Thursday, February 17, 2011

Medicine Man

More than fifty years after Hoyt Locke launched rock & roll in Columbus Ohio he remains a controversial figure. That is when stories about his sudden rise as a disc jockey phenom at WCOL are told there are multiple versions. People seem to remember him differently; some claim to have known him well while others just embellish on what they think they know or more likely what they have heard.

Take my opening statement here for example. Some argue that it was not Hoyt who was the first DJ in Columbus to play rock & roll on the radio. One spirited argument I got to that came from the late Eddie Saunders, longtime WVKO radio personality.

Eddie once nearly blew a verbal gasket when I stated on the air at WCOL that Doc was the first to play rock music in Columbus on our station in 1956. Eddie argued that he was doing it the year before on WVKO.

At that time we had been running promos for a Doctor Bop tribute show that had been scheduled to air and Saunders was not pleased about our claims to bring back the memories of the first DJ to play rock & roll in Columbus.

It was 1984 and Edgar Locke, Hoyt's brother joined me on my nightly radio program to salute the contribution Doc made not only to WCOL but to the overall musical culture of Columbus radio.

The music, the jingles and the commercials we aired that night were all vintage late '50s and we took phone calls from listeners who shared their memories of the station’s early rock & roll roots and of Doctor Bop's role in making it happen.

No one called to dispute any of what was being talked about, and in fact as the evening progressed we enjoyed an enthusiastic audience eager to legitimize Doc's historic role in changing not just one radio station but how that affected its competitors as well as an entire generation.

There was so much nostalgia being exchanged that it became almost too difficult to get the listeners on the air. Everyone it seemed had a story to share and I was secretly hoping Saunders would phone in and challenge us but that call never came.

In the days leading up to that program I had been listening to and dissecting an interview between Doc and former WCOL DJ Jim Davis, one that was recorded years earlier. It was similar to the show we were planning. In 1975 the station brought Doc home for an on-air reunion show hosted by Jim followed by a live appearance at a popular nightspot called "Studio 5."

I recognized on that taped interview several former radio personnel and a few business people who participated in it; from there we went about contacting as many of them as we could find to pick their collective brains and to invite their participation in the program.

Combining that with our own in-house research including my own notes from interviews I had with former station personnel who I had worked with at other stations. I don’t believe I was ever more prepared to host a radio show. Everywhere were testimonies that he was the first DJ to play rock music on Columbus radio.

Doc himself took that credit for years, as well as most of those who either knew him or just remembered hearing him on the radio. It seemed everyone besides Saunders was in agreement that Hoyt Locke was the first rocker in town.

Edgar and his wife Beatrice offered vivid details of his life and shared many family photos when I visited them in their home on Buelen Road in southeast Columbus prior to my on-air interview. A WCOL engineer who had been with the station since 1946 believed we had thoroughly done our homework on the matter and provided his own input on the subject in the days preceding the show.

Back to Saunders and why I was on the receiving end of his earlier wrath. He didn’t like what he heard on the promos and testimonials to the guy we were giving all of this credit to.

He was adamant that we were talking about the wrong guy and after reminding me of a pop music show he hosted on WVKO in 1955 called "Jumpin Jive at Five-O-Five" he remained steadfast that we were tinkering with the truth. Insisting that he was the man who first played what would become rock & roll in Columbus.

Loyalists to Eddie Saunders have for years held their ground and to their conviction that he should be forever listed as the founding father of pop music if anyone is to be so anointed.

Ah... herein lies the possibility of a truce. As Edgar pointed out, many guys were playing what was considered pop music before Hoyt became a WCOL hired hand.

However, singers like Sinatra and Duke Ellington were considered typical pop stars of the day, as were people like Doris Day, Frankie Lane and Louis Armstrong.

"Pop stars" as Edgar called them, not rock stars.

Little Richard was a rock star, as were Chuck Berry and Elvis and they weren't in Saunders’ record rack but were in the box of records that Hoyt carried into the WCOL studios to introduce to Columbus listeners.

Before the all night show was his Hoyt was there often as a client to record commercials for the record store he co-owned with Edgar, "The Bop Record Shop." He was making infomercials before anyone knew what they were called.

The record store originally opened at 382 East Main Street in 1950 but in '56 moved to 474 East Main. One August night in 1956 Hoyt was at the studios to record his commercials when the DJ on the air Jim "Catman" Sherman got up and walked out leaving the station without an announcer. The station engineer asked him to take over and finish the show until a replacement could be brought in.

So in the beginning Doctor Bop wasn’t even a paid announcer on the staff. When the engineer asked what name he would use on the air that night Hoyt reasoned that since he was a merchandiser he would come up with one that promoted the record store so he decided to call himself Doctor Bop.

Making the most of that opportunity the Locke Brothers soon were purchasing fifteen minute segments of on-air time with Hoyt as the voice, or as Edgar called him "The Showman of the family business."

Fifteen minutes a night at first and soon evolving into a six-hour all night radio show when someone at the station recognized what he was doing and convinced station manager Collie Young to hire him as a paid announcer.
That show exploded in popularity with a younger radio audience as he was becoming the most talked about man in Columbus radio and his star began to rise.

And when he was sent out to emcee live events it was decided by someone else at the station, probably someone in sales or in promotions that he should have a gimmick. Hoyt would later say that the white doctor’s outfit and steth-o-scope was an image he didn’t create for himself and in fact was an idea that he thought was a little silly. But it became as much his trademark as his on-air delivery and the name Doctor Bop itself. "We were merchants," Edgar said.

But apparently not very good ones because the record store was barely selling enough music to "pay the light bill" according to him, and since they were partners, to make that happen Edgar worked full time for the U.S. Postal Service.
Not long after Hoyt began his radio career it nearly came to an end due to financial emergencies. Paying the bills at the record shop and purchasing more advertising for it on WCOL was taking its toll.

All of that changed when a man named George Carter who owned a City Service gas station at Garfield and Mount Vernon Avenues convinced his oil company to purchase three months of advertising on the Doctor Bop Show. That offered incentive for Collie Young to make Doc its franchise announcer. He became the face of WCOL.

Instead of money coming out of the Locke family funds to promote what Hoyt was selling, businesses like City Gas, Certified Oil, the Beverly Drive-Ins, Buckeye Potato Chips and other locally owned companies were paying for it and Hoyt began receiving a substantial salary.

I mentioned other controversy surrounding Doctor Bop, then and still...then it was about his flamboyancy and sometimes about his race, and even a reputation that was often way over stated. Today it is more about who he really was. How he got started, his age and when and where he died and how old he was.

Some accounts have him dead before he was fifty years old, one suggesting that he died in his mid 40's. The fact is, Hoyt Locke was born March 11, 1912 in Chattanooga Tennessee, his family moved to the south side of Columbus in the teens.

They lived for a time on Barthman Avenue where the boys were students at nearby Reeb Avenue Elementary School and as kids he and his brother roamed Parsons Avenue shining other people’s shoes for pennies and hawking newspapers on street corners for a few more to take home to help support their family.

Hoyt passed away on February 24, 1976, a month shy of his 64th year. He died of a heart attack in Milwaukee.

Rarely is it mentioned that after leaving WCOL in 1959 Doc went to work for his old friend Bill Mnich, a former WCOL salesman and a man who was instrumental in launching his career. Mnich had built his own radio station (WMNI) and before the end of the 1950s was competing with WCOL for the rock & roll audience.

After conflicts with WCOL management, probably over salary as most conflicts with radio managers usually are Doc went across the dial from 1230 to the Mnich station at 920 and remained there for just a brief period.

By 1960 the competition was not going well for the younger pop radio upstart with its rock format so Doc was on his way to WAWA in Milwaukee where for the next several years he would not only star on that station but program it as well.

During his last show in Columbus in the mid ‘70s he talked about the many records he broke here, meaning the first jock in the country to play them. Among them was a song sent to him by a record company called “Summertime.” Doc didn’t like it so he flipped it over and played the “B” side, it was Sam Cooke’s record, “You Send Me.”

Much of my own version of Doc's life as a Columbus radio legend comes from testimonials and insight from those who knew him and from Doc himself. Better records of his radio career in Columbus should have been maintained by the station he helped make legendary but sadly they were not.

Surprisingly not even tapes of Doctor Bop’s radio shows were left behind. Recordings do exist and I have collected a few of them but a lot of the history of WCOL, including recordings of many of the other well known personalities who worked there over the years wasn't salvaged.

Most of what remains of either recorded or printed history resides in personal archives.

But I think Doc was being honest with Davis and I'm sure Edgar still had his wits when he visited what he thought was the haunted studios at 22 South Young Street back in 1984. Haunted he said by wonderful memories left clear by the still familiar hallways and studios of where he used to hang out with his brother. "I swear he's here," Edgar would say.

Hearing people say they either knew or hung out with Doctor Bop is not that uncommon. And if all of those who have claimed to really did then he certainly had a lot of personal friends and colleagues. But it is safe to say that Edgar knew him better than the rest of us.

Every now and then I find myself driving through the Locke Brothers old neighborhood, mere blocks from my own and I think of the stories I have heard. And I find it fascinating that here was a black guy who grew up on those streets fighting the prejudices of the times, doing what ever it took to survive the Great Depression and used a failing little record shop to navigate his way into becoming the city's most celebrated radio personality.

On a radio station that until he showed up was owned, operated and listened to mostly by white people. Still white owned and operated, but his influence on it changed it from an average World War ll era Big Band music station to one catering primarily to teens and young adults of every color and making it the number one station in Columbus for the next several years.

After assuming the "Doctor" moniker in 1956 Hoyt was rarely called by his given name, at least in public. He was "Doc."

When Edgar Locke came to the WCOL studios to be on my program two and a half decades after his brother left them he said the last time he walked out of the building he was with Hoyt, yet he described from memory before he got there the precise topography of the building at 22 South Young Street.

He knew about the outside intercom that was still in use at the front door where the button for the buzzer was and still used to alert the DJ upstairs that a visitor was trying to get in.

He described the long hallway from the elevator on the second floor to the control room where the on air studios still were and the two steps that went up to them. All of that before he returned to see it. He talked of meeting people like Barry Gordy, Sam Cooke and other artists who would sometimes stop by the station, and of bumping into legendary sports announcer Jack Buck who had been on staff there when WCOL aired Columbus Red Bird baseball games.

He shared stories of others in that building including listeners who would find ways to sneak in late at night or some that were brought in. Stories about radio remote broadcasts' starring Doctor Bop; including one famously remembered by many of the concert on the roof of Dan's Drive-In on South High Street in 1958.

Conway Twitty was an unknown pop singer at the time and he had a song coming out called "Only Make Believe.” And because of the large crowd that showed up there wasn’t room on the parking lot for his band so it was decided to put him on the roof. The whole event created a massive traffic jam on Route 23 from the southern tip of Franklin County to nearly its northern border.

There were stories about parties, some of them underground, the Mt. Vernon Avenue entertainment strip, an area known for its many nightclubs and other musical venues and how Doc could go into any of them and never have to spend a dime. He was described like a prize fighter, always in flashy dress, sometimes wearing long fur coats, feathered hats and multiple rings on his fingers.

Edgar told of how everyone in the “colored” section of town claimed him as their own and how local businesses tripped over each other trying to buy air time on his show.

And how every promoter who had anything he wanted to promote would kiss Doc’s ass. And of the rumors that implied of a prolific playboy personality who was pursued by women of all races, ages and other demographics.

Pursued perhaps, but according to Edgar Doc was a shy man away from the glitz and excitement of the entertainment world. Flattered by his own popularity but rarely capitalizing on it. Many others would chuckle at those claims.

On the topic of payola Edgar swore Doc refused all offers but it would be impossible to imagine such offers were never presented. Difficult for some to believe that they would all have been refused.

This man shined in a world that was lit by neon and serenaded by rhythm and blues, and of course rock & roll, regardless of who gets the credit for launching it.

As close as anyone ever came to telling in print the total story of Doctor Bop was my late, long time friend and two-time radio boss Phil Sheridan (WNCI-WRMZ). Phil was not only a master at radio station management and innovative ideas he was an accomplished writer.

A regular columnist for various publications and the author of several books including one he was working on just before he passed that might have been the most compelling of all local broadcasting history books; it was to be called "Radio Daze."

That book never came to print and we lost Phil a few years ago. So unless his notes are shared and the torch is passed to another writer passionate about radio and its history we may never find out all that he was working on or how much he knew about WCOL and Doctor Bop’s history.

But in the last conversation I had with Phil he talked about being in contact with surviving members of the Locke family who could have shared valuable information and possibly some rare photographs, but according to him and to put it politely he was unable to make them understand that no one would be willing to offer great deals of money for their cooperation.

Books like the one he was working on, as well as this one usually don’t garner enough money to buy the stories necessary to fill in all the gaps. The contents of them have to be shared or they don’t get published. So that leaves us at least for now where we are, speculation entwined with facts making for interesting debates.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings, Mr. Minerd. I have your book and I enjoy it. I use it as a reference to Dr. Bop.