Dick Lawrence brings Top-40 to Buffalo

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


A young program director with a big mouth, big ideas, and a big appetite for promotion rock ‘n’ rolled his way into Buffalo in 1957, and Dick Lawrence permanently etched his taste for music and in-your-face radio into the taste and expectations of Buffalonians.

Even if they came along kicking and screaming. Buffalo’s newspaper radio critics reflected the feelings of most Western New Yorkers past the age of 16, with regards to the new sounds coming out of their radios.

Dick Lawrence

Sturgis Hedrick of the Buffalo Evening News recalled Lawrence on the pages of the paper as “the energetic young man who brought the raucous, jangling—and alas, moderately successful—sound of ‘modern radio’ to Buffalo.”

 The original WBNY Top-40 line-up included Lawrence, who appeared on the air as Felix with his pet parrot Fernando.

“A sound of hoopla and noisy disc jockeys went into full swing night and day,” said the Courier-Express’ Jack Allen. “Most 15-minute newscasts, a tradition at the station, were dropped and Gene Korzelius’ sportscasts were reduced. The fast-paced schedule eventually also did away with the Grosvenor Library Classical Music Show…The top-40 format with the rock ‘n’ roll beat was in to stay.”

The theme is pretty clear. It was also echoed by J. Don Schlaerth.

“Station WBNY, described as ‘the friendly voice of Buffalo’ seems to have given in to the noisy bounce of rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis Presley to ‘keep up with 1957 musical tastes.’ Not long ago semi-classical music and standard favorites predominated on WBNY. Then there was no room for an Elvis.”

Henry Brach was a newsman and deejay at WBNY and as ‘BNY’s news director, gave Danny Neaverth his first job in Buffalo radio. He moved over to KB and spent more than 20 years there as the station’s gruff uncle and the butt of the jokes of untold numbers of disc jockeys.

If you tuned to WBNY in the late 50s, you were likely to hear the voice of Daffy Dan Neaverth, Fred Klestine and Henry Brach. At WBNY, Neaverth would pull a rooftop like event similar to Guy King’s, throwing candy out to passersby. Neaverth, perhaps with his boyish good looks and demeanor, evaded arrest for his stunt.

Daffy Dan Neaverth, WBNY. Neaverth left WBNY for WKBW, inspiring the rath of Dick Lawrence—who made firing Neaverth one of his first acts when he became boss at KB. Neaverth went to work at WGR until returning to 1520 for a 26-year run at the station.

It was fast tempo music, fast tempo talk, fast tempo musical station IDs. It was also the only programming on the station. Rock ‘n’ roll could be heard elsewhere on the dial, but nowhere else was it the only music a station played.

Love it or hate it, the tiny 250-watt station– which could barely be heard outside of the city’s boundaries– was the talk of Western New York.

Other radio stations hated more than radio critics and parents of teens combined.

Four months into Dick Lawrence’s reign at WBNY, WGR announced that it is no longer in the rock ‘n’ roll business.

“Radio station WGR, after taking an impartial music survey among local housewives, has decided to go off the ‘hot’ music path into the relaxing realm of ‘good music,’” reported The Courier-Express. “It will let other Buffalo stations divide the rock ‘n roll spoils.”

The survey named Perry Como as favorite male vocalist followed by Pat Boone and Bing Crosby.

The next day, the paper printed reactions from local radio programmers and called Lawrence’s response “violent.”

“I’ve seen this policy tried before,” Lawrence said. “It doesn’t work and I’ll be a pallbearer at their funeral.”

WGR went to the extreme, but most other stations had some rock music at some point during the day. The only station that didn’t, was WBEN.

“The changing styles in music have never affected the WBEN program policy of providing music, news, drama and public service for all members of the family,” a station official told the Courier-Express.

Other radio stations might not have embraced the music, but after six months, they were beginning to lose revenue. 50,000-watt WKBW Radio was losing to a 250-watt station.

WKBW General Manager Al Anscombe told the Courier-Express that the sound being put out by Dick Lawrence was “slightly wacky” – but the trends were there. KB could die on the vine, or go all in.

And did KB go all in. The station owned by a preacher with call letters standing for “Well-Known Bible Witness” hired away the young programmer and promoter who sent a donkey around downtown Buffalo wearing a sign that said, “Everybody is listening to the new WBNY but me, and you know what I am!”

Lawrence christened KB as Futursonic Radio, rock ‘n’ roll had a new home on Buffalo’s radio dial, and KB would begin a dominance that would last a generation.

Within a year of the change to a Top-40 format on July 4, 1958, WKBW Radio was taking out full-page ads in Buffalo’s newspapers touting their status as Buffalo’s most listened to radio station.

One of the most famous disc jockeys to spin tunes on WBNY only lasted about a month at the station– but would go on to a legendary career in syndicated radio and voice work.

Before he became the voice of “American Top 40” and Shaggy on “Scooby-Doo,” Casey Kasem was “Casey at the Mic” on WBNY in 1960. Shortly before his arrival, he set a record at WJW in Cleveland for what he called “world’s longest on-air kiss,” after laying an 85-second smooch on starlet Diana Trask.

Much later, Kasem would admit to “screwing around too much” during his short time in Buffalo. He’d land in San Francisco, and was well on his way to forever having his feet in the ground while reaching for the stars.

Early group shot of The Even Newer WKBW Futursonic disc jockeys, including Jim Taylor, Ted Hackett, Tom Shannon, Don Keller, Dick Braun, Gene Nelson, Bob Diamond, and Russ Syracuse.

Dick Biondi at a record hop in 1960, just before leaving KB for Chicago.

Dick Biondi was the first nighttime voice of the rock ‘n’ roll era on WKBW.

He referred to himself as “a screamer,” and often told the story about how he was fired from KB because he was too loud. He also claimed to have been fired from KB because he played an Elvis song that wasn’t approved.

What really happened: he told listeners that one of KB’s managers was driving down Main Street in an Impala convertible. “If you see him,” he said, “Throw a rock!”

Someone did—through the boss’ windshield. Maybe he was too loud.

Dan Neaverth, WKBW

Irv Weinstein joined the WKBW Radio news staff in 1958, ultimately becoming the station’s news director. He was responsible for creating a news sound that reflected the music and personalities on the station. He walked across the parking lot to become Ch.7’s news anchor in 1964.

When WNIA officially signed on in 1956, the station was promised to be “as revolutionary to radio as color was to television.”

More than just Top-40, the record library at the Genesee Street studios boasted more than 10-thousand recordings.

But there was still plenty of room for rock ‘n’ roll. From early on, 1230am was “a home for top tunes” as J. Don Schlaerth put it in the pages of the Courier-Express, who wrote, “as a new station with lots of peppy music, the ratings began to jiggle.”

In 1957, Gordon Brown, owner, WNIA, told The Courier-Express, “We play the top 100 tunes half of the time and the old standards the other half of the time. I think people like the sweet popular music as well as rock ‘n’ roll. We’ve had terrific results in the popular music field. We also like to play some soft music to help the housewife work around the house.”

WNIA signed-on in 1956, and doubled its power in 1962.

While the power changed, what didn’t was the disc jockey’s names. For more than two decades, when you turned on the radio in the morning, the deejay identified himself as Tommy Thomas— even though it might have been a different guy with a different voice calling himself Tommy Thomas the day before.

Just like with Guy King at WWOL, station founder Gordon Brown insisted that the disc jockeys at the radio stations he owned use those on-air handles instead of their own.

He felt the stock jock names gave a more consistent sound even as the DJs changed rapidly, it was always Mike Melody and Jerry Jack.

WNIA saw itself as a more staid (and cheaper!) version of WKBW. KB wasn’t mentioned by name in one 1963 ad, but anyone reading it would have known what was being implied.

“As far as wild banshee, screaming announcers, wild nonsense gimmicks and promos… NEVER on WNIA.”

At 1080am, WINE was perhaps the least remembered of the handful of radio stations which tried to break in on the Rhythm music scene in late 1950s Buffalo.

“WXRA has changed their call letters along with their programming,” wrote Danny McBride in his column in the Blasdell Herald in 1957. “The new call is WINE, along with crazy sounds like the new WBNY.”

The WINE call letters didn’t last very long. In 1960, WINE became WYSL at 1080am.

1080am was then sold to WUFO, and the WYSL call letters moved to 1400am, displacing the old WBNY.

Before WXRA became WINE, Tommy Shannon had his first radio job there.

Hernando was the morning man at WXRA, and stayed on at WINE. The mic flag in this photo was edited from saying WXRA to WINE.

Hernando went on to do the all-night show on WGR, after the station “gave up” on giving up rock ‘n’ roll.

Greyt Scott appeared on other Buffalo stations as Charlie Griggs. Tap Taplin had been a regular on WEBR for at least a decade before moving to WINE, and Jimmy Lyons was Buffalo’s first full-time, regularly featured African-American deejay.

The WINE mobile unit—a Volkswagen van—always turning heads.

Disc jockeys joined forces to raise money for charity at a game at the Bishop Timon gym in 1959. Standing: Charlie Griggs (Greyt Scott) WINE, Rog Christian WBNY, Tom Shannon WKBW, Terry Mann WWOL, Dan Neaverth WGR, Danny McBride WEBR, Jack Kelly WKBW, Rick Bennett WWOL. Sitting: Bud Stiker (Jerry Jack) WNIA, Dick Carr WBNY, and Don Fortune WBNY.


This page is an excerpt from  100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon

The full text of the book is now online.

The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.