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Radio Days

A nationally-known rock 'n' roll DJ emerged from Knoxville in the '60s—and returned to pass on his knowledge.

by John Sewell

Now that rock 'n' roll music is such a ubiquitous presence on the American cultural terrain, it's practically impossible to imagine a time when rock was viewed as merely a trend, or even worse, as a scourge that would bring society to its very knees. This was exactly how things were in the late '50s and early '60s, a magical era when primordial rock 'n' roll reshaped the American psyche, producing a lo of fun and mayhem in the process.

An early champion of rock 'n' roll music and the teenage mania that ensued with its advent, Allen Johnson shaped a remarkable radio career out of the burgeoning youth movement. Entering the radio business as a teenager, Johnson was in the right place at the right time, capitalizing on the new youth phenomenon and his own formidable talent to quickly rise to the top of the teenage radio market. In the span of a few short years Johnson would become a hot radio commodity, interacting with the rising stars of the British Invasion and finding his own niche under the assumed name of Dr. Al Adams.

"I was a student at Carson Newman College in 1960, and they had started their own radio station there when I was a freshman," says Johnson. "It sounded like fun to me, so I signed up for a one hour class and it just took off from there." In short order, Johnson would move from the college station to Morristown's WCRK.

"I was doing radio in Morristown, and someone told me about WKGN in Knoxville," Johnson continues. "Back then, radio stations used what was called block programming. They would play different types of music on different shows instead of one type of music all the time.

"So when this kid told me about WKGN, he said, 'They play all fast music,' which pretty much meant they were playing rock 'n' roll. WKGN was the first formatted station playing rock 'n' roll around the clock. I wanted to get in on this, so I took a demo tape to Marty Lacker (also a member of Elvis Presley's infamous "Memphis Mafia") who was program director. He listened to the tape and said, 'When can you go to work?'" Once Johnson was firmly ensconced as a WKGN rock 'n' roll DJ, things really got rolling.

In the early days of rock 'n' roll radio, DJs had a lot more freedom as to what they could play and what they could do on air. Daredevils of the airways, radio jocks improvised comedy bits between the songs in hopes of capturing their audience's attention and keeping them tuned in. One of Johnson's on-air skits gave rise to the new persona that would carry him into the higher echelons of radio notoriety.

"Back then, you couldn't run a radio station at night like you'd run it in the day. It was an entirely different ball game. You gotta get a guy who knows what he's doing, who has the talent, and you gotta let him go and do what he wants. All I ever did on the radio was have fun—I couldn't believe they were paying me to have such a great time."

"We used to play this call-in game on the air called Stump The Doctor," says Johnson. "It was a popular part of my show, and in 1961 Dave Diamond

(WKGN's program director) said, 'That's it, from now on we're calling you Dr. Al.'" The assumed name would catch on quickly, propelling Johnson into the big league of the teen radio market and allowing his wacky radio persona to flourish.

"I loved being Dr. Al," says Johnson. "It was great. At the time, WKGN was the station and all the stars would come by. The money was good and the kids loved it. It was like I'd died and gone to heaven!"

As Johnson morphed into Dr. Al Adams, his show got even more popular and he became a local celebrity. His WKGN radio show was the most popular radio program in the area, topping out with a 67 share (meaning 67 percent of the entire area radio listeners were tuned to WKGN during his time slot) and regularly getting a 45 share in the tri-county area.

As Dr. Al's fame grew, the DJ repeatedly caused a ruckus at his public appearances. "I had a 1956 Cadillac Superior hearse with a big chrome siren and a light on top, and we had it painted cherry red with fancy white lettering on it that said Dr. Al's Hustling Hearse," says Johnson. "I'd drive the hearse to promotions we were doing, and it always got a big response.

"One time I was doing a promotion at Holston High School and I almost got crushed by a mob of kids. I had a bunch of records in the hearse, and I got wedged in the door as the crowd moved forward to get the records. I remember throwing the records as far away from the hearse as I could, and then the crowd fell back. It just about scared me to death."

Despite the fact that rock 'n' roll was despised by some as the harbinger of the fall of Western civilization, Johnson says that, personally, he wasn't on the receiving end of the criticism. "I don't think there was very much backlash by the time I got involved in 1960," says Johnson. "There may have been some around '54 and '55 when things just got started, but that was pretty much over before I came into the picture.

"The real problem with the rock 'n' roll format when I was involved was just being able to sell ads," Johnson continues. "This was the very beginning of youth-oriented marketing, and we had a hard time because the old-line, adult contemporary market was where people wanted to advertise. We were the number one station, but we weren't considered legitimate.

"I think that around that time was when the advertising people finally began to realize that everything begins with the youth: new trends, new styles, new ideas. The new fads start with youth, become fashion, and are then picked up by the adults. And I think that's the way things still are to this day."

Dr. Al's star continued to rise, and Johnson decided to pack his bags and move into the big pond of the highly competitive radio world. In 1963 he moved to St. Louis as a rival to another popular DJ in that market. Things went well for Dr. Al until stifling station policies regarding a certain British group impeded his progress.

"I went up there to compete with Johnny Rabid, who was the number one teen jockey at the time," says Johnson. "We were neck and neck in the ratings until The Beatles hit, and that's when the kids of this nation just went crazy. At the station where I worked they told us we could only play one Beatles song per hour, while our competitors went total Beatlemania.

"The top management at the station where I worked said that The Beatles were just a fad: that kids are fickle and that the adult listeners will stay and we'll get the kids back when the fad is over. I knew I was up against it then. Our market share dropped from a 28 to a 10, and I decided to leave the station."

Dr. Al returned to WKGN in 1964, where he quickly regained his position as the top dog in the local radio arena. "They had really missed me at WKGN and their ratings had suffered because I left, so they made me a grand offer. George Mooney, who owned the station at the time, asked me to come back home and take the night time slot at about double my salary." After another year on WKGN, Dr. Al moved on to television.

"The TV station did their own survey to decide who they should hire, and I was the number one selection," says Johnson. "Nobody else even came close, so the kids had me back and it was bigger and better than ever before."

Disco Teen, a local show quite similar to the nationally broadcast American Bandstand, premiered on the now defunct Channel 26 (remember UHF?) in 1965 with Dr. Al Adams as its host. The show featured dancing and performances by local bands and by national acts who came through Knoxville while touring. Some of the performers played live while others took the easier lip sync route. Once, Dr. Al even co-hosted the show with Dick Clark himself.

"The show only came on during the school year, and then it came on every afternoon. So we would feature a different school every afternoon, and we'd also have local artists appearing on the show. It was a great experience, I'll tell you.

"All of the big bands that came through would stop in on the show," says Johnson. "We had The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Brenda Lee, Jimmy Velvet, and Clifford Curry appeared on the show several times.

"James Brown came on one time and he performed 'Prisoner of Love,'" continues Johnson. "I mean golly, you talk about a professional, he really was Mister Show business!"

Disco Teen was a staple of the Knoxville teen viewing diet, appearing each afternoon during the school year until its close at the end of 1969.

By this point, Johnson had established himself as a businessman as well as a radio personality. In the mid '60s he had begun investing in real estate, a venture that continues to this day. After the demise of Disco Teen, Johnson worked as a program director in several radio markets including Nashville and Cincinnati. Johnson had established a lucrative career in the radio industry, but as the rambunctious era of the dawn of rock gave way to the post-psychedelic ramblings of the '70s, his involvement would be behind the scenes instead of on the airwaves.

"At that point, my generation was beginning to grow up and the adult contemporary market was starting to happen, so that's what I got into," says Johnson. "I got into adult contemporary radio at WKRC in Cincinnati—but that station was nothing like the fictitious WKRP station on the television. It was a really big market, a classy old station that was kind of stoic in a way."

After several other relocations, Johnson eventually left the radio business for a teaching career. At present, Johnson is a radio broadcasting instructor at Fulton High School.

"I'll tell you, if it hadn't been that I was so interested in the real estate business, I'd probably still be in radio today," says Johnson. "When I decided to start teaching, I left behind a pretty darned good chunk of my salary and a pretty fair career. A big reason I did that was that it would give me the summers off to keep up with my real estate investments.

"Teaching was a big step down in terms of money, career-wise it was suicide, but let me tell you it's just incredibly satisfying teaching," Johnson continues. "I've got former students from all over the country that have done so well in the radio business and they all have kept in touch with me, which is great. It's certainly not the money in teaching though.

"But I guarantee you: when school starts up again this fall, I'll have at least two or three of my graduates come in just to volunteer and to speak to my students. I love these kids—I love 'em to death. I have former students that have gone on to exciting careers on their own, and what teacher wouldn't be proud of stuff like that?"

Looking back, Johnson says that his exciting times in the halcyon days of rock 'n' roll seem virtually unbelievable. In the early era of rock, the music had yet to have been co-opted by commercial interests or tarnished by the omnipresent cynicism of today.

"I would meet so many people who just loved the music and would listen every day. And when the adults began to listen too, it became more accepted. Rock 'n' roll hit big here just like it hit everywhere. It was just so much fun being able to do all of that. I was young and I was successful, riding around in these limousines and meeting all these famous people, and just couldn't believe that I had all this great luck. That was a really exciting time."