By Gene Sculatti
As most visitors to this site will freely acknowledge, the Bay Area has been home to some innovative, historically significant and just plain fun radio. In the early '60s, that meant broadcasters like Al Collins, spinning jazz and surreal raps from inside the imaginary Purple Grotto, and Don Sherwood, inventing an insane repertory of characters and bits every weekday morning – both of these shows on KSFO. It also meant Top-40 KYA, 1260 AM, "the Boss of the Bay."
KYA San Francisco, which became the region's second rock 'n' roll station in 1960 (following KOBY), always seemed to be in battle with Oakland's KEWB. Where I grew up (Napa Valley), most of my schoolmates listened to the latter, if only because its signal penetrated further into the North Bay. But, really, there was no contest. While I've since come to deeply respect Chuck Blore's programming of Color Radio 91 and the talent of jocks like Gary Owens and Casey Kasem, KEWB was, no pun intended, square. It was high on silly, with cute ID's (a station mascot, Little Diane, squeaking "My mommy listens to KEWB!"), sound effects, jocks reading canned jokes and — worst of all — conveying little empathy with the sides they were spinning. It was almost as if the delicious seven-inchers that comprised their Fabulous 40 Survey were interruptions, necessary digressions from their endless patter and shtick.
By contrast, KYA sold the music first. Under program director Les Crane, who arrived in 1961, it jettisoned the jingles, reduced the number of contests (DJ Norman Davis recalled when it had a dozen or so running at once) and expanded its playlist from the standard 40 to a Swingin' 60 Survey. This plus a nightly Battle of the New Sounds (listeners voted for one of five contenders — 25 debut discs a week), a Radio KYAce of the Week and assorted Coming Attraction singles. The station broke or re-started innumerable records (most notably the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man," but also the second go-rounds of the Isley Bros.' "Shout" and the Shirelles' "Dedicated to the One I Love").
And, just as importantly, the best jocks, namely Bob Mitchell and "Big Daddy" Tom Donahue, two refugees from WIBG Philly's 1959 payola scandals, sounded like they meant it when they intro'ed or outro'ed a record. A vintage aircheck finds Mitchell creeping up to the post on those solitary guitar notes that kick off the Miracles' "What's So Good About Goodbye": "Brand new… the Ace of the Week…by the Miracles…Dig it!" just as Smokey croons the first syllable, or following the slow fade of the Shirelles' "Baby It's You": "Somethin' else, isn't it, that one by the Shirelles? Fierce record, man…fierce." It was all you could do to not stand up and salute, so commanding and convincing was Mitchell, even doing spots for H-I-S A-1 Racer slacks or a special hamburger deal at San Jose's Starlight Drive-in.
The sense of being leveled with and not being talked down to was likewise present when these jocks didn't like something. Donahue on a dance fad of the period: "Of the 100 or so records we get here at the station every week, I'd say maybe 50% of them are Twist records... most of them bad." And when there were jokes, they were subtle, sometimes flying over the heads of their adolescent audience. There were obtuse call-outs to local promotion men and jockeys at Bay Meadows racetrack, asides about record-label salesmen getting hernias from carrying so many free goods out of their warehouses. But even if you didn't know to whom or what Mitchell and Donahue were referring, their straightforward, eminently hip manner seemed to imply inclusiveness, to say "You're in on this, too." When they announced a record hop at the American Legion Hall in Redwood City or Spanish Hall in Hayward, it didn't matter that the bill was stacked with non-hit local acts or that the "free 45" promised to the first 100 people in the door was likely a stiff. You wanted to be there.
There were other jocks too, though Donahue and Mitchell, who'd of course leave KYA to found Autumn Records, discover Sly Stone and have hits with Bobby Freeman and the Beau Brummels, were the best. Young Norman Davis did the enormously popular dedication-and-request show (a phone-company audit logged 30,000 calls to the station one night), affable ex-Atlantan Johnny Hayes handled midnight to six, and Les Crane (as "Johnny Raven") and later KHJ/KFRC wunder-programmer Bill Drake did mornings. Tony Tremayne counted down the fresh Swingin' 60 on weekends. (I recall anxiously rushing home from school a couple of lunchtimes to try and catch Peter Tripp playing the Drifters' "Sweets for My Sweet." When my folks and I left for the Seattle World's Fair in August of '62, my great fear was never again hearing a boss soul side Donahue had previewed only a week earlier, "Do You Love Me" by the Contours.)
If the jocks were the gate-keepers and conduit to all these great sounds, the Swingin' 60 Survey, an 8x12 sheet (with "Official" emblazoned across the top) available weekly at record stores, was hard-copy proof of the magic and movement taking place. Records on labels like Atco, End, Legrand, Valiant and Caprice rose, fell, stalled, burned and disappeared, only to be replaced by a new galaxy of discs as weeks passed. The big stars of the day, of course, shone brightest — Sam Cooke, the Drifters, Brenda Lee, Dick & Dee Dee — but so did only-in-Frisco hits like "Candy Apple Red Impala" by Little "E" & the Mellotone Three and Eddie Quinteros' Valens-ized "Come Dance with Me."
And, again largely due to the influence of Donahue and Mitchell but also because KYA presumably commanded a healthy share of black listeners (KDIA and later KSOL were the Top 40 R&B outlets), a lot of black music got heavy rotation. Not just the Ike & Tina Turner and Jackie Wilson hits, but Slim Harpo, Freddie King and Little Willie John and cuts like McKinley Mitchell's proto-soul "The Town I Live In" (a Donahue favorite) and Charles McCullough's stark blues ballad "You Are My Girl" (a Mitchell pick).
And not all of the fun was musical — or intentional. Many archivists have heard the heavily fortified newscast by KYA reporter Lamar Sherlock, in which he struggles, unsuccessfully, to inform on the events of the day (a turbulent integration march, an assassination in the Congo, local happenings). What would you have expected from a newsman who often rode his motor scooter, driving with one arm and a head full of spirits, up the city's steep grades to KYA's Nob Hill studios? Less dramatic but no less comic were newscasters Mark Adams and Terry Sullivan, who intoned every bit they read off the wire service with way too much gravity and sense of purpose.
From 1961 to about 1964, KYA seemed to have it all: much music, a finger on the pulse of the tastes of the Bay Area's growing teen population, and a modern, non-kiddie way of doing Top 40. Times, of course, changed, as did the music and the audience. Tom Donahue went on to start "underground" rock-FM radio, first with KMPX and then KSAN. Mitchell, slowly dying from Hodgkin's disease, moved his family to Los Angeles and jocked as "Bobby Tripp" on Drake's booming RKO flagship, KHJ. Their airchecks survive, as does a deep gratitude on the part of everyone privileged to have heard the Boss of the Bay when it swung like 60.
Thank you, KYA.
Gene Sculatti is the creator of The Catalog Of Cool, and co-hosted and produced "The Cool And The Crazy" radio series with Ronn Spencer over Santa Monica's KCRW-FM from 1984 to 1987. In 1993, St. Martin's Press published Too Cool, his sequel to the Catalog. He also wrote Jazzbo ...On The Radio which appears elsewhere on the museum's website. As Vic Tripp, he currently hosts Atomic Cocktail, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday (California time) on the online radio station Luxuria, playing vintage pop, surf, garage and lounge music in classic 1960s Top 40 style. A Belated Valentine To KYA was reprinted with the generous permission of the author.
is a registered trademark of the Bay Area Radio Museum.