out in San Francisco, Classical Music WBCN went FM rock in Boston, WNEW-FM went rock in New York, and in a little while, FM killed the AM king. It probably would have happened anyway. But the point is that when you hear “Stairway To Heaven”, or “Light My Fire” you’re listening to one of the many echos of the quiet but firm “no” WBZ’s Al Heacock said all those years ago. I may have mixed up some of the specifics — it has been a long time — but that’s how I remember it.

So here’s to the real “Father of Classic Rock Radio.” A guy you probably never heard of. A guy who knew how to “just say no”. WBZ’s Al Heacock.

Rest in peace my friend. You taught me more than even you knew. You set me free on the air. Free… the way the air should be. You were a lesson in how to be a real gentleman…a real and gentle man. And for a whole generation of people who love music, you set the world on fire.

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