For most of the 1960s, the most powerful single person in the Puget Sound rock ‘n’ roll scene was Pat O’Day, the legendary disc jockey and program director of KJR-AM, then a Top 40 station.
O’Day, 85, died Tuesday at his home in San Juan Island, surrounded by family.
One of his sons, Jeff O’Day, says his dad, a five-decade smoker, “beat cancer” after treatment, “but the COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) was still sneaking out there.”
O’Day reigned in an era when KJR routinely garnered 30% to 40% of all listeners. These days, a station with a 7% share can claim to be No. 1.
“It was a time when if you wanted to hear about The Beatles, you had to listen to the radio. They weren’t on TV except for something like the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Every connection to music all came through the radio station,” says Tom Murphy, of Los Angeles, who was at KJR for 5 ½ years beginning in 1965.
It was a time when after school, kids would be listening to O’Day’s afternoon drive-time show in their cars or on their transistor radios.
O’Day decided what tunes were played on KJR. He controlled the local teen dance circuit. He booked many of the rock concerts. He sponsored “teen fairs.” He was instrumental in promoting local rock groups.
Patrick MacDonald, the longtime Seattle Times rock critic who retired in 2008, says he remembers listening to O’Day on a portable radio as he walked home after finishing his newspaper route.
He says O’Day would make sure local bands ended up in the weekly KJR Fabulous Fifty listing you could pick up at record stores. “He sort of manipulated his Top 10,” MacDonald says.
In a 2010 Seattle Times interview, Don Wilson, one of the founders of The Ventures, credited O’Day with making “Walk — Don’t Run” a national hit in 1960.
The year before, Wilson had been working construction in Tacoma. The group took their single to every radio station in Seattle, and they all turned them down. Except for O’Day, who began using 30 seconds of it as “news kicker” just before the news. That was enough. The kids began calling, and the record went onto regular programming.
Jason Remington, founder and creator of Puget Sound Media, a website that focuses on the history of local radio and TV, is unequivocal in his assessment: “Pat O’Day was the creator of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll radio station in the Northwest. He did what others couldn’t do. He was a genius at hiring talent. He knew what sounds he wanted. That’s what made KJR.”
Listening to old recordings of O’Day, or other popular disc jockeys he hired — Larry Lujack, Lan Roberts, Murphy, Jerry Kaye, Dick Curtis — their jokes and patter often don’t translate very well some five decades later.
O’Day: “Mr. KJR told our helicopter man to cover the peak traffic. Next thing you know, he phoned in from Mount Rainier. Hee-hee-hee. Mr. KJR was so mad, he made him back into his rotary blades.”
But at the moment, on an afternoon in Seattle in the 1960s, it registered.
O’Day was born Paul W. Berg in Norfolk, Nebraska. O’Day enrolled in a broadcasting program at a Tacoma vocational institute after graduating from Bremerton High in 1953. He bounced around a few radio stations until 1960, when KJR went rock ‘n’ roll.
He’d be there for 15 years, named the nation’s top program director in 1964 and 1965, and “Radioman of the Year” in 1966.
During the 1960s, he led O’Day & Associates that staged teen dances and teen fairs — including at Parker’s on Aurora, the Spanish Castle Ballroom on Pacific Highway South, the Lake Hills Roller Rink in Bellevue — all now razed and gone.
O’Day loved to tell the stories of all his experiences.
In a 2009 Seattle Times interview, he told how back in 1961, when Hendrix was about 19, he would show up at the Spanish Castle.
He approached O’Day with an idea.
“Back then, the amplifiers bands used … overheated, overloaded and blew out with irritating regularity …
“Knowing this, the young man made a simple offer: He said he always carried his high-wattage Gibson amp in his car and proposed that, should one of the band’s amps blow, we could use his amp with the understanding that he could then play his guitar on stage along with the group.
“ ‘I’ll stay in the background,’ he promised me. ‘And don’t worry,’ he added, ‘I know every note of every song these guys do.’”
One evening some weeks later, an amp blew in the middle of a show. It was Hendrix’s chance.
In Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love,” there is a track called “Spanish Castle Magic.”
When Hendrix died in London in 1970 at age 27 after overdosing on barbiturates, it was O’Day who was among those asked by the family to fly there.
“We discovered the body was still at the morgue and nobody was doing anything. I had a letter from Jimi’s dad, so they allowed us to claim the body,” O’Day told John Hughes, chief historian for the state’s oral history program. “We bought a coffin and brought him home. It was one of the saddest days of my life.”
O’Day was an inveterate hustler, and that is written with admiration.
When the psychedelic era began and teen dances were passé, he was the secret backer of the late Boyd Grafmyre, who brought light shows and groups such as the Grateful Dead, The Doors and Iron Butterfly to the Eagles Auditorium in downtown Seattle.
He knew that a Top 40 guy was anathema in the hip community, with author Tom Robbins, saying, “The man, like most DJs, simply has no sense of aesthetics, no feeling for quality …”
In 1967, O’Day helped found one of the world’s largest concert firms, Concerts West, and staged shows for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. By 1976, O’Day was out of that business, amid management infighting.
In 1967, too, he began calling hydroplane races. Back then, the major local TV stations all broadcast the Gold Cup live. But with an engineers strike, a little independent station, KTVW, Channel 13, decided to step in. On short notice, O’Day was called.
He asked Wayne Newton, in town for a show, to help with the color, though Newton knew nothing about hydroplanes. But Newton owed him because KJR was one of the first to play his records.
That was the beginning of 46 years of O’Day broadcasting the hydros either on TV or radio, ending in 2013.
O’Day always just kept on going.
In 1986, after undergoing treatment at Shick Shadel Hospital, he became its spokesman.
“I was in rock ‘n’ roll, spending years on the road with every temptation and substance known to man,” he remembered. At that point, he said in 2009, he was capable of drinking more than a fifth of whiskey a day.
His TV commercials for the treatment were ubiquitous. “Give us 10 days and we’ll give you back your life!”
O’Day would end up investing in three radio stations. In one of them, KYYX, he tried to recreate the KJR magic. A floating $10 million loan with sky-high interest rates during the Jimmy Carter administration turned into bankruptcy.
O’Day just kept on going. He bought a real estate franchise in Friday Harbor and became successful in that business.
But he never forgot radio.
Murphy says that as recently as a week ago, using a nasal cannula that delivers supplemental oxygen, O’Day was in a Zoom call with people from the old radio days.
“Pat always had a dream to recreate that, to bring that back,” Murphy says about those Top 40 years. “I’m not sure that’s possible.”
O’Day is survived by his wife, Stephanie John O’Day; three sons, Jerry O’Day, Gary O’Day and Jeff O’Day; a daughter, Kelsey O’Day; and several grandchildren.
Services are pending.