July 7, 2014
We finally got together on July 7th for what will likely be a multi-part interview. Here are the first two hours or so, in which we talk about how he got his start in radio and the highs and lows of his 50 year radio and television career.
My thanks to Andrew Douglas for giving my interviews an exposure to a wider audience.
Bevboy: How did you get your start in radio?
Ron Roberts: My home town in Cornwall, Ontario. It is right along the Saint Lawrence River, across from Massena, New York.
When I was a kid, people asked me what I wanted to be. Most boys would say, "A fireman, or a policeman." I always said, "I want to be Bert Pearl." He was the host of a Monday through Friday CBC radio show called The Happy Gang. I idolized big Bert Pearl. So, that was the start of it.
I used to sneak in at night and stand in the corner with the lights out and watch the control room operator. I got to know how to operate the controls just by watching.
Somebody would find me and they would throw me out and say, "Don’t come back!" A week later, I would sneak in again. Finally, there was a young woman in the control room. She let me sit down and operate.
I went to the manager of the radio station. He said that they had somebody coming in for a summer replacement, but if they didn’t show up he would consider using me. Thank god that this guy had a job at the paper mill and I got the job. I worked after school and on weekends.
The station used to sign off the air at 11:30 at night. I would pull the plug from the transmitter and pretend I was a disk jockey. The station was owned by the newspaper. Across the alley from the radio station was the newspaper. The guys who had the night shift would come in for their lunch around midnight. They had a little room with a speaker in it. I used to do a radio show, closed-circuit, to them every night. From then on, they gave me some air time.
I worked there for them until I was 16 or so. Then I went to CKSO in Sudbury. I did some operating and announcing there.
Bevboy: What year was this?
RR: I think we’re talking about 1948, 49. In there somewhere.
From there I went to CHSA Sarnia. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
BB: What did you do there?
RR: Operating, and I did some air work. From there I did a stint at CKEY in Toronto as an operator. I worked with some very great talent and picked up a lot of experience from some of the best people in the business. I can actually say that I worked with Lorne Greene, who used to come in every night and read the 7 o’clock news.
I went back to Sarnia and from there to CFRA Ottawa where I did the morning show with Les Lye. I worked at CJAD in Montreal. One time, while I was vacationing back in Ottawa, I went to visit CFRA. The guy said, "Do you still want to be an announcer?" I said, "Yes, I do." He said, "Would you consider coming back and doing the all-night show for us?" So, that was that.
BB: What year was this?
RR: I did the all-night show at CFRA in the early ‘50‘s, then a stint at CJAD. Then, I came here [to Halifax] in the Spring of 1955. The Angus L. Macdonald bridge had just opened about a week or 10 days before.
BB: How did you get the job at CJCH? Who contacted you? Was it Finlay MacDonald?
RR: No. It was a guy by the name of Len Chappell. He’s now in Vancouver if he’s still alive. He was Program Director. He called me up. The strange thing is, like I told you, is that one of my heroes was William B. Williams at WNEW, New York. William B. did the Make Believe Ballroom. It was my ambition to do the Make Believe Ballroom. I always thought, if it was at all possible that I could ever have my own program and do what I wanted, I would want to do the Make Believe Ballroom.
When Chappell phoned up and offered me the job I said, "Oh, by the way. What program would I be doing?" He said, "We want you for the Morning and Evening of The Make Believe Ballroom.
BB: Was that name used across the country for that type of programming? Was it a syndicated name?
RR: Yes. I think it started in WNEW. There was a guy by the name of Martin Block that originated the show. He wrote the theme for it. There was actually a theme that was recorded by ... I think it was Glenn Miller and the Modernaires.
That was a real blessing in disguise for me, that I got to do the Make Believe Ballroom. Then, I did a late evening show from 8-10 every night. It was Light Jazz. It was called The Cloud Club. This was the days before television. They always said that radio was the theatre of the mind. You had to use your imagination.
Now, there was a disc jockey in New York, on WNEW, by the name of Al "Jazzbo" Collins, who did a show from "The Purple Grotto", which was your imagination. He did it in the studio.
Well, instead of going down into the Earth, I went up into the sky. The show was called The Cloud Club. My theme was called "On a Torquoise Cloud", which was a rare piece of music by Duke Ellington. So, I decided that the whole thing would take place aboard an imaginary space craft called The Torquoise Cloud. We would just drift around in the musical heavens and go from place to place. Every once in a while, I would throw the sky hook out and hook it on to a big cloud and drop the microphone down over some club like The Birdland in New York.
I used to phone Birdland and find out who was appearing there. I’d get them on the phone and do an interview with them.
BB: Why would they agree to do an interview with you?
RR: I think they figured, "Halifax, Nova Scotia? Where the hell is that?" I think it was just a novelty to them. I actually called Storyville in Boston one night. Believe it or not, I did an interview with the legendary Billie Holiday. She was very incoherent, mind you. I should have kept the recording.
BB: Let’s try to stick chronologically to your career. I did some research on you recently. You came to CJCH in 1955; however, you were gone by 1957. You became a representative for Decca Records.
RR: I left in ‘57 to go with Decca Records. A guy by the name of Phil Rose, whom I met and became very good friends with when I was working at CJAD in Montreal. Phil Rose was the head of the Coral Records division of Decca. He offered me this job to become the Maritime representative for Decca/Coral/Apex Records.
It was a very good year. I spent a year with them, travelling around the Maritimes. But, this was a time when Debbie Reynolds’ "Tammy" was number one on the Hit Parade. The Everly Brothers had just come out with "Bye-Bye, Love" the day I joined the company [Bevboy note: sometime in March of 1957]. We had all the hits on Brunswick and Apex Records. I made a lot of money that year.
BB: Was your income a function of how well records sold? Was it a sales-based job?
RR: Yes. I would mostly get a percentage of albums and stuff like that, whether I went in and took the order or not.
But, I still did weekends. I never gave up at CJCH. Finlay MacDonald asked me if I would consider doing weekends. I checked with the company and said, "Is it okay? Do you have any objections of me moonlighting, doing Saturday and Sunday?" So, I did a Saturday and Sunday afternoon-into-early-evening thing every week. I called it "Calling All Cars". People were going out for Sunday drives and going to the beach and things like this. It became very popular.
There’s another long story connected with that, too. Not too many people would do this. I was up in Edmundston, New Brunswick on a Friday. I had to go back after dinner and finish the [sales] order. I didn’t get out of there until about 9 o’clock at night. So, I had to drive all the way back to Halifax.
When I got to Fredericton I thought, "I’m going to fall asleep at the wheel." I checked into a hotel in Fredericton, drove my car to the Fredericton airport, flew from Fredericton to Halifax, took a cab from the airport to the radio station, did my shows Saturday and Sunday, took a cab back [to the airport], flew back to Fredericton, got my car and drove back to Halifax, all at my expense. How many people would do that?
BB: You must have loved your job.
RR: No. It was my responsibility. I take responsibility. I did love my job, but I take responsibility.
The other story that goes along with "Calling All Cars": One of the features that I did every hour or so, because it was designed for people driving around, was that I had a singalong. What I used to do was take songs like "If You Knew Susie" and "Row Row Row Your Boat", and take a chorus and splice them all together into 3 or 4 songs. The idea was, "Okay, front seat, back seat, rumble seat. Everybody, sing!" If I didn’t include one [category] I’d get a phone call. "Where’s our sing along?"
I think it was Farmer’s Dairy that actually put out a song book with all these lyrics in it, and distributed it.
I’m in New York City at a recording session with Johnny Mathis and Mitch Miller. I sat there two days on an album [recording session] by Johnny Mathis called "Open Fire, Two Guitars" [Bevboy Note: It was recorded in January of 1959]. It had Al Caiola and Tony Mittola on guitar and Milt Hinton on bass. We went Thursday and back again on Friday. Late Friday, Mitch Miller came to us and said, "We’re not finished recording. We’re running late. You have a choice of leaving and not coming back; leaving and coming back; or leaving with us, having dinner, and coming back." So, we said, "Well, we’ll go have dinner with you!"
We went and had dinner with Mitch Miller and Johnny Mathis. During dinner he asked me something about what radio show I did. I told him all about the sing along. Three months later, the first Mitch Miller Sing Along record came out. [chuckles] The guy made a million dollars on it, and I didn’t get a cent from it.
BB: Did you get a special thanks or anything? Any kind of acknowledgement?
RR: No. No. No!
BB: Of course not. "Sing Along With Mitch". Youtube has an episode of two of "Sing Along With Mitch" on it. It was a really popular show for its day.
RR: Yes. It became a television show. I know, I just know, that that’s where the idea came from.
BB: The phrase "Follow the bouncing ball" comes from that show.
I would have stayed in Halifax, but I always felt you had to make it in the States so I took a job offered me at CKOY in Ottawa in ‘59, primarily so I would be the American embassies, so that I could get a green card.
While I was here in Halifax, I was going with a pretty young girl from Queen Elizabeth High School. I wrote a song that was recorded by Carl Dobkins, Jr.
BB: You did two songs for him. "One Little Girl" and "Exclusively Yours".
RR: "One Little Girl" was a song that I wrote and was lucky enough to have it recorded by Carl Dobkins, Jr. Actually, I think it got as high as number 84 on the Billboard Top 100.
BB: You worked with a guy named Cyril Verge.
RR: Yes. I don’t know if he is still around or not. The last I heard of him, he was in out Sackville way somewhere. I tried to get in touch with him and wasn’t able to.
BB: From what I gather, Carl Dobkins, Jr. was a pretty popular guy in the late ‘60‘s.
RR: Well, he had a big hit with "Look! Look! My Heart Is An Open Book!" It was his first big hit. And this was a follow up to it. It automatically got a lot of air play.
BB: How did he even know about this song?
RR: Cyril took it to New York and met a contact, a friend of mine by the name of Ray Rivera. That’s his picture with Billie Holiday. [points to the wall] Ray is a brilliant songwriter and musician and knows everybody. So, Ray lined up a publisher. The guy took the song; it was him that got it [to Carl Dobkins, Jr.].
But, the funny thing is that, when I was in Ottawa, I thought that I would get the first copy of it. Some guy came into the radio station and said, "I just heard your song on WSTS, Massena, New York. So, I phoned them [and confirmed it]. That weekend I went down to Cornwall. My sister and cousin drove me over the bridge to Massena, just on the other side of the river. I went into the radio station. I just wanted to hear it.
The manager of the radio station offered me a job. I looked around: it was a very, very small station, sun up to sundown. There are a lot of stories I could tell you about later. So, I said, "I don’t think so."
When I came back up, I phoned my sister. She said, "Well, why didn’t you take the job?" Then I thought, "Hold it. I’m trying to get a green card." You can’t get a green card until you have a job in the States. So, I went back and said, "Is it still open?" He said yes. I said, "I changed my mind. I’ll take it. Write a letter saying I’m the most qualified blah blah blah." I enter the U.S. of A on May 12, 1960. My birthday. I got a green card for my birthday!
BB: Good for you!
RR: I stayed there until about the end of the year. Just prior to Christmas, Now, in the United States, a foreigner is not allowed to take transmitter readings.
BB: In case you’re a spy or something?
RR: Yeah. We could take over the country. There was one other Canadian there. We didn’t have somebody doing the readings, so the FCC came in and said, "He and him: If they’re not out of here by 5 o’clock tonight, this station is off the air forever." So, we had no other choice. But the manager of the radio station called ahead to a station in Massena, New York. They said, "If you can be here to go on the air at 8 o’clock tonight, you have the job." That was it.
It was at WOLF radio. I was a Wolf Man. It was great. When I went there, it was way down in the ratings. There was like 12 other radio stations in town that were smothering us. Me and another Canadian got that station up to number one in the area. It wasn’t a Top 40 station. Believe it or not, we didn’t play Top 40 records. We played Top 20. Twenty records, over and over and over. It was "News, Live at 55!" At the top of the hour, you came out of the news and, every hour on the hour, played the number one song of the day. If I ever hear it again, it will be too soon. Two records I absolutely hate with a passion are: "My Little Runaway" by Del Shannon, and the other one is "Ding! Cuz I Love Him. Johnny Angel" [by Shelley Fabares]. But, it was so much fun.
We had a great big huge room that had 20 incoming lines. People were on the phone all the time. I had a crew of 3 girls and a guy doing nothing but answering the phones. The guy did my transmitter readings for me, so I didn’t have to touch the transmitter.
This is a long story. But he would come to all my record hops and teach the kids new dances. He was a terrific artist. Some guy came on my show one night as a soothsayer. He told me one thing I found hard to believe. I had a map on the wall over the headboard of my bedroom. Every time I deposited a hundred bucks in the bank, I would draw a line toward the West Coast because my goal was to get to California. He told me, "I can see a graph. You will get to California, but you have to go to ..." what’s the state above it?
Patricia: Nevada’s over to the right. Is it Washington? [Bevboy Note: Silly us! It is Oregon]
RR: I can’t remember what exactly it was. But, when I went out to California I knocked on a lot of doors. I gave up. The day before I was ready to come back, I got a call from a station in this state telling me I could have a job.
Getting back to the guy who was answering the phones for me. His name was Terry Noel Pakawski. "Noel", because he was born on Christmas Day. He was a fabulous, fabulous artist. He had planned on going to the Pratt Institute in New Jersey. Terry wanted to go to New York. He had already paid his tuition to go to the Pratt Institute but this guy [the soothsayer] that he would never get there. He would end up on the stage. Terry laughed at him.
Well, on Labour Day weekend, Terry went down to New York City to look for an apartment. While he was walking along Broadway, he looked down 52nd Street and saw a big sign over a club called The Wagon Wheel: "Enter the New York City twist contest and win 500 dollars", or whatever it was. Terry entered the contest and won. The club next door to the Wagon Wheel was the Peppermint Lounge. They hired him, and he became the head choreographer at the Peppermint Lounge. He taught Chubby Checker how to dance The Twist. He never, ever did go to the Pratt Institute. He ended up dancing on the stage at Carnegie Hall and everything. To me, that is incredible because this guy actually predicted all these things.
BB: Oh, my gosh. So, what year are we up to now?
RR: WOLF was 1961. Then, I came back to Halifax.
BB: Let’s talk about that. Was it CFDR this time?
RR: No. CJCH. When I left, Sandy Hoyt replaced me. I had never met Sandy. Sandy had never met me. But, we had heard so much about each other. When Sandy left here to go to Chatham he purposely made a point of driving through the States so that he could stop in Syracuse to meet me. We became close friends. Then, I came back and replaced him. I took over the show that he took over from me. I eventually took over his show, "Under 21".
BB: This is 1961.
RR: They brought me back. Finlay MacDonald asked me to come back. They were having a lot of problems in radio at the time because TV had just signed on. Apparently they devoted so much time and money and effort into getting the television station on the go that they neglected the radio. I think that was one of the reasons why they wanted me to come back.
BB: CJCH Television, right?
RR: Yes. Anyway, radio was in trouble so Finlay MacDonald brought in a manager. He also hired his manager. I don’t know how to put this, but the manager had full control. He was from Cornwall at the station there, although I had never met him before. He had his own friend there. I don’t know how to put this lightly and politely, but they used to go out whoring and touring and drinking together. He wanted this guy to come in. I was immediately fired. I would own the station if it was today. He called me and said, "I want you to come in right away." I said, "I just got home." He said, "Come back".
I walked in his office and said, "What is it?" He said, "You’re fired." I said, "Oh, what did I do?" He said, "You didn’t do anything." I said, "Why am I fired?" He said, "Because I said so." I said, "You must have a reason!" He said, "I don’t have to have a reason."
I walked out of his office and down the hallway. I saw the guy that replaced me coming towards me. I knew who he was. I broke the little bastard into radio.
BB: What was his name?
RR: Dave LaFave.
BB: I’ve heard the name before.
RR: So, that’s what that was all about. They were buddies.
BB: How did you feel about Dave LaFave after that?
RR: I have no idea, and I don’t care.
BB: You never wanted to be his friend after that.
RR: No. But, after that, I was so fed up that I got out of radio. I worked at Chatham for a little while, which I really didn’t like. I worked at CKKW in Kitchener, Ontario. I did an evening show. I really liked that, but again, I always planned on going to the U.S. So, I sold my car and all my furniture and went out to California in 1966. I stayed there for about six months. I lived right in downtown Hollywood one block up and one block over from Sunset and Vine, at the Halifax Apartments Hotel. Guess why I chose that place!
I was told later that I stayed in the same apartment as Nelson Riddle when he was a member of the Tommy Dorsey Band, when they used to play at the Hollywood Palladium. They’d play there for a week or two weeks at a time. I know they stayed there.
I was looking for work. I would go around to the different stations. But, I have to tell you that my middle name is Clark. I tell people my middle name is Clark because I’m named after Superman. Actually, I can honestly say that I used to have breakfast every morning with Superman. And, I dated Superman’s daughter. Two different Superman’s.
I never did get a job in California.
I came back and worked in a restaurant for a long time. I worked as a cook at a restaurant in Ingleside, Ontario, which is just outside of Cornwall, for one summer. I worked as an announcer at Zellers in Cornwall, doing PA work.
I’m maybe jumping ahead. All I wanted was a paid vacation. I loved Halifax. I thought, "Wouldn’t it be nice to go back and spend the summer?" I heard rumours to the effect that CFDR was going to be going 24 hours a day. I thought, "Gee, I could do the all night show, get a couple hours of sleep, and then I’d have all day to do what I wanted like go to the beach or go to Chester or whatever.
I ended up doing it a year and a half. I told Arnie Patterson that if he hired me, I would do July, August, and September. But, come the 30th of September, I was gone. Don’t expect me to stay any longer. I stayed a year and a half. It just got to be too much for me. I found it very hard sleeping in the day time. In the Winter time, there was no sunlight. I’d come home in the dark. I’d get up in the dark. And, in the Summer time, with the windows open and the kids home from school, it was hard to get any sleep, what with all that noise and the heat. I had to give it up.
After that, I just went freelancing, doing commercials and writing jingles and everything.
BB: I heard that when you did that overnight show at CFDR you would call some friends. You called Mr. Sinatra. You called Bobby Darin.
RR: I called Frankie Laine and sang Happy Birthday to him over the phone. I didn’t know where he was. I called his home. He was living in Southern California. I used to get a Christmas card every year from him. The card every year had a picture of him, his wife, and his two beautiful daughters. I called. His wife said that he was appearing at some club in Las Vegas. She gave me his room number. I woke him up and sang Happy Birthday to him. We talked for a long time.
The other one was when Bobby Darin checked into the Nova Scotian hotel here on his way down to Mahone Bay for a movie that he was making. He called me. I was leaving the next day for New York. I had planned to look him up in New York. He was making a movie in Mahone Bay called "Happy Mother’s Day Love George", I think it was. [Bevboy note: Yep. And it was his final film. Directed by Darrin McGavin and co-starring Cloris Leachman and Ron Howard. The film is also known as "Run, Stranger, Run"]
BB: What year was this?
RR: 1970, 71.
BB: He died in 1973.
RR: I went down to New York for one of his very last performances. He invited me to Opening Night at the Copacabana. That would be his second last appearance. He died within a year after that, I think.
BB: Bobby Darin did a variety show a year or so before he died. He knew he was not doing well. I read that during that show and maybe when you saw him at the Copacabana, that he would have to take oxygen back stage.
RR: When I was working at WSDS in Massena I heard that he was appearing at the Three Rivers Inn, which is just outside of Syracuse. When I worked at WOLF I used to go there all the time. I met Neil Sedaka. I had dinner with Jaye P. Morgan.
BB: Your girlfriend.
RR: Anyway, I drove from Massena to see him at the Three Rivers Inn. After the show the guy said, "You’ll have to wait to go upstairs to the dressing room." I waited a considerable amount of time. When I did go up, he was sitting there in his shorts with a towel around him. And, I saw all these great big tanks. At the time, I thought, "Oh, they’re probably used to fill balloons for the chorus girls or if somebody’s having a birthday." I later learned that, oh, my god, they were for him. He would just have to go and suck oxygen afterward.
BB: Even during an intermission or whatever?
RR: You would never know because he just gave everything he had. I guess it just took the heart out of him.
BB: He did a TV show before he died. "Bobby Darin and Friends" I think it was called. There were times when you could almost tell when he wasn’t well.
RR: Well, they said that if you watched his hands, they were [trembling.] I don’t know if I told you, but I have a card here from him somewhere. We went to Reuben’s in New York afterwards for drinks and sandwiches with his wife and his mother or sister. You know that story [Bevboy note: When he was 32, Darin found out that the woman he thought to be his older sister, Nina, was actually his mother. He had been brought up by his grandparents, pretending to be his parents.] My friend Harriet Wasser was there. She was his publicity agent. Harriet was always very good to me. We walked him back to his hotel afterwards. I said, "Bobby, you’re so thin. I wish I could give you some of my excess weight." He said, "Well, thanks for the offer, but my doctor wants me to lose another 7 pounds." I said, "Oh, my god. If you lost another 7 pounds, we’d never see you."
BB: What was his ailment?
RR: I think he was born with something wrong with his heart. I believe he had rheumatic fever when he was a kid. But it was predicted that he wouldn’t make it past 18 or 19. And he was, what, 37 or 38?
BB: And he died on the operating table.
RR: Yes. It was a very, very sad day.
BB: Okay. We are up to about the mid-70‘s at this point, Mr. Roberts. I wonder what happened in your career at that point? We’ll keep going until the point where you retired from broadcasting.
RR: All right. When I left CFDR I worked with Clary Flemming, doing copy writing and voice overs.
BB: For Sobeys?
RR: He did Sobeys. I did IGA and Foodland and then Lawton’s Drugs. Then I went and sold and wrote jingles with Charlie Doucette. Do you know the jingle to Casino Taxi? Charlie Doucette wrote that. I wrote quite a few jingles. I did an IGA jingle in the style of Count Basie. My favourite was for ... I think it was Lockwood Windows. Do you know Clary Croft?
BB: Of course.
RR: He did it à la Johnny Mathis. It was a very nice, soft commercial. I wrote, "Windows. Looking out to find where time goes. Noticing that early Spring becomes December’s cozy glow, when Jack Frost nips the tips of shiny noses, pussy cats, mailmen and roses. " We wrote songs. We didn’t write jingles.
BB: Do you remember that song, Patricia?
P: I think I do. The part about the nippy noses.
RR: "There’s a view for you both sides. Whichever scene that you decide through windows, windows looking out on life." Well, I’m very proud to say that I wrote that. Clary Croft did a beautiful job of it.
BB: Okay. That was ‘70‘s voice over work?
RR: And through the ‘80‘s as well. I did a lot of travelling, from the time [I left] CFDR and on through the ‘70‘s and ‘80‘s. My first trip to Europe was ... I forget which year. I drove through Spain and met a lot of wonderful people.
I was sitting one time in a pub in England that dates back to 877 or something. The ceilings in those days were very low. They had this great big huge fireplace; it was set back. You could walk in to the fireplace. On the edge was a little seat. So, I’m sitting there. This woman recognized my voice. She said, "You’re from Nova Scotia." I said, "Yes." She said, "You’re on the radio." I said, "Yes. How do you know that?" She said, "I’m from Liverpool. I recognize your voice."
I’ve never gone anywhere where I haven’t met somebody that I know or who knows me. I was standing out in front of No. 10 Downing Street in London. Every time I would see somebody with a maple leaf swatch on their coat or whatever, I’d say, "Hi, Canada. Where are you from?" I tapped this guy on the shoulder and said, "Ha! I know you!" He went, "I know you, too!" I said, "How do I know you?" He said, "I’m your mother’s hairdresser. You’re from Cornwall. You used to have a little white poodle."
BB: And after a while, you had a pink poodle.
RR: Yes. I had a pink poodle, and a pink convertible. I was going to wear it at my 80th birthday party, but I didn’t get a chance to. I wore it at my 81st birthday party. It’s my pink dinner jacket.
BB: You look like Colonel Sanders.
P: What was the name of the pink poodle?
RR: Nanette. Travelled with me everywhere. Came to work with me. Travelled across North America with me. Didn’t go to Europe.
BB: Why would you have a pink poodle?
RR: Well, she was white.
BB: I figured that.
RR: I would dye her occasionally. It was just food colouring; it didn’t hurt her. At Easter time I would dye her mauve or purple. I had a Buick convertible. It was a beautiful, beautiful car.
BB: When you bought the car, was it pink to begin with?
BB: You deliberately bought a pink car?
RR: I had a pink Buick convertible. It was pink with a black sweep down the front. When I bought it, I was told that it was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sunday. Like I can believe that. I bought it when I worked in Messena, and kept it and drove it back here. It was a 1957 Buick. I had it well on into the ‘60‘s. It served me well.
BB: It did. So, at what point did you retire from broadcasting?
RR: In radio?
BB: Or television.
RR: Well, after I left CFDR I just went into advertising.
BB:I realize. But were you ever back in radio for a career after that?
BB: You were done? This was what year, then?
RR: No. I’m sorry. I was the first voice heard on C100.
BB: In 1978?
RR: ‘78. ‘79. Something like that.
BB: I think they went on the air in 1978.
RR: They played an entirely different format. We played Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra mixed in with some of the contemporary artists. But it was nothing like it was now.
BB: Did you have an on air job at C100?
RR: Yes. I had the best shift of all. I used to go on the air from 2-7. It meant I could sleep in in the morning and go out at night. George Jordan did the morning show and decided that he was going to go to CBC. So, they came and asked me if I would do the morning show. I said, "I can’t do the morning show because there is no public transportation and I ain’t buying a car." They said, "We know that, and we’re willing to supply transportation for you. We will pay your cab fare in to work every morning, but not home." I said, "That’s fair enough."
I used to have to get up at 3:15 to be to work for 4:30, 5 o’clock. You had to pre-select all your music. Don’t play the red ones if they’re marked red. The coding was just ridiculous. Anyway, at the end of the month, I get a bill for my cab fare. I went and said, "I thought you said that you were paying my cab fare." They said, "Oh, we gave you a raise that would more-or-less cover it." I said, "That is not the deal." They said, "Well, we gave you a big enough raise that it will cover your cab fare." They were supposed to have signed the contract. They never did. So, I quit right in the middle of my shift. I just walked out.
I don’t know if you want to put that stuff in.
BB: Of course I do. I love this stuff. So, how long were you at C100?
RR: I signed on the air I think early-to-mid October to early November. I remember that I got a bottle of Napoleon brandy or something from them for Christmas. I probably worked through the afternoon shift for the better part of a year, I suppose. Then, George Jordan went to CBC. I really didn’t like getting up that early. It was so hard because I’d have to go to bed at 6 o’clock. You can’t eat a big meal and go to bed. The reason I got up at 3:15 in the morning was to have my dinner. I would get up at 3:15 and have lamb chops and home fries. At lunch hour, I would have a sandwich. And, at supper time, I’d have a bowl of cereal and go to bed. It was terrible.
BB: And, about a month in to the morning shift, you quit, half way through a show.
RR: I guess I finished the shift. The funny thing was, Paul Ski called me in his office and said, "Well, you know, Ron, if you want to make it in this business, you have to pay your dues!" I looked at him and said, "Listen, you little shit! I worked in this station before you were born. I paid my dues in this radio station 50 years ago. That was the worst thing he could have said to me.
BB: That’s hysterical. "You have to pay your dues!" What an insult. What’s he up to now?
RR: I have no idea.
BB: I loved that last story. Was that your last radio job? At C100, when you quit after a show over cab fare.
RR: No. That was the end. I just did work for Clary and sold jingles after that.
BB: At what point did you stop broadcasting for a living, even writing jingles and working for Clary Flemming?
RR: When I became 65.
BB: That was 16 years ago. You worked until... 1998?
RR: Yes. I am just relaxing and enjoying it. I wish I could get out a little more. I’m hoping to buy a scooter.
When I worked at CHOK in Sarnia, it being only 50 miles from Detroit, they used to get a lot of the big bands. I’m a Big Band fan. They’d come up to Sarnia. Right in the very centre of town was a place called Kenwick Terrace. Upstairs there was a huge ballroom.
I got to do these remote broadcasts with all these big name Big Bands. I did radio remotes with Vaughn Monroe, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. That’s why I do the big bands here. People say, "How do you know all that stuff?" I say, "I worked with these guys."
BB: Am I getting confused? Was it Count Basie who wrote a song for someone who lived in Africville?
RR: Duke Ellington. The story is that it was apparently an aunt of Bucky Adams’, related to his mother’s sister or something. When Duke Ellington would come to town -- and he was here often during the War -- he would always spend time in Africville. One of his most popular songs was called "Sophisticated Lady". Bucky Claims that that was written for her, his aunt. It’s quite possible, too.
BB: Why did Duke Ellington have felt an affiliation with Africville? I realize he was black. Did he have extended family there?
RR: No. He just liked people. Duke Ellington was very, very religious. He had the theory that you don’t cut your hair. He used to let his hair grow for a while into a pony tail.
I’ll tell you my favourite Duke Ellington story. I used to use this theme called "The Turquoise Cloud". On the same album, there was a song called "Lady of the Lavender Mist." It’s a very hard song for anybody to hum because it’s all in the voicing of the instruments he used.
Duke Ellington’s band played The Lobster Trap. It was in the basement of what is the Trademart Centre is now. He was there for a week. Peter Power is my longest and oldest dearest friend. He was the President of the Musician’s Union. He’s the first outsider I ever met when I first came to Halifax.
He took me backstage to meet Duke Ellington. At the time he was very, very old and not very well. I said, "Does a guy get to make a request?" He said, "Yes. What would you like to hear?" I said, "Could you do ‘Lady of the Lavender Mist’?" He said, "How does it go?" I thought, "Is he putting me on? There’s no way I’m going to stand here in front of this genius and try to hum this melody to him!" So, for years after, I thought, "The guy just wanted to see if I had balls enough to try to do the song!"
I mentioned it to Mercer Ellington, his son, one time. He said, "No. I don’t think Dad would do that. He just wrote so many songs. I think he forgot about how it goes." I wondered about that. And years and years later, I’m reading this article in the Globe and Mail where Oscar Peterson is sitting in this club after hours, waiting for Duke Ellington to come to meet him. He’s sitting at the piano playing. Duke walks in and says to him, "Gee, Oscar. That’s a beautiful song you’re playing. Did you write that?" And Oscar says, "No, Duke. You did." And Duke says, "Oh, I did? What’s the name of it?" Oscar says, "It’s called ‘Lady of the Lavender Mist’." I thought it was amazing that he really didn’t know.
BB: When did Portia White live?
RR: She’s from Halifax. I think she’s from Africville. I remember someone called me one night while I was doing the Cloud Club in my early years and asked me if I would play something by her. I hadn’t heard of her. They told me who she was. I finally met... I guess it would be her brother: Lorne White. He was the principal for a while at Bloomdale School.
She went on to Broadway and to perform at Carnegie Hall. She became very famous. I’m not that familiar with her, but I remember that.
Do you know a group called The Bells? Jackie and Anne Ralph.
BB: "Stay Awhile"?
RR: Yes. They appeared at Zapata’s ...
BB: That was in the CBC building, right?
RR: Right. The whole gang came up to my apartment when I lived in Fairview. I cooked dinner for them.
BB: "Into my room he creeps, without making a sound."
RR: "It’s a moody Manitoba morning."
I have to tell you some cute stories about WSDS in Massena. I told you that when I looked at the place that I didn’t want the job. The station was in the basement of Slavens’ Furniture Store. The whole stations, offices and studio included, were smaller than this apartment.
There was a door into the basement that they kept bolted on their side so they couldn’t come in. We would have to wait until after 9 o’clock in the morning if they remembered to come down, and unbolt their door so we could go in and use their washroom. There were no washroom facilities in the radio station. It was that bad.
"El Paso", by Marty Robbins, was a 10-12 minute record. If you heard that, you knew. We had to come out the door of the radio station, up a fire escape, and around the corner of a restaurant and hope to god nobody was in there when we got there. We’d use the restroom and run back. I don’t know if you want to print this.
BB: Of course I want to print this!
RR: [shows us a picture of Julius La Rosa]
BB: Julius La Rosa? He’s the guy who was fired by Arthur Godfrey, live on the radio. Let’s talk about Julius La Rosa for a minute. He became more popular than Godfrey. For whatever reason...
RR: The story I got was that Arthur Godfrey, who was a bit of an egomaniac, apparently fired Julius La Rosa because he was getting more fan mail than Arthur.
BB: He literally fired him on the air.
RR: On the air. I was a big fan of La Rosa’s because he, next to Frank Sinatra, his phrasing is better than any singer going.
I have satellite radio here. Even on the Sinatra channel, they don’t play very much Julius La Rosa. But he never recorded very much. I only have one album by him, I think. He became a disc jockey on WNEW.
BB: Did you ever meet Arthur Godfrey?
RR: No, but he was here at the Forum. He did the Winter Fair here at the Forum. I can’t remember what year it was. He was the host and emcee for The Winter Fair. He was into breeding horses or something. He had one of his horses here.
BB: That’s behind the old Forum, right?
BB: Across from the Superstore on Young Street, there is a strip mall. Behind that, where the post office is...
RR: No. The actual forum. Where the rink was.
BB: What I meant was, where the post office is now, that is where they used to race horses.
RR: I don’t know about that. I think they used to race horses on the Commons in the Wintertime.
BB: Plus Sackville Downs?
RR: Before Sackville Downs.
BB: Sorry for the off topic stuff. So, Arthur Godfrey was in Halifax.
RR: Arthur Godfrey would be in Halifax probably in the ‘70‘s, because I think I was at CFDR then.
BB: Arthur Godfrey was one of the most influential radio people ever. And today, people don’t remember who he was.
RR: I’m not sure. This is what I’ve heard. I think, not only because Julius La Rosa was getting more fan mail than he was, but I think also on that show was the McGuire Sisters. Arthur had the hots for Phyllis. I think he thought that Julius La Rosa was trying to move in on him or something.
BB: Another thing about Arthur Godfrey is that as a boy he was very sick. His companion was the radio. He always thought, while listening to the radio, that people were missing an opportunity because disc jockeys would always say, "Hello, everyone!" He thought, "That’s stupid. Why don’t you just talk as if you were speaking to that one person?"
RR: Well, I always agreed with him on that. When I first came to Halifax, back when I did the evening show I told you about, The Cloud Club, I did my own operating. When we did The Make Believe Ballroom, I had an operator. I was in the studio, and the guy spun the records for me. When I did The Cloud Club at night, I spun my own records. I would turn the light out in the studio on the other side. It made a reflection on the glass. And I talked to that "person". I spoke to that person, whom I saw in the glass in front of me. I always thought that you’re talking one-on-one. I always felt that radio was a one-on-one [medium].
BB: Okay. Any more stories? I love these old names. How about Mario Lanza?
RR: I never met him. I never was a fan.
P: I just lost some respect for you, sir!
RR: Well, I’m sorry. But I don’t like tenor voices. I like deep, deep voices. I love baritones. I was never a big Mario Lanza fan. I thought he used to force too much. I find that’s the trouble now with all these girl singers coming out. They scream. I think it started with Aretha Franklin.
I’m more into people like Julie London and Peggy Lee.
BB: How about Diana Krall?
RR: Oh, I like her very much.
P: Okay. I’ve gained a little respect.
RR: She’s very talented.
A lot of people think that it was the Righteous Brothers who first did "Unchained Melody". The first recording, a big hit, of "Unchained Melody" was by Al Hibbler. He was a blind singer with Duke Ellington’s band. He came here to Halifax to do a show at the Forum, which I MC’d. The opening act was a very young comedian/impersonator by the name of Rich Little.
They came back to my place after for a party. When you come off the Bedford highway, around the corner on to Joe Howe, that red brick building with the wooden top, that was my place. My friends had moved out to California. I had the apartment there. But I had no furniture whatsoever: I had just moved in. I invited them back to my place for drinks and sandwiches, but we all sat on the floor. Rich Little is telling, in voice, some of the dirtiest jokes you could never tell on air.
Before we went on stage at the Forum, I asked Al Hibbler if he would take requests. I said, "My favourite Al Hibbler song is ‘It Shouldn’t Happen To A Dream’." We’re all sitting on the floor with our backs against the wall. He’s blind. I said, "I am mad at you. You didn’t sing my song!" He said, "I’m sorry. I forgot all about it. I’ll do it now. Do you have a piano?" I said, "Do I have a piano? I don’t even have any frigging furniture! Why do you think you’re sitting on the floor?" He said, "That’s ok. I’ll do it anyway." And it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. He put his hand up to his ear and leaned right into my face and started singing. It was magic: Al Hibbard, singing right to me in my place like that.
BB: You’ve had an interesting life. We have to leave soon. Can we schedule you again for another batch of stories?
RR: Yes. Can I tell you one more story?
BB: Please do.
RR: I can actually say I appeared on the Broadway stage, in the production "Hair". I thank god I kept all my clothes on, too. I think this was at the time I went to New York for Bobby Darin. Beverly Bremers had a hit record at the time called "Don’t Say You Don’t Remember". She was in "Hair". She said, "Have you’ve seen the show?" I said, "No. I was going to see it in Montreal but they closed it down because of the kidnapping and shooting of the politician.
BB: The October Crisis?
RR: Yes. It was during that time. Anyway, she said, "You’re going to come and see me in my show." I had a tape recorder and camera, which you’re not allowed to take into the theatre. I said, "What do I do with these?" She said, "Give them to me. I’ll lock them in my dressing room." I said, "How do I get them afterward? Do I go around to the stage door or something?" She said, "No, no. You’ll be up on stage with me." I said, "No, no." She said, "If you’re coming to see me in my show, that’s the price you have to pay." That’s what they did. They used to go down in the audience and get people to come up on the stage.
So, at the end, she comes down and gets me. I’m up on the stage, standing there, have my arm around this beautiful young girl. I’m singing, "Let the sun shine in". I hear a voice behind me saying, "Oh, my god! Look! It’s Ron Roberts from Halifax!" It was my friend Warren Chiasson, who was in the band. I was responsible for getting Warren Chiasson the audition with the famous George Shearing Quintet. When people ask me, "Is it true you got Warren Chiasson the job with George Shearing?", I say, "No. I got him the audition. He got the job." He played with George Shearing for five years or more.
BB: I could listen to these stories all night. I wish I could.
RR: When I worked at WOLF, the 8-midnight shift, the guy I followed was Marv Albert.
BB: Oh, my god. He’s the one who had that scandal several years ago.
RR: I never knew, but he was a nice guy. My pink Buick? The only guy I would ever loan my car to was Marv Albert.
BB: But did you?
RR: Yes. One night, Terry (the guy that ended up on stage at the Peppermint Lounge) and I are out driving around in his Corvette. We spot Marv Albert’s car that he had loaned to somebody else. So I said, "Let’s get Marv." We went toward the vehicle and made sounds like a police car. The joke was on us.
BB: I’m trying to remember what it was Marv Albert did. What was his thing that got him in trouble.
RR: I think he was cross dressing or something. I don’t know. Maybe he was just getting ready for Hallowe’en. I never ever expected that from him. I just have the greatest deal of respect for him. I thought he was one hell of a nice guy and a good broadcaster.
BB: The last question tonight. There was a DJ at CJCH in the late 1940‘s, up until 1950. You mentioned you knew of him. But, do you know anything about Norm Riley? After he left CJCH be became the manager for Hank Snow for about a year.
RR: I understand that he was very, very popular. I believe he had a record store on Spring Garden Road for a while. I understand that somehow he used to get first-run movies because I remember people telling me he’d invite them over for movies that hadn’t even been to the theatre yet.
BB: He managed at least one movie theatre.
RR: I don’t know if he was an American or not.
BB: He was an American, yes. When he left CJCH [in October of 1950], Finlay MacDonald wrote him a letter of reference that was published in Billboard, I think it was. It said that Norm Riley had worked had worked here, had excellent ratings, and by the way, he’s an American.
RR: I knew he was popular. Everybody talked to him. I think he did an evening show. I’m not sure.
BB: "The Penthouse Party".
RR: I never did meet him. But, I think he came back to Halifax one time and came through the station briefly. Somebody said, "That’s Norm Riley."
BB: I have a picture of early CJCH broadcasters with a guy named Joe King...
RR: Oh! I love Joe King!
BB: Joe King died last year. I think it was last October.
RR: I have nothing but a great deal of respect for the man. I liked him a lot.
BB: There is this picture of early CJ broadcasters like Don Loughnane, Norm Riley, and even Clive Schaefer. He was at CJCH for a brief time as well.
RR: I didn’t know that. Clive told me that he worked at CJCH before he went to CHNS.
BB: He went to CHNS in 1949.
RR: When I lived in Fairview, Clive lived just around the corner from me. He would pick me up every Tuesday night and drive me over to the Bedford Institute for the rehearsals for the Tuesday night band. That’s the band I was MC’ing.
BB: Was that on his motorcycle?
RR: No. But I guess he used his motorcyle right up until he finished working at CHNS.
BB: That was 1993 then. But in this picture Joe King, who was working for the Canadian Press, was showing these early CJ broadcasters what was going on at the CP. I’m not sure what happened after that, but he eventually moved to Ottawa and died in 2013.
I was just wondering what you had heard about Norm Riley because there are a lot of negative stories about him.
RR: I heard a lot of different things. I can’t even remember them. It may have been his connections to the U.S., but somebody said he would get records to play on air before they were ever released in Canada. I guess that was part of his popularity.
I have one or two things in common with Sinatra. We have both been kissed by Marilyn Maxwell and Juliet Prowse. Him, on the lips. Me, just on the cheek. But, a kiss is still a kiss.
When I worked at CKEY, Marilyn Maxwell was appearing at the Casino Theatre. She came in to the control room and planted one on me. And, I was backstage at Las Vegas to interview Rich Little. Juliet Prowse was the opening act. She was off stage and talking to me and gave me a big kiss on the cheek before she left. Beautiful girl.
Patricia and I took our leave at this point. It was getting late. We have yet to schedule another sit down with Ron Roberts, but it will happen. I hope that you have enjoyed my conversation with Ron Roberts. I regularly interview radio personalities for Bevboy’s Blog, so check them out. And, maybe, if you ask Andrew Douglas nicely enough, you will see another interview from me in the pages of Frank Magazine.