Bill Drake, KHJ and . . . ‘The History of Rock and Roll’

Originally posted May 1, 2019


It was maybe the biggest thing to happen to rock and roll since Bo Didley, Bill Haley or Chuck Berry, discounting Elvis and the Beatles.  It’s a definitive historical account of the transition of rhythm & blues to the most marketable genre in radio.  It still stands as the longest and most listener-impacting documentary of any American medium.  The History of Rock and Roll was so successful it was produced in numerous versions over three decades.

The HRR was conceived by Bill Drake (left), who with Gene Chenault (right), created some of the most successful radio programming formulas and a format called Boss Radio.  Drake recalls it was in 1968 when he came up with the idea of producing a detailed history of rock ‘n’ roll . . . .

Drake’s big idea (Running Time :48)

Drake-Chenault Successes

Drake’s inspiration evolved into groundbreaking broadcasts that were as iconic as the music genre they described. From its earliest version, nothing like The History of Rock and Roll had been done before. Although in 1969 there was a Los Angeles market foot race to see who’d release the first such rock history program.  RKO-owned KHJ, a Drake client, won that race, and competitor KRLA lost. Thus began one of many Drake-Chenault successes.

Drake&Ron Jacobs (R)

Bill Drake was a well-grounded Georgia radioman and later a successful Southern California deejay in the early 1960s.  While consulting Fresno’s KYNO Radio, he went head-to-head with cross-town rival KMAK, programmed by equally talented Ron Jacobs.  In 1965 the two joined forces in building powerhouse KHJ in Los Angeles into a much-imitated godfather beacon for a number of Drake-formatted Top-40 stations — and legions of copycat rockers all over the country.

Drake hired Jacobs as KHJ’s program director,  Robert Morgan for mornings and Don Steele afternoons. Under Drake’s guidance, KHJ climbed from  obscurity to  the market’s  number 1 position.  He streamlined Top-40, limited jock chatter, played only the top-rated songs and stressed a constant, repetitive jingle package. That formula, tied to the Boss Radio moniker, took off on the west coast and spread quickly eastward.  He countered critics by pointing at dramatic ratings jumps at stations which adopted his methods.  In the years that followed, Drake pretty much redesigned successful rock radio in America.

Bill Drake

Few radio tacticians were like Bill Drake.  His ratings turn-around skills were unmatched and considered the country’s best through much of the 1960’s and ‘70s. True, many called his no-jock-personality formula stilted, robot-like and counter-creative.  But his success list was like a rock station Who’s Who : KYNO  Fresno,  CKLW  Windsor-Detroit; KGB  San Diego; WUBE Cincinnati; KHJ Los Angeles; WRKO  Boston; KFRC  San Francisco; KAKC  Tulsa; WOR-FM  New York; KIQQ  Los Angeles; and WHBQ  Memphis.

At one point Drake was doing business with over 350 radio stations and consulting six different formats.  The number of successes would be much greater, totaling several hundred more stations if all “fake Drake” and other  copycats were included.

The first HRR was produced by Jacobs and written by Pete Johnson, who at that time was the music critic of the Los Angeles Times.  In addition to the music, it included historical detail and comprehensive interviews never before heard in a single production.  Completed on a crash seven-week schedule and after extensive LA area promotion, the 48-hour rockumentary debuted on KHJ in February ’69, followed just days later by airings on CKLW (Windsor-Detroit) and other RKO-owned stations.

Robert W. Morgan

One of KHJ’s big-name deejays was called in to do the voice work.  Robert W. Morgan did the narration, which amounted to about 50 minutes of each hour including music, allowing 10 minutes for spots and news breaks.

The original 1969 version, a landmark broadcasting feature, ignited a stir across the nation’s pop music radio world.  Here’s an edited sample, which includes several segments.  You’ll hear Bill Drake’s introduction and a time sweep of big hit songs over a metronome-like time sounder ticking off the years into Robert W. Morgan’s narration . . . .

HRR ’69 with Robert W. Morgan (Running time 9:00)

Humble Harve

That first HRR  broadcast from Feb. 21-23 was such a ratings smash KHJ aired it again (with a narrator change) six months later.  That second original version had only minor edit changes. It was narrated, as was the syndicated version later, by Humble Harve Miller, who at that time was KHJ’s afternoon jock.  Both Robert W. Morgan and Don Steele were off the air because of contract disputes with KHJ management.  By some accounts, the second airing scored higher in audience surveys.

Hooper ratings showed both February and August broadcasts got KHJ LA’s highest listener numbers for their time slots, tripling audience shares of closest radio competitors.  Hooper reported KHJ scored a near 32 share on the last day of the second airing on Sunday, August 25.  KHJ management ballyhooed their huge success in the trade mags and many of Southern California’s print media outlets. Drake-Chenault’s production group moved ahead to capitalize on their success by gearing up for the syndication/marketing process.

Mark Elliot

The primary promotion tool was a well-crafted sample Demo, which included the guts of both the Morgan and Humble Harve narrations, plus the national voice-over talents of Mark Elliot.  Here’s Elliot’s opening audio clip of the 24-minute Demo for what many call the most celebrated pop radio production ever. . . .

HRR Demo ‘69  Mark Elliot (Running time  1:07)

The Library of Congress called the documentary “the first aural history of rock and roll music.”

Preemptive Action in Seattle

As Drake-Chenault prepared for national marketing, there were more editing changes and an additional two hours added.  After RKO aired the production on it’s own stations, Drake-Chenault ended up releasing syndicated re-recordings of it three times between 1972 and 1982.

So, what was the reception/reaction to the Drake production in the Seattle radio market?  Despite beliefs to the contrary, few Puget Sound stations carried it.  The bigger story was who didn’t and why.  Keep in mind that no one in rock music radio was unaware the Drake  history rockumentary was in the works.  It would have listener impact and it would hit the Seattle market.

Rock kingpin KJR, which had no intentions of airing the program,  prided itself in staying on top of both opportunities and challenges to its solid audience base. According to the late Norm Gregory’s Radio Scrapbook blog, KJR took preemptive action by producing/airing its own history of rock and roll show. Pat O’Day’s on-air crew at that time (Gary Shannon, Tom Murphy, Norm Gregory, Mike Phillips and Steve West) broadcast their show the week after KHJ’s — which was well before Drake’s project went to syndication.

Seattle Times columnist Victor Stredike panned KJRs program as a “weekend gimmick,” and a “chronological mish-mash not promoted beyond the station’s regular listener base “who probably could tell little difference from any other flashback weekend.” Neither Stredicke’s column nor Gregory’s blog had reaction from Pat O’Day.

Reportedly, KOL ignored the KHJ/Drake program excitement with Lan Roberts hosting a pre-recorded weekend-long Beatles marathon.  Stredicke, according to Gregory, was much kinder to KJR four months later when the station again aired KJR’s own production of rock and roll’s history —that one running 72 hours.

Two local stations that did air the ‘69 Drake production were KFKF-FM and KIRO-FM –- probably because both already carried Drake-Chenault’s Hit Parade Top-40.   KJR’s own program response was much the same as a number of other leading big market rock stations.  They all felt threatened by competing local stations cutting into their listener dominance.  It was no secret RKO-owned and Drake-Chenault-consulted outlets would air it close on the heels of the KHJ broadcast.

Despite those concerns, some program directors were initially nervous in setting aside up to three days of programming time for a 50-hour show whose promoters offered iffy audience-building promises.  That attitude changed in 1978, propelling the Drake HRR to even higher acclaim.

“New” 1978 Production

Gary Theroux

In spite of the HRR’s 1969 success, the adage that no production is a perfect production cropped up.  By the mid-1970s Drake wanted it revised to reflect changes in the rock music landscape.  And, the outspoken Jacobs agreed with critics who complained the KHJ original had inaccuracies and omissions.  So, Drake brought in music historian Gary Theroux, who researched, re-wrote and rebuilt it.  The re-do started in 1975, with Drake working as Theroux’s co-producer.

In April of 1978, the Drake-Chenault production machine released — in stereo — what was probably its best effort.  That 52-hour installment, narrated by Drake, was picked up by about 800 radio stations coast to coast and overseas. It also won Billboard’s “Top Special Program of the Year” award.

It’s argued the ‘78 HRR production, covering the years through 1977, was Drake’s most appealing.  All over the radio –– mostly on the FMs — it was a huge listener ratings builder which established the Drake organization as broadcasting’s rock history authorities.

Here’s edited audio of the 1978 HRR.  Bill Drake opens with a blockbuster reverse time sweep and also gives credit to pop radio’s early role in the dawn of rock and roll . . . .

HRR 1978 Bill Drake (running time 6:25)

Probably the most popular (and most bootlegged) part of the 52-hour production was Drake’s Time Sweep in the final hour.  In the full broadcast, this was a 38-minute montage of all the number one hits.  Here’s an edited sample of a few parts of that historic finale . . . .

HRR  ‘78 Time Sweep    (Running time  3:58)

Like the rest of the country, the Puget Sound area gave the ‘78 version more attention than its predecessor.  It was carried by several Seattle area stations.  In my personal collectables I still have my copy (below) of the KNBQ ad insert cover page from Tacoma’s News Tribune.

It lists the complete song-by-song rundown of every hour, from the Penguins Earth Angel  in 1954 to the Eagles Life in the Fast Lane  in 1977.

This partial list of the ‘78 HRR’s hourly rundown (mine’s pretty dog-eared) has become nearly as collectable as the highly prized audio program.  There are unconfirmed claims the Drake-Chenault shows were nearly as heavily bootlegged as some of the Beatles early recordings in England prior to 1964.  (See 1964, the Beatles and KJR )

Drake died at age 71 in 2008. He’d sold his part of the Drake-Chenault  business in 1983 before it dissolved three years later.  Chenault was 90 at his death in 2010. The HRR name was never trademarked.  So unauthorized sales of products carrying the name continued for years, as did bootlegged audio versions — tape, vinyl and compact discs.

KHJ’s original version was licensed for broadcast only and first given or loaned to company-owned stations of RKO’s and Drake-Chenault’s choosing.  Stations that broadcast it were required to either return the tapes or forward them to other stations.  Some, like KHJ, made copies, promoted and gave them away as listener prizes and then rebroadcast the show later.  Drake-Chenault’s HRR was never offered for direct public sales.

So for R&R music fans, a good radio receiver, reel-to-reel tape recorder and lots of recording tape was needed if the original History of Rock and Roll was to become a part of your music library.  I recall what a major undertaking that was, capturing all 52-hours, much of which many of us later converted to digital.

In 1981 a third major release of the HRR hit the air waves.  Bill Drake, with those smooth and authoritative skills, was again the narrator.  The following audio is in two parts:  another strong Drake open with a reverse time sweep of hits starting in 1980, and a great final hour introduction which included one of the largest selling R & R songs of all time . . . .

HRR 1981 Drake in two parts (Running time   3:21)

Based on the success of The History of Rock and Roll, Drake-Chenault created a country music version called The History of Country Music.  Produced and syndicated to radio stations in 1982, the 52-hour documentary was hosted by nationally known deejay Ralph Emery, and had features similar to the rock and roll version.

The released HRR production in 1981 was the last primary edition, though there were other shorter, 12-hour versions, carried by stations on weekends.  But most rock music fans and critics agreed none of those were audience-grabbers like the ‘69 and ‘78 versions.  Several sources say there was an edited installment (no jingles) of the last Drake release still in syndication in 2006.

KHJ, Drake-Chenault and hundreds — if  not thousands — of radio stations all made history themselves by simply broadcasting The History of  Rock and Roll.   Pop music historians call it one of the most defining landmarks of the hugely successful rock and roll golden era.   And, of course, what radio WAS in those days made it a fond remembrance soundtrack for millions of people who grew up with the pop music genre.   For many, hearing it was like re-living much of your life over again — especially that famous 38-minute time sweep of all number 1 songs.

Many of us have vivid memories of where and what we were doing when first hearing the HRR.  I missed the original, just barely clear of U.S. Navy active duty when KHJ first unleashed its rocumentary on the world.  But in the first week of April, I recorded the ‘78 version from Salt Lake City’s KALL-FM. I recall being impressed with Drake’s solid delivery and the program’s three-decade scope and depth.

KALL-FM ran the full 52-hours non-stop.  I missed a lot of sleep that weekend.  But wow, what a broadcast…!!!   Do you have a History of Rock and Roll  memory to share?

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Author: Ronald DeHart

Ron DeHart is a former newspaper and broadcast journalist and a retired Public Affairs Officer from both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve. His historical accounts of Pacific Northwest broadcasting are published by Puget Sound Media. View more articles by Ron DeHart  
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