April 24, 2024

Dick Biondi, Top 40 Radio Star, Dies at 90

Dick Biondi, a fast-talking top 40 radio personality nicknamed “the Screamer,” who in the early 1960s was one of Chicago’s most popular disc brands and, thanks to his station’s signal strength, could be heard far outside the city, died on June 26 in Chicago. He was 90.

Pamela Enzweiler-Pulice, director of an upcoming documentary, confirmed his death. “The Voice of America: The Dick Biondi Story.”

Mr. Biondi was a yeller, though not a disturbing joker, at WLS-AM, which had just changed its format to rock ‘n’ roll when he was hired for the late afternoon shift in 1960 for $378 a week (about $3,900 in today’s dollars). The station’s expansion into 38 states and Canada provided a platform for Mr. Biondi to become a major media personality as rock music grew in popularity.

Mr. Biondi, who was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1998, quickly established himself as a Chicago star. He called himself “the Wild I-tralian”; hosting record hops and charity events; and he recorded a newly composed song, “On top of a pizza,” A parody of “On Top of Old Smoky” which became a local hit in 1961.

“No one has come close to his personality,” Mr. Enzweiler-Pulice said in a telephone interview. “It was wild, wild, goofy and uplifting. He was like a big kid – he was one of us. He spoke our language.”

In 1961, The Gavin Report, an industry publication, named him the 40 best disc jockeys of the year. His evening ratings eventually rose to the highest level in Chicago radio.

Despite “operating in the shadow of the night disc jockey, where the glare of national publicity and the adulation of fan magazines rarely penetrate,” future film critic Roger Ebert wrote in late 1961 in The Daily Illini, the student newspaper of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, “Biondi has become one of the most famous men of the past two years.

The Chicago Tribune reported over the years that Biondi’s show attracted as much as 60 percent of all listeners in the Chicago market. In 1962, The Tribune said most of its local audience consisted of teenagers.

Ms. Enzweiler-Pulice was one of Mr. Biondi’s young admirers. She started a Biondi fan club and wrote a newsletter. She was 13 when she met him for the first time at a shopping centre, where hundreds of people watched as he arrived in a helicopter.

“Wherever he went,” she said, “fans heard him.”

WLS became a vital part of the hit-making machine for record companies, and Mr. Biondi was a significant player in that equation. He was particularly important to the Four Seasons, whose label, Vee-Jay, was based in Chicago.

Vee-Jay was another group, at least for a while, than the Beatles. And it’s possible that when Mr. Biondi played his Vee-Jay single “Please Please Me” in early 1963, it was the first time a Beatles song had been heard on a station in the United States, said Mark Lewisohn, whose book “Tune In” (2013) is the first of a projected trilogy called “The Beatles: All These Years.”

But Mr. Biondi’s tenure at WLS ended in 1963 after three years. He was fired when he complained about the amount of commercials on his show compared to a competitor, Dick Kemp, known as “the Wild Child,” on a rival station. Mr. Biondi said his charring angered the sales manager; in one confrontation in the studio, Mr. Biondi, armed with a letter opener, had to restrain two engineers.

This, Mr. Biondi said, was one of 25 times he was fired from various jobs during his career.

Soon after he was fired, Herb Lyon, a gossip columnist in The Tribune, reported: “Ex WLS Dee Jay Dick Biondi, still a hero of the youth, roaming the town, pushing his own new album, ‘Biondi Talks to Teenagers,’ a real twist.”

Richard Orlando Biondi was born on September 13, 1932, in Endicott, NY, near Binghamton, to Michael and Rose Biondi. He first performed on the radio when he was 8 years old, and, standing outside a studio in Auburn, NY, the announcer he was watching asked him to come in and read an ad for a women’s clothing store.

That started his love affair with radio. As a teenager he worked as an announcer at a station in Binghamton, where one of the announcers tutored him in his speech. In 1950, after graduating from high school, he got a job in Corning, NY, as a sports broadcaster.

For the next ten years he worked at stations in Alexandria, La. (where he played R&B and called high school football games); York, Pa.; Youngstown, Ohio; and Buffalo.

He hosted a record hop in 1957 with Jerry Lee Lewis, who was at the top of his game, but was upstaged at the event by actor Michael Landon, who talked his way through his single. “Gimme a Little Kiss (Will, Huh?).”

“The girls disappeared into thin air,” Mr. Biondi said in an interview on the television program “Chicago Tonight” in 2003. “You know how good it was.”

Mr. Biondi grew a beard, which he dyed from week to week to match the official colors of the high schools where he regularly has record hops. He sat on a flagpole for three days and nights daring a listener.

And he said he met Elvis Presley backstage in Cleveland and persuaded him to sign the white shirt he was wearing; Mr. Biondi treated him to a lover there, where fans swore so badly he had to go to a hospital emergency room to treat his badly scratched back.

After leaving Chicago in 1963, Mr. Biondi spent the next half century bouncing around. He moved to KRLA in Los Angeles in 1963; hosted a nationally syndicated show on Mutual Radio from 1964 until its cancellation in 1965; and then returned to KRLA, where in 1965 he and fellow DJs, including Bob Eubanks and Casey Kasem, brought the Beatles to the Hollywood Bowl. He came back to Chicago in 1967, at WCFL.

“You know, the day I left Chicago, I started trying to come back to it,” he told the Tribune in 1967. “It’s the only place I’ve ever been that bothered me.”

But in 1972 he left for a station in Cincinnati. He moved on to Boston and then North Myrtle Beach, SC, before returning to Chicago for good in 1983, most notably as a show host at a new oldies station, WJMK-FM, for 21 years. He returned to WLS (this time on the FM dial) from 2006 to the station ended its relationship with him in 2018.

His survivors include his wife, Maribeth Biondi, and his sister, Geraldine Wallace.

Many of Mr. Biondi’s encounters with rock lights remain vivid decades later.

For example, he recalled, after Michael Landon, who starred in the movie “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” shocked the crowd of hundreds of fans in 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis went on stage for his second set and performed 14 songs.

“It’s crazy in the second show,” Mr. Biondi said. “He walks in and here’s Michael Landon. He said, ‘Okay, nice boy, top me this time.'”

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