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WATTS: THE LEGACY : 'Burn, Baby, Burn!' : What Began as a Radio Disc Jockey's Soulful Cry of Delight Became a National Symbol of Urban Rebellion

August 12, 1985|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

PALM SPRINGS — To his middle-aged audience, the man who calls himself Montague is a mellifluous disc jockey whose local FM radio show is devoted to '40s music--Big Band hits, Broadway musical tunes, Frank Sinatra. He reads his own poetry on the air, and he delights in frequent fan letters, like the one informing him that his program is now piped through the grounds of a mobile home park.

His listeners could not imagine that the same voice that now introduces Bing Crosby once invented the catch phrase that inadvertently became the slogan of the Watts riot.

Twenty years ago, Magnificent Montague was the hottest voice on Los Angeles' leading black-oriented radio station, KGFJ, broadcasting rhythm-and-blues music. He had arrived from New York in early 1965, bringing with him a vibrant style forged by years of work on small black-oriented stations, where survival depended on a disc jockey's ability to develop a unique personality.

His slightly raspy, almost haughty East Coast accent and blistering pace mirrored the raw, throbbing sounds of Otis Redding, Ray Charles, James Brown and scores of other popular rhythm-and-blues singers. He came to Los Angeles with a mountain of on-the-air gimmicks, one of which was a harsh, soulful cry of delight he often shouted during a record he particularly enjoyed:

"Burn, baby, burn!"

It has dogged him ever since.

For in the first hours of a hot August night 20 years ago, when hundreds of angry young blacks began setting buildings and cars afire on Imperial Highway and Avalon Boulevard and Main Street, they triumphantly screamed the most evident and analogous and hip thing at hand:

"Burn, baby, burn!"

"It was bigger than me. It's always been bigger than me," Montague says now with a tinge of resignation, an unusual mood for the short, trim and fiercely independent man of 57.

Montague's phrase had been on the streets for months before Watts blew up. He had thrown it into his patter years earlier, in Chicago and New York, but in Los Angeles he added a twist: He invited his primarily black teen-age listeners to telephone KGFJ during his morning show and participate. They deluged him, and each day the opening seconds of many songs were punctuated by frantic voices telephoning on their way to school:

"My name's Thomas Rush! I go to John Muir Junior High and I want to say, 'Burn, baby, burn!"'

Inside the studio, Montague might growl back to his caller: "Burn, baby!"

Or, like a preacher transfixed by the power of the message he was sending, he might simply shriek in high, wailing ecstasy. Or he might demand of all who listened, "Put your hand on the radio and touch my heart!" Or, as the record faded out, vocals and horns and drums and bass lines diminishing, he might declare it simply too good to end: "Back it up and gimme four more bars!" And the last 20 seconds of the record would be played again.

The intensity of the show formed an unusual bond between the performer and his audience, as the riot progressed and "Burn, baby, burn!" became an instant, national symbol of urban rebellion, it became easy to presume that the disc jockey had somehow helped kindle or at least sustain the rioting.

Yet, as he explained during a recent interview in the small radio station that he and his wife established in Palm Springs two years ago, few blacks were further removed from Watts than Magnificent Montague.

Not only did he not live there, he did not know it existed. Nor did he feel the slightest social or political kinship with the rioters of Watts, or with the innocent residents whose neighborhoods were destroyed. Nor was he alarmed enough by the violence to immediately cease using "Burn, baby, burn" on the air; he reluctantly agreed to drop it on the third day of the riots after requests from city officials and his station's management. Nor did he--or does he now--feel any responsibility for what happened.

"The words didn't make them burn," he said. "The words were already there. I just put together the melody."

Irony in the Boast

He relishes his two years on KGFJ: "No one ever touched L.A. like the Montague fever did." But there is some irony in that boast. For had Montague not been so charismatic, his trademark might not have spread so swiftly through the flaming nights of August.

"Someone else might have said 'Burn, baby, burn, ' but not with the energy he could lend it," said Roland Bynum, a KGFJ disc jockey who listened to Montague while a college student in Los Angeles and was hired to fill Montague's slot in 1967, when Montague quit to pursue a record-producing career.

"Montague could really work an audience up and get them involved," Bynum said. "I consider him one of the great salesmen."

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