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DANA PARSONS

Admiration for Real Don Steele Goes Beyond Words

August 10, 1997|DANA PARSONS

When I was a kid, some of my favorite people were the deejays who lived inside my tiny transistor radio and brought wit and sparkle and, of course, those great Top 40 records into my ho-hum life. How could it be that they always said the cool thing? And the funny thing?

And how to repay them for playing the music that moved me so?

Well, that was long ago. You could say I've had many format changes since then. Yet, one of my particular frustrations these last few days since the Real Don Steele died is trying to explain--even to myself--why I react so strongly to those boss jocks of yesteryear. Is it just the music they played? Why is it soothing now, 35 years later, to remember lying in bed late at night with the radio tucked between my ear and pillow, falling asleep either to the patter or the platter?

I seem to lack vocabulary to express myself on the subject, but an intuitive sense tells me that thousands, if not millions, of others know the importance of someone like Don Steele in their lives. For a generation of Angelenos and Orange Countians, Steele took them back to the mid-'60s when he first hit the air at KHJ.

For me, he goes back even further.

I was in junior high in Omaha from 1961-63 and during some or all of that period, the Real Don Steele had the 3 to 7 p.m. slot on KOIL. I'm sure I thought he was just about the most worldly guy around. How odd to read his obit last week and realize that, at 61, he would have been in his mid-20s when he was in Omaha.

No matter. The Real Don Steele was ultra-cool. I was trying to explain my latent passion for him and other deejays of that era to a friend who didn't live in Omaha in those days, and he suggested I contact a friend of his named Steve Brown, who did.

"As it turned out, I named him," Brown said on the phone from Omaha.

Now a morning talk-show host on KKAR, in the early '60s Brown was vice president in charge of programming for the company that owned KOIL, known locally as "The Mighty 1290."

"His real name was Don Revert," Brown said of Steele. "I gave him the moniker of 'The Real.' He was already Don Steele but how he had gotten Steele I can't remember. We hired him from Yakima and he had been on the air a few days, and he was good, but nothing particularly was happening in drive time, and I walked in one afternoon and said, 'Don, for the next couple hours, between now and the end of the show, every time you say your name, say, "Real" in front of it.' "

Steele wasn't overwhelmed by the idea, Brown said. "I said, 'Humor me, try it.' "

Only years later did Steele ask where the idea came from. "I told him," Brown said, "there was a TV show I loved called, 'To Tell the Truth,' hosted by Bud Collyer. The premise was that three people would each claim to be a person who had done something unusual, and the panel had to guess who was the real Joe Schwartz or whoever. At the end of the panel's questioning, Collyer would say, 'Will the real Joe Schwartz please stand up?' It was that simple. Those three words just jumped out at me."

From Omaha, Brown sent Steele to sister station KISN in Portland, where he was "very big." Within a couple of years, he was back in his native Los Angeles, and his legend began. I didn't remember the "Tina Delgado is alive, alive!" phrase that Steele used on his L.A. shows, and Brown also isn't sure whether Steele was using that in Omaha.

But it was obvious early on, Brown said, that Steele was a star. "I can't claim to have hired him, but I can tell you what makes the difference in deejays--at least, then and maybe now. It is an attitude, which you can hear in the first 15 minutes you heard them on the air. A totally outgoing attitude that gives you the impression they would do anything for the audience. Radio now has sadly become, with some exceptions, just a string of how many records you can play without stopping. Deejays were then, and still should be, the glue."

As was noted in his obit last week, Brown remembered Steele as uncommonly bright. He also said he was one of the funniest people he'd ever met and a consummate professional, dedicated to perfecting his delivery.

Brown understood my frustration at being unable to express why deejays like Steele and others of that era lock in our memories. "It is the music, it is the rock 'n' roll," Brown said, "but it's also the people who string it together."

My cop-out today is to say that maybe not everything important needs to be said or written. Maybe it's enough to be felt.

Anyway, I know how I felt when I phoned KRTH last week to get Steele's exact tenure in Omaha (which the station didn't have). While I waited on hold, the background music on KRTH's end was "Up on the Roof," an all-time favorite of mine that came out in the winter of '62-63.

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