Buggered Mind of Neale Sourna, The

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Thursday, September 16, 2004

Cleveland Plain Dealer: DJ legend Bill Randle dead at 81

BILL RANDLE 1923-2004
DJ legend Bill Randle dead at 81
Saturday, July 10, 2004
Clint O'Connor
Plain Dealer Reporter

Bill Randle, one of the most influential, star-making disc jockeys of the 1950s and 1960s and a Cleveland radio voice since 1949, died Friday. He was 81.

Randle had cancer and died at the Hospice of the Western Reserve in Cleveland.

He is survived by his daughter, Pat, and his sister, Ruth Edwards, both of Michigan. His wife of 51 years, Annalee, died in 2000. Service arrangements are pending.

Randle was exceedingly bright and had an excellent ear for spotting No. 1 hits and artists on the rise. Although he is best known for his ra dio and music-indus try work, he also en joyed long careers as a teacher - he had a doctorate and three master's degrees - and attorney. His Lakewood practice specialized in bank ruptcy cases.

He was pivotal in bringing Elvis Presley to the ears of America and helped launch and expand the careers of dozens of other stars, including Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Rosemary Clooney, Johnnie Ray and Fats Domino.

"He helped shape popular music in America," said Bob Conrad, president of WCLV and WRMR, where Randle was the host of "The Big Show" on Sunday afternoons. "He knew more people in the entertainment business than anyone I've ever known."

At the height of his popularity on WERE in the mid-1950s, Randle commanded a 54 percent share of the listening audience. Top jocks of today, such as Howard Stern, are No. 1 with a 12 percent share.

Randle kept his sharp mind and sharp tongue to the end.

"Life's a bitch, and then you die," he said last summer before an operation.

"What can I say? If I go tomorrow, it won't bother me. It doesn't matter. If I die Monday, I'll be cremated Tuesday, and that's it. I'm gone. There will be no services, no 'Bill Randle Memorial Show.' "

And yet. There he was, fighting.

Lying in a bed at Lakewood Hospital a few days before his surgery, cable TV news on silently in the background, Randle talked about death and the shortcomings of obituaries.

"I don't care what you write about me," he said. "Who cares? Sixty percent of it is going to be wrong anyway. Newspapermen aren't historians. The New York Times has my obit already. They've updated it over the years. If people call my daughter to ask about me, the only sound they'll hear is 'click.' "

And yet.

Pat Randle was more than happy to talk about her father yesterday. "He was around for me in really, really good ways as a parent," she said. "I admired him. Because he worked nights and weekends, I got to see him a lot during the day."

There were advantages to having an adventurous dad.

"When I was in kindergarten, I got sick and missed all the Christmas celebrations and seeing the Christmas lights downtown," she said. "When I got better, he rented a helicopter to take me over the city so I could see all the Christmas lights."

Even stuck in the hospital, Randle was a gentleman armed with a cynic's quick blade to instantly slice through any pretension being spewed by a questioner. To some, he was a cranky curmudgeon. To others, he was big-hearted and loyal.

"He was the most understated, humble, down to earth, brightest human being I've ever known," said Mary Ann Hanson, a friend, whose in-home assisted-living company, Hanson Services, cared for Annalee and advertised on radio with Randle as spokesman.

Like many larger-than-life characters, Randle is a great tossed salad of contradictions and layers. He would say he hated talking about the past - "what's the point?" - then proceed to dissect some historic event. He said he especially detested talking about himself and his prior accomplishments, then would do just that.

"Everything I did, I did well," he said in his hospital room. "I was good in radio. I made a lot of money. I made a lot of money for other people. I was a good academician. I'm a good lawyer."

Detroit upbringing

William McKinley Randle Jr. was born in Detroit on March 14, 1923. His father worked for Dodge Motors, but when jobs dried up during the Depression, the family sold eggs and bagels door to door.

"Billy was an entrepreneur from the day he was born," said his sister Ruth Edwards. "He opened his own record store when he was 14. He loved jazz. He ran jazz clubs like the Club Sudan. He brought Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie home for big family dinners. He could accomplish more in a day than anyone I know."

Randle's deep voice brought him early radio work with small parts on such Detroit-based shows as "The Green Hornet" and "Hermit's Cave." Spinning records and promoting Jazz shows in Detroit led to other freelance gigs in Chicago, Cleveland and Akron. He met Annalee Africa at a Sarah Vaughan show he was promoting in Detroit. They were married in 1948.

"He kept getting fired in Detroit for playing jazz," said Pat Randle, who, along with her longtime boyfriend Jim Eng spent the last several months here caring for her dad. "Then he came to Cleveland, played rock 'n' roll and everything changed."

He landed here full time at the end of 1949 on WERE AM/1300, making $100 a week.

By 1955, Randle was making more than $100,000 a year through his salary, promotions and endorsements and owned a piece of WERE.

Time magazine hailed him as the top DJ in America. "Randle has predicted every tune but one that appeared among the first five best-sellers in 1954," reported Time. "For years, he has also discovered and masterminded tunes and stars."

Randle plucked Johnnie Ray from obscurity and set him off on a string of top-selling hits ("Cry" was No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1951). He renamed the Canadaires the Crew-Cuts, hooked them up with Mercury Records, had them cover the song "Sh-Boom," and it shot to No. 1. He told the Diamonds to record "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," and that became a hit.

WERE was one of the hottest music stations in the country, featuring star DJs Phil McLean and Tommy Edwards, and crack engineer Jim Church. Randle's slot was 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays, plus weekend shows. "Randle became a colossal radio star," said DJ Carl Reese, a colleague in the '50s at WERE and 2000s at WRMR. "The big buzz in New York was, 'Is Randle on our record?' "

Randle even fashioned hits for groups not seeking airplay. His edited version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" became a smash in 1959, and the album "The Lord's Prayer" hit No. 1 and stayed on the charts for 80 weeks. Other performers who benefited from his heavy promotion and career advice included Bill Haley and the Comets, Margaret Whiting, Sarah Vaughan, Mitch Miller, the Four Lads, Patti Page and Pat Boone.

Randle was a full-service DJ. He did his own research and promotion and booked his own shows. While other DJs were shouting and screaming, Randle provided information. He knew where a song was recorded, when, who produced it, who played on it, who wrote it and volumes of other music minutiae.

"He was based in Cleveland, but he had huge national impact on the whole radio industry," said Norman Wain, longtime Cleveland radio executive and once a competing DJ of Randle's on WJW. "He had an amazing ear for picking out the stars of tomorrow."

Hip choice

In the fall of 1955, Wain attended a concert Randle was promoting. "There was this kid I had never heard of, singing and shaking his hips," said Wain. "When it was over, Randle turns to me and says, 'This guy is going to be the biggest star in America.' I said, 'Yeah, right.' "

The kid was Elvis Presley.

It was only Presley's second foray to the North. Randle was playing up his records in Cleveland and had him on the bill that day with headliner Pat Boone and Bill Haley and the Comets.

The two concerts, at Brooklyn High School and St. Michael's Hall, have become part of rock lore, because they were filmed for a Universal short on "The Pied Piper of Cleveland," namely Randle. The DJ wisely had the film crew, against their objections, shoot the kid from Mississippi. It is the only footage of the early Elvis. Randle reportedly sold the film rights in 1992 for $1 million (an amount he later called "a lot of baloney.")

Randle has said that he turned down an offer to manage the singer. But in January 1956, he did introduce Presley on his first national TV appearance on CBS' "Stage Show." By then, Randle was doing double duty, also serving as host of a popular Saturday afternoon show on WCBS in New York, where he also heavily featured Presley's music.

"The man had an incredible amount of energy for work," said Wain. "He'd get up at 6 a.m., read all the trades, all the papers, then get to the station about 5 minutes before he went on. But he already had the entire five-hour show all laid out.

"At night, he'd go out to the schools for shows and talk to all the kids and see what they were listening to and finally get home at 10. Friday night, he'd fly to New York, do his WCBS show on Saturday, and for a while he was flying back to Cleveland to do a blues-rhythm-urban show at 10 p.m. on WERE. Then he'd have his Sunday afternoon show from 1 to 6."

Randle moved the family to New York, but they were back in Lakewood three years later. "I feel whatever radio destiny I have is inextricably bound up with Cleveland," he once said. "This city has been magic for me. Giving up Cleveland would be like giving up a talisman."

Straight science

Randle was a genius at music market research even before it existed.

"I was probably the best exploiter, beginning in the 1950s, of American popular music, calculatedly, I think, in some cases, brilliantly," he told Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic John Soeder in 2002.

"I was lucky because I had the overtone of academic awareness. I was a good researcher. I was able to check a record in a jukebox by paying the jukebox guy a buck to give me the listings for 10 or 12 jukeboxes. Nobody could BS me about whether or not that record was being played. I knew it. You dropped those nickels in, I played it the next day and said, 'This is going to be No. 1.' But I wasn't sitting there like Nostradamus or something. I dealt with hard, actual facts."

In the course of their conversation, said Soeder, Randle referenced "a dizzying array of musical artists, including the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Strokes, Al Jolson, Luciano Pavarotti, Dave Matthews, Frank Sinatra and Eminem, whom Randle called 'an incredible cultural phenomenon.' "

His eclectic musical tastes were exhibited on his shows. Even though he worked for the nostalgic WRMR in the '90s and '00s, he would mix in some Jewel, ' N Sync or Norah Jones.

By 1961, he had tired of radio and put his energy into attending college.

Randle, a high school dropout, earned six degrees.

In addition to his undergraduate degree from Wayne State University and a law degree from Oklahoma City University, Randle had a doctorate in American studies and a master's degree in sociology from Western Reserve University, a master's degree in journalism from Kent State University and a master's degree in education from Cleveland State University. He also taught communications and sociology at several schools, including Kent State, the University of Cincinnati and Columbia University in New York.

Randle passed the Ohio bar in 1987, at age 64, and opened a law practice in Lakewood. "I'm a lawyer now because I plan to practice for 15 or 20 years," he said, before going on to practice for 16 years. "I still lift weights, jump out of airplanes and play tennis every day to keep myself in shape."

He also raced cars, flew airplanes and collected Eames furniture and R. Crumb cartoons in his Lakewood condo. When his wife, Annalee, was ill, he cared for her for several years.

"He said he wasn't particularly a good husband until she got sick and he became a caregiver," said Hanson. "But I don't believe that for a second."

And with all that, he kept coming back to the microphone. He would retire and say he was done with radio, then re-emerge on WERE or WBBG with talk shows. He would retire again and pop back up as the morning man at WRMR. "He wouldn't admit it, but Bill liked being on the air," said Wain.

"I learned so much from him," said radio executive Sue Wilson, who worked with Randle at WRMR in the '90s. "He was a real salesman. His whole philosophy was, 'We're in the business of putting butts in seats.' And he could do it. We'd do promotions, and you wouldn't believe the number of people who showed up. He had this amazing pull with his audience. And he was ahead of the curve then, too. He was playing Shania Twain when nobody had heard of her."

"Bill could be the sweetest cat in the world, the way he helped people out," said Reese. "But he didn't always make friends. There were some people who couldn't stand him. But that goes with the success."

Some in the industry found him brash, arrogant and a name-dropper.

"We had heard about the big ego, that he was irascible, but there was none of that here," said Conrad. "He was a real pussycat. And he's not a name-dropper. When he talked about seeing 'The Producers' on Broadway and sitting in Nathan Lane's seats, it was true. He knew Nathan Lane."

Randle said there weren't any great projects left undone. Except one. "One book I'd like to see finished is 'The Selling of Elvis.' That deal's in place. My daughter's a writer, and she can finish that one. If she wants to."

Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic John Soeder contributed to this story.

To reach this Plain Dealer Reporter:

coconnor@plaind.com, 216-999-4456

© 2004 The Plain Dealer.

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