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Hang Loose, Mother Goose: The Wavy Gravy of Cleveland's Mad Daddy

Mad Daddy

August 3, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr.

Wikipedia: A bastion of knowledge and history, even if anyone can get in there and momentarily change a public figure’s birthplace to “Shit Town” or their favorite color to “purple dick bruise.” The depth and breadth of the site can feel astonishing. We all have our favorite strange and/or seemingly asinine Wikipedia entries. A couple of mine are “List of Las Vegas casinos that never opened” and “Electrical disruptions caused by squirrels.” “Clan McDuck” is also very amusing — that extremely thorough entry traces the lineage of fictional avian miser Scrooge McDuck all the way back to 2033 B.C. and includes several examples of McDuck tartans (in case you want to sew your own).

While I feel very enriched having been introduced to Scrooge relatives such as Dirty Dingus McDuck and Rumpus McFowl, it must be acknowledged that as Wikipedia allows material like this to unspool they still miss many vital pockets of our planet’s narrative. Apologies for taking the long road to point out there is no Wikipedia page for pioneering 1950s disc jockey Pete Myers, who rose to fame as a lunatic character called the Mad Daddy.

The Mad Daddy first materialized on Akron station WHKK in 1957, a manic but jovial voice which spoke primarily in rhyme (even when reading ad copy for the likes of Gillette and RCA) as all manner of ominous sound effects floated around him. The Mad Daddy punctuated his hipster lyricism — pulled all from his head without any notes, according to friends — with a frightening machine gun cackle, a sharp jarring laugh often sucked into a deep echo effect. Occasionally, the Mad Daddy’s laugh would be heard in the middle of a record.

Born in San Diego, various incidents in Pete Myers’s pre-Mad Daddy life suggest he was always on the road to freewheeling absurdity. In high school, Myers stole a street sweeper for a joy ride. A farcical report about sea monsters surfacing near Tokyo while broadcasting on Armed Forces radio got him drummed out of the military (no less than General Douglas MacArthur was said to have heard and been momentarily fooled by this joke news flash). During his reign as the Mad Daddy, many friends and co-workers observed that Myers was incredibly quiet and reserved off air; many theorized that Mad Daddy was the entertainer’s real personality and that “Pete Myers” was the mild-mannered character he played to trudge through everyday life.

Pete Myers

To wit: Throughout his career, Myers would often broadcast in his regular voice, reading news and cueing more popular records just hours before he took the mic as the Daddy. Scores of listeners had no idea this genial, almost shy-sounding Myers was one in the same with their cherished Mad Daddy.

Though some credit the Mad Daddy with using the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” before accepted inventor and fellow Cleveland DJ Alan Freed, this jock (who was rarely seen outside the studio without his hooded black cloak and pink convertible) preferred “wavy gravy,” which is what he called the obscure R&B 45s culled primarily from black-owned record labels that he enjoyed playing on his show. A wavy gravy staple for the Mad Daddy was “Greasy Chicken” by Andre Williams; Williams sounds a smidge tipsy as he lurches along with the guitar to sell this would be dance craze, which he assures us is very popular in Mexico, Germany, and other worldly locations.

A move to Cleveland station WJW in January of 1958 helped push the Mad Daddy’s popularity to new heights, so much so that he was poached just six months later by competitor WHK. A no compete clause in his WJW contract prevented the Mad Daddy from being on the air at his new home for 90 days; legend suggests this lead a frustrated Myers to work slightly blue (or what was considered blue for the time). “Hang loose, Mother Goose! Dippin’ her rag in tomato juice!” he allegedly giggled into the mic one night that June. The reference to menstruation outraged station heads and they dismissed Myers before he could broadcast a proper goodbye to his WJW listeners — or so the rumors say.

What can be confirmed is that during his imposed hiatus before starting at WHK, Pete Myers decided to keep the Mad Daddy name burning bright with a promotional sky dive. Originally the Mad Daddy wanted to fill a portion of Lake Erie with Jell-O brand gelatin and parachute into it as Zorro while tossing out copies of a 45 related to Disney’s Zorro tv series starring Guy Williams. The Civil Aeronautics Administration soured Mad Daddy’s fun when they said wearing a Zorro costume while jumping out of a plane would be too dangerous; they also nixed hurling the 45s, which could turn into dangerous projectiles at that height / speed. Adding further insult to injury, Myers could not locate enough Jell-O to properly fuck up Lake Erie (Mad Daddy had something of a Jell-O obsession; he wanted to do his first WHK show while ensconced in a vat of the dessert but could not locate a vat of proper size or cooling ability for the stunt).

Mad Daddy

Undeterred — and having lied to the Coast Guard about his parachuting experience, which was zilch — the Mad Daddy took to the skies at 3pm on June 14, 1958. A gaggle of 300 curious fans showed up to watch. After successfully landing in the choppy and shallow waters of Lake Erie, Myers threw on his Mad Daddy cloak and told a reporter for Cleveland News, “If you want mellow publicity, bail out and win it! Though Mad Daddy’s not on the air, hang loose, Mother Goose — he’s in it!”

A year after the plane jump, the Mad Daddy was more popular than ever, having solidified his “Obla-Dee” empire nightly via the WHK airwaves. That’s when New York came calling: WHK’s sister station WNEW offered Myers the opportunity to replace Al “Jazzbo” Collins on the 8pm to midnight shift. He accepted, to the devastation of Cleveland. However, this move included a major and somewhat odd caveat — WNEW was hiring Pete Myers, not the Mad Daddy. They were interested in adding the soothing button downed sound of Pete Myers “out of character” to their rotation of jazz and American songbook standards. Confused and not ready to give up his trademark wild man antics, Myers lobbied WNEW brass to let him try the Mad Daddy on their airwaves anyway. The bosses relented and the king of wavy gravy debuted in Manhattan on July 4, 1959.

What followed was one of the most infamous flameouts in Big Apple history. The upper middle class audience of New Yorkers who turned to WNEW religiously were appalled by what they perceived as a lowbrow idiot. Complaints poured into the switchboard almost immediately: free your airwaves of this pollution. The story goes that Myers and his bosses had a pow wow where they agreed the Mad Daddy should not return due to the backlash; later reports indicate that Myers was absolutely crushed over his persona’s instant death in the New York market.

Pete Myers puttered along on WNEW until a connection at rock station 1010 WINS helped the Mad Daddy rise from the grave in 1963. A program director at WINS had interned with Myers in Cleveland and convinced both the station and Myers that the Mad Daddy would be the perfect addition to their format. The 1960s Mad Daddy wasn’t as unpredictable as he had been on WHK and the playlists were less obscure (the Supremes, Peter Paul & Mary, etc); indeed, by the mid ‘60s the radio industry was already growing very corporate, with stations asserting more control over what jocks played and for how long they could babble. It is perhaps no surprise then that Pete Myers retired the Mad Daddy again in 1964 and went back to WNEW.

Though a success by many measurements, it seems Myers felt he was destined for more and was most likely quite chagrined when figures like Ghoulardi borrowed his whimsical and spooky template only to springboard to professional levels he’d never know. In the first week of October 1968, WNEW told Myers they were moving him from afternoon drive time to a later, less action-packed slot in the evening. This turned out to the be the final straw for our once rhyme-happy phantom. On October 4th, the night he was supposed to begin his new shift, Pete Myers went into the bathroom of his New York apartment and shot himself in the head. His wife had just woken up from a nap; he made sure to kiss her goodbye before taking his life.

Mad Daddy Fan Club

The Mad Daddy Pete Myers personified cool for an entire generation of Midwesterners. Young Erik Purkhiser of Stowe, Ohio was part of that generation, touched so much by the mania of the Mad Daddy he became president of his region’s Mad Daddy Fan Club. Thirteen-year-old Erik called WHK the day Myers left for New York in 1959 to tell his hero what he’d meant to him.

“He talked to me on the phone for a couple of minutes in rhyme, just like on the radio show,” Purkhiser recalled decades afterword. “Then later he said, ‘I’m going to call the operator back, you can’t afford this, I’m going to pay for this call.’ And that actually happened, I thought we were going to have to explain that later, but it didn’t show up on the bill.”

Erik Purkhiser grew up to be Lux Interior, carnal and carnivorous lead singer for punk legends the Cramps. With guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, Interior authored an appropriately wild tribute to Pete Myers on the first Cramps full length (1980’s Songs The Lord Taught Us). “Let’s go, baby, let’s go batty, I am the mad Mad Daddy!” Lux breathlessly menaces on “Mad Daddy” as the band palpitates behind him like a sweaty juke joint. Although mostly a fictional account of the Mad Daddy seducing a young woman on the street, “Mad Daddy” does find room to reference the original ghoul’s lauded sky jump into Lake Erie (“I got a parachute to land on you!”)

“He was the person who set me on this road, which I’ve never been able to get off, which I hope I can set people on myself,” Interior affirmed before his 2009 death. “[He coined] the term ‘rock 'n' roll.’ People are so jealous of him for that, even today. They will not admit the fact that Alan Freed did not invent that term for the mid-50s experience. He’s just wiped out of history, a guy that is pure genius for me.”

In 2003, Norton Records released Wavy Gravy!: Atom Smashin' Zoomeratin' Mello Jello Radio Broadcasts, 1958-64, a collection of Mad Daddy air checks, ad reads, and maniacal rhyming (the title references the Mad Daddy's zoomeratin' alphabet bit, wherein the Daddy would rapidly cycle through 26 nonsense words in A to Z order). It's a vital document, one of the only testaments to this incredibly personality who deserves not only his own Wikipedia entry but a statue, a wing in a museum, and his own flavor of Jell-O.

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