Peter Cavanaugh Interview
Peter Cavanaugh was in the right place, at the right time, with the right
He launched his career as a disc jockey or “DJ” just as rock “n” roll
was breaking through in a Big Way.
He started that career at WNDR Radio in Syracuse, New York, in the late 1950’s.
Peter has written a book about his life in Rock “n” Roll Radio,
titled, “Local DJ, A Rock “n” Roll History”.
We talked to Peter about those early days of his in radio, with the emphasis
on his days in Syracuse.
Q – Well, Peter I guess you know we lost one of
the jocks at WNDR.
A – Jim O’Brien, a good friend of mine. I broke him in on the board.
He was a Senior at St. Anthony’s (High School). He was a really good
parochial school pitcher too. I had broken him in. He was a good friend of
mine through the years. I was sad to see that. As a matter of fact, I’ve
talked to one of his daughters since and I hope to see her next time we get
Q – When did you start working at WNDR?
A – I was on WNDR, ’57, ’58, and then on WFBL in ’59,
and then back to “NDR” from ’60 to ’63. That’s
when I left Syracuse and came out to Flint, ( Michigan).
Q – I would guess that WNDR Radio was really the “leader” when
it came to Rock “n” Roll music in Syracuse.
A – See, the original rock station in Syracuse, really, in a way was
WOLF with that “Buckaroo Sandman” because that’s where they
played Elvis and a lot of the country stuff that eventually became part of
rock “n” roll. Then WFBL did a Top 40 Show in the afternoon from
like 3 until 7. Only when WNDR came on the air and I was a freshman at Cathedral,
so that had to be ’55, that it became the first 24 hour rock station
as far as Top 40. “NDR” went from like a 3 share to a 50 share
in half an hour. So then after that WOLF came along and “FBL” sort
of went to good music and back to rock again, and then a lot of changes through
the years. I guess what I’m saying is, I had the fortune of coming onboard
just as that whole bubble was taking off.
Q – If you wanted to be a disc jockey, you were
certainly in the right place at the right time…..
A – Oh, oh, oh…..oh, yeah! All these older guys thought it sucked-----“We
don’t want to play that kids music”. You see that stuff on t.v.
where they’re burning the Elvis Presley records-----all that shit went
on! I remember WFBL took out a big ad in the Herald Journal (Newspaper) apologizing
for playing rock music when they went back to sort of an adult format. See,
FBL did it halfway. They’d have the Top 40 thing in the afternoon. Plus,
one of the biggest things happening with WOLF and the “Buckaroo Sandman
Show”; they had the Buckaroo Sandman Show which was pretty much popular
Q – Your job at WNDR was answering phones on weekends
for 50cents an hour, after hanging around the station.
A – Yeah.
Q – Why didn’t someone tell you to leave?
A – ‘Cause I was a real pain in the ass!! Here’s what I did:
after WFBL had come on, I was listening to WOLF at the time ‘cause of
the “Sandman” Show-----they had Elvis, The Big Bopper, Johnny Cash,
Carl Perkins, and all those guys. When WFBL came along with the Top 40 thing,
definitely I listened to “FBL”, but, then once “NDR” started
playing rock “n” roll, 24 hours a day, that became my favorite
station. So, obviously I thought that’s the cool place in town, that’s
where I want to hang-out. So, I was mowing lawns when I was 14, 15 years old,
saving my money. I worked in a library when I was like 14 or 15. I saved my
money and bought a tape-recorder, an RCA reel-to-reel tape-recorder. I made
up a show called “Vista View”. It was to show these guys how to
really do radio. (Laughs). I had these various segments that I recorded at
home in my bedroom. I sent a copy to Bill Quinn, who was the Program Director
of WNDR. I had this letter saying you guys might think you got it together,
but, there’s a lot better ways to do it. (Laughs). When I think back
now-----the audacity!! But, he called up and said “Mr. Cavanaugh, this
really wouldn’t be what we would be interested in having. If you’d
like to come out and see the station, we certainly would like to have you”.
I thought, oh, man. So, I came out there and introduced myself. I sort of hung
around until they gave me a job on the phones, and one thing led to another.
To this very day, you just hang around. If you’re lucky and you pay attention,
eventually some doors open.
Q – How did you get the opportunity to go on the
A – Originally I would work out there weekends answering the phones and
then I got out of Cathedral at like 2:30 in the afternoon so I would usually
hitch-hike from Syracuse out to Dewitt and I would answer the phones from 3 ‘til
7 o’clock. They put me into News first, and I worked in the morning with
Glen Williams and then some of the older guys. That’s how I learned how
to type, on the old thing in the newsroom. We spent a lot of time on news.
As I mentioned in the book. Buck Stapleton and WNDR Action Central News, there
was really a lot of work there. I did News for awhile, but it was kind of paying
dues ‘cause I wanted to be a disc jockey. That was the cool thing. WNDR
used to sign off midnight Sunday for transmitter maintenance ‘til 5 o’clock
in the morning and WOLF when they went Top 40 they didn’t sign off ‘til
1, so the Program Director decided to leave us on ‘til 1. So, put me
in coach. I want to do the midnight to one thing, o.k.-----fine. So, that’s
how I got my first disc jockey show. Then I started doing Cleeko Club, when
sponsors would actually buy hours of block programming to play the music. And
Cleeko Club had the Cleeko Club Saturday Night Dance Party. They wanted a teenager
to do it. So I got my regular show 7 to midnight. I was still a junior in high
school then. By the time I was a senior in high school I was pulling a regular
7 ‘til midnight jock shift. Once I got into college I was doing mornings
from 6 ‘til 9 and then afternoons from 4 ‘til 7. So, I was doing
morning and afternoon drive for about 4 years.
Q – Did you know Bud Ballou?
A – Oh, sure. He was after me. We never worked together. I knew him enough.
You have to remember, sadly in some ways, and not so sadly in other ways, there
was bitter competition between the radio stations. So, I knew him kind of as
a rival. But, the few times we did meet…..I came to Michigan in early ’64,
and that’s when he was just getting started in Syracuse. So, we really
didn’t go head to head much at all, because I was out of Syracuse. We’d
see each other, and it was polite, but, we didn’t have a personal relationship.
I had dinner last June with Dave Laird and he was good friends with Bud. Bud
passed away very early of course.
Q – I know. He passed away in April 1976 at the
age of 34, from a cerebral hemorrhage.
A – His big break, when Channel 9 came on the air which was the ABC station,
until then we had only CBS and NBC, they wanted to do a Syracuse American Bandstand.
Matter of fact they were carrying Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and
they wanted something weekends, and they recruited Bud for that. A hell of
a shot for him. He got a lot of mileage out of that. And then had a real good
gig in Boston. He was on his way to the Top.
Q – Rupert Holmes, who I recently interviewed,
and who spent his freshman year at Syracuse University, in 1965-1966, echoed
A – Oh, yeah. You know who else was? Marv Albert with his “Dedication” Show.
Q – Hate to keep name-dropping here, but Morton
Downey Jr. brought his name up in an interview I did with Mort.
A – Oh, sure. He was a funny guy. He got into a lot of trouble with the
judge. Art Kyle, who owned the station, thought was really dirty; it was a
joke about-----just before Christmas. “I’m going home for the Holidays.
I got my girlfriend a watch and a watch chain. I’m gonna give her the
watch chain for Christmas and New Years Eve she’s gonna get the works!” That
was the whole joke and they thought it was dirty. He was suspended for a week.
Back then you couldn’t even say pregnant.
Q – Did you know, that while you met The Beatles,
Bud Ballou was part of only a handful of disc jockeys that were touring with
The Beatles in the Summer of 1964?
A – Mmmm….I don’t know what that means. I don’t know
why any jock would tour with The Beatles. Even by the time I met them, they
were really hard to get close to. They were stars, you know? The first wave
they’d gotten in with that guy Murray The K. They just thought it was
a bunch of bullshit. So, I don’t know what that means. I’m not
saying it didn’t happen, but, I’m not sure what that would mean-----touring
with The Beatles.
Q – You write on Page 31 of your book, about Three
Rivers Inn. You state that it was a club “rumored to have strong family
connections”. What did you mean by that?
A – Dominick Bruno.
Q – Yeah…..
A – The Boys.
Q – Do you believe that?
A – Sure. Oh, yeah. Of course.
Q – Why do you believe that?
A – I had a lot of good Italian friends, Paisans, whose Uncles and associates
were involved. It was the guys in North Syracuse. It was the guys who did the
parlay sheets. The guys who controlled all the cigarette machines. And the
jukeboxes. The Boys. Sure.
Q – How did that fit in with Three Rivers Inn?
A – At that point in time, the Italian underground was very, involved
in, show business, so because The Boys had money in at Three Rivers Inn, if
they had a big act coming to any of the places in New York, or Chicago, they
wanted a place where they could break it out. Get rid of some of the bugs;
sort of shake it down, before the big critics in New York or Chicago. So, that
worked out great for Dominick because here you had Syracuse, New York which
is not a big town in spite of the fact it’s a University town; and all
the stars went through! All the ones I mentioned in the book. And because they’d
be coming through during the week to appear at night, usually a Monday through
Sunday night gig, on Sunday afternoons, the radio station could get them to
come out and most of the time they’d just lip-synch records. The only
danger was having the son of a bitch skip if you put it on. It would happen
every so often. So, it was a nice tie-in. Everybody came out ahead. Everybody
was happy. So, that was the gang connection. Now, could I swear under oath
that that’s how it was? Let me put it this way-----probably I could.
Let me put it this way, there’s enough years down the road, some of my
very best friends were involved shall we say in enterprises in Syracuse, New
York that were at the time extraordinarily popular and highly illegal, especially
gambling. There’s some Irish, but primarily the Paisan’s were Italian.
But on the North side, the Irish had a little representation in there too.
Every city did. It was back in the 40’s and 50’s.
Q – And don’t forget the 60’s.
A – Yeah.
Q – You know that the original Three Rivers Inn
burned down in 1973.
A – Oh, I know. That’s where I had my wedding reception, in 1964.
Q – After these Teen Canteen shows at Three Rivers
Inn, you would often escort the stars of the day around the Syracuse area…..
A – Yeah. Or, I’d pick ‘em up at the airport first or just
hang with ‘em.
Q – Where would you go?
A – Well, we’d go right outside to the bar. (Laughs). There was
this big, really cool bar, like a Las Vegas bar. So, we’d go out and
sit at the bar. A little Scotch. A little this. A little that. Sit there and
shoot the shit and have a hell of a time.
Q- Who are some of the people you escorted?
A – Bobby Rydell. The Four Seasons. Freddie Cannon. Paul Anka. Bobby
Darin. When I saw that Kevin Spacey movie (Bobby Darin Bio. film) it was interesting.
I was supposed to go get Bobby Darin over in his room. They had a motel out
there too, see. They would stay there. It was convenient for everybody. He
was supposed to come out and do the lip-synch on whatever the song was at like
3:30. I went over there and I knocked on the door. I heard inside this woman’s
voice saying, “You motherfucker”. I never heard a female swear
like that. And, it was Sandra Dee and they were having a fight. But, I’m
supposed to get the guy, so I just knocked, “Hello Pete Cavanaugh”.
Oh, yeah, I’ll be right with you Pete. He came out like nothing ever
happened. He went over, got out and did his thing and I thought, “Man,
she’s mean”. (Laughs). So, that part of the movie rang true.
Q – Again, what are you saying about Dom Bruno?
A – Listen, he was a hell of a guy. Let me make one thing clear; Dominick
himself was not a gangster. But, he had friends and investors who were his
friends-----that sort of a deal. Dom was a charming guy. I mean we had dinner
a number of times with him. And again I had my wedding reception out there.
But, in Syracuse at the time, you could not have done what he did, and then
everybody got along fine, without certain associations. So, leave it at that.
He was definitely a friend of the friends.
Q – You promoted local Syracuse acts in high schools.
A – Lots and lots.
Q – Like who?
A – Primarily Sam And The Twisters, number one by far. The Vikings. The
Monterays. Probably 15 or 20 Syracuse groups. Whatever was happening at the
time. Then, what we would do in the summer is, I did my gigs at the Onondaga
Hotel from like the first part of June to the end of August. So, a lot of the
stuff would be passing through either Three Rivers Inn where we worked during
the summer months doing the Teen Canteen and/or stuff we got from the record
companies I’d have down at the Onondaga Hotel. Tommy’s Roe Sweet
Little Sheila. There was a knife fight on the floor. It was sort of a tough
crowd, but we’d do like a thousand kids. Top floor of the Onondaga Hotel.
It’s torn down now. That was a great venue. So anything that was happening
at that point of time, so we’re talking roughly ’58 through ’64,
I would’ve worked with.
Q – Another quote from your book – “Some
of our Italian girls from Syracuse would get into fist fights with their
Philly counterparts, but, the guys got along famously”.
A – That’s true.
Q – “We knew what the ladies were fighting
about”. O.K. – what’s that all about? What were they fighting
A – They were fighting about us. They were fighting over the guys. Yeah.
We’d go down to WFIL in Philadelphia for the “Bandstand” Shows
and the guys would get along fine, but you have to remember the Bandstand regulars
would vie for position, and the Philadelphia kids were a bunch of tough kids.
They knew how to sort of get you out of the picture if they wanted to be in.
There was a thing where the guys were very polite to each other, but the girls
would just never get along. As I think about it now, I don’t know why
it was like that, but, it was. But, I know one time we had to leave early ‘cause
there was like a couple of girls having a fist fight just outside the bus.
We got ‘em on board. Dick Clark came on to thank everyone from Syracuse
for coming down. I remember saying to my friend yeah. I’m sure they can’t
wait to have us again. But nobody got seriously injured. It was just a little
Q – There was a Motown Show at the Jefferson Armory
in downtown Syracuse. How many people were in attendance? Any idea?
A – It was jammed. I’d have to guess. At least a thousand. We were
about the only white people there. I remember it was like a real surprise to
me. I guess I thought the audience was 50/50 which it was in terms of listenership.
But, I didn’t realize a show like that, at that point in time would draw
primarily a Black crowd. One of the reasons for it, is, at that time – the “Hound
Dog” in Buffalo. There was a two hour syndicated show that WNDR used
from 10 to midnight where it was strictly rhythm and blues. It was almost exclusively
Motown and the real R and B stuff, which is why they brought the Motown Show
in. So, it had a tremendous Black following. Again, during this period in history
a lot of this Black music had White Covers. You had Pat Boone singing “Lucille”,
as weird as it sounds now. So, the White kids crowd with the exception of well,
Chuck Berry and Little Richard, most of the rock shows would be a white crowd.
We were surprised at this Black show drew at that point in time, primarily
a Black crowd. But, we had a wonderful time. I remember Mary Wells – “Bye,
Bye, Baby”. I used that song as my going away song for about a year after
that. I was that inspired by her!!
Q – You talk about Utica ( New York) being by-passed
by touring rock acts and the willingness of the Uticans to drive to Syracuse
or Albany for a concert. You write “The loonies from the boonies had
the wheels for these deals”. Why the put down? Why not praise someone
who’s willing to make the drive to see their favorite act?
A – I was being facetious with that line obviously, ‘cause I was
a looney from the boonies at that time too. I think there was an auditorium,
maybe 2,000 seats that I know (of). It wasn’t nearly big enough to compete
with the War Memorial in Syracuse, or Albany had 6,000 seats and Buffalo had
7-8,000 facilities. So, it was strictly a matter of no place to play. So, as
these people would go out touring, clearly they would play the bigger places,
and by pass Utica. I had a skating rink I did things at in Utica. There was
the Utica – Rome Speedway I’d do things at once in awhile. At a
couple of VFW halls. As I’m thinking about it, I’m not even sure
if that auditorium was still open, when I was there in the early 60’s.
It might’ve been closed by then. I can’t remember any big hall
Q – Did the disc jockeys at WNDR get “groupies”?
Did girls hang out at the station?
A – Oh yeah, all the time. Remember I was there before The Beatles. We
used to call them “Hit Line Honeys” -----hi, what ya doing? They’d
call up. Sam Amato (Sam And The Twisters) used to come out and answer phones
at night, strictly for the purpose of perhaps entering into brief moments of
if not romantic interlude then at least a pleasant way to pass the time. He’d
answer, “Gibson 61515 call now”, and Sam would answer the phone.
If he got any promising leads then he would pursue the activity accordingly.
That happened all the time there.
Q – What was this shouting match with the General
Manager of WNDR that led to your resignation all about?
A – Kennedy was shot. Some big jewelry store owner hired me to do a private
party for his kid. He was having an 18 th birthday or something. I didn’t
want to do a record hop or play dance music that night. I felt quite frankly
as a fellow Irish Catholic kid, blown away, no pun intended by the whole Kennedy
thing. I just felt it inappropriate. At that point we were playing classical
music on WNDR. I mean Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. We were just reading stuff off
the Associated Press, and U.P.I. And so, the General Manager said “He’s
a big client. You’ve got to do it. I insist”. And I said very pointedly,
No, except I used very colorful language and said “Get somebody else
to do it”, and that was it. I quit. Had I to do it all over again. I
was acting much more emotionally than intellectually, but, then I’ve
done that before from time to time.
Q – So, you left Syracuse for Flint, Michigan.
Was that a bigger city?
A – Not only was it a bigger city. At the point, TAC with a thousand
watts at 600 had a signal not unlike WSYR’s, except even more powerful
because it was almost a clear channel that went all the way up to the Mackinaw
Bridge. It didn’t get all the way down to Detroit, but enough to be heard,
but it covered Bay City, Saginaw, Midland and Flint which was about a little
over a million people. I know in terms of PD markets it was like 43 rd at the
time, and Syracuse at the time was 55 of 56. But the main difference quite
frankly was that it was a union town and the pay scale was like double what
we were making in Syracuse. So, not only was it a bigger market and opportunity
right outside Detroit. I know when I left “NDR” I was making about
$95 a week, and I was probably one of the top paid on the staff. Of course
back then it was very decent money. I came into Flint for like $150 which was
Q – Why did you think to go to Flint?
A – There was a guy named Bob Dell. Bob and I were very close ‘cause
we worked together very briefly at WJMK in North Syracuse and then we worked
together at WNDR. Then he had gone to WOLF and we were still very good friends.
One morning, I think he’d come over to “NDR” at that point,
he called me and said “Hey, got to have breakfast man”. He was
doing mornings then. I must’ve been doing afternoons. He said, “This
crazy motherfucker just called me up and said he was a sports guy and he was
gonna buy a station in Flint and we wants me to come in and be a disc jockey
for him”. You’d get these weird calls all the time. I said, “Go
have coffee with the guy. See what the deal is”. And sure enough he was
from WIP in Philadelphia. At the time the Syracuse Nationals were in the NBA
and he had come up to do a game and heard Dell who is a hell of a disc jockey,
and still is on the air by the way down in New Orleans on WWL. Sure enough
the guy bought the station and brought Bob in for a lot of money. That was
when I was a junior at Lemoyne (College). I quit “NDR” in November
of ’63 and called Bob up and he said, “C’mon over to Flint”.
So, I thought what the heck, and I did. So, Bob Dell was the connection.
Q – Top 40 Radio was really, when you think about
it, what radio should be like, because it offered such a diversity in music.
Do you agree?
A – It was wonderful. The problem and I think I mentioned in the book,
ironically, technology has instead of “bringing us” together, has
made us a much more separated people. You’re absolutely right. Wouldn’t
it be nice if there was, but how could there be? The thing is, we were in a
sense because of technology force-fed a lot of music that normally if you liked
the Black music, you wouldn’t necessarily listen to Rock. Let me put
it this way, when I watch the Grammy Awards now, I don’t know two-thirds
of the artists. I don’t know the Country people. I don’t know the
Black people. I know the Rock artists for the most part, ‘cause that’s
my own personal taste. Back until things became as fragmented which they did
with the exception of FM Radio, you had that delightful opportunity for cross-pollination.
There’s a good phrase for you-----cross pollination. I remember when
Elvis was big. The Number One song was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Battle
Hymn Of The Republic. It became challenging to balance the music. One of the
astounding things is, when you look back at music when the whole Top 40 thing
hit, FM was not a factor then. WNDR in it’s hey-day had more listeners
than all of the other stations put together. And that wasn’t just kids
it was adults too because a lot of the music…..we played Frank Sinatra,
go into Barbara Streisand, then go into Elvis. But that was I think primarily
where the culture was and where the technology was. I’ve got some good
friends in the business who have tried-----now all the formats are so vertical
that people are so impatient. In one sense I can envision theoretically a station
where you had a wide menu, a wide variety. Most people say they want variety
but what they really mean is they want a variety of the music they like. And
so it’s a problem. It’s a definite quandary. Back then if you could
get on the radio: look at Johnny Cash, he crossed over into a mass audience.
All the Black artists crossed over into a mass audience. All the white artists
crossed over into a Black audience, and on and on. That’s all gone now.
Everybody’s separated. You can have a Number One record that half the
country never even hears.
Q – What do you do with yourself these days?
A – I’m doing a lot of writing. I’m working on some projects
with my friend Michael Moore. They have taken out a film option on “Local
DJ”. Most movies don’t get made, so this could well be one of those,
but it gives me something to focus on. I’m primarily at this point deciding
what I’ll do under any circumstances should I ever grow up, which I think
at this point would be a total waste of time.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved