Bob Clayton

If you grew up in greater Boston in the 1950s, you knew who Bob Clayton was.  He was one of the most popular disc jockeys in town, and teens loved to listen to his “Boston Ballroom” show on WHDH, 850 on their AM radio dial.  He was a personality deejay—he played the hits, interviewed the big stars, and gave up-and-coming singers a chance to be heard.  He also made a lot of appearances locally, and you hoped he’d come to your school to do a record hop.  But Bob Clayton had never planned on a career in broadcasting.  In fact, his career goal was to become a lawyer.

His birth name was Robert Harry Klayman, and like many Jews of his generation (he was born in 1914), he was raised in Dorchester, in what was then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.  He graduated from Boston Latin School, and then went to Northeastern University to study law; he received his JD in 1936.  After passing the Bar exam, he joined a downtown Boston law firm.  By now, he was married, and eventually, he and his wife would have a son.  But making a living was difficult for any new lawyer:  the Depression was still going on, and Boston already had a lot of well-established attorneys.  Then, World War II broke out, which meant many men of his age were getting drafted. However, his life took an unexpected turn:  instead of going into the military, Bob received an unexpected deferment.  It turned out he had perforated ear drums, a condition that kept him from being sent overseas, but left him stateside still needing a better job. And that is when radio came calling.     

When the men went off to fight in the war, that left numerous occupations desperately seeking qualified workers, and radio was one of those fields.  Yes, there were now women announcers and even women engineers, but the personnel shortages persisted. One night, Bob heard an ad on the radio about a twelve-week training course to learn how to become an announcer.  Hoping to supplement his income, he completed the course, and soon was hired by WHDH.  He didn’t know whether radio was for him, or whether he should go back to being an attorney.  But he decided to give broadcasting a try and see how it went.

One thing that happened when he got that first radio job, in February 1943, was he was told he should change his last name:  this was an era when having an “ethnic-sounding” name was frowned upon, so announcers (as well as movie stars and singers) were regularly invited to choose a name that sounded more neutral, more “American.”  For example, a popular Boston announcer known as Bill Marlowe was actually Bill Moglia; and that is why Bob Klayman became Bob Clayton. (In the mid-1950s, one of the few announcers of that time to break with the custom and keep his name, even though it had an ethnic sound to it, would be Arnie Ginsburg.)

At first, Clayton was a staff announcer, introducing pre-recorded features and programs that came from the NBC Blue network, as well as sometimes playing a few songs to fill time till the next feature began.  But his fortunes began to change when the Herald-Traveler newspaper acquired WHDH in 1945.  By 1946, the new management was hiring new talent, including Bob Elliott, soon to partner with Ray Goulding and become the beloved team of Bob & Ray.  There was a late afternoon shift open, and Clayton went from announcing the occasional song or feature to having a program of his own.  It was called “Boston Ballroom.”  (Putting the word “Ballroom” into the title of the show was very common during the big-band era, when announcers– who were just beginning to be called “dee jays” in the late 1940s– would utilize the power of imagination to make the listeners feel like they were at an actual ballroom, dancing to the biggest hits. And this type of show always had a theme song:  many of the Ballroom shows used “Let’s Dance” by Benny Goodman, and Bob Clayton made it his theme song too.)

In the late 1940s, big band music was still popular, and that was what Clayton played.  But even then, he quickly gained a reputation for knowing a hit when he heard one, or sensing which unfamiliar artist had hit potential.  Blessed with a warm and friendly voice, he was also someone his young listeners trusted. He seemed to enjoy reaching out to them and getting their opinion:  he became known for his listener polls, where he would ask the students at a given high school to take a survey and send him their top-10 songs.  Not only would he play some of the songs on Boston Ballroom, but he also gave shout-outs to the school and the students.  He also became known for in-person dances called “record hops” (then a relatively new term).  He made appearances all over eastern and central Massachusetts, at high schools and youth groups; his dances drew large and enthusiastic crowds, and there was never a hint of trouble:  Bob Clayton was not only popular with the teens, but their parents thought favorably of him as well.

By 1952-1953, new trends in the music industry were taking place, including the shift away from 78 rpm records over to 45s; this made disc jockeys happy because the shellac 78s were heavy and hard to carry, while the smaller and lighter 45s were much easier to take to appearances.  And young people were now expressing interest in what was first called “rhythm and blues” (or R&B), and would soon be called “rock and roll”; some of the students who came to Bob Clayton’s dances began asking for R&B songs, and he was introduced to a genre of music he had not played before.  By his own admission, he preferred the big bands, melodic jazz, and middle-of-the-road vocalists; but he wanted to make his audience happy.  As the music morphed from R&B into rock and roll, Clayton adapted to it, and continued to be a popular disc jockey.  And when some of the parents objected to rock’s driving beat or its questionable lyrics, he defended the teen audience and explained that the kids had every right to choose their favorite music, just as he had done when he was growing up. He reassured the adults that most teens were basically good kids and this new music would not affect them negatively.  Coming from someone with Clayton’s credibility, this undoubtedly made a difference.            

Like most deejays of his time, Bob Clayton was very influential.  Because his program was so popular, artists knew that getting airplay on Boston Ballroom could increase record sales, help make a song a hit, or in some cases, even rejuvenate an artist’s career.  He also had a good relationship with the record companies:  it was a time when announcers could still pick their own music, and Clayton enjoyed listening to the new records that came in, before deciding which ones he would add to his playlist or which artists he wanted to interview.  But sometimes, his friendships with the record companies got his competitors upset.  For example, all the top deejays wanted an exclusive whenever a new song by a major artist came out.  And if Clayton got the song (and the exclusive) first, announcers at other stations were resentful.  He had an ongoing feud with a former colleague, Norm Prescott, who had at one time worked for WHDH, but then went over to WORL and later WBZ.  Some of the feud was probably just showmanship, as both men sniped at each other on air or claimed to play the hits first.  But newspaper reporters wrote about their feud years later, noting that the dislike between the two did not seem like an act.  (On the other hand, the two men did bury the hatchet now and then, joining other Boston dee jays to volunteer for charity events; and they even appeared on a recording together—in 1956, the Boston-based Pilgrim Records put out a novelty 45 by the “Dee Jay Quartet,” which was comprised of Boston announcers Dave Maynard, Ned Powers, Norm Prescott, and Joe Smith, and it was produced by Bob Clayton.)   

But throughout his career, Bob Clayton was rarely associated with controversy.  He was well-known for his active involvement in philanthropy– supporting charitable causes like the March of Dimes; aiding Hungarian refugees who had escaped from Communism and hoped to be resettled in America; and hosting an annual Christmas party for inmates at the Norfolk Correctional Institution.  In addition to doing his late afternoon air-shift and appearing at record hops, he also dabbled in artist management—later, this would become a problem, but at the time, he seemed to believe it wouldn’t be.  He discovered a talented young female singer from Medford named Emilie Marie Surabian, and in 1951, became her manager.  She was signed to MGM Records, and the label changed her name to Cindy Lord; during the 1950s, she had many widely-played songs, some as a solo performer and some as part of the duo of Cindy and Lindy, with vocalist Lindy Doherty.  Clayton played some of those songs; he would later insist there was no conflict of interest and he did not give Cindy any special treatment, but by mid-1956, he was no longer her manager, a split he always said was amicable and was caused by his lacking sufficient time to devote to her career.

In early 1957, Newsweek magazine did a feature on the top disc jockeys in the United States; they named Bob Clayton as one of them.  By 1958, Boston Ballroom was so popular on radio that the management of WHDH wanted him to do a televised version.  American Bandstand with Dick Clark had become a huge national hit, and local versions were now popping up on quite a few stations.  (Clayton even got asked to host American Bandstand in August 1958 when Clark was on vacation; he was one of six well-known deejays asked to fill in.)  The TV version of Boston Ballroom made its debut on a Saturday night in late March 1958; on that first broadcast, his guests included such high-profile talent as Connie Francis, Frankie Avalon, and Bill Haley & the Comets.  And as he had always done, Clayton invited a group of teens from a local high school to be the kids who danced on the show; this was certainly an unforgettable experience, and schools competed to be chosen.  On his first show, the dancers came from Bridgewater High School; the next several shows featured dancers from Saugus High and Cambridge Catholic High.  The students were always chaperoned by adults from each school, reinforcing the belief that if Bob Clayton hosted the event, parents had nothing to worry about.  In 1959, the televised Boston Ballroom won an award from the Cambridge School of Radio-TV. Boston Ballroom remained on WHDH-TV until early 1963.  

The Payola Scandal, which unfolded in radio in the late 1950s, tarnished the careers of many announcers, nation-wide; well-known disc jockeys admitted to a congressional committee that they had taken money and gifts from record companies in exchange for giving certain songs an extra push (or playing them at all).  When Norm Prescott testified, he acknowledged that he had been among the dee jays who accepted payola; but he also accused Bob Clayton of unsavory practices, including making deals with record companies to get exclusives (whether an important new record, or an interview with an artist on his show). Clayton denied such practices when he testified in early 1960, and he also denied ever taking payola.  He stated that he had received Christmas presents and an occasional lunch from record promoters over the years, but said the total of what he had received was under $400.  And he vehemently denied Prescott’s claims, saying he had never entered into monetary deals with record companies for exclusives.  In the end, undoubtedly due to his good reputation, there were no repercussions from his testimony, and his career in broadcasting continued.     

Bob Clayton spent three decades at WHDH.  In the late 1960s, he left his announcing work to focus on being the station’s Music Director, but he continued to champion songs and causes he believed in.  After he retired in the early 1970s, he moved to Cape Cod, where he and his family had often vacationed in the summer, and he went back to being an attorney.  He died in February of 2002, at age 87.  For his long and impressive career, he was inducted posthumously into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2008.

(by Donna L. Halper)

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