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Deejays Were King in Heady Days of Radio : 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 40-year ride on the local airwaves, Don Howard, the dean of San Diego radio, has worn out enough vinyl to dry up a Texas oil well.

In his glory days of the late 1940s and early '50s, he received as many as 10,000 fan letters a week, was host of a Saturday afternoon "hit parade" show on local television and sang on stage with jazz great Lionel Hampton.

Later, as one of this town's pioneer rock 'n' roll deejays, he did a live remote broadcast with crooner Johnny Ray and, in 1956, emceed Elvis Presley's first San Diego concert appearance.

Since 1983, Howard has been going back to where it all began.

Each weekday from 5:30 to 10 a.m. on nostalgia radio station KPOP-AM (1360), he plays records like Pat Boone's "Moody River," Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" and Patti Page's "Old Cape Cod"--just as he did in 1948, the year he assumed his first air shift on KUSN-AM (1130), now news/talk station KSDO.

Only then, Howard recalled, instead of just spinning records, he and the handful of other local deejays had the power to make them or break them.

Very Glamorous Job

"Deejays in the 1940s and '50s were the next thing to movie stars," said Howard, now 61. "It was a very glamorous job; you selected the music you felt your audience should hear instead of merely playing what some program director told you to play.

"As a result, you were the grand pooh-bah. You had a lot of credibility; you commanded a great deal of respect. People would walk into the studio and hold up their requests to the glass, and when your shift was over, they'd ask you for autographs.

"After a while, so many people were coming around that we started taking requests by mail only. And there were times when I got up to 10,000 letters in a single week."

A San Diego native, Howard successfully auditioned for his first radio job in September, 1948, after completing just seven months of training at the Pasadena Institute for Radio.

He immediately began enhancing his new-found celebrity status by producing, emceeing and occasionally broadcasting concerts by Hampton, Nat King Cole and other pop stars of the day in San Diego High School's Russ Auditorium, the Tops Theater Restaurant (now Fat City/China Camp) downtown and the old Del Mar Hotel.

"Back then, radio stations didn't promote their deejays, so we had to promote ourselves," Howard recalled. "I've always been a half-baked singer myself, and a lot of times, I would sing a couple of songs before I brought on the headliner.

"One night, I was producing and emceeing a show by Lionel Hampton. I had just introduced him and had started to run off when he asked me to stick around and do a song with his band.

In hog Heaven

"I ended up singing two verses of 'Sunny' while they ad-libbed the music, and when I was done, I was in hog heaven."

Later, Howard branched out even further by becoming host of "The Saturday Parade of Hits" on KOGO-TV Channel 10 (now KGTV) and producing such albums as Gerry Mulligan's "Jazz Goes to High School," which was recorded live at Hoover High School.

In 1955, Howard left KUSN for a more lucrative air position on KCBQ-AM (1170), which had just signed on as San Diego's first rock 'n' roll station.

"Until then, I had been playing songs by people like Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton and the Four Freshmen," Howard recalled. "So when I was told to play rock 'n' roll, I was awe-struck: I didn't like the music, and I almost quit after three months.

"But the money was good, and since the kids were all going for it--in no time at all, KCBQ became the most popular radio in town, and stayed at No. 1 for more than five years--I decided to go with the flow instead of fighting it."

Howard's most vivid memory of his days as a rock jock is the night he introduced Elvis Presley to a capacity crowd of 10,015--"10,000 of whom were screaming girls"--in a downtown ice-skating rink called Glacier Gardens.

"It was a disaster," Howard said. "The girls tore the seat off his dressing room toilet and wrote obscenities all over his car; at the El Cortez Hotel, where he was staying, 12 women were arrested for taking off their clothes in the lobby.

Presley Was Banned

"Because of this reaction, the San Diego City Council declared Elvis Presley persona non grata and banned him from ever performing here again." (The restriction was later lifted, and Presley appeared here a second time in the mid-'70s, shortly before his death.)

In 1963, Howard left KCBQ--and rock 'n' roll--for the mellower pastures of KOGO-AM (600), now Top 40 station KKLQ. There, he played middle-of-the-road hits until retiring from the airwaves in 1979 to join the KOGO sales staff and, later, record commercials and open an advertising agency.

"Eventually, however, I realized I wasn't happy being off the air, so when all-news station KCNN offered me the opportunity to go back to my first love and host a weekend nostalgia show, I grabbed it," he said.

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