The Buzzard's Return

Folks have contacted artist David Helton for years, trying to get their hands on renderings of his famous grinning buzzard character that became synonymous with rock station WMMS-FM during its 1970s heyday. Some ask the big bird’s creator to send an original sketch. Others just want to buy an old T-shirt from the stash Helton accumulated during his tenure as a freelance artist for the station.

“They track me down,” marvels the amiable 52-year-old, who left Cleveland for his native Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1989. “There are people who have fond memories of the days of the heights of WMMS’s popularity.”

Now local fans need look only to the nearest Dairy Mart or Circle K, or access to pick up the first new Helton-designed WMMS shirt in 15 years. The long-sleeved black garment, which sells for $20, features a buzzard skull-and-crossbones design and the words “Killer ROCK” on the front.

“It was really inspired by tattoos,” Helton says of the design. “And whenever I was doing something with the Buzzard, I always tried to identify with who was listening to the radio station.”

The shirt is the result of an inquiry made by Elisabeth Logan, the station’s market development manager, approximately 18 months ago. Helton, who now spends most of his days illustrating various children’s publications, immediately agreed. But he resisted any suggestion that he change the buzzard’s basic look, pointing out that the icon has survived the station’s repeated changes in ownership and personnel.

“I said, ‘If it was a logo or a character that was 10 years old and didn’t have any impact, I’d go along with whatever you want. But quite frankly, the Buzzard is 30 years old. I don’t want to change something that works,’ ” Helton recalls. “They went along with it.”

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