Having a live Tony Booth in the car is not unlike traveling around with his voice in the speaker. Sooner or later, there will be music trivia.
"Gary Lewis was actually bankrolled by his mom, Patti, not his dad, Jerry," the bald man behind the wheel says, speaking of the celebrity progeny who sang "This Diamond Ring," which hit the top of the charts in February 1965. "Gary isn't the only singer on that track, you know. His voice was thin so they had another vocalist come in and sing along with him."
We're in Tony's shiny 2009 Mazda MXS — adorned with "Oldy DJ" license plates — and it's hot as blazes on the first day of summer.
You're with Dandy Don Harrison, Mizz Carolyn's baby boy, and I'll be leading you through this story on the one and only Tony Booth, the DJ, the rock 'n' roll historian, the last of a dying breed in an increasingly vacuous communications landscape. How are you doing out there, Richmond? It's a muggy 98 degrees, according to the National Weather Service, time to crank up the AC and settle down with a cool oldie. That's Tony. Did you know his wife Marsha bought these wheels for him, to make up for a beloved ride he had to sacrifice to pay some bills during leaner days? Now that's true love. And on that note, here's the Lovin' Spoonful. ...
"Top 40 radio was basically conceived," my driver says, snapping me out of a daydream, "because there were 40 records in a jukebox."
Booth, 63 years young, has been galvanizing radio listeners since before the Beatles invaded America. On Aug. 14, the animated announcer with the recognizable next-door-neighbor voice will celebrate 50 years as a radio DJ — and what a long, strange trip. "Boothy Baby" was spinning discs for troops in Korea and was a major voice in the Top-40 format; once the announcer for the Texas Rangers baseball team, Mizz Lizzie's baby boy even has a neat origin story, starting out in broadcasting at the tender, voice-changing age of 13.
While he drives and talks, I leaf through Booth's dog-eared 1966 issue of Teen Life magazine, with television's Batman and Robin on the cover. In one column, "Dialing the DJs with TJ," there he is, a smiling, crew-cutted young goober making radio waves in Texas:
Booth of Paris: In 1962, TONY BOOTH started to work as a DJ at KFTV RADIO in Paris, Texas. By '65, he was Music Director of the station besides his afternoon drive shift. Tony is 17 years old and one of the youngest regular afternoon drive men to hold down reasonable ratings. ... Tony's hobbies are girls, pop music and football. To join the Tony Booth fan club. ...
"The biggest change from back then to today is technology," Booth says — "and the fact that the announcers have no say in the music they play, with a few exceptions. I pick my Forgotten 45 and my Top Five Songs each day but that's it." He explains how a commercial oldies show is rigidly formatted, driven by market research with set categories of songs that must be mixed in — "Motown, late-'60s, soft rock." It sounds soulless and controlled; it's antithetical to the spirit in which the older music was created.
Still, on two daily FM programs in Richmond (WBBT, Oldies 107.3) and Fredericksburg (WGRQ 95.9), Booth thrives. While most of his contemporaries are retired or dead, he continues as that friendly jock with the story behind the hit — and even if you don't like the tune, he keeps you listening through the sheer force of his affable personality.
"He's a throwback in terms of what you hear," says friend Richard Campbell, a city juvenile judge who also happens to be the official historian for the Mamas and Papas. "Occasionally he even gets to disc jockey."
"The interesting thing about MTV," Booth says, jumping from topic to topic, navigating an off-ramp, "is that it kind of started a second British Invasion when it first came around. Because the British artists were already making the videos."
I interject — which can be difficult — to ask him what he's listening to right now. He turns the radio up, tuned to a Sirius satellite channel. "I usually listen to the blues," he says.
We're coming to you live from the University of Richmond's Tyler Haynes Commons for Tony Booth's presentation on the history of rock 'n' roll in the 1960s, presented by UR's Osher Institute chapter. Tonight, our man is joined by singer songwriter Steve Bassett and band leader Ron Moody, of Centaurs fame. And h-e-e-e-r-e's Tony:
"Listen to the music from 1969. It is light years from what was happening in 1960. That's why I say that the 1960s were the most creative time in popular music history."
For about a hundred folks gathered, Booth recounts the changing tides of popular music in that heady decade, buttressing his comments with well-timed song snippets triggered from his laptop (see the sidebar on page 18 for a one-minute montage of the seminar). Elsewhere, Moody chimes in to explain the roots of beach music — and he would know, being an originator of the form. Bassett, co-writer of "Sweet Virginia Breeze" and the voice behind dozens of jingles, recounts studio tales of famous flubs and interesting sound tricks, such as the famous plywood boards that were used to give Motown's songs their interesting percussive force.
The moderator concludes by pointing out how popular music changed dramatically in 10 short years, from "Alley Oop" to "Abbey Road." Campbell, currently teaching elective courses in rock 'n' roll for Virginia Commonwealth University, has participated in some of Booth's programs, which he has convened in venues as varied as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Padow's Deli. "He tries to cram too much in," Campbell says of Booth, laughing. "There are time-management issues. But he has so much to say. I mean. ... He was there."
"Tony has a personality, and he really knows his stuff," says Moody, who's worked behind the scenes for major record labels such as Columbia and Universal. "We try to work a little humor into these programs. Basically it's a bunch of old guys talking about the good old days."
Booth monopolizes the presentation from his place at the podium, a fact that his Greek chorus, Bassett and Moody, don't let him forget. When a cell phone goes off in the crowd, the DJ sarcastically asks if someone's bookie is calling.
"We appreciate it," Moody says. "It's the only time he ever stops talking."
"I took a breath," Booth replies with a pained smile. "I'm so sorry."
Looking at 50 years in the business, Booth has no illusions about what commercial radio has become — a pawn to demographic studies and consultants. He's dabbled in that game himself. "You know what Nixon said about a consultant, right?" he asks, getting settled in behind his console. "He can tell you 46 ways to make love to a woman and he hasn't got a girl."
It's on the air with Tony Booth in the studios of Oldies 107.3. "Basically, I get to the station about 2 p.m," he says. "I set up the show, tape the weather and do the first hour live or at least a large part of it. I then go to another studio and voice track [digitally prerecord his time on the microphone] the rest of the show. I like to do it as it eliminates any mistakes or flubs I do, and I do plenty."
Booth introduces Jim Conlee, the station's program director. The veteran has been in the radio business for only 44 years — a relative piker. "Just think," Booth tells me, "there's 94 years of radio history standing here with you."
He grabs his prep sheet of talk-back ideas and starts the show ("We are sweating today and we'll be sweating tomorrow"), then shuffles between a main studio and a production room, headphones in hand. His foot tapping nervously on the floor as he introduces "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac — "must be a Sigmund Freud song" — he clicks and inserts his tracks into the computer. Throughout the afternoon there's a palpable enthusiasm that never abates. This dude was born to be a DJ.
"You have to love it to do it," says Chuck Dunaway, the retired announcer and station owner, whom Booth describes as his "mentor and idol." Dunaway says from Houston, "He's kept up with the technology. ... I admire him for that."
Dunaway met a young Booth at KLIF in Dallas. "I was on the air and he came down to the studio," he says. "He told me that he would listen to me from Paris, Texas, where he had a show, and he would write down what I said and then repeat it on his show. So that's why he calls me his mentor."
And it all started with a trivia question. Booth was a high-school freshman, living in the small northeast Texas town of Paris when he phoned WFTV announcer Roy Lee Castleberry with the answer to the question, "How long did Rip Van Winkle sleep?" He won two tickets to a concert. "The answer was 20 years," Booth recalls. "I had to go to the radio station to pick the tickets up ... and I basically never left."
He was fascinated by the local 500-watt station. "I was a nuisance," he says, laughing. "I would basically go up there and hang out, especially with Castleberry on Sundays. ... I never met anyone who always had the stench of alcohol on his breath on Sunday morning. Welcome to the real world." For the youngster, it was an escape. "My dad was a laborer, my mother a stay-at-home housewife. ... We were as poor as church mice."
Station manager Jim Hendrix — yes, that was his name — asked young Booth if he wanted to do a Saturday show for teenagers called "High School Revue." From there, he was asked to take over a regular weekday afternoon show, gaining permission from his parents and school officials to leave classes early. "I couldn't say 'shit' five times without stuttering," he says of those formative days. "I was the most shy, introverted guy you ever met in your life."
In between an Oldies 107.3 segment extolling the first day of summer, and a musical salute to 1979, Booth asks if I want to hear something. He plays a hissy recording of a young squeaky teen, fumbling through a back announcement. "That's me, in Paris, when I started," he says, smiling. Then he plays another clip, which reveals a completely different voice — hip, suave and playful: "That's right, don't get framed, go to Fotomat for your developing."
"That's me at KLIF," he says.
In that 10-year span, spinning discs for various Top 40 stations, and for Armed Forces Radio, he grew up to become Tony Booth. But the training ground was Paris. Not only did he develop a love for rhythm and blues there — learned from promo discs sent by labels such as Peacock and Stax — but he also learned, on the job, how to be a radio professional. "I used to walk in, when I was in high school, and just 'rip and read' from UPI the 3 o'clock news. And during the commercial breaks, I would cue up a record or two, and I programmed my own show. ... If there was a song I liked, I could sneak it in."
What if you did that right now?
He grins. "I'd probably be knocking on Style Weekly's doors, looking for a job."
"Work as if you don't need the money, love as if you've never been hurt and dance as if nobody else is watching." — Tony Booth, signing off.
When Booth is asked about retirement, he laughs. "Why should I retire doing something that I love doing? And I love doing it now more than I have for a long time. No, retirement's not for me. ... I can throw a golf ball farther than I can hit it with a club."
Marsha Booth says that her husband of 38 years puts more time into his radio shows than he ever has. "I find it fascinating that what he's doing now is sort of a reflection of the kind of program he did when he started out."
Depending on whom you ask, the early days of Top 40 radio — which exists today as "contemporary hits radio" — were either a golden age or the start of the medium's long decline. "The jingles, the gags, the promos, the giveaways ... the sound of big commercial radio," summarized a recent PBS documentary on the history of broadcasting, "the homogenized music manufactured to appeal to everyone while offending no one."
"Top 40 was exploding," Booth recalls of the mid-'60's. "Deejays were personalities, they were stars. And it seemed like every market had at least one Top 40 station in town, sometimes two." Leaving Paris, he got a job at KAYC in Beaumont, where he met his longtime friend Billy Gibbons, later of ZZ Top. "Billy used to do my record hops" — teen dances sponsored by the station.
But in October 1967, the draft caught up with him and he ended up stationed in Korea, becoming the voice of Armed Forces Radio there. "I do a whole lecture on radio during war, did two with Adrian Cronauer [the jock who inspired "Good Morning Vietnam"] at the Virginia War Memorial. There were certain songs we couldn't play — 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?' which was based on a Russian song, and 'Hair' by the Cowsills because of the line about the hair being too short."
Booth is hardly romantic about his military service — it was mostly monotony. "I'd get off at 8 o'clock, go down to my hooch, clean up, get back about 9:30, shuffle papers until lunch, and then go back to my hooch and take a nap. Get up in the afternoon and shuffle papers again, wait for mail call. Then about 5 o'clock, they'd have retreat and at 5:01, I'd go to the 5:01 Club." Beers were a nickel and mixed drinks were a quarter.
When he returned stateside, he snagged a job at powerhouse Top 40 station WLIF in Dallas, and became the voice of the Texas Rangers baseball team. He also found the woman he still calls "his child bride."
"I was 'streaking' one night in late March," as Booth recounts in an email. "It was a balmy night ... and I dove into an apartment pool which was not yet cleaned ... came down several days later with a throat infection ... went to the [doctor] and Marsha was working there — after all, an announcer who can't talk is like a surgeon with a broken hand. That was Wednesday, April 3, 1974."
He asked the pretty young nurse for a date. Three months and a day later, they were wed. "And they said it wouldn't last," says Marsha, with a laugh.
The couple was in Phoenix, and Booth at WBBC, when their first child, Michael, was born. More than three years later, they welcomed a second, Lisa, in Pennsylvania. After seven years as program director at WFBG in Altoona — which became the country's No. 1 Top 40 station, per capita, under his watch — Booth landed in Richmond and WLEE in 1984.
He's been a townie ever since, busy with more than his broadcasts. He became part-owner of an ad firm, Martin, Silver and Clients, for a time, and today he contracts his announcing and speaking services through Millennium Marketing, an agency he started. After WLEE was sold in early 1991, he began doing radio consultant work and a part-time stint at 106.5-FM, which today is the Beat. When host Tim Timberlake left WRVA-AM 1140, he took over the station's morning show for a few months until Jimmy Barrett was hired permanently, and then jocked at WKHK-FM 95.5 (K95) before landing his Big Oldies 107.3 gig.
"I'm a round peg in a round hole," he says of Richmond. "I had the choice to leave but I've spent half of my career here. I love the four seasons, and it's two hours from the beach, the mountains, D.C. ... a great place to raise kids."
Today, daughter Lisa Booth is a behavior therapist in Kansas City, specializing in working with autistic children. On the phone she sounds remarkably like her father — enthusiastic and not easy to interrupt. "Dad and I are the loudest, most boisterous in the family," she says, adding that she didn't fully appreciate her father's work ethic until she was at her parent's house recuperating from surgery a few years ago. "I watched him get ready for his radio shows and I saw the dedication he had, the work he puts in. It was inspiring."
Tony Booth's day begins with reading four or five papers, he says, from coast to coast. "I'm looking for obits, it might be the obituary of an L.A. [musician] and it hasn't made it to the East Coast papers yet." He develops this, and other news, into nuggets of information and tribute that he can dispense on-air. His son, Michael Booth, who works in advertising, says he's anything but surprised that his dad is celebrating 50 years in radio: "He's got such a passion for it. ... He doesn't even consider it a job."
"He's never mean or sarcastic, never talks bad about the family," Booth's wife, a senior administrative assistant at VCU Health System, says of his propensity to include bits about home life — birthdays and such — on his broadcasts. "He used to rib my mother a little bit but she didn't mind." As with Michael (and unlike Lisa), Marsha Booth isn't comfortable appearing on the radio. "That's not for me," she says with a laugh. "That's his world."
And another oldies show is history. This feature article on radio legend Tony Booth has been brought to you by Style Weekly, Richmond's weekly newsmagazine. Style Weekly, free, priceless and on newsstands now. Hey guys, thanks for reading and thanks for listening. I'm Dandy Don Harrison, in touch with yesterday and today, urging you to keep your feet on the stars and your ears close to the ground. Now, to take us home, here's a final word from the man of the hour:
On a hot Wednesday afternoon, Booth, in a red bow tie and beret, leads a more serious kind of panel discussion. He's at the Virginia War Memorial talking with a group of World War II veterans and survivors. "Tony is always so helpful," Candice Shelton of the memorial says. "He's donating his time for this."
"This is not going to be textbook, on purpose," Tony announces, telling the panelists and a small crowd of invited educators that he wants to know the little details, the memories not often shared, about the war.
"The planes flew so low you could see the pilot's faces," says a Pearl Harbor survivor, Eloise Myers, who was a teenager when she endured the Japanese raid that started World War II. "It was a shock," Army Air Corps officer Bill Muhlieb recalls of the attack. "It was like it was happening somewhere else but we were a part of it."
Booth asks John Cogbill Jr., from the 104th Infantry Division, if the German soldiers were good marksmen. He replies: "Anyone shooting at me is excellent."
At one point, Booth attempts to connect his own experiences with the discussion, telling about one of the forgotten 45s he recently featured on his radio program, a song that had "a lot of meaning" to troops in the '60s. He asks Col. Stuart Seaton, of the Army's 101st Airborne Division and a veteran of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, if he's ever heard Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run."
Seaton thinks for a moment and then queries back with his own troop-morale song. "Have you ever heard Rudyard Kipling's 'The Young British Soldier'?"
The crowd laughs and a rare thing occurs. If only for a moment, Tony Booth is speechless. S