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Fans Recall When Radio First Rocked : Return with us to those exciting days of yesteryear when disc jockeys were kings and the new sound of rock 'n' roll ruled the airwaves

January 28, 1988|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — In his movie "Radio Days," Woody Allen took a nostalgic look at the golden age of radio as it sounded to a boy growing up in New York City during the 1930s and '40s.

In San Diego, the halcyon days of radio, in the minds of many, came in the late 1950s and early '60s.

It was a time when radio stations like "fun-lovin' KCBQ" were introducing a new kind of music with the strange name of rock 'n' roll, and when deejays like Don Howard and "Happy Hare" became teen idols.

Rock radio fans and disc jockeys recall those special times.

With a memory that would make elephants green with envy, Kathy Ontiveros recalled how important radio was to teen-agers growing up in San Diego in the late 1950s and early '60s.

"The radio never went off," she said, waxing nostalgic about her own years at San Diego High School, Class of '65. "We went to bed with the radio and we woke up with the radio; sometimes, we even kept the radio on all night, stuffed under our covers so our parents wouldn't know."

In those days, Ontiveros said, nearly every teen-ager's radio was tuned to KCBQ-AM (1170), San Diego's first, and most popular, rock 'n' roll station.

"I remember all the great things they did, all the great contests," she said. "There was this deejay who made random calls and played you a song, and if you could name it, you would win that record.

"One day my phone rang and somebody asked me to name a song I correctly identified as 'What's the Reason I'm Not Pleasin' You?' by Fats Domino. I got all dressed up to rush down to the station and pick up my 45, but when I walked out of the house, a bunch of my friends were on the sidewalk, laughing.

"It turns out, they had played a joke on me because they knew I listened to the radio all the time."

Ontiveros, now 40, still cherishes the autograph she got from her favorite deejay, Harry Martin, or "Happy Hare," as he called himself each weekday morning on "the fun-lovin' KCBQ."

'Tons and Tons of People'

"One morning, I heard he was going to be doing a promotion at a car dealership, so I hurried down and there were tons and tons of people waiting to meet him," she said.

"You couldn't even see him, but eventually I made my way through the crowd and got his autograph, which I still have somewhere in an old scrapbook."

In those days, Ontiveros added, "There were only a couple of big concerts in San Diego each year, so the deejays were our closest link to the music we all loved."

"They were our friends, our heroes, and we knew each one of them, on each station, by name," she said. "That scene in the movie 'American Graffiti,' in which the girl was calling up Wolfman Jack and crying over her boyfriend, was so true.

"They had a lot of power, a lot of influence on our lives, and we were constantly trying to meet them."

The "Happy Hare" himself, who retired from the airwaves in 1972 and now sells advertising time on country combo KSON-AM/FM (1240/97.3), vividly recalled the day KCBQ brought rock 'n' roll radio to San Diego in December, 1955.

"When we started playing that music, none of us thought it would do very well, but boy, were we wrong," Martin said. "Within a few months, our share of the audience went from 5% to between 30% and 40%, and for the next five years KCBQ was the highest-rated radio station in town.

"You know, I still remember the first Elvis Presley record we ever got. To us, he sounded like just another hillbilly, and we were wondering how he could possibly be as big as he was."

Before long, however, Martin overcame his initial aversion to rock 'n' roll and had even befriended many of the performers, including the late Ritchie Valens, whom he convinced to fly into San Diego and perform a one-hour concert at Clairemont High School in 1958.

"The school had just opened, and the principal called me up and asked if there was some way I could put on a special show," Martin said. "In my naivete, I phoned Ritchie Valens, who had three Top 10 hits at the time, and simply asked him to fly down here as a favor to me.

"He agreed, but when I picked him up at the airport and took him to the school, the gym where he was supposed to perform, wasn't ready. So he ended up singing out in the yard, on the hard Clairemont clay.

"He did all the songs he was famous for: 'La Bamba,' 'Donna,' 'Come On, Let's Go.' The kids went crazy, and then I put him back on a plane and sent him off again.

"That was the last time I saw him. A year later, he died in a plane crash."

Charles Wilson, who was Clairemont High's principal at the time, remembers that staging a rock concert on a high school campus was "a pretty daring thing."

"But we knew the kids really enjoyed the music, and we wanted to give them something special on opening day," he said. "Still, we were all very worried. We knew that if we got some raucous group in there, we might have problems.

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