Saturday, May 16, 2009

Al Jordan, RIP

Al Jordan died a week ago. The "Happy Pappy" was 83.

In Vancouver through the 50s and 60s, he was one of "the" radio personalities, and as you'll see from a tribute that follows my thoughts, a key driving force in commercial radio.

Al was known as the "Happy Pappy" when he was one of "The Good Guys" on C-FUN in the early 60s. There's a photo in one of Red Robinson's books of the Good Guys, sitting on the curved staircase leading to the old C-FUN building on 4th Avenue at Cypress. Every one of those men "meant something" in Vancouver radio for decades. Red Robinson. Fred Latremouille (and if you're having trouble pronouncing that name, it's "Fred"). "Jolly John" Tanner. Brian "Frosty" Forst. I think "Big Daddy Dave" McCormick is in the photo, as well. For Vancouver radio, it's equivalent of the "million dollar session" at Sun Records.

(Even that staircase means a lot to me. I remember climbing it with great apprehension in 1981, going to meet with JJ Richards about a possible job. I got the job, and hardly used that staircase again, because I would generally go in through the staff entrance at the back. That building now houses a Salvation Army Thrift Store, and that staircase is still there.)

When he gave me the news, Red told me Al had been something of a recluse in the last 10 years or so. I spoke to him by phone about 5 years ago, and he didn't even let people come and visit him in the last 2 years.

That's not surprising, based on a phone conversation I had with him about five years ago. I can't say I knew Al, largely because I was in the generation behind him -- his son Randy and I played hockey and baseball together (or more accurately, we wore the same uniform) -- and Al was my first hockey coach (peewees at the Capilano Winter Club). He sorta knew that I'd gone into the business. Years later when I was at C-ISL, we chatted like we'd known each other for years. That's why I figured, in 2004, that I could call him and see how he was.

The sadness in the phone call was palpable. He stated flatly that he didn't listen to music anymore, "because it makes me cry". In another exchange, he said, "I hated rock and roll, you know. It wasn't my music ... jazz ... Stan Kenton ... that was my music. I drove a Cadillac but sold Chevrolets."

The tribute below from Brian Lord (with whom I worked at C-FUN in the early 80s and who, I believe, quietly greased the skids to help me land on my feet at CKDA Victoria) is stolen from Radio West, an online forum for radio people in and out of the business. He refers to Al as having died "contented", which seems odd, considering what he said in the phone call and what Red described of him. But as I say, I didn't know him the way colleagues like Brian knew him: maybe that is what "contentment" looked like to Al.

There are some lessons to be gleaned from this. One is in the way "the world" looks at the various gifts one has. Brian makes note of "the pipes getting rusty", and when one makes a living with one's voice, that can be the kiss of death. I used to wonder to myself what I would do if something ever happened to take away my voice. Praise God, preaching the Gospel does not require the voice of George McLean -- I don't worry about that anymore. Anyway, during my time in radio, I got the sense that announcers were treated as though they were interchangeable -- that anyone could do what they did. I know some radio personalities were sensitive to the notion that they had no talent and that if they didn't have a "great set of pipes", they'd be nothing.

I think that's why so many highly popular DJs (and I won't name them here) seem so insecure. When C-FUN joined the rush towards "more rock - less talk" in the early 80s it only made it worse for these people. Sure, I've known some announcers who had, as Charles Adler once put it, "the voice of God and the IQ of a chicken" -- the "what's that up in the road, a head?" kind of read. But good DJs became part of the entertainment on a radio station: the ability to "patter", especially to use the intros and extros of songs to punctuate what one was saying and then finish saying it with about a breath to spare before the vocal started, was an art form in and of itself. Reduce the job description of a DJ to time-temp-and-PSAs over dead air, and the highly priced talent who could really do that would suddenly be readily replaceable by a BCIT dropout willing to work for a third of the salary.

And it also stripped the DJ of his or her creative outlet.

It also stripped radio stations of any reason for existence -- especially with the advent of personal audio 30 years ago. What did radio have to offer when you could have your own music, sans commercials? But the bean-counters who knew the price of DJs but not their value only saw the immediate bottom line. The Knights of the Turntable gradually faded away.

And who would care? "The World" would question what real value they had -- in much the same way that it questions the value of poets, actors and musicians; they were "just a DJ", and yet these people had a real gift that brought real pleasure to a lot of people.

The other lesson is that, if we get a leading from the Lord on something ... ACT ON IT WITHOUT DELAY! The Lord had been prompting me for several weeks to call Al -- the fact that the Chicago Black Hawks were playing (and beating) the Canucks in the playoffs made that prompt even louder, since Randy lives in Chicago. But I didn't. "Ask him to come and help out at the Mission," He said. I still didn't. Who knows what that might have led to? I'm getting similar prompts about others, and I'm not disobeying this time.

This much I did know about Al Jordan: his son Randy -- who's about my age -- was unique in that he was a superstar kid athlete who didn't go around telling everybody how great he was. Instead, he realized chubby little wannabes like me could learn something from him, and shared unreservedly. Randy is still doing that, coaching hockey -- particularly women's hockey -- in Chicago. I think of all that and consider Brian's description of Al as being a truly humble and caring man and realize that if Al left any legacy, it's in the way he trained up Randy (and younger brother Brook) in the way he should go. I hope Al knew that.

Here's Brian Lord's tribute to Al Jordan, ripped off from the Radio West online forum.

CFUN's Al Jordan Passes
A Tribute by Brian Lord

I don't doubt some the other CFUN DJ's will drop a line to RadioWest about Al's passing, we all knew him in the late 50's and early 60's and have run across him several times over the last 50 years.

We used to call him 'Happy Pappy' because he liked to talk about his son Randy on the air and to us. When CFUN's Dave McCormick decided to approach manager Jack Sayers about changing the MOR format to Rock 'n' Roll, Al was in step. None of the rest of us early "Good Guys" were on board yet, so Al and Dave pretty much had to go it alone. For any help he may have given Dave we can all be thankful because he was the senior announcer at CFUN in 1960 and therefore his opinion stood for something.

He was older than the rest of us -- Dave, Brian Forst, Jerry Landa and I. Maybe by about five years on average. The original line-up was Jordan in the morning Breakfast period from 6AM to 10AM, I had mid-day 10PM to 2PM, Dave was on from 2PM to 6PM , Brian Forst from 6PM to Midnight and Jerry was the overnight DJ. That line up began in the late spring of 1960 and Al Jordan was basically the chief announcer and assigned shifts etc. Dave McCormick handled the music.

Al was also the only one of the original Good Guys who was married. (We called our selves "The Good Guys" because that was the hip thing for rock stations to do in those early years, call yourselves something). We all knew his wife Donna who was funny, pretty and very friendly and open with us. We didn't socialize at Al's home near the Capilano Canyon in North Vancouver but we saw Donna at staff get-togethers and parties. Al used to bring Randy down to the station on occasion. I also knew his sister, a pretty blond who loved jazz and a younger brother.

The thing about Al was that he got along with everybody. I never saw him get mad, matter of fact if something came up that would anger the rest of us, Al would just laugh it off and caution us to be cool and work around it. He had a huge capacity for friendliness. He seemed to be concerned about all of his friends, air staff and non-air staff alike; what we were going to do with our lives, what we liked -- even to the point of asking what kind of clothes we admired and what food we ate. In other words he showed genuine concern. And he just never had a bad thing to say about anyone, either to their face or behind their back. He didn't think that way.

He was a hell of a good radio announcer. He could be cute but I guess his greatest advantage was his voice and how he used it. He knew his rap, he didn't get tongue-tied or stray off the subject. He wasn't a particularly funny announcer but he was pleasant to listen to and that I think was his best feature, he was extremely friendly and was able to convey this effortlessly to his audience. He had a knack for making people feel good, in person and on the air.

The most worthwhile thing he did for me was teach me how to read. He was probably the top commercial announcer and producer of commercial radio copy in Vancouver through the Sixties and he earned a lot of his money doing spots for advertising agencies. To do this he couldn't keep on as an on-air voice so he went off-air and made money doing voice-overs, promos and spots. All the great voices that Vancouver has produced -- from Bill Reiter to Doc Harris and everyone else, will tell you that Al was the first -- and extending well into the Eighties, one of the best.

When CFUN's original DJs began drifting after about three years, Al stayed put. He was there when Tom Peacock, Red Robinson and Freddy Latremouille came aboard. He was a fixture until eventually he too left 1410 in the latter 60's. I next ran into him at CJOR when I was on a year's sabbatical from California in 1966. By that time he was strictly production. All the voices at 'OR liked doing work with Al because he was just as easy to work with as a production manager as he had been when he was a DJ. Matter of fact I don't think Al ever had a single solitary person working in radio and knew him, that didn't like him.

Like most of us Al fell on hard times. He had problems, Fred Latremouille got him straightened out from a drinking problem by pointing the way towards the help he needed. I spoke to him around that time and whereas he had been remorseful and anything but his lively old self, after his rehab he was happy again. He continued working for years but eventually his voice was starting to get that gritty sound -- the pipes were rusting -- and he had to do any voice work prior to noon before his throat would wear thin. That's what he told me one day when I ran into him at CKWX in the mid 80's.

Others can probably give you reasons but besides his son and daughters, (he and Donna had divorced years before), no-one really knows why Al went into a kind of solitude. He liked cats, kept several, read books, stayed mostly indoors at his apartment near Main and 12th Avenue, alone and liking it that way. It was during these years that Dave McCormick, Mike Powley, our CFUN Librarian back in the 60's and Cameron Bell decided to keep in touch with Al on a monthly basis. They used to send each other reports and kindly included me because I was in the Philippines by this time.

I did speak with Al about three years ago when visiting Vancouver -- he was not the up-tempo guy he'd been 50-odd years earlier but he was still pleasant. We talked about books and discussed a few old times. I knew, however that Al was not wanting to get into a long conversation. None of the boys had seen him in ages. As I say, that was the way he wanted it.

Was he unhappy? None of us knew for sure but the general feeling was that he was appreciative of what Dave, Cam and Mike were doing and his demeanor was not startling or off-the-wall. So if 'happy' isn't the right word, 'chosen' may have been more appropriate. I like to think he died contented -- based on the Al Jordan I knew.

The thing to remember about Al was that he made people feel good. He made people feel like they had done a successful job because he always made sure they knew it. I don't know how many of us can go through a long life and go out with many people thinking so well of us. Al Jordan joins Monty McFarlaine, Jack Cullen and Vic Waters to name just a few as being a true friend of the broadcasting industry in the city of Vancouver. He has left us all with good memories.

Brian Lord

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