The 1968 Issue: O’Day made the introductions at Garfield, Hendrix’s old high school, but the show didn’t last long.
IF EVERY PICTURE tells a story, this one from Feb. 13, 1968, should be in a time capsule as evidence the times were changing. The 30ish guy in the tailored sport coat, black slacks and tassel loafers, his reddish-brown hair carefully brushed back, Philly-style, is Pat O’Day, the legendary Seattle disc jockey and concert promoter.
Pat was the king of Seattle Top 40 radio from 3 to 6 weekdays in the Sixties. The jingle he wrote for his station is nostalgic catnip to hundreds of thousands of aging Puget Sound baby boomers. They can intone it on cue: “KJR Seattle, Channel 95!”
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- Seattle DJ Pat O’Day, now 84, recalls the day superstar Jimi Hendrix was too cool for school
- The Backstory: the story behind ‘The 1968 Issue’
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Jimi Hendrix should need no introduction. The Garfield High School dropout is on the brink of international stardom. He’s arriving at his alma mater for a special pep assembly on the morning after a sold-out homecoming concert at Seattle Center Arena.
1968: The Year That Rocked Washington
The office of the Secretary of State has produced an exhibit that will open Sept. 13 at the capitol in Olympia. The 3 p.m. grand opening will feature remarks by Secretary of State Kim Wyman and several of the individuals spotlighted. Two of those stories — John C. Hughes’ profile of Pat O’Day, the legendary KJR disc jockey Hughes met in 1968, and Bob Young’s profile of Ralph Munro, our former five-term Secretary of State, appear in this week’s special 1968 issue of Pacific NW magazine.
Optically, O’Day and Hendrix are as incongruous a pair as Dick Clark and Little Richard (or Ryan Seacrest and Ozzy Osbourne). Jimi, who is 25, looks like a gypsy troubadour in moccasins and British peacoat, his electric hair stuffed into a jaunty Western hat banded with purple ribbon and silver hoops. His slightly bent left knee, downcast eyes and shy smile betray his what-am-I-doing-here nervousness, exacerbated by a raging hangover. He’d partied hard most of the night.
But, hey, man: Pat O’Day was going to introduce him. Jimi’s song “Spanish Castle Magic” was an homage to O’Day’s prime concert venue in the 1960s — an old roadhouse with faux turrets midway between Seattle and Tacoma. A combo called the Rocking Kings, with 17-year-old Jimi on a $49.95 Sears Roebuck guitar, opened for another band at the Castle in 1960.
“Look at him,” O’Day says, studying the photo half a century later. “He’s so cool. But when it came time to talk to a bunch of teenagers in the gym at his old school, he was absolutely petrified. … The Garfield student body was then predominantly black kids from the Central District, but Jimi’s music wasn’t exactly Motown. A lot of the kids didn’t really know who he was. I grabbed the microphone and said, ‘Standing before you today is a man who may soon surpass the Beatles in popularity!’ Most of the kids applauded and cheered the idea a black musician from their school could displace an all-white British band. When I asked if anyone wanted to ask Jimi a question, one kid asked how long he had been gone. ‘About 2,000 years,’ Jimi quipped. Then a cheerleader with purple and white pompoms — the school’s colors — asked him, ‘Mr. Hendrix, how do you write a song?’ Jimi mumbled something about ‘Purple and white, fight, fight!’ and said he always liked to hear the school bell. ‘Right now, I have a plane to catch, so I’m going to say goodbye, go out the door, get into my limousine and go to the airport. And when I get out the door, the assembly will be over, and the bell will ring. And when I hear that bell ring, I’ll be able to write a song. Thank you very much.’ He waved goodbye with a sheepish smile and walked out the door without receiving an honorary diploma. The principal, Frank Fidler, shot me a look that said, ‘Pat, you owe me one!’ ”
Jimi had left the building but not the stage.
SEVEN MONTHS LATER, as a summer of discontent was fading into a bumpy fall, the Jimi Hendrix Experience returned to Seattle in unconditional triumph. “Electric Ladyland,” its new double album, rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts as Election Day approached. The Nixon-Agnew ticket was pledging “Law and Order.” Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democrats’ nominee, struggled to free himself from Lyndon Johnson’s tattered coattails and images of Chicago cops thrashing anyone without a crew cut.
Hendrix’s virtuoso version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a breakout single from the album, struck millions as an anthem for the year that changed the world. There was “too much confusion” and “no relief,” Jimi lamented. Midway in the track, Jimi cuts loose on a soaring Stratocaster riff punctuated by a psychedelic slide up and down the frets. “It gave me chills,” O’Day says, admitting that his tastes usually revolved — in fact, still do — around Elvis, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles and the Ronettes.
Early in his ascendancy at KJR, O’Day began promoting dances and concerts featuring Northwest bands, including The Fabulous Wailers, the Ventures and Sonics, as well as traveling stars like Ricky Nelson.
“Every local band wanted to play the Castle,” O’Day says, his sea-blue eyes brightening at the memory. “When Jimi returned home in 1968, he asked me if I remembered the wired kid who was a fixture at the Castle, always hoping he’d be asked to sit in as a side man with other groups. ‘That was me, Pat!’ he said. I was flabbergasted. To me, Jimi was a jewel — just the sweetest guy you could imagine. We would sit and talk about hydroplanes and how he’d like to see the Woodland Park Zoo expanded. At heart, he was just a Seattle kid.”
By 1968, O’Day’s success as a concert promoter and high-key, wisecracking persona — not to mention KJR’s Top 40 format — had bred contempt among the cognoscenti in the city’s growing “underground.” They branded him a greedy opportunist more interested in ratings and his piece of the action than “music that matters” — Buffalo Springfield, Dylan and The Byrds vs. “empty-headed crowd-pleasers” like the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.
Fifty years on, O’Day leans forward over his clam chowder at the Washington Athletic Club (Sign says you got to have a membership card to get inside — hooh!) and observes that it was all rock ’n’ roll. “But if you were a purist in 1968, you weren’t supposed to like Elvis, the Righteous Brothers and Jimi Hendrix.”
Even after “Pet Sounds,” Brian Wilson’s brilliant Beach Boys album, left the Little Deuce Coupe in the dust, some people still didn’t get it, O’Day says. The Helix, a sometimes-weekly, sometimes-biweekly newspaper, and the voice of the Seattle underground, railed that O’Day had the effrontery to stage a LOVE-IN and charge admission. “They had bumper stickers saying ‘Pat O’Day’s a shuck’ because music ‘belongs to the people,’ and there I was, supposedly this crass promoter, charging $5 for concert tickets. Well, I know one thing for certain: Musicians appreciate getting paid. And you won’t hear anyone say I didn’t look out for the artists.”
FAST FORWARD to 1970. “Bridge over Troubled Water,” fittingly, topped the charts as Nixon widened the war and the credibility gap became a crevasse. The Ohio National Guard mowed down four Kent State students during an anti-war protest, the Beatles broke up and Jimi Hendrix was dead at 27 of an accidental barbiturate overdose.
“Jimi’s dad, Al Hendrix, asked me to fly to London and find out what was happening,” O’Day remembers. “Tom Hulet, a Garfield High guy, was one of my partners at the time. We discovered the body was still at the morgue and nobody was doing anything. I had a letter from Jimi’s dad, so they allowed us to claim the body. We bought a coffin and brought him home. It was one of the saddest duties of my life. What a tragedy. In my view, he’s the greatest rock guitarist ever — a transcendent genius.”
Hendrix’s biographer, Seattleite Charles R. Cross, seconds the motion: “In rock music, there has never been a guitarist as groundbreaking, original and impactful as Jimi Hendrix. Fifty years later, he still ranks No. 1 in practically every poll. In modern rock he’s unmatched. And Pat O’Day’s impact on the Northwest music scene — booking shows, running KJR and influencing generations of listeners — is also unparalleled. He’s the original Northwest rock legend.”
AT 84, HE’S ALIVE and well, having survived untold gallons of Jack Daniels and a brain tumor.
Back in the day, O’Day owned the afternoon airwaves, averaging 35 percent of the after-school and drive-time audience at a time when traffic was growing dramatically. Teenage car culture was in its heyday. Around the time the Lake City branch of the legendary Dick’s Drive-In opened, O’Day peaked at 41 percent. And his company, Concerts West, was one of the major concert-booking agents in the nation.
The son of a coal miner turned preacher, O’Day was born Paul Wilburn Berg in Norfolk, Nebraska, in 1934. When Pat was 7, his father accepted the pastorate of a Tacoma church. The Rev. Berg soon landed a regular radio ministry show on Tacoma’s KMO, 1360, one of the state’s pioneer stations. “He didn’t pound the pulpit, but he could move people emotionally,” O’Day remembers. “I knew then that I wanted to be on the radio. Every night I’d go into the bathroom and practice announcing into the bathtub because it made my voice resonate.”
O’Day graduated from Bremerton High School in 1953. When he enrolled in broadcasting school in Tacoma and began perfecting his delivery, he says, he realized the secret to his father’s success as a broadcaster was being “one-on-one” with his listeners. “Whenever I was on the air, I’d look at the microphone and envision one person and talk to her or him,” O’Day says.
KVAS in Astoria, Oregon, in the fall of 1956, was O’Day’s first stop on the back roads to a major market. “In between reading lost dog reports and funeral home ads, he developed his ‘Platter Party’ concept, which meant broadcasting rock hits from remote teenage sock hops on weekends — thus turning the previously sterile medium of radio into an ‘event,’ ” wrote Northwest music historian Peter Blecha.
Moving to KLOG in Kelso, the young deejay — still going by Paul Berg — perfected his snappy, “faintly ironic” patter and began staging teen dance parties at the National Guard Armory to supplement his $350-a-month salary. He arrived in Yakima in 1958, lured by the promise of the program director’s slot and a $100 raise.
AS “PAT O’DAY,” he made his Seattle debut on KAYO in winter 1959. “Paul Berg” was too bland for an up-and-coming radio personality, O’Day remembers.
“I thought Pat was a great name for me and my personality,” he says.
O’Day says he and Ted Bell, the program director, kicked around ideas. “If it was going to be Pat, maybe something Irish would be good. I don’t remember if it was Ted or me, but we settled on O’Day. It had to be spelled different from the big Seattle high school — O’Dea — so it wouldn’t be a rip-off.”
When KJR announced it was switching to a Top 40 format, O’Day landed his dream job. “On New Year’s Day 1960, I went on the air at KJR for the first time,” he recalls wistfully. “Little did I know it would be my home for the next 15 years.” The rest is broadcasting history. O’Day was named the top program director in the nation in 1964 and 1965 and “Radioman of the Year” in 1966. He began announcing hydroplane races on Lake Washington in an era when roostertails meant summer in Seattle.
O’Day rose to station manager, all the while expanding his concert business and investing in real estate, cutting deals and hobnobbing with the stars. Notably, he recalls a pool party where he says Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who told their wild-man drummer, Keith Moon, to lighten up a bit because drum kits were more expensive to replace than guitars after the obligatory set-ending bashfest.
O’Day says he dabbled in cocaine and marijuana, but his drug of choice was alcohol: “A lot of times I went back on the air after a four-Jack Daniels lunch, and no one could tell.”
Worried friends staged an intervention in the spring of 1986. “I went to Schick Shadel Hospital vowing I would beat the system, thinking I’d go in for two weeks and get them off my back. Well, I walked out two weeks later and never had another drink. I felt like a new human. … Schick changed my life — maybe saved my life.”
If the old deejay sounds like an evangelist, it’s because he is. O’Day became the voice of Schick Shadel’s radio and TV commercials. He still gives the welcoming address to each incoming group of patients.
In 2012, Pat’s wife of 37 years, Stephanie, and good friends were increasingly alarmed by his memory lapses. A CT scan revealed a massive tumor.
“The doctor in the ER department told me I had inoperable cancer and only a short time to live. But another doctor ran in and said, ‘We better do an MRI and be sure,’ and 2½ hours later they told me, ‘It’s benign! You can be operated on!’ The Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute gave me a new lease on life.”
As for afternoon radio today, O’Day says he doesn’t listen to music stations “with any enthusiasm.” He likes to tune in to talk radio. He finds KIRO’s Dori Monson compellingly provocative. “He talks to people one-on-one,” O’Day says.
Any advice from the vantage point of 84? “Stay busy! You only get one shot on this Earth. How can you waste one day of it?”
For posterity, O’Day leans into the tape recorder and intones, “KJR, Seattle … ”
He interrupts himself. “I’m not in good voice today. Let me try it again.”
This time he nails it: “KJR, Seattle, Channel 95!”