Commentary by Art Vuolo, Jr.
He truly charged the face of Top 40 radio in the 1960's, when he decided that teens would rather hear "much more music" rather than lots of DJ chatter. Personally I thought he was killing "personality radio" which today is available primarily in morning drive or on talk stations....period.
His real name was Philip T. Yarbrough, but when he worked in Atlanta on WAKE, he chose the name Bill Drake to rhyme with the station's call letters. He really did represent myth and reality--a mix of rumors, contradictions and power. He lived 71 years and passed away last Saturday, November 29th of lung cancer in Los Angeles. Ironically, legendary radio local radio personality Tom Clay, who worked at CKLW prior to the "Drake format" when it was The Big 8, also died on the exact same day, the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, but that was back in 1995. It was a bad year for local losses. In 1995 we lost; Byron MacGregor (CKLW-WWJ-WLLZ) in January, Nick Arama (WOMC) in April, Fat Bob Taylor "The Singing Plumber" (WJR) in July, J. P. McCarthy (WJR) in August and Tom Clay (CKLW-W4) in November.
Another strange twist to this story is that two of the jocks out in Los Angeles who were popularized by Drake and his "shut up and play the hits" format were Robert W. Morgan and The Real Don Steele, both of whom also died of lung cancer within a year of each other. Steele died August 5, 1997 and Morgan on May 22, 1998. Morgan's old shift today is handled by Gary Bryan and Steele has been succeeded by Shotgun Tom Kelly. Kelly always says that he succeeded Don because nobody can "replace" the Real Don Steele.
In early September 2004, L.A. oldies station K-Earth 101 (KRTH-FM) broadcast the legendary documentary "The History of Rock and Roll" with a rare interview with Bill Drake, in which he spoke of the importance of that famous radio format named "Boss Radio" which he developed at KHJ-AM back in 1965, "There were some people who thought they were quote 'personalities.' If somebody was a 'personality,' we said fine. Robert W. Morgan certainly was, as was The Real Don Steele. The thing is: Even they [Morgan and Steele] didn't have something to say every time. And they learned that. Do it when you got it and keep your mouth shut otherwise, and keep the forward momentum going. People tune in to hear the music."
In 2006, Drake said "The REAL key to radio programming, is what you DON'T play...Anybody can come up with a list of songs to play...those lists are everywhere...What to leave IN and what to leave OUT is the REAL secret...and few people have that gift." Those words are true to this day. He was called an "all-business bachelor" by Time magazine in 1968, and his power and influence was the subject of many trade magazines and the mainstream media.
It was often written that Bill Drake was the most powerful man in American radio. He was also the most powerful figure in American popular music. Record companies all depend on 'air play' to make their wares into hits. Drake said that he didn't play favorites...he programmed only records that the public wanted and that fit into his format.
The "real" Bill Drake--was a very tall, well-groomed, polite, Southern gentleman, unlike his well-crafted corporate persona. He played up his image as a "rock and roll radio recluse" with a telephone at his side which he used to place calls to the radio stations he consulted. At the radio stations, whenever the "hot line" lit up, it could strike fear into the hearts and souls of the employees who wondered, "What if that's Bill Drake calling me?" At many stations, that type of fear still prevails when the hot-line strobe light flashes!
Some people compared Bill Drake as the Howard Hughes of radio, powerful, strange, talented, hard-to-read, a bit eclectic and certainly mysterious. It was his tight format that made CKLW a North America radio dynasty back in 1967. We have lost many of the great programmers who made radio a hard to top entertainment medium.
Often I have wondered what some of these people, who were so good at what they did many years ago, would do today. Would their techniques work, would the ratings be as high, would the buzz on the street be as loud? Probably not. The world has changed radically. As the lyrics once stated "not even the song has remained the same."
Whether you agreed with what Bill Drake did for the Top 40 music radio scene or not, one cannot deny his impact on this business, which today, could certainly stand an injection of fresh new blood and creative ideas. Regardless what the future holds, one thing is certain, as Bill Drake would say....."Ladies and Gentlemen....the beat goes on!"