San Francisco-born Pierre"Pete" Myers blew into the North Coast in the mid-'50s on the tailwinds of a long spate of professional disappointments. Before then he had been a New York actor paying old-era trouper's dues: acting school in London, a frustrating turn at summer stock, an ill-fated shot on Broadway, and long hours in the agent's waiting room. A natural character actor with easy ethnic mimicry, broad face and fair hair, Myers hustled scores of bit parts in TV docu-series like Project 90 and You Are There as a heiling, heel-clicking Nazi. But the typecast passed from vogue, and Myers found himself unemployed again. Fed up with acting and unwilling to spend another winter selling toys at Macy's, he packed up and headed home.
Back in California, his brother Ernie had been doing well as a disc jockey, and since Pete had some radio experience making propaganda broadcasts in the Army in Korea, he thought he would try the shtick, too. He might even have foreseen a crazy career in radio. As a soldier, he reportedly was busted for an unauthorized War-of-the-Worlds type broadcast that hysterically alerted North Korea to the threat of dragons rising from the sea. Later, after a hitch in the Army, he would develop a far more serious interest in Oriental culture, even an obsession.
He heard that all the excitement in radio was happening back east, especially in Cleveland, so he quickly left his boring, challengeless job with KCBQ 1170AM in San Diego. Interested in a television crossover (Ernie Kovacs recently had gone from radio to TV in Philadelphia, a town then in almost the same place on the showbiz ladder as Cleveland), he decided on Akron."Close enough for me," he said.
Under various monikers on Akron's WHKK radio, he dug up"Honker" music (with bleating saxophones) and other rhythm 'n' blues styles that blacks, a few white musicians, and disc jockeys like Cleveland's"Moondog" Alan Freed had started calling rock 'n' roll. Myers played the stuff, and the kids were wildly enthusiastic.
Playing previously all-black labels (known then as race music) unknown to most white disc jockeys, and pioneering the southern white version called rockabilly, Myers helped to popularize the low-budget records that were being cut in music- stores, basements, and the back rooms of diners. He followed his own tastes and eventually introduced a kind of humorous, off-beat rhythm 'n' blues that he called"wavy gravy."
Myers' impact on Akron listeners in the mid-'50s, and later on Clevelanders, is considerable. To some of his faithful, he is still almost a god, and so there is a wealth of stories about Mad Daddy's formative years. Some even claimed he was the first to use the term rock 'n' roll to white audiences. Since Alan Freed made his contribution and left for New York before Myers had even developed his Mad Daddy persona, it is unlikely that Freed stole Myers' term. Still, the character clearly evolved slowly on northeastern Ohio soil, though Myers' own account of Mad Daddy's birth is more romantic.
In a 1967 interview with Cleveland disc jockey Dick Liberatore (coincidentally, Freed's brother-in-law), Myers claimed it all came to him in a flash one night, at a small, low-power radio transmitter out in the boondocks between Akron and Cleveland, as he played his offbeat rhythm 'n' blues on a program with only one sponsor, Black Draft Syrup. It is unclear whether Myers was with WHKK, WJW, or another station then. Realizing he had been around the world pursuing the Big Break and was now stuck between Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, with no way out, inspiration born of desperation came as he grabbed an off-the-cuff rhyme."A fella'd have to be mad, mad, mad ... ," he said. And that was it. Weird sound effects and reverberating laughter set the mood. Pete Myers on the air became Mad Daddy.
Hang Loose Mother Goose, Here Comes the Show!
Whether the product of years of sweat or of one horrifying lonely night, by 1957, Mad Daddy's message was getting through to somebody. In Cleveland Heights, Neil McIntyre, a youngster of 16, became so intrigued by the sounds he heard that he decided that he had to find the man responsible. With a new driver's license but no wheels of his own, McIntyre bummed his uncle's car and, truer than the American Graffiti scenario 20 years later, drove around transmitters in Seven Hills until the signal on his radio got stronger. Following it down a muddy road to an old pillbox building, he pounded on the door until a subdued-looking man in Ivy League clothes let him in.
The kid was astonished to find the quiet preppy the only soul in the joint. All that commotion came from one little human dynamo. After Mclntyre's first glimpse of the frenzied brilliance fueling Myers' ambition, he asked right then and there if he could take phone requests. He became the Mad Daddy's one gofer, record librarian, and right-hand man, later responsible for warming up live show audiences, the shock troops of a sometimes three performance-per-night madness that helped sustain the excitement around Mad Daddy.
Myers was not destined to stay out there long, soon climbing the local ladder, officially going with WJW radio in Cleveland around the end of January, 1958. Initially, it did not seem as if the 8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. show would make it through the first few months, but determined never to go backwards, Myers unleashed a furor of pleading, cajoling, and extolling to get listeners to send cards, letters, and records. Mail fell off during a Miss Mello Muffin contest, and Myers' back was against the wall again, but his sincere SOS piqued bored Cleveland teenagers' interest in kooky way-out phenomena, and the cult swelled to a sizable audience.
Arnie Rosenberg, the award winning record producer and engineer who became Myers' sound man at WHK, described Myers as a"most intense, wildly talented man" who sat in the studio surrounded by eight turntables and a variety of homemade noisemakers, gabbing full tilt in rhyme. The driven, febrile Myers made many of today's breakdance and scratch disc jockeys look like sleepwalkers. Still impressed after all these years, Rosenberg said,"It was all spontaneous, the rhyming throughout the whole show, the sound effects, everything. You'd just sit there in amazement and try to create with him."
If anything, Myers was even more crazed when he was at WJW, while he was still clawing to the top of the local heap. Alan"Moondog" Freed, a deejay who became nationally famous, was a WJW alumnus, and this fact put a lot of pressure on young Myers, who felt one step closer to his dream. He had to be a little quicker, madder, more original, more obsessed. His bizarre nightly transformation from mild-mannered Pete Myers to"zoom boomin"' Mad Daddy earned him the title of the Jekyll and Hyde of radio from his associates. Myers had concerted his efforts into a headlong gallop for the top.
Zoomerating With the Gabber
Able to spontaneously create rhymes through an entire four-and-a-half -hour show, doing even commercials in off-the-cuff rhyme at breakneck speed, handling all the physical demands without modern radio conveniences like prerecorded tape machines, Myers was also creating a new language. The gabber's fun words appealed to the kid in everyone.
Myers' gift of gab still can be experienced with an old 45 rpm record (cut under the name The Joker, on G&F Records) called"What Is A Fisteris" and, on the flip side,"I Love A Good Practical Joke.""What Is A Fisteris," without really telling what one is, describes Fisteris social habits, love lives, likes, and dislikes in a Jabberwocky that somehow makes sense, all accompanied by an instrumental version of Chuck Berry's"In the Wee, Wee Hours."
"Fisterises like pretty girls named Ingaborg with silver snoopers in their hair, sometimes moping about the snurds and limrocks they've loved and lost, sobbing big teedle-dools. Like everyone, they dislike artichokes for breakfast when the bumblebugger's gone."
"I Love A Good Practical Joke," a frantic, extemporaneous beatnik rap accompanied by riffing bongos, explains the good-natured competition between The Joker and his pal Melvin, another practical joker. After catching 6,000 volts through his electric razor (rewired to a train's third rail), Melvin retaliates, giving The Joker an unhealthy lungful of poison gas. Dying laughing (his mad laugh), The Joker concedes.
Ernie Anderson, a former colleague of Myers at WHK and now a very highly paid announcer for ABC, like Myers, worked with new words and made-up languages, particularly when he was in his professional persona as Ghoulardi --a successful TV character hosting late-night monster shows.
"There's always a new phrase," Anderson said from his home in Hollywood,"Who the hell knows how it started?" Anyone with access to mass media can create new words, phrases, languages by merely trying them out on the air, says Anderson."If it never comes back, don't try it anymore. Surprise, anything offbeat works. Like me, if Mad Daddy threw it out and it came back, he kept it."
Good insight from Anderson, but it does little to explain the brilliance with which Myers handled nonsense words and new phrases. One little language drill he used on air was something Mad Daddy called "Zoomerating." Spontaneously, he would start at the top of the alphabet (Atom-smashing) and go all the way through to Z (Zoomerating) with different words to describe his radio show. The amazing thing is that he would think up 26 new words each time he did the drill; no small feat.
Go Jump in the Lake
Frustrated again but resolved to take his character to the limit, Myers jumped ship in the spring of 1958 and went with WHK for twice his WJW salary. But even the job change gave the Mad Daddy creator trouble. Since he did not give WJW the required 90-day notice, and by virtue of an off-the-air clause in his contract, he found himself banned from broadcast at a time when keeping a high profile was critical to his career.
He tried all the current tricks to get himself fired, tricks like locking himself in the studio and playing the most unctuous sounding record ever cut for two weeks solid, but the stunt failed. So, still receiving a salary but off the air entirely, he tried to keep his exposure up by doing three grueling live shows a night. He began to panic. He knew that he had to do something spectacular for his mad character to remain in public focus. One story has it that he asked WJW management if there was some way around the ban, and the answer came back: "Go jump in the lake." He decided that was the answer.
Myers cooked up a plan to fill Cleveland harbor with gelatin and, wearing a Zorro costume and dumping bushels of records, parachute into the gooey mess from 3,000 feet.
Telling everyone that he had parachuted hundreds of times in Korea and intimating that Walt Disney was picking up the tab for pitching Zorro, he schmoozed the Civil Aeronautics Administration into permitting the stunt. The Coast Guard, though, warned him that choppy Lake Erie waters were extremely dangerous and gave him a fifty-fifty chance of survival. If they had known the truth, they would have stopped the jump. Myers had never parachuted in his life; he was just desperate to stay in focus.
The CAA did forbid him from throwing records and wearing a costume, and he was unable to find enough Jell-O to fill the space between the breakwater and the shore, but at about 3 p.m. on June 14, 1958, Myers went up in a friend's Piper Cub as 300 fans watched from the shore. His manager and his new wife, Ann, waited in a cabin cruiser, and his sidekick Neil McIntyre sat in a dinghy. True to his promise, Myers yelled,"Zorro!" and leaped, plummeted 100 seconds, and hit the chilly 60-degree water unharmed. To Ann and his manager, the jump seemed to take 10 minutes.
He was fished out and headed to Captain Frank's for coffee. The fifty-fifty odds, he said, were"better than I get at Hialeah [race track]." Later he said,"I didn't want those cats to forget me." No one did.
Ernie Anderson's first peek at Myers' driven nature was the jump, and he remembers telling him"You're an asshole for doing this." But he says he understood that Myers' obsession was success."Success didn't mean that much to me. If I had to jump out of a plane, I'd pass." Mad Daddy was back on the air waves by August.
At WHK, the character's popularity became incredible. Other stations would have saved money by not broadcasting when he was on. He introduced almost every Cleveland rock hit, including national hits on local labels. Everyone listened to Mad Daddy, and commercial time on his show was pure gold. He still got records from small independent labels, but now he was courted by the mighty. Nationally known artists and producers hung around. He did a national"Double Cola" ad, which aired during American Bandstand."Batty Bucks," the natty gray-with-black-batwings footwear he designed and endorsed sold so well that Stone's sold them out and had to have them manufactured. Mad Daddy was mobbed wherever he went for personal appearances - Stone's, Greene's, Record Rendezvous, and, of course, his live shows. In his black cape and his pink Pontiac, Mad Daddy had finally arrived.
Less than a year later, on June 26, 1959, he was doing his last show from Dracula Hall.
Mad Daddy In New York