For What It’s Worth: R.I.P. A Radio Legend

I have to take time out and devote some space to mark the passing of a guy I used to work with. Jimmy O’Neill is a name not known to most of my readers, I’m sure. But if you lived in L.A. in the early to mid Sixties or were a rock and roll fan who watched TV during the Sixties during that period, you might remember him.

He died a week ago, on January 11th. According to his son, he had diabetes and heart problems.

Jimmy O'neill
Jimmy O’neill

The LA Times noted,

In 1959, O’Neill made radio history as the first voice heard on KRLA-AM (1110) when it dropped its country-western format for rock music. It quickly became a powerhouse in rock radio and launched O’Neill into television in 1964 as the winsome emcee of “Shindig!”

Prior to Shindig! (and it’s NBC cousin Hullabaloo), the only opportunity to see rock acts was on Saturday afternoons on American Bandstand (where the performers always lip-synced) and with The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, and each  show had only one performance per show (maybe two on AB). Shindig!, on the other hand, was a solid half-hour packed with rock and roll: “Howdy-hi, Shindiggers… we’ve got a ‘Shindig!’ for you that’s so far in it’s out of sight!”

Howdy-hi, Shindiggers – Jimmy opened every show with that. It was on Shindig! that I first saw Jerry Lee Lewis perform, and he played live, and he was wild and unforgettable, so much so that his is the only performance from that show I have a good memory of, although I know folks like Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Stones and many other made appearances.

PandorasBox (2)Jimmy O’Neill was also owner of a music club on the Sunset Strip called Pandora’s Box. In 1965, the Strip was the epicenter for the youth culture in L.A., and many of the kids who flocked up there each night were underage. For that reason, and because of the traffic problem, “the heat” attempted to enforce a 10 PM curfew and they shut down a number of the clubs, including Pandora’s Box, a purple and gold joint at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights. One night in November, more than 1,000 people stood in front of Pandora’s Box to protest. That was the beginning of the “Sunset Strip” or “Hippie” riots that continued until December. Stephen Stills of the Buffalo Springfield wrote a song about it. You may have heard this song once or twice:

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

Anyway, back to Jimmy O’Neill. I worked with him in the mid-seventies when his career, and to some extent, his life, was on a downturn. It was at the KRCB/KQKQ radio station in Omaha (actually across the river in Council Bluffs, IA). Jimmy was on the AM side, and I was on the FM side. Jimmy was your typical Top 40 Boss Jock, and I was your typical progressive rock DJ who always sounded like he was stoned (because I usually was).

When I knew him, Jimmy had a bad habit of “stepping” on records. Normally, when a DJ does his introduction of a song over the opening bars of the music, he stops talking when the vocals start. Jimmy didn’t pay attention to that, he would keep on talking over the vocals, and that’s what is meant by stepping on a record.

He also like to tip a few, if you know what I mean. There was a little bar under a viaduct a few blocks away from the station that was popular with the staff. I drank with him a few times, but I can’t say that I knew him well. He was always a nice guy to me, and acted generally happy, but I sensed something – sadness is not the right word, but it’s close. While Omaha was a respected radio market, it was still small time, so it was a bit of a tough time for someone had been at the pinnacle of a major market like L.A. Plus he’d been dropped from one of the top stations in town and was now working for a AM station that signed off at sunset. The FM side I worked for was a 24 hour operation and rather successful, which bothered some of the AM jocks, but I never sensed any resentment from Jimmy O’Neill. I think he was too busy battling his own demons.

I’ll remember Jimmy O’Neill as a pleasant, but somewhat troubled man, and a genuine piece of American Broadcasting history, and so I say, bye, bye, Shindigger.

A medley of The Killer’s killer appearances on Shindig! with a classic Jimmy O’Neill intro:

Jerry Lee is backed by the Shindig house band, The Shindogs, which included at various times Glen Campbell, Chuck Blackwell (drums), Billy Preston, James Burton, Delaney Bramlett, Larry Knechtel (on bass), Leon Russell (on piano), and Glen D. Hardin.  Among the dancers may (or may not) be Terri Garr and Toni Basil. And dig that crazy milk commercial.



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