Dick Summer - A Man You Should Get To Know
January 4, 2008
Dear Friends, Readers, and Google-ers:
The Group W Wonder Years
A long, long time ago - so long ago that sometimes I think it may have even been in a former life - I had the extreme fortune of meeting a man named Dick Summer. For those of you who are not familiar with the name, Dick was one of Boston's most popular disc jockeys during the 1960's. He manned the overnight shift at what was then a 50,000 watt powerhouse in Top 40 music, WBZ Radio 103 in Boston. His show was heard in 38 states and up in parts of Canada, too. For those of you who never heard his radio shows, you may find his voice familiar due to his commercial voice over work on radio and television for such clients as Resolve Carpet Cleaner and Binder & Binder.
Dick could be as zany and unpredictable as any Top 40 deejay in those days. But he was more than that. He ran a program called "Dick Summer's Subway" in the mid-'60's which featured lesser known but upcoming artists from the Boston area as well as other nationally known singers. His association with the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston became automatic. He was among the first to play the music of Boston groups like Orpheus, Ultimate Spinach and the Beacon Street Union.
1960's Girl Watcher's Club card
He used many continuing story lines to fill the overnight hours of the "Night Light Show", some original, some not. They featured the likes of the Earl of Sandwich and the Duke of Shrewsbury, Theopolous Q. Waterhouse, the Grape Aid Society, Venus Fly Trap Irving the Second, and the Boy and Girl Watcher cards he mailed to listeners who requested them by mail that allowed you to watch a person of the opposite sex unobserved through a punch out hole in the center. He read poetry on the air many times including his own narration of the Alfred Noyes story of "The Highwayman". He often referred to his listeners as "Group" so as to encompass them all at once. He would often play something unexpected like selections by Arch Obler or Rod McKuen or Orson Welles. Perhaps his best remembered bit was the Nightlighter's Password. Remember the password? It was actually the Tibetan Memory trick:
"One hen, two ducks, 3 squawking geese, 4 limerick oysters, 5 corpulent porpoises, 6 pair of Don Alverso's tweezers, seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array, 8 brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt, 9 apathetic sympathetic diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity to procrastination and sloth... (deep breath!) TENNNN lyrical spherical diabolical denizens of the deep who haul stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the queasy at the very same time (toot toot)."
But he could be serious when entertaining as well. Take the brutal March 1964 murder of Catherine "Kitty" Genovese in Queens, New York who was killed outside her own apartment complex while neighbors, hearing her cries, did not call police because they "didn't want to get involved". Not long afterwards, Dick started his NAG campaign (Nightlighters Against Gutlessness) to both protest the apathy of people and raise the awareness of his listeners. The man had conviction and wasn't afraid to use his on-air position for the greater good. In a 1966 interview with Summer, the Harvard Crimson writer Linda Greenhouse sized him up like this: "Part of Summer's appeal ... is his unashamed emotionalism, which he saves from being corny by a witty intelligence (he graduated pre-law from Fordham but could not afford to go to Law School)." And I would definitely concur with that.
The show handoffs - a term describing the repartee at the end of one person's air shift segueing into the next person's air shift - between Bruce Bradley, another very popular WBZ deejay who was on the air just before, and Dick was the stuff of legend. There were nights when I couldn't really listen to the shows but I made it a point to catch the handoffs when I could.
Summer left WBZ in the summer of 1968 for New York's WNEW and WNEW-FM. That move created a huge void in my late night radio listening. About the same time though, I started working in college radio (WLTI-FM at Lowell Tech - now UMass Lowell) and began doing weekend air shifts at WLLH in Lowell a few months later.
WMEX, The Human Thing
In the late spring of 1969, I was 19 years old and finishing up my first year of college at Lowell Tech. I happened to read an article in the Boston Globe that said that Dick Summer had just been hired as program director at WMEX in Boston. What caught my eye was the paragraph that said that he was looking to hire a music director. So me with my entire one year of experience decided to call Dick and see how far my snowball would go in hell (so to speak). I was completely surprised when I called the station and asked for him and he actually answered the phone. Suddenly I was simultaneously stuttering, babbling and awestruck. Here I was on the line cold with one of my idols. I knew him like a family member and he hadn't a clue who I was. I knew all about him. My mind raced through mundane knowledge of things like Paragon Park, Rock Needleman, the Salvation Army 700 Fund and Christmas' broadcasting on Boston Common. I managed after a while to tell him how much I enjoyed his shows and that I saw that the Globe said he was looking for a music director. I was floored when he asked if I could go into Boston to talk to him in person the next day.
Jack in Production
"Hell, yes!", I was shouting in my mind but I managed to meekly say "...umm, what time would be good for you?" So the appointment was made and our goodbyes were said. I hung up the phone and noticed my hands shaking. Oh my God, not only did I just get to talk to Dick Summer, but tomorrow I get to meet him!
What a restless night I spent. Thoughts ran through my mind like a runaway Union Pacific freight train. Do I call him Mr. Summer? How will I know what to say or what to do? What do I wear? What if I screw up and embarrass myself like I did on the phone?
Dawn finally came after a nearly interminable night. Off to the train station I went, now in possession of something I sorely lacked yesterday - courage. I finally realized what the worst care scenario would be. I go to the station, meet Dick Summer, make a fool of myself and get shown the door. That was okay with me, I could accept it because of the meet Dick Summer part.
1969 WMEX publicity photo
I arrived at the station well before the agreed upon time. Couldn't risk being late. That wasn't in my makeup. So I walked around the neighborhood for a while, getting a feel for it. There was the liquor store next door. Wow, those guys sell a whole lot of wine in brown paper bags. Then there was the White Tower around the corner. People really eat in here? They put the grease in "greasy spoon" there. And let's not overlook Jacques, the gay club across the street. A real education in life was available for the looking here. But I was okay with it. I was going to meet Dick Summer!
Finally, the time was close enough at hand to walk into the station. I told the receptionist (I later learned her name was Carol) that I was here for my appointment with Dick. She called upstairs and instructed me to go up the stairs, turn left and Dick's office would be straight ahead. Up the stairs I went, my knees now having trouble locking as I pulled my 110 pounds up the stairs. Yes, I was a true flyweight in those days. I looked down the hallway as I reached the top of the stairs and there it was. A glassed in private office that appeared to belong to someone of importance. I started walking toward it. I saw a man behind the desk. It was him.
But suddenly I realized that he was on the phone. I froze in my tracks, thinking that I should probably go back downstairs and wait until he finished his call. Dick looked up, saw I had hesitated and waved me in, pointing to a chair in front of the desk. I opened the door and tried to invisibly move to the chair. Dick hung up the phone shortly after I sat down.
One thing I hadn't yet learned at the time is to never make assumptions on the physical appearance of someone you only hear on the radio. I was expecting a "Big John" type of man, about 6' 6 and weighed 245. I remembered looking up at him in the WBZ trailer and he had seemed so tall. Instead, there was this very normal 5' 10 guy with the requisite pompadour looking back at me. Proof that radio really is the theater of the mind, or maybe more realistically, the mind games.
Now I cannot recall the exact conversation that took place. It was nearly thirty-eight years ago after all. But I do remember that I didn't feel like the stuttering, babbling and awestruck fan I was on the phone the day before. We discussed current popular music and the only thing I can remember is that I used the Beach Boys' song "Bluebirds Over The Mountain" in my analogies. I haven't a clue why since it wasn't a very popular song or even one that I particularly liked. I was told of his plan to play more album cuts on the station and to have the air talent be more in touch with listeners rather than standard Top 40 time and temperature jocks. Personality on the air was encouraged. He called the concept "The Human Thing".
The time came when I expected him to offer me a handshake and say thanks for coming. Imagine my shock when he started telling me what the job paid and could I start on Monday? With all the flair of Wally Cox, I said "sure!"
The first Lovin' Touch booklet
The second Lovin' Touch booklet
So it came to pass that I was hired as the music director of a major Boston music station. I spent many long days inside that station when I began. I had to learn the job, the people, the studios, and the owner. The owner... that's a story unto itself for another day.
The deejays back then worked five days a week but most all of them taped a sixth show, an hour at a time, each week for broadcast on the weekend. It was during those tapings that I got to spend a little one-on-one time with them. Dick was the most patient teacher I had ever had. If I got something wrong, he'd shrug and say "now try it this way and see the difference." I learned more from him in a year and a half than I did in the other 20 years I spent in various parts of the music business combined.
I got to meet his family as they stopped in from time to time. I can still remember the smile on Dick's face each time I set Blood, Sweat and Tears song "Hi-De-Ho" in the rotation for him to play. It was his daughter's favorite song.
It was during this time that Boston was introduced to his newest show idea, The Lovin' Touch, a combination of original poetic essays backed by production music. I am proud to say that I have a first edition Lovin' Touch and Lovin' Touch 2 book that he signed. I even have the first Lovin' Touch vinyl record album on Omen Records. And don't tell anyone but I still have a dub (copy for you non-radio types) of a reel-to-reel tape of the first 12 Lovin' Touch cuts that he recorded in the production studio himself and played on the radio before there were Lovin' Touch books, records or tapes. Now if I only had a reel-to-reel tape recorder to play them on. :-)
Jack outside WMEX
Judy in 1970
During my time at WMEX, I had met a girl. Judy was her name. She spent a lot of evenings sitting in the music library or the production studio waiting for me to finish my day's work so she got to meet and know all of the talent. I decided in February of 1970 that I wanted to marry Judy so I proposed. She said yes! We set the date - April 17, 1971. Then the thought struck me that I needed people to be in the wedding as I didn't have many close friends. I got Steve Fredericks to be my Best Man and Bud Ballou to be an usher. I asked Dick if he would be in my wedding. I can still remember what he said. He was honored to have been asked but thought it best to say no. "But I can tell you one thing," he said to me one night in Studio B while he was recording a show, "she's the one for you." And he smiled that smug "mark my words" kind of smile at me.
Hindsight is always 20-20 but I have to give credit where credit is due. Dick Summer knew then that Judy was the right one for me. I remain impressed with that to this day as Judy and I approach our 37th anniversary. The man knows how to read women.
WMEX had a softball team that would play local civic groups or police or fire departments for charity every summer. We would play 7 or 8 games every year. I'm proud to say that I was a small part of that team. I'm even prouder to say that Dick's self-proclaimed prowess on the softball field was not just a product of his mind. He was a darn good player and a terrific sport. He never missed a game.
Dick never treated me as anything less than an equal. There was no "I'm the boss and you'll do as I say" attitude. He had over a dozen years experience in radio by then and I had but one. But that never mattered to him. He would always listen to my thoughts and opinions. He was truly a great boss and a good man. I have always remembered that. He really was a "Human Thing" to me. But alas, all good things must come to an end, especially in radio.
I was fired by the station owner in February of 1971, Dick leaving shortly thereafter and I have not seen or heard from him since. I also find it interesting though not all that surprising that his subsequent bio's and write-ups rarely mention his time at WMEX. Recently while Googling around the internet, I came upon a site that archived old radio checks. For you radio lingo challenged folks, radio checks are tape recorded bits of shows that were taped as they were actually being broadcast. I found one of Dick's and started listening to it. I typed his name into Google and up popped http://www.dicksummer.com/.
"I'm Dick Summer and it's time to say good night..."
It seems as though septuagenarian Dick has had a very full life in the nearly 37 years since I've seen him. He's been in radio in New York and Chicago before settling in Pennsylvania. He got his pilot's license and bought a small plane. He's a hypnotherapist and an advertising agency owner. His kids (as I remember them) are now middle aged adults. And the love of his life then is still the love of his life now. Dick has also continued to be outspoken on many issues of the day that are inequitable or just plain wrong.
I spent two days reading his web site, his blog and listening to his podcasts covering his output of the past two years. It was all so familiar. I found it very much like finding the well broken in slippers that you loved years ago that had been shunted to the back of the closet, remaining there until the room renovation project rediscovered them. You put them on and that "ahhhhh" feeling washes all over you. That was the feeling I got once again listening to The Master's Voice. Little Nipper would have been so proud.
He has two qualities that have withstood the test of time. His writing skills and his hauntingly calming voice. The man can talk for hours and never make me want to say stop. I still laugh at his humor, catch most of the insider references, and marvel at the way he still talks to and about women after all these years. Lord knows that I've missed him. And now he will often pontificate on the effects of growing older for those of us in the "Louie Louie generation". His thoughts may head off to a tangent of their own but they will sound oh so familiar to oh so many of us.
Sir Richard, where have you been these past three decades when we Louie Louie guys needed you most?
You know why all the Public Broadcasting music specials are aired so successfully at PBS pledge times every year? Because even though the artist has aged since his/her/their fame, the voices still sound very much the same. And so it is with Dick Summer, too. Who knows, some day T.J. Lubinsky may come calling to have Dick host the next one. Cousin Brucie Morrow did it, why not Dick? You can close your eyes as you listen to that voice and suddenly LBJ is President and The Beatles are at the top of the music charts again. It's 1965 yesterday and 1967 tomorrow.
The whole point of this long diatribe is that I highly recommend that you visit his web site - http://www.dicksummer.com/ - and poke around a bit. But make sure that you have at least several hours to spend there. A bottle of wine and some cheese would be nice to have handy. Maybe that special someone beside you, too. You won't regret it. Now keep in mind that his Good Night podcasts are nothing at all like his radio shows were. He's right there talking in your ears only to you, pointing out some of the funnier things in life, love and relationships. And there's no commercial breaks either.
Drop him an email and tell him that Jack Marshall from his WMEX days sent you. That and a couple of dollars might get you a cup of coffee. But if it doesn't, it may make you simultaneously stutter, babble and be awestruck at the man... and that's a good thing. Been there, done that. ;-)
Official member of the "Louie Louie generation"