KAKC disc jockey, program director and newsman Dick Schmitz, at the 11th Street and Boston Avenue, the former location of Tulsas first full-time rock n roll station.
MTV wasn't even a gleam in an executive's eye when Tulsa's first wave of rock 'n' rollers hit. In fact, "Where the Action Is," that fondly remembered Dick Clark-produced daily TV show, didn't come along for almost a decade. Even the granddaddy of them all, Clark's "American Bandstand," didn't go national until '57.
So it's hard to conceive how huge a force radio was in spreading early rock 'n' roll across our country, our state and our city. In the case of Tulsa, it wasn't just local radio that got our teens pumped on this strange new music.
"The first rock 'n' roller I heard was Big Joe Turner," remembers guitarist-vocalist John D. Levan, who was known as Danny Levan when he wielded a six-string in the '50s for the likes of Gene Crose and Clyde Stacy. "And I heard him on the radio, over KXRG, just across the border into Mexico - a hundred-thousand-watt station. There was no telling what you'd get when you were listening to those border stations."
Here at home, the hipper kids had discovered R&B disc jockey Frank Berry, who spun his discs on, variously, KOME, KTUL and KAKC before the latter became Tulsa's first full-time rock 'n' roll radio station. But even before there was a full-time rock 'n' roll station, there was a full-time rock 'n' roll disc jockey.
"Joe Knight was the king of the hill at that time," recalls Don Wallace, Tulsa's first rock 'n' roll deejay. "He was on from about 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon until 6, with a show called 'The Tulsa Ballroom.' He played Rosemary Clooney, he played Frank Sinatra, the current pop artists, and he was doing real well. So I went over to KTUL in late '54, early '55, and tried to compete with him. It didn't work.
"Bill's 'T' Record Shop was the record shop of the day, and there was a type of music springing up at the time they called rockabilly - things like 'That's All Right, Mama' and 'Blue Suede Shoes.' Bill, at the shop, told me about all this happening, and I changed my format and started playing it. Alan Freed, the disc jockey in New York, had coined the term rock 'n' roll, and that's what I played.
"And I had immediate success with it."
Rock now reigns
Oklahoma City’s Gene Sullivan, who recorded several early Tulsa rockers.
On KTUL three different times a day, Wallace was soon beating Joe Knight's program in the ratings.
"They had me scattered clear across the board, in between other programming and soap operas or whatever," he recalls. "But the kids tuned in, and I was doing real well. I had fan clubs. There were over 10,000 card-carrying members of the Don Wallace Fan Club. I made a little booklet each month, 'The Don Wallace Fan Club News,' and put stuff about different recording artists in there."
Taking a cue from the East Coast, Wallace also began throwing teen hops - first with records, later with live bands.
"The bands in those days were Gene Crose - I hired him a lot - and Johnny Cale. Jumpin' Jack (Dunham) had a band. And Rocky Curtiss was a performer. David Gates. I started hiring them for teen hops; I used that VFW Hall in Tulsa a lot and did quite well. We all had a good time."
But while the good times were just starting for Tulsa's rock 'n' rollers, Wallace himself was coming to the end of his reign. It began happening in August of 1956, when KAKC, at 970 on the dial, became Tulsa's first full-time rock 'n' roll station.
"I was king of the hill myself for about a year and a half, before KAKC came in," Wallace notes. "Then, they just blew me out of the saddle, because they were playing the same thing I was, 24 hours a day. So I couldn't compete with 'em, and KTUL wouldn't change the way it did things."
Jumpin’ Jack Dunham (left) and unidentified interviewer.
It didn't help that an emergency appendectomy went bad on him at about the same time, requiring several months of recuperation. When he recovered, he left KTUL and joined KOME, which was, he says, "a wannabe in the market."
Within a year, Wallace would leave KOME and Tulsa for Oklahoma City, where he would find more lasting fame as not only a disc jockey but the creator and star of one of the most long-lived outdoor TV series ever. Before all that, however, he was involved in a radio promotion with musician Rocky Curtiss (now Rocky Frisco) that people like pianist Jimmy Manry, a linchpin of the '50s groups, still remembers.
"When you talk about this stuff, you're talking about the archives, man," he says with a chuckle. "KAKC and all that, and Rocky Frisco riding with the teddy bear to Elvis Presley."
"Elvis had been drafted, and he went to Fort Hood," explains Wallace. "Rocky Curtiss wanted to do a promotion and ride a bike to Fort Hood, Texas, to see Elvis. So we kind of teamed up. He'd call me every day and give me a report of where he was, what he was doing, what the weather was, and so on. He finally made it to Fort Hood, but he didn't get to talk to Elvis. It was a good promotion, though."
The rise of KAKC
Promotional art for Dick Schmitz during his 50s deejay days
But all the good promotions in the world couldn't stand up to the KAKC juggernaut, which was by that time picking up the kind of momentum that would make it far and away the most listened-to station in Tulsa. In the spring of 1957, Dick Schmitz - still one of the best-known voices in Tulsa - came down from the University of Illinois looking for work and was hired as a KAKC newsman. By 1958, he was not only one of the Big 7 deejays but the program director, as well.
"When I became the morning man in November of '57, I kept getting brought more and more into programming," says Schmitz. "(Then-program director) Chris Lane had me working with the records, getting the Top 50 list put together, that sort of thing, and then in September of '58, he made me the assistant program director. That's when I hired Danny Dark."
At the time, KOME was still trying, without much success, to be KAKC's only competition. (KELI, a better-remembered rock 'n' roll station, would not come along until the '60s.) And Danny Dark was one of its jocks.
"I heard Danny on the air and was just bowled over with his voice," recalls Schmitz. "Some guy was leaving, and we needed someone to replace him, so I just went over to KOME one afternoon when I knew Danny was on, got on that cranky old elevator and went up. He couldn't believe that I'd come over there to see him; he was sort of wound up with the whole idea of coming over to KAKC."
"I saw him, and I was so nervous about meeting him that I dragged a needle all the way across an LP," says Dark with a laugh. "I was so unprofessional. I wowed records, and I stammered. I was just terrible."
He would, however, become a KAKC mainstay before heading out of the market for Cleveland and then Los Angeles. He's worked in the latter city for the past 40 years, announcing for the TV series "Bonanza" and "Bewitched" and voicing the part of Superman on the long-lived Saturday morning TV series "Super Friends," among many other gigs.
Happy Harry Wilson, KAKC Big 7 deejay, at the microphone.
Other well-remembered Big 7 deejays include Happy Harry Wilson, a Will Rogers High School grad; Scooter Seagraves, who was still a University of Tulsa student when he was hired on to the station, and Don Kelly, who did a show with his alter ego, a comic character named Chauncey.
"In the '60s, when KELI came in, they gave all their guys the last name 'Kelly,'" notes Wilson with a chuckle. "I don't know if they based that on Don Kelly or what. Don was great, and one of the things he did that was really memorable was when Tony Randall was in Tulsa promoting something, visiting all the radio stations. He came up to KAKC, and it happened to be during Kelly's show. Chauncey and Tony Randall began a conversation, and it turned into this Burns & Allen-type act. Chauncey would say something stupid, and Tony Randall would kind of act as his straight man, and then the opposite would occur. It was absolutely hilarious. It was the funniest thing I've ever heard on any radio station. And unfortunately, we didn't think to tape it."
At that time, Wilson says, "some of our ratings were like 50 percent and 60 percent of the audience, and nobody had ever done that before." As a result, deejays became local stars, a fact brought home to Wilson during one of his many personal appearances of the period.
"I was master of ceremonies for something, maybe a highway dedication, and J. Howard Edmondson was governor at the time. While we were milling around on the platform, there were more people coming up for my signature than for the governor's." He laughs. "I never will forget that."
Day and Knight
Perhaps no KAKC jock is better remembered, however, than George Basil Segraves III. ("I was supposed to be a third-generation lawyer," he explains.) Still plying his trade as Scooter Segraves, he currently works afternoon drive at a major Louisiana country station.
"That was my first real honest-to-God radio job," he says of his KAKC days. "I was 19 and I sounded like I was 12 or 13. I joined the station as a sophomore at the University of Tulsa in September of 1959. I went into the all-night shift six nights a week, and my grade-point went in the toilet."
He laughs. "We had a kid working for us from noon to 3, and he was using the name Ed Knight. So Harry Wilson said, 'OK. We've got Ed Knight at 12 in the daytime - so we'll let you be Don Day! 'The new KAKC thanks you! No. 1 in Tulsa with Ed Knight at 12 in the daytime and Don Day at 12 in the nighttime!'" He laughs again. "I'm in about my third night of this, and my body's already starting to say bad things about me. It's about 2:30 in the morning, and I look up, and here's this guy who looks as big as a grizzly bear hulking over me. I say, 'Yessir. Can I help you? I'm Don Day.'
"He says, 'No, you're not. I'm Dick Schmitz - program director. And don't ever use that . . . damn name on my radio station again!' "
Rockin' the news
Harry Wilson with the KAKC mobile news unit.
In addition to the music, KAKC also changed the way radio news was done. With its mobile-unit automobile, the station prided itself on getting to the scene of any local news in a hurry.
"If it was a reasonably interesting story, we'd have it on within a couple or three minutes after it happened," says Harry Wilson. "It was just instantaneous news coverage."
"You've got to remember that television wasn't as generalized as it is now," adds Clayton Vaughn, a KAKC newsman who went on to become one of the best-known Tulsa television news anchors. "It was on, but it was still black-and-white, and there was no coast-to-coast cable -- they called it coaxial cable then. . . . Television news, locally, essentially didn't exist. So there was great reliance on radio for local news."
Some of the KAKC jocks, including Wilson, began in the news department before getting their own shows. That was not, however, the case with Vaughn, who simply didn't care very much for rock 'n' roll.
"I was the one-man news de partment, and fill-in disc jockey in case of great emergency, meaning everybody else is dead," he recalls. "I didn't know come here from sic 'em about rock 'n' roll. Everybody else had these little spiffy kinds of introductions. You know, 'Time now for the Dick Schmitz Show,' the jingle with the little bridge you could talk over, and then the chorus would come back in with, 'And now, here's Dick Schmitz!' They wouldn't make one for me, because it obviously wouldn't be worth the money. So when I had to do a show, I played the theme from the 'Mickey Mouse Club.' That didn't set too well, so they just generally left me alone and I did the news."
Tommy Crook: Take me to your leader
As Tulsa's KAKC began to use more live local talent for its teen hops in the late 1950s, program director Dick Schmitz came to rely on David Gates and his band, the Accents. Naturally, Gates was also the first performer Schmitz called when a national act was coming through and needed a band for the engagement.
"I'd deal with their agents on the phone, and ask, 'Does he have his own band?'" recalls Schmidt. "If they said, 'No. He's by himself. You need to get some guys to back him up,' I'd pick up the phone and call David. I'd say, 'David, I've got a couple of hundred bucks here,' whatever I had. Usually, it wasn't that much. In fact, I've got a contract with David in my scrapbook. I gave him $85 to back Chuck Berry."
Remembers drummer Jim Karstein, "Gates called me up one afternoon and said, 'I just booked a sock hop down at the roller rink. Guess who it's with?' I said, 'Well, I don't know.' He said, 'Who's my favorite? Chuck Berry!'"
Assembling at the Continental Skating Rink the afternoon before the show, Karstein, Gates and guitarist Tommy Crook (and, believes Karstein, the late bassist Carl Radle) watched as Berry climbed out of a red Cadillac, got his guitar out of the trunk, and announced, "OK. We're gonna have a rehearsal."
"Of course, he specifically pointed me out and said, 'Now you just watch my foot,'" laughs Karstein. "That's a classic line I actually heard from Chuck Berry.
"So we start playing one of his hits, and Crook's a pretty irreverent guy. He doesn't care if it's Chuck Berry or Segovia. So Crook lays into some of his hot licks, and all of a sudden Chuck Berry just shuts 'er down.
"'I will play the lead,' he says. 'You will play the rhythm.'"
David Gates: Married by rock 'n' roll
While he was working as Tulsa's first rock 'n' roll disc jockey, Don Wallace also found the time to manage local acts David Gates and Clyde Stacy, eventually getting both of them record deals. But even before those deals were made, Gates' Accents became one of the first acts in town to record a locally successful single, an endeavor he says was "partly a commercial enterprise and partly to win over the heart of this girl."
"I had met Jo Rita Miller. She was a Central High School cheerleader, and I was a Will Rogers cheerleader," Gates explains. "She was going steady with this guy, but I got her to go out with me a time or two, and I thought she was just terrific. I wrote the song 'Jo-Baby' for her. And in order to make a stronger impression, I went in and recorded it. I paid for the pressing of 500 records, out of a pressing plant in Phoenix. My manager at the time, Don Wallace, got it on the air."
"The distribution consisted of us putting boxes of records in our trunks and carrying them around to record stores," adds Gerald Goodwin, the Accents' bassist at the time. "We had it in orders of 500, and we split the proceeds on it. So the 500 went, and then another 500, and then another 500. We sold 1,500 copies just there in Tulsa, and we were amazed that it took off."
What was especially amazing was that they did it without the help of the dominant radio station in Tulsa.
"It got to No. 1 on the KOME chart," recalls Gates, "but KAKC would not play it, because of the huge rivalry between KAKC and KOME."
"(KAKC deejay) Chris Lane kept that record from going on the air," says Dick Schmitz, who'd later become KAKC's program director. "John Trotter was the program director, and he let Chris decide what records were going to be played. All I knew was that they weren't playing it because another radio station, where Don worked, got it and played it first.
"Later on, I told Chris, 'I think you were wrong about that David Gates thing,' and the minute I had control of everything, we started playing it - as an oldie but goodie, sadly enough. But we started playing it. And we played it a lot."
David and Jo Rita Gates, incidentally, have been married for 44 years.
What is Rock of Ages?
Sunday began a five-part series on the early history of rock ’n’ roll in Tulsa. It continues in the Scene today, skips Thursday (no paper) and concludes Friday in Spot.
Sunday: The birth of Tulsa rock ’n’ roll
Monday: The venues, from clubs to the hop
Tuesday: A laboratory for racial integration
Wednesday: Teens tuned in to the radio
Friday: The Tulsa Sound comes around