Friday, December 27, 2019

Don Imus (1940-2019)

New Canaan, 1997
The I-Man has left the building.

John Donald Imus Jr, the cowboy hat-wearing disc jockey, who basically invented the morning show, and the term "shock jock," and who survived more than most people will ever know, died earlier today at the age of 79. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Deirdre, his son Wyatt, his adopted son Zachary, as well as four daughters from his first marriage.

Yes, many are celebrating the death of the man who brought "nappy-headed hos" into prominence in 2007. He was fired from the radio show he did on WFAN following those comments, before reappearing on WABC the following year.

Imus -- known as The I-Man, a named coined by Bob Raissman of the NY Daily News -- continued on WABC until his contract ran out in 2019.

Imus in the Morning also aired on TV, being one of the first radio shows to be simulcast. The show ran on C-Span, MSNBC, RFD, and Fox Business.

Imus came to New York in 1971 and turned radio on its ear immediately. His level of humor hit everyone in a time when it was still acceptable. But, the thing was, it didn't matter who you were, you were going to be in the bullseye.

That, most of all, included Imus himself.

There were ups and downs in the 70s, including being fired and shipped to Cleveland before reemerging on then-WNBC (660am) in New York once again.

The 80s would also find him on the see-saw, with his well-known battles being honestly laid out as part of the humor.

He finally got off the drugs and alcohol, cleaning himself up just before WNBC became WFAN in 1988. 'FAN needed one thing to survive as a sports radio station and that thing was the guy who was a minor sports fan at best.

The celebrities -- not from the sports world -- began to swoop in for interviews that were brilliant and gave "jock heads" like me a sense of current events knowledge that was so badly needed.

It was Imus who brought a guy named "Bubba" on and made him personable. Bubba, of course, was then-candidate Bill Clinton. Clinton showed a sense of humor and charm that previously hadn't been seen.

Imus knew how to humanize these interviews, getting more than the basics out of every guest. He took Tim Russert and made him iconic. He made hardline political voices like Paul Begala, James Carville and Mary Matalin laugh and they, in turn, made us laugh.

It's where we really came to know John McCain.

He had an Oprah-esque ability to sell books also, with authors of interest often stopping by.

Journalists were constant guests.

Musicians also, with Delbert McClinton and Levon Helm among his favorites. Helm was there to help bring him back from exile in 2008.

He didn't ignore sports. Terry Bradshaw, Phil Simms, Jim Nantz, Tim McCarver, and others were frequent guests.

For me, it was appointment listening, and I listened every day. With the show being carried around the nation, I knew where to get my fill from 5:30-10 every morning.

In the late summer and early fall of 1989, WFAN was literally the only station I could get on a little radio that I had at my desk at General Foods. And so, each day, I listened to Don and Charles McCord and Bernie McGuirk and Lou Rufino and Larry Kenney and Rob Bartlett and Mike Breen.

And Warner Wolf and "The Great" Don Criqui (the very reason I say "enjoy," as his jokes ended with that amidst the laughter) and Chris Russo and Mike Francesa.

And Dick Nixon and Clinton and Scottso and Elvis and Cardinal O'Connor and Wilford Brimley and Ted Kennedy and the countless characters that bounced around and evolved from the 70s, when everyone wanted Imus to "nuke" their school to the 90s when the topical humor had changed to the foils of the Clinton era.

Imus taught me radio. The Imus show was my training ground for learning radio. I loved Ron Lundy and Dan Ingram and Scott Shannon and the DJ's of my youth, but it was Imus who taught me how to talk a song up to the "post" (where the vocal or the beat of a song kicks in) and how important timing was (that's why the duck sound was used) and how to structure a show.

He was the great point guard. He knew how to distribute the ball to the remarkable talent that he assembled. In that way, he was like Jackie Gleason.

But, more so, he was like Lenny Bruce and other topical comedians of his youth who skewered everyone.

Yet, with "nappy," he hadn't evolved enough. He had flown in the face of the PC world of the 90s and early 21st century, in the same way that his rival Howard Stern had.

But he couldn't survive 2007. At least, not at first. He was back in 2008 with the new WABC show. To an extent, the magic was gone. The interviews were still sharp and he brought in the talented Tony Powell to add to Rob Bartlett but Larry Kenney disappeared and the show was more about Deirdre, his "Yoko" as she was sometimes referred to.

Most of all, the willingness to have fun at anyone's expense was killed off by the Rutgers event.

Still, he survived. As Charles McCord (the Art Carney to his Gleason) departed, on came Connell McShane in the second banana role. Eventually, McShane left and, soon after, doing the show entirely away from New York (mostly from Texas and New Mexico), Imus stepped down.

He did it all on his terms. Mostly.

He raised millions for veterans and sudden infant death syndrome and other causes, but the thing closest to his heart was pediatric cancer. So much so, that he used Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Camp as the basis for building The Imus Ranch. Newman -- not known for interviews -- even appeared on Imus in the Morning to offer support.

The critics are grasping onto "Nappy" and misogyny and racism and all of the tawdry items. At first, I admit that raised a very irrational and emotional reaction from me that I regret. I'm still angry at the Huffington Post obituary that made no mention of anything good that he ever did.

Obviously, I know critics are entitled to their opinions but I'll also opine that they're judging without the facts.

I expected the criticism.

I guarantee Imus did also.

But I also knew he wasn't a "racist scumbag" or anything else. He was a satirist and a commentator. The proof of Don Imus was in a very deep pudding that wasn't easy to discover without a good spoon.

The critics can ignore that he had an African American adopted son or that Bishop GE Patterson called him a friend or the activist Dick Gregory stood by Imus after Rutgers. None of that will be in the narrative tonight, but each of them (along with Russert, Begala, Carville and others) condemned what happened at Rutgers but recognized that Don Imus had done plenty of good and knew that mistakes do get made.

Many stood by him. Others did not.

I knew that, at one time, we laughed at everyone, including ourselves. It was a lesson I believed in.

But, times change, for better or for worse.

Don Imus wasn't someone I wanted to know. You see, that was the thing. His rule was simple: "I talk on the radio. You listen. We're not going to hang out," and I never wanted to. Hell, I met him once and that was enough.

He'd never want to hear my thank you for the myriad lessons -- good and bad -- about radio and life. He'd never want credit for keeping me company, especially in '89, when I needed it most as I figured out life.

He wasn't even someone that I wanted to interview.

But I wanted to listen to him every morning, for the truth about the world and the laughter that helped me survive it. In truth, there was a time I had to listen to him every morning from Vermont, Las Vegas, Virginia, Florida, and would have done so in England had the ability to do so existed at the time.

I'll sum it up simply. For a man I didn't know, I feel a "Scully" level of sadness tonight. He was that important to me in broadcasting.

Thank you, Mr. Imus. Thank you for Rev. Hargas and fuzzy peaches and the use of the word "hideous" and the US Open show. Thank you for your show on 9/11 and when the Gulf War began and for your honesty and for the gift that was your brother Fred.

I even named a cat Fred.

Thank you for crying when Fred passed, allowing us all the opportunity to do the same.

Just as some (me) are doing for you tonight.

Have mercy (a line he borrowed from his friend Wolfman Jack), indeed.

There are many examples of the Imus show, but this is this is one of my favorite radio moments ever.

Fred and Don Imus signed my copy of Two Guys Four Corners in 1997.

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