As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you.
A new story will appear every week at Clevelandmagazine.com. It might be controversial, comical, nostalgic or nonplussing. But it will be Cleveland.
From Cleveland Magazine, August 1975
The station: WNBC-AM in New York. The voice: Unmistakably Don Imus.
"Hello, ma'am. You are the sixth caller on the Great $66,000 Contest. YOU! ARE! THE! WINNER! Before I tell you what your prize is, I want you to tell the listeners who chose me to be the disc jockey on this show."
"Oh, I don't know."
"God chose me, ma'am."
"That's right. You're God's Chosen Person."
"No, ma'am. I'm God's Chosen Disc Jockey. My personal life He's not that
Summer, 1975 CLEVELAND MAGAZINE'S Chosen Writer is tracking down God's Chosen Disc Jockey. Seven years ago Imus was a railroad brakeman and a frustrated country-and-western singer. Five years ago Jack G. Thayer, then general manager of WGAR Radio, brought him to Cleveland. Thayer had previously brought him to Sacramento, California, in 1969, aImus had been fired from his second radio job at a smalltown California station. It was also Thayer, now president of the NBC Radio Network, who convinced his precocious protege to create his stable of comic characters-Judge Hangin', Brother Soul, the Right Rev. Dr. Billy Sol Hargis. Like Moses in the Promised Land, Imus found milk and honey in Cleveland radio practically overnight, leading WGAR from ninth in the market to No. 1 in just three months.
John Donald Imus, Jr., billed himself then as Imus in the Moming. He enraged Mayor Carl B. Stokes by posing as a Cadillac dealer from Youngstown and placing a call to City Hall, demanding to know where the payments were on the mayor's Eldorado. Stokes' personal secretary insisted, on the air, that the mayor didn't own an Eldorado. He had a Lincoln. "I know all about the Lincoln, lady," Imus growled. "I want to know what happened to the money for the hog."Today at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, headquarters for NBC,
he is the Exceedingly Handsome Imus in the Morning, God's Chosen Disc Jockey, master of the coveted 6-to-10 a.m. drivetime slot at WNBC. And as Imus in Washington -- one of his stock bits, done in David Brinkley-like cadence -- he intones: "President Gerald 'Bozo' Ford has announced the formation of a new civil rights organization, 'Up With Negroes.' Former Cleveland Mayor Carl 'Boogaloo' Stokes turned down Ford's nomination as director. Senator Edward Brooke finally accepted and the new organization announced it would form a chain of black-operated fast-food stores, selling hamburgers shaped in the likenesses of famous black athletes."
Imus still asks women callers if they are naked. He still slurs over entire commercials and public service announcements. He ridicules sponsors and station management whenever he pleases (and the sponsors, at least, love itWNBC has a waiting list for commercial time on Imus' show, and the cost of a one-minute spot on his show has tripled, to $240). One new wrinkle is Flash, a black engineer who does the control board work for Imus at WNBC. As Imus reads a spot for a suburban housing development on Long Island -- "For $25,999 you can enjoy the luxury and privacy of your very own home" -- he ad-libs: "And you can live next door to who you want to. Won't have Flash looking funny at your old lady while you're away at work."At age 35, God's Chosen Disc Jockey is Bonafide Big Time. Three comedy record albums. Four singles on RCA, the latest with Imus singing two of his own country-and-western creations. Gigs at Jimmy's, a popular New York nightclub, where he does his Imus in the Evening routine. A novel -- with movie rights already sold to Paramount to be published early next year, its plot hinging on discovery of the "Dead Sea tapes" at the bottom of Lake Erie.
And, it goes without saying, Imus' radio career has skyrocketed ... up, up and away ... right to a (what's this?) standstill. Yup. When Imus came to WNBC in late 1971, the station's morning ratings in the target 18-to-34 age group quickly rose from No. 5 to No. 2, and the station brass was clearly glad to pay him something close to $100,000 a year. But today, with his salary probably closer to $150,000, his ratings remain unimproved. The Exceedingly Handsome Imus in the Morning, God's Chosen Disc Jockey, cannot beat a pleasant, totally nondescript rival deejay at WABC named Harry Harrison.
Not only that, God has been less than thrilled with Imus' personal life. His marriage of more than 10 years, in the past frequently near the rocks, has finally run aground. With divorce in the offing, Imus has left his wife and four daughters in their home in suburban Cos Cob, Connecticut and taken up residence in Manhattan. On the air, he lists cash winners in the latest WNBC contest and tacks on, "Mrs. Harriet Imus, $10,000 in alimony payments." Imus now takes a five-minute cab ride to Work. Still, he is late with increasing frequency. And he expresses ennui toward his current state. "Yeah, you've really made it, Don," he says sarcastically over the air. "What's the matter with me, Flash? I grabbed for the brass ring, and I missed it. I mean, I came to this town three or four years ago, and I did a lot of talking, but I didn't really do much. Maybe I just overloaded myself."
A few mornings later he fails to show for his regular shift. That day WNBC cracks down on its star. God's Chosen Disc Jockey is notified by special delivery: He has been suspended without pay.
For the moment, Imus is incommunicado. But other testimony begins to flow in about the personal life of Don Imus -- and it belies his devil-may-care, on-air image. Mrs. Jan Schlacht lived next door to Don and Harriet on Sutton Drive in North Olmsted. "He's a good-hearted person," says Mrs. Schlacht. "He just doesn't want anyone to know." She recalls that he habitually took out the garbage while wearing a bright yellow terry cloth robe and combat boots.
She also remembers that Don dropped over to her house for weekly Bible studies. When the Imuses moved next door, the Schlachts were already conducting weekly gatherings for nondenominational Bible study. Harriet began to attend right away, and, according to Mrs. Schlacht, soon made a profession of faith to Jesus. Finally Don joined in, but on his own terms. "He would never have come to a group study," says Jan, so the studies were limited to Don, Harriet, Jan and her husband, Ray.Was Imus sincere?
"Yes. He said that he had made his own profession of faith." She continues: "If Don believes the other person is sincere, he'll be sincere, too. But the glory-seekers, the elbow rubbers -- he never wanted anything to do with them. Sometimes just a little thing would turn him into his radio personality."
A Connecticut neighbor of the Imuses reports that, at the insistence of Harriet, Don began devotedly attending services, prayer groups and Bible studies at Greenwich Baptist Church. A member of the congregation says everyone thought Imus' churchgoing was a put-on at first, "but he seemed completely serious. He was into some pretty heavy things. Maybe he was looking for something in his life."
The Sunday night after his suspension he is scheduled to appear at a gathering sponsored by a Jewish group in New Jersey. Imus, who hasn't been seen or heard from since his Thursday morning show, finally arrives at 7:55 for the 8 o'clock performance. A pickup band begins to warm up the audience. At 8:40, resplendent in suede jeans, flowered cowboy shirt, neckerchief, lizard-skin cowboy boots with filigreed toes and aviator sunglasses, Imus walks warily onstage.
He launches into his typical repertoire of "creative swearing and inspired ethnic slurs," sparing no one. "Some baboons from the circus got lost in Penn Station," he reports. "But the commuters were unaware of the problem, since they just assumed the animals were domestics from the South Bronx going to work in the suburbs." He saves special barbs for his own ethnic identity, "uptight white." The bane of every uptight white male, Imus avers, is the uptight white female. "Man, you've got to negotiate with an uptight white woman for sex."At 9:55 Imus abruptly starts heading for the door, his $1,500 effort concluded. But wait. The emcee romps back on stage to disclose that one of Imus' radio sponsors, a wine called Acadama, hasa special presentation. A 60-ouncebottle is thrust into Imus' arms. God's Chosen Disc Jockey keeps walking offstage. "Big f ------ deal!" he sneers into the microphone, and the crowd roars.
Finally, an interview is arranged. We meet at mid-morning in the Savarin Restaurant at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Imus, wearing another cowboy-style outfit with a Confederate cavalry hat, leads the way to the table. Before he sits down, a glass of orange juice is at his place. Moments later an entire breakfast appears. Imus immediately thrusts the poached eggs back toward the waitress. "Have someone cook these eggs right, will you, Emily?"
Another performance of Imus in the Morning? No, Imus today seems cordial, quiet and totally sincere -- even if he sometimes still sounds like Imus as Usual. The conversation drifts from his problems with the station -- "I feel like a nigger who missed the team bus, that's how they treated me" -- to his marital difficulties. "Our problem was like that of a lot of couples -- we entered into marriage without any ground rules for communication. I'm trying now to develop an ability to listen to people, to understand them, not just automatically assume they're full of shit because I don't agree with them."
Pausing for another Tareyton, the latest in a succession of them, he segues easily into an analysis of his spiritual transformation. "I'm certainly not a good Christian. Right now I'm plagued with doubts as to whether there is a God. But you've got to hang it all on something, so I do."
As we head toward what Imus had been describing on the air recently as his "palatial apartment on Manhattan's fashionable East Side," the talk turns to his suspension from the station. "First of all, it's not a suspension. It's a termination. I terminated my contract. I won't go back until I get a whole new deal." What had happened, according to Imus, was this: The NBC operator called Imus, as always, at 5 a.m. to awaken him. She called again at 5:30 -- also standard operating procedure -- to make sure he was up. He told her he was ill and asked her to notify management that he would not be coming in. She apparently did not -- Imus is supposed to make such calls -- and the brass responded by suspending him for Friday and Saturday. On Monday Imus' lawyers charged WNBC with violating the contract.
Imus insists his fans would expect no less of him. His average listener, as he envisions him, has a job he would like to quit, a 30-year mortgage he would like to get out of and a wife he can't stand. But he is powerless. He just climbs into the station wagon every day and fights traffic. Imus' average listener is uptight white.
As Imus sees it, he becomes his listeners' hero by saying what they would love to say, but can't, or don't know how. And in his own mind, no matter how many aspersions he casts in all directions, he maintains a consistent bottom line of honesty. "I may kid and fool, but I don't lie," he tells his listeners time and again.
No. 12 Beekman Place, it turns out, is about as fashionable as you can get. Apartment 5-C is not exactly palatial, but Imus is working on the decor -- early American saloon, he calls it. The dominant furnishing is a Wurlitzer juke box, into which Imus tosses quarters and punches up -- among a raft of tunes -- his latest 45, "Everybody Needs Milk" and "Play That Country Juke Box."
Imus brings his guest a can of Coors beer and, for himself, a Tab. As he is claiming he hasn't had a drink in six months, the telephone rings. His greeting is pure Imus: "Hello it be thy name ... hey, how ya doing?" A conversation ensues with a young actress who, Imus says later, does TV ads for Johnson and Johnson baby shampoo. "Look, Lois, I just got divorced so that I wouldn't have to answer questions like that."
He hangs up and shakes his head. "The better looking they are, the more insecure. That one was out with me one night, and she made me promise she could sleep in my bed. I stayed up all night working. I tell you, man, I just don't want to get involved in those problems right away again."
Imus walks into the apartment's second bedroom, which he uses as an office. "This is my newest hobby -- typography. I'm recreating front pages of the New York Times, featuring significant events in my own life." You do not get to be God's Chosen Disc Jockey, crusader against hypocrisy, without having at least a modest ego. The easels are filled with Times front pages bearing banner headlines documenting his battle with WNBC. The biggest headline of all states boldly: "NBC Capitulates." It is prophetic.Two weeks after the suspension-termination, Imus returns to the air. "No one wants the news -- SHUT UP!" Imus explodes into his mike at less than six minutes past 6 a.m. "I'm going as fast as I can," pleads the straight-laced newsman. "I'm Sam Hall, WNBC .... "
No one cares who you are, dummy!" Imus cuts off the newsman once and for all. "I am Imus in the Morning, and I am back," he gargles into the mikes. And then, in a more subdued tone, "And I'm kinda glad about that."
Imus is crowing to himself about the resolution of his sabbatical. His new deal includes five weeks of vacation instead of three, and Imus will be paid for every day he missed. He also will henceforth be subject to a fine of $500 each day he is late. The fine, he claims, was his idea, and it's OK by him. There is even more to crow about, though. The latest ratings are just out, and they say that Imus has finally pulled ahead of WABC's Harry Harrison. Well, in one category, anyway: Male listeners, aged 18 to 34. Among uptight white males, at least, Imus is No. 1 in New York!
Imus turns to his point of contact with his audience, the telephone. "Hello."
"You're back?" (The voice is warm and feminine.)"That's true, ma'am."
"Oh, you're a love. I missed you so. My mornings just seemed... ."
"Well, they're back now. Gonna be better than ever."
"They couldn't be better. You're the best."
"That's true, ma'am. Thanks, dear." (Click.) "Hello. Hello."
"Hey, Imus! Good to hear you're back. What did you do while you were away?" (This voice is uptight white male.)
"Just hung out, you know. Flash came over to the house."
"Flash came over? That's good to hear."
"Yeah, he cleaned it." (Click.) "Hello."
"Hey, Imus the Man! Where you been at?" (Definitely soul.)"I been over at Flash's house."
"No, I mean you, man. You haven't been around for a week or two.""Yeah."
"Yeah, we had to listen to that Vernon with a V." (Bob Vernon, another WGAR alumnus, who is also now at WNBC.)"Yeah. "
"You know, Imus, he ain't much. Vernon's got about as much soul as George Wallace, man.""I'm hip to it."
"He ain't you, man. That's for sure. But where you been at? You've been on a drunk, weren't you?""I was what?"
"You was on a drunk, man. I know."
To his 750,000-plus listeners, Imus can be a boozer, a bigot, a lover, a brother . . . a veritable Everyman. Flash drops in another tape cartridge, and over the music Imus reminds his fans: "I am Imus in the Morning, and I am back. I guess things just work out when you're God's Chosen Disc Jockey."