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Don Dillard, 74,

Obituary: Don Dillard, 74; DJ Championed Rock-and-Roll in D.C.

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Don Dillard, 74, a freewheeling disc jockey who helped introduce rock-and-roll to the Washington area from his tiny Wheaton station, died May 28 at his home in Annapolis after an apparent heart attack.

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Starting in the mid-1950s, Mr. Dillard and TV dance show host Milt Grant were dominant players in the effort to bring rock to local audiences at a time when the non-threatening pop of singers Doris Day and Frankie Laine prevailed on the dial.

Many radio stations were cautious about playing too much rock at that transitional moment before rock's ascendancy, and so they interspersed Elvis Presley or Little Richard with Pat Boone, Eydie Gormé and Andy Williams. Mr. Dillard is not remembered as approaching his craft gingerly.

On WDON-AM, Mr. Dillard enjoyed rare freedom to broadcast whatever he liked: rock-and-roll, rockabilly, black and white doo-wop, and rhythm-and blues. He was under no commercial pressure from the station's owner, who happened to be his father, an entrepreneur who also owned WASH-FM and a network of 52 other radio stations in the Mid-Atlantic region.

"His father gift-wrapped the station, plunked it on his lap and said, 'Here you go,' " said Joe Lee, longtime owner of Joe's Record Paradise in Rockville. The station's call letters were chosen in Don Dillard's honor.

Lee, 61, who was raised in the Washington area, called WDON under Mr. Dillard the "greatest rock-and-roll station" of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Writing in the American Spectator magazine in 1999, actor, economist and lawyer Ben Stein, who grew up in Silver Spring, recalled: "Don Dillard was spinning the greatest songs of the era nonstop. . . . Yes, even when I awakened in the morning, Don was playing 'Get a Job' or 'House of Blue Lights.' When I got home from school, Don was playing 'Too Much' or 'Mister Blue.'

"If listeners called in to complain about Don Dillard playing rock music in the morning, Don had a few words for them. 'I'm going to play what I like. And if you don't like what I like, just turn the dial a little bit in either direction -- and we're gone!' Never before or since have I heard such perfect insouciant self-confidence about a man's choices or how well he knew he fit into his world."

Donald Everett Dillard was born Feb. 8, 1935, in Kansas City, Mo., and was raised in Silver Spring. His father, Everett, owned the Washington-based Continental FM Network in addition to WASH-FM and WDON.

After graduating from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Don Dillard attended the University of Maryland, served in the Air Force and played for an American Legion-sponsored baseball team. He also began working as a DJ and as an emcee at "sock hop" dances at the Silver Spring Armory, Glen Echo Park and other venues.

Barry Richards, who became a prominent Washington DJ and music promoter, said he inadvertently got his start on the radio through Mr. Dillard. Richards said that as a young hitchhiker, he fled from the police and ran into the WDON studios for sanctuary. Asking nothing, Mr. Dillard hid Richards under the turntables.

"That was the first time I met the guy," Richards said in an interview last week. "I became his flunky. I answered the phone. I swept the studio. He eventually started to pay me to carry and play his records" at sock hops.

By the mid 1960s, Mr. Dillard's low-powered station, at 1540 AM, could not compete with the "Top-40" format that many AM and FM stations had adopted. "He could not fight 'em and went country," Richards said. "He played hillbilly for a hot minute and did not like it."

After his father sold WDON in the mid-1970s, Mr. Dillard spent 20 years as a distributor of Baltimore newspapers.

His marriages to the former Jean Verano and Jeanine Crawford ended in divorce. A son from his second marriage, Michael Dillard, died of cystic fibrosis as a young man.

Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Martha Schley Dillard of Annapolis; three children from his first marriage, Donald Dillard II of Ellicott City, Christie Lister of Middle River, Md., and Jana Mayberry of Port St. Lucie, Fla.; a daughter from his third marriage, Donna Branchini of Lexington, Ky.; a sister, Sandra Faunce of Rockville; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Journalist Carl Bernstein, a 1961 graduate of Montgomery Blair, was the first to alert The Washington Post last week to Mr. Dillard's death. He was "a seminal character" of his era, Bernstein said. "He was, more than any other disc jockey of that period in the D.C. area, someone who really understood and appreciated how rock-and-roll, rockabilly and rhythm and blues were intertwined. So many other stations did not play all three."

Bernstein added: "He just had a great feel for the music as well as wonderful voice. But he's also related to a defining cultural moment in local terms, which includes going to the Hot Shoppes and parading around in cars after football games at Blair, drag racing on the Beltway that was being built at the time, and dances at the Silver Spring Armory, where on Friday nights you would have live music with Link Wray, especially, or Bo Diddley," and Mr. Dillard would emcee.


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