Michael's first career marked by emotional bond with audience
Thursday, December 24, 2009; 12:05 PM
Until the very end, George Michael kept front and center in the top drawer of his desk a decades-old, chrome-plated stopwatch, the tool of his first trade and the measure of his unusual talent. Although he became most famous in Washington and across the country for his pioneering use of video highlights in a TV sports news wrapup, Michael's first career brought him a far deeper emotional bond with his audience. He was, for a generation of young people growing up in the St. Louis, Philadelphia and New York areas, the voice of the pop revolution, the narrator of adolescence, a top 40 DJ who could spin a complete tale of love found and lost in the dozen or so seconds of a song's introduction.
Michael used that stopwatch to count down the fractions of time before a song's lyrics would stop, requiring a cold ending to his mini-stories. He mastered the art of the DJ's telegraphic patter over a career that spanned the rise of rock and continued through the fall of disco. Michael got into the radio business first as a promoter of Motown records during the payola era. "I'd go right to the disc jockeys," he told me in interviews for my book, "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation." "But at first, I didn't know anything about payola. I learned. Christmas, 1960: I'm in college, working for the record company on the side. 'George, take this to the station,' the guy tells me. I took an envelope to one DJ. He opens it, says, 'Man, you gave me so-and-so's check.' So I go back to the boss and say, 'What am I doing?' "
" 'You're taking around Christmas gifts,' he says."
By the time he hit the big city with a show of his own, Michael had found his own way to identify the records that would get kids up and dancing. In Philadelphia and its suburbs, Michael, a star on the top AM music station, WFIL, would travel to as many high school football and basketball games and pep rallies as he could to hear which songs the kids were playing for themselves. Through his song selections -- he was a prime mover in the rise of the Philadelphia soul acts of the late '60s and early '70s -- and his clarion voice, he became the evening accompaniment for the region's teenagers and the adults who wanted to know what was happening.
His ad-libbed walk-ups to each song captured adolescent longing and often tapped into the emotional core of each song. Unlike most pop DJs, Michael loved the music he played -- he kept a classic jukebox at home -- and made it his business to contact many of the artists whose records he spun so he could learn the back-story behind their songs.
As a steady beat chugged beneath his rich baritone one evening, Michael told his listeners, "This song is Philadelphia, it's about Wildwood, it's about Ocean City, it's about Avalon, it's about meeting the most beautiful girl on the beach," and instantly, the Beach Boys sang, "Little surfer, little one . . ."
Or: "Lordy baby, you go ahead, you chase that golden rainbow, but if you ever get lonely, you call, you know 'I'll Be Around,' " and the Spinners tune soared.
Inside the studio, Michael said, he was "in my fantasy world. I might be 13 years old when I play some song, and my eyes are closed and I'm seeing that beautiful girl, I'm off in another world."
Even after he was older than much of his audience, Michael found meaning in the pop songs he spun, often working excerpts from the drama of his own life into his song intros, giving listeners little glimpses into the pain he felt when his wife left him for another man.
But by the time Michael moved to New York City to take over the prime evening shift on the legendary WABC from its star DJ, Cousin Bruce Morrow, the Top 40 coalition was beginning to splinter, as FM radio siphoned off listeners who wanted a more purely rock diet, and it seemed to make ever less sense to play McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" right after a Jimi Hendrix number.
Michael shaped his image with the times, wearing a Beatles pageboy hairdo and Nehru suits for a while. But the pretense only went so far. He steered clear of the drug use that permeated many radio studios -- except for the time he interviewed the Rolling Stones and shared their hash, rendering his interview unusable, he said.
Young DJs studied Michael's introductions for their technical mastery and occasional flashes of poetry, but by the late '70s, the DJ saw Top 40 radio hitting a dead end. He wanted to get into sportscasting. In 1978, the stopwatch went into the drawer.