Wilmington, the “All-America City” on the Atlantic with its great beaches, mild climate, the USS North Carolina, its beautiful historic homes, great restaurants, and friendly residents, was a good fit for me.
But my first love was still music and radio that allowed me to share it with the masses. Songs like You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling by The Righteous Brother, I’ve Got You Baby–Sonny and Cher, Hang On Sloopy–The McCoys, These Boots Are Made For Walking–Nancy Sinatra, Down In The Boondocks–Billy Joe Royal and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by the Animals.
My listeners were more open and tremendously larger than at WTUP, who’s 250 watts after sundown barely covered Tupelo proper. Now I was disseminating 10,000 watts to a potential audience of at least 75,000 in the greater Wilmington area, Southeastern N.C. and ships at sea.
Women, girls-actually, were reaching out to me for all sorts of reasons, calling me for advice on love, marriage, sex, music, and the like. There was fan mail as well, here’s a sample:
Reminded me of Play Misty For Me.* (Swan archives)
These young women felt a connection to their favorite DJ, with a deep and sexy voice, who plays their favorite songs. We were their friends. They tell us more than they would a psychologist, more even than their hairdresser. Just listening, giving advice, or meeting with them to fulfill their desires and needs is one of the burdens that comes with being a popular Top-40 DJ.
Was I arrogant, egotistical, and patronizing? Well, I didn’t think so, and I still considered myself a Southern Gentleman. Hubris and full of myself? Very likely. At 18, I was a leading DJ in a top 150 market, on the Number One rock station in Wilmington, WHSL. One doesn’t become a good radio personality if they lack an ego or a line of BS, DJs have to be “on” all the time.
Jan, the receptionist, and sometime secretary at WHSL was an attractive lady in her late 20s. She was friendly to all the staff, except for me. She just didn’t seem to like me, hard as that is to imagine. No, I hadn’t hit on her or told her dirty jokes. I don’t do that sort of thing, and besides, I had limited interaction with her. She was nothing like Lynn at WAMY.
Certainly, she didn’t think I had exceptional intuition or that I was wise beyond my 18 years and perceptive enough for me to suspect that she was sleeping with the married station manager, Sidney Wilson, about 20 years her senior? Intuition or not, I believe she suspected that I knew long before it was common knowledge to the rest of the staff. It must have been me who started a rumor about the affair. Not true, but if she believed it, well.
Another possibility is that she may have overheard me talking with some of the other Jocks (who were laughing with me) about how corny I thought it was that most of our commercials ended with the tag: “And be sure to tell them you heard it on Whistle,” W H i S t L e. That’s the only incident I could think of, she might tell Sidney, that could tick him off. Unlikely, because I believe Sidney would have talked to me directly and reminded me that I get paid because of these commercials and to shut my big mouth.
Anyhow, having enjoyed my coveted the 10-3 mid-day show on WHSL for several months — playing oldies like Don’t Be Cruel by Elvis, Can’t Get used to Losing You by Bobby Darrin — without any complaint from the PD, listeners, or a slip in ratings; Sidney Wilson confronted me just as I finished my show one afternoon.
He was direct: “Effective immediately, you’re going on graveyards. [Midnight to 6 am] How you like them apples?” I didn’t think he meant to construct that in the form of a question. So, I didn’t reply. I still may have been part country bumpkin, but I wasn’t stupid. I kept my mouth shut.
Demoted from an important mid-day slot to the midnight shift is about as close to getting fired as it comes. The PD and Steve Reno were flabbergasted. But Sidney’s the man who signs the checks.
I would recover somewhat. After a week or so, I was hosting the 7 to Midnight shift (the slot I did briefly when I first came to WHSL) and was surprisingly filling in for the important daytime slots, including Morning Drive.
I was playing Ballad Of The Green Berets by SSgt. Barry Sadler, a top song in 1965-6. Other favorites were Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)–Cher, Seventh Son–Johnnie Rivers, Get Off My Cloud–Rolling Stones, Little Red Riding Hood–Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs, We Can Work It Out–Beatles . . . Lightnin’ Strikes by Lou Christie.
Just a few weeks after Sidney demoted me, he was calling my show for requests while lying in a hospital bed with a terminal illness. He mostly wanted something by the Platters, but not dedicated to him. In one of his calls to me, he said that I would have been a good son for him.
My recent demotion was never brought up. I keep my decorum and never asked. I always suspected that it had something to do with his (former) mistress, Jan. He had not reduced my salary and, in fact, had given me a small raise not long after my demotion.
He called me one last time, from his hospitable bed. “Just play some Platters for me, please,” he said sadly and hung up.
That night I did the most sincere dedication of my short career, and without his permission, I said: “Here are the Platters singing Only You for my dear friend, Mr. Sidney Wilson.” And now Mr. Wilson, 20,000 other souls know you were indeed my friend.
Only you can make this world seem right
Only you can make the darkness bright
Only you and you alone
Can thrill me like you do
For it’s true, you are my destiny
When you hold my hand
I understand the magic that you do
You’re my dream come true
My one an only you
One and only you . . .
A few weeks after he passed, I learned that Mr. Wilson had scribbled a note from his hospital bed, asking that I be given $1,000 from his estate. The executor said his family would raise questions about his signature and his state of mind when the note was written. His family would fight it, and although that was a lot of money in early 1966, I did not.
Mr. Wilson, I didn’t really need to know why you clipped my wings and kept me on, but you need to know — my friend — all is forgiven.
At just 18, I was shaken by the events. But shortly I would have pressing problems of my own: The United States Army, you know, the Draft. My number was coming up. I was close to being inducted. I decided to enlist, adding an extra 12 months to my commitment — three years total. It wouldn’t keep me out of Vietnam, but it allowed me to choose my own Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) Broadcast-Journalist instead of the likelihood of going into the Infantry.
As for the ladies in my life, I continued to date both Mary and Marty right up to the end. I saw them once more, just before I left for Vietnam, knowing it could be my last. I told them both I would send my address and asked them to write. Regrettably, I never sent my address to Mary, never contacted her at all, deciding to choose Marty instead. We made plans to marry when and if I returned from Vietnam.
I also said goodbye to another girl I’d wanted to date. Talking with her as she sat in the outside ticket booth of a local movie theater, I boasted, “Hey, I’m going to Vietnam!”
I have no regrets in my entire life except for one Mary, I should have had the fortitude to write and tell you what was going on and not just blow you off as I did. Maybe you don’t even remember me, but you probably do, if for no other reason than my craven behavior. I wonder what you might have been thinking when you never heard from me. I often think of you and how I treated you. It bothers me to this day, after more than 50 years. My behavior was inexcusable, and for that, I am truly sorry.
Knowing you as I do and remembering your good nature and kindness, I was probably forgiven long ago, but just in case you haven’t, please forgive me now. I still have a picture of you smiling, just as I will remember you, always.
You no doubt found a man much more deserving than me, and I hope and believe you’ve had a full and wonderful life. I, too, have had a good life, and I’m living comfortably in retirement (albeit in ill-health) soon to be a well-known writer. Now my legions of readers will know and understand why you were a special person in my life and so remain.
My marriage to Marty didn’t last so long.
*Play Misty For Me; a phrase that’s become synonymous for an obsessed fan. Clint Eastwood starred in the popular movie of the same name about a girl that bedevils a small-town DJ.