Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cleveland Rocks with WMMS

A few weeks ago, Greg Rector, who has been a constant reader of this blog since its inception, asked if I would do a feature on the legendary rock radio station WMMS from Cleveland. I have done radio features before and one that I had done early on regarding WHAM’s Harry Abraham has garnered me some lifelong friends who also listened to this legendary jazz announcer from Rochester, NY. So, I have done some radio features – but usually I had listened to a station quite a bit that I knew it well.

With the case of WMMS, I had heard the station during my travels throughout Northern Ohio in the late 1970s; however, I could not claim to be an expert the station. WMMS, however, was the only station I listened to while driving through that region and I remember hearing bands like The Pretenders first on WMMS. During my brief stint in Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio, I got to know the station better, as WMMS was considered one top AOR outlets in the US. If a cut was played on WMMS, dozens of others would add the song.

Ohio was a hotbed of AOR stations with excellent examples found in Youngstown, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Toledo, and elsewhere; however, Cleveland – the home of rock ‘n roll – had one of the better known AOR stations in the country.

The outlet began as the FM compliment to 5,000 watt WHK. When FCC rules enacted in 1967 required that AM and FM outlets (initially in the major markets) have unique programming, WHK-FM switched to the new progressive/underground format that in the 1970s morphed into AOR.

Metro Media, the owners of WHK-FM in 1968, rebranded the station as WMMS – for Metro Media Stereo – the call sign the station uses today even though ownership has changed several times since the Metro Media days. The progressive rock format did not initially perform well in Cleveland, and WMMS jockeyed a number of other formats during 1969 and 1970. It returned to the progressive/AOR format in 1970 and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the mid 1970s, WMMS adopted "The Buzzard" mascot – which simultaneously became the station’s alter ego. In 1981, Radio and Records (later R&R) declared that The Buzzard was the best known radio promotional emblem in the US. WMMS jocks simply referenced the station as "The Buzzard" as well.

While my listening to WMMS is limited, I got to know the station through my own work in radio. Even though most of the middle period of my radio career was in Contemporary Hit Radio, WMMS program director John Gorman was known nationally and across formats as one of the best program directors in the business.

Afternoon jock, Kid Leo, became a national celebrity appearing at conventions and later broadened his base in the music industry as the vice president for artist development at Columbia Records, a position he held from 1989 to 2002. While there were other well known personalities at WMMS, Gorman and Kid Leo are the only two with which I am familiar.

Ian Hunter: Cleveland Rocks

In 1979, former Mott the Hoople lead vocalist Ian Hunter released his best selling solo album, “You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic.” As a tribute to the birthplace of rock ‘n roll, Hunter recorded “Cleveland Rocks.” He felt that the Rust Belt city did not get the respect it was due.

The recording starts with a clip of legendary Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed and his Moondog show (over WJW) that ties the perspective of Cleveland being rock ‘n roll’s birthplace with the voice of its father. The song became synonymous with Cleveland and is played often today. Every Friday, as Greg told me, WMMS would kick off the weekend by playing Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks” followed by The Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind.”

A cover by The Presidents of the United States gained national notoriety as the theme song to the Drew Carey Show which was set in Cleveland.

Ian Hunter: England Rocks

Two years previous to the release of the 1979 release of “You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic,” Hunter recorded the original version of “Cleveland Rocks.” At the request of CBS records to use another locale besides an American city, Hunter changed the lyrics to “England Rocks.”

“England Rocks” was released as a single in the United Kingdom by Hunter and his band the Overnight Angels. Hunter is clear on the subject of this version that “Cleveland” was the original and intended location for the song. I don’t know about you, but “England Rocks” just doesn’t have the punch that “Cleveland Rocks” has.

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