Our Disc Jockey Crew
We recently asked some of Knoxville’s radio players of the 1960s and ‘70s to share their memories at a round-table discussion at Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria in the Old City:
Eddie Beacon, “Your Swingin’ Deacon” a fixture at WNOX and later at W149 and 15Q.
Chip Emerson, who worked at WKGN and WKVQ (later dubbed 15Q) and who was for a period part owner of The Place, a Cumberland Avenue club.
Gary Adkins, half of the W149 and 15Q broadcast team (with Alan Sneed) known as “The Brothers.”
Bill Johnson, a veteran on-air personality of WNOX, W149 and 15Q.
And we also talked to John Pirkle, who, in 40-plus years in the business went from DJ to station manager to owner. He also managed bands and promoted shows and concerts.
PHOTO STORY: Knoxville’s 1960s and ’70s Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene
The Strip—Cumberland Avenue around the University of Tennessee—has long been party central for college students, site of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.
It has been an unruly area, morphing over the decades from a mix of four-plex apartment buildings and small businesses to single-residence houses turned into bars to today’s dominating chain fast-food establishments.
In the early 1960s, the grandmother of one of my high school friends ran a boarding house in the block now occupied by the Goalpost tavern. Next door was a bar that changed into a music venue on weekend nights, much to her consternation. She made sure that we never ventured in that direction.
But by the time I started attending UT in 1963, the Strip was changing—not surprising as UT enrollment jumped from 13,000 to 25,000 in less than five years. And, of course, the national mood was changing as the war in Vietnam accelerated. Protest against the war was led by the young, with music providing the soundtrack. On the Strip, that meant nightclubs that had been featuring beach music were now following what was being played on the radio, what was being recorded. And that was quite a mix, from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones to drug anthems.
Those freewheeling years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, became the Strip’s defining decade.
A walk down the street meant the heady aroma of incense, encounters with hippies seeking spare change, dealers offering weed or hash or acid.
Music by Cream or Traffic or Mott the Hoople blared from stores and record shops. Or a radio station might be running a “remote” from one of the head shops.
For the most part, radio disc jockeys played what they wanted, the music that they liked, the music that they knew their listeners wanted to hear. The patter, too, was open, sometimes pushing against the boundaries of “good taste,” whatever that meant.
And of course there were alcohol and drugs aplenty, sometimes on the station premises.
Through the mid ’60s, the dominant Top 40 station in the Knoxville area was WNOX, which had studios in North Knoxville. The airwave changes that were coming began there.
John Pirkle was part of the WNOX lineup at that time, as was Bill Johnson, who says he started as a sports announcer with directions to “be as caustic as you can be.” The idea was that WNOX wanted to balance J. Bernard Quayle, aka “Sir Bernard,” its British import who played up his use of the Queen’s English as part of his DJ persona and could be seen on the Strip driving an English sports car. His audience was primarily female, and management decided to add a sports announcer to attract the male audience.
The overnight DJ was Eddie Beacon, who became known as the Swingin’ Deacon.
As the music changed, and radio began experimenting with formats, WNOX began playing album cuts during the overnight segment, midnight to 6 a.m. Beacon worked that shift from the transmission tower in north Knoxville—“babysitting the transmitter,” as he says.
“Beacon started as our all-night guy,” Pirkle recalls, adding with a laugh that, “the dregs of society would be out doing a night run and they’d find Beacon.”
I don’t know if I fit that description, but I didn’t get off work until 2 a.m., and Beacon provided my soundtrack for a couple of hours just about every night.
The WNOX transmitter building, in a field, was “a party waiting to happen,” according to Beacon. And one night it did.
“A couple of other DJs showed up, hammered,” Beacon says. “They’d been to a concert. They wanted me to go get some more beer, and they took over the broadcast. When I came back they were doing a parody of a golf commentary, using local names from another station. After they heard about it, they were ready to sue for slander. Part of the settlement was that all three of us were fired.”
In 1969, Beacon started at WKGN, which had studios in part of the space on the Strip now occupied by the Sunspot restaurant.
“I was on 10 p.m. to midnight, playing pretty much what I wanted to, album cuts,” he says. “A lot of the Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Procol Harum, Cream. The switchboard would light up with calls from UT students.
“I had all my albums stacked on the floor. Then one day I came in at 7 p.m. and they were all gone. I asked where they were and I was told that [the station owner] didn’t like that music and didn’t want it played anymore. That was it. So I went back to my car and drove off.”
Beacon then went to work for WJBE, owned by soul singer James Brown. The station’s studio was in the Five Points area of East Knoxville and featured a big window facing the sidewalk so that passers-by could watch the DJs in action. Often, Brown would visit, drawing crowds of neighborhood kids to the window.
“Brown required that we all dress up and would fine us if he caught us out of uniform,” Beacon says. “So we had someone at the airport who would tip us off if he flew in and we would scramble to make sure we were dressed properly.”
The album-cut format of these stations meant longer cuts, with the DJs frequently playing songs that might push 10 minutes in length.
“You would keep the longer cuts like ‘Stairway to Heaven’ handy for when you needed a bathroom break,” remembers Gary Adkins, who DJed at W149 and later at Q15. “I became conditioned,” he says, claiming with a laugh that even today when he hears Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” he has to go to the bathroom.
As Beacon’s story demonstrates, what was being played and what management favored wasn’t always the same. But that changed, at least for one station, when Pirkle took over as station manager of WROL.
“The owner wanted to build up the station and sell it,” Pirkle says. “I had gotten a license to start my own station and was in the process of building it when he came to me and asked if I could do what he wanted with his station.
“Dick Sterchi and I had worked together before and we agreed to take it over. Dick took care of the business side and I took care of the on-air part.”
Pirkle moved the tower to a hill in northwest Knoxville so he could target his signal to the UT campus. Though the station was officially still WROL, he changed the on-air handle to W149 (the station was on the dial at 1490), and the DJs began playing album cuts. What had been a late-night-only format was now standard.
The phone lines lit up and the station “outkicked its signal” in the ratings, Pirkle says.
Knoxville’s counter-culture, me included, now had a radio station playing the music we wanted to hear—with like-minded DJs adding kick-ass commentary.
W149’s signal was one of the weaker ones in the market. When new out-of-town owners took it over in the mid-1970s, Johnson got fired for pointing that out.
“In a meeting when they first came in someone said something about the weak signal and they asked what our reach was,” he says. “I said ‘about a driver and a wedge’. I was gone the next day.”
Another of Pirkle’s early moves was calling Beacon, who had moved to Los Angeles after his departure from WKGN. The Swingin’ Deacon returned to Knoxville and again became the late-night DJ that everybody on the Strip was listening to.
Soon, there were other radio personalities being heard and talked about. Besides Beacon, Pirkle’s lineup included Rob “Monkey Monkey” Galbraith, known for sly hillbilly-tinged humor, and the always irreverent Bill Johnson.
And there were Gary Adkins and Alan Sneed, tagged The Brothers. “We were always “pushing the envelop,” Adkins says—forerunners of shock radio, you might say.
Adkins adds that there was a late-night DJ on for a period called Motorhead. “He played nothing but Frank Zappa. He’d come in with a ball of hash and play Zappa and smoke all night. The morning news guy would come in and complain about the studio smelling like pot.”
There was another overnight DJ who liked to play music by an English space-rock group called Hawkwind. “He’d play both sides of the album straight through,” Adkins says.
Management, obviously, wasn’t around for the overnight shift.
Live remotes, still a fixture of radio, were also popular with businesses on the Strip. Johnson recalls one at a head shop that featured Miss Nude USA. “She was sitting in a papasan chair in the front window, buck naked with all these college boys outside. She was there for four hours.” Somehow, I missed that one, only hearing about it after the fact.
Beacon once did a remote from an Alcoa Highway strip joint. “When you’re doing a remote, you talk with the owner, or the salesmen about the business. What could I talk about at a strip club? That was a long shift.”
There were also appearances by artists promoting concerts or new records. Adkins remembers one in particular.
“Greg Allman came into the studio with Sweet William [Bill Sauls, a local singer who fronted the Stereos and sometimes went on the road with the Allman Brothers]. People were calling, and Greg announces that he’s going to sit in with Sauls that night at the Casual Lounge on Central,” he says. “There was a huge traffic jam and the place was packed. They played until 3 a.m.”
Studio interviews with name acts were common. “We interviewed a who’s who of rock ‘n’ roll,” says Johnson. “Alice Cooper, Manfred Mann, Nazareth, Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
Those acts were in town playing the clubs. Manfred Mann did a gig at Bradley’s Station, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, with Rufus Thomas, headlined at The Place.
“One of the fans invited Frankie and the band to her house in South Knoxville after the show and they all went, Rufus included,” says Emerson. The party went on all night.
The Place was also the site of an early Jimmy Buffett show, set up by Pirkle, who with partner Kenneth Kelly operated Concept 90, a concert-promotion, band-management company. My roommate at the time was working for Pirkle and we ended up hanging out with Buffett and his crew after the show.
The Strip’s proximity to campus also meant that live remote appearances on Cumberland attracted crowds, especially the ones involving record stores (there were two in the Strip area).
The culture changes were also reflected in the off-campus club scene. Then, as now, venues came and went, victims of liquor-license revocations, ownership changes, and fickle tastes. There was Foxy Lady, Friday’s Child, the Twin Light, the Pump Room, the Orange Peel, Sound Showcase.
Popular local bands included the Loved Ones, the Plebeians, Southern Cross, Cowcatcher, and Fatback, which later became one of Knoxville’s music success stories as the Amazing Rhythm Aces.
After touring with Canadian Jesse Winchester, with lead singer and songwriter Russell Smith fronting, the Aces produced several hit albums. Their singles “Third Rate Romance,” “Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song)” and “The End Is Not in Sight” were major hits, with the latter winning a Grammy in 1976.
The footloose atmosphere helped fuel the always fierce air-waves competition, and promotions and remote stunts accelerated. The owners of W149 bought an old fire truck and frequently used it, bell clanging.
“I had to drive that thing,” Beacon remembers. “And it wasn’t easy to drive.”
Later, when he was at 15Q, management came up with the idea of a “15Q Millionaire,” and Beacon again got the call.
“They put me in a tuxedo and a top hat and I was supposed to be giving all this money away,” Beacon says. “And they’re driving me around in a Gremlin [a small car produced by the now-defunct American Motors Company]. I’d go into a grocery store and pick out someone with a cart full of groceries and pay for it all.”
The stunt culminated in a turn on the Ferris wheel at the Tennessee Valley fair in Chilhowee Park.
“I had a garbage bag full of dollar bills and dumped them out from my seat up in the air and they floated everywhere,” he says. “All these people were grabbing and pushing and of course some kid got hurt and there was a lawsuit.”
Eventually, as the music changed, as the ’60s sputtered out and disco took over pop culture’s soundtrack, there was a move toward corporate consolidation of radio and rigid playlists for DJs to follow. Nowadays, radio is known for its talk formats more than for music.
The free-wheeling days came to an end. But the kids who were part of the Strip’s ’60s scene, who return to for football game days or to give their families a tour of the old stomping grounds, recall that era with fondness.
“It was music, mirth, and merriment,” Johnson says.
“Wild-west time,” Emerson adds with a chuckle.
“An awful lot of people remember, and it’s primarily because of the music,” Beacon says.
One of the songs that I was introduced to by Beacon’s show was from a legendary English rocker named Long John Baldry. It’s called “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”—and with its spoken introduction, it clocks in at almost 7 minutes. It’s on my iPod and gets played at least once a week, more than 50 years after I first heard it.
Music’s ability to conjure up the past, the years of adolescence before real jobs and family and the attendant responsibility, is well-documented. For those of us who survived the turmoil of the ’60s, all it takes is the opening riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” or Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” to put us back on the Strip of our youth.
John Pirkle: Music Scene Godfather
Early in his career in radio, John Pirkle saw the advantages of a tie-in to the music that he was playing and the music being featured in the clubs that were catering to the college crowd. The result was Concepts 90, a firm formed in 1968 with Kenneth Kelly, who ran a popular Maryville teen club called Kelly’s Record Hop.
“Beginning in the mid-‘60s, the music scene began to morph into something else,” he says. “At that time, people found out that young people who were talented didn’t have to have an orchestra. They could go into a studio and record a song. I wanted to promote my radio show, [Kelly] was booking these bands into his club. That gave impetus to these kids to form bands. We decided to form a company, manage these bands, market them, do a little financing, like signing notes for instruments.
“We were working for them. They got paid and paid us a commission. We booked them for frat parties and proms, clubs, then the rest of the time we’d put them into [radio] promotion situations. That way they kept busy.”
Pirkle says at the start their core groups were the Sierras, Little Joe and the Apollos, Sweet William and the Stereos, and Julian and the Epics.
“We centralized the booking, gave them rules about personal conduct—these were high school kids, notoriously undisciplined—made sure they showed up on time. Word got out that our bands were reliable. Pretty soon we had about 25 bands.”
One of the more popular cover bands in Knoxville today is Boys Night Out, an oldies group whose members on any given night come from a pool of the musicians that were active in the ’60s and ’70s. “All those guys were in my bands,” Pirkle says.
“I’ve been involved in it all,” he says. “Rock ‘n’ roll, album rock, psychedelic rock, Southern rock—it’s all the same three chords.”
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