History of Rock and Roll
With Wink Martindale
Wink Martindale has been in radio since the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. In 1954, when Dewey Phillips premiered “That’s All Right (Mama),” Martindale was the WHBQ Memphis jock who called Gladys Presley, trying to get Elvis to come to the station for an interview. By then, Martindale had been in radio for 3-1/2 years, meaning that his career dates to the early days of music radio altogether.
Gary Theroux has been programming Christmas music since long before it was ubiquitous on the radio. He spent 20 years with Readers Digest, which included compiling RD’s successful Christmas Through The Years box set. He was also the writer/co-producer, with legendary programmer/consultant/syndicator Bill Drake, of 1978’s History of Rock & Roll, one of radio’s first major long-form syndicated specials.
In 2012, the pair teamed up for The 100 Greatest Christmas Hits of All Time, a 10-hour countdown, syndicated by Sun Broadcast Group. Theroux and Martindale begin revising the annual show in August, typically wrapping in October. Some affiliates begin airing at as soon as November. And in 2021, Theroux says, History will be “reimagined as an all-new two-hour weekly series” hosted by the 87-year-old Martindale and distributed by SBG.
At a time when Christmas music is no longer scarce on the radio, 100 Greatest Christmas Hits is set apart by its breadth and depth of holiday music, a reflection of Theroux’s decades in the compilation business. Listeners hear “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” But there’s a wide variety of “chart extras”–secret weapons from every era of holiday music, particularly some of the Oldies and MOR-era titles no longer heard on AC’s all-Christmas formats, as well as songs from Country and R&B that aren’t typically on the safe list.
This year’s countdown includes Christmas music from everybody from Tom Lehrer to the Temptations; from Ariana Grande to C.W. McCall. Brenda Lee is represented with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but also with “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus.” The show plays the live version of Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” from his 1968 comeback TV special, but also “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.”
100 Greatest Christmas Hits is augmented by audio from more than 175 acts, part of Theroux’s library of more than 3,000 interviews. Even as holiday music becomes a ratings juggernaut, Theroux says many PDs “run generic music [that] anyone can tune out of at any time without feeling they’re missing something.”
Artist interviews have been a major part of Martindale’s radio career, as well. When he joined MOR powerhouse KMPC Los Angeles in the early ‘70s, Martindale’s GM asked “’what would you do with three hours?’ I didn’t prep when I was a rock jock. But I thought, if I want to keep this job, I’d better give serious thought to prep every day.” The result was that artist interviews were built into “audio biographies” in a quest to “make people care about who was going to be on the show next.”
Most fans of Christmas music have a song whose first annual hearing makes the holiday season official for them. Martindale’s favorite is the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling.” Both Martindale and Theroux interviewed the Carpenters: Martindale in the early ‘70s during the early rush of the duo’s success; Theroux spoke to Karen Carpenter in 1978 to promote their first Christmas album, Christmas Portrait and remembers her “incredible warmth and humanity.”
Working at KMPC, Martindale also had ample opportunities to talk to owner Gene Autry who recorded “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” only at his wife’s urging after Bing Crosby had turned it down. “He loved talking about his recording career—as big as his movie career was, he loved to make records, he loved to sing, and he loved hearing his songs on the radio. Even if he was in the back seat of his limo, he would tell the driver to turn it up.
“He was a great guy. I grew up going to those Saturday afternoon westerns at the Malco Theater in Jackson, Tenn., and admiring the guy with the white hat. When they asked me to come in to sign my contract, I was sitting in GM Stan Spero’s office and in comes the cowboy. It was almost like an out-of-body experience,” Martindale says. “He loved radio. I was so impressed that if he was in town, he would come in for several hours a day.” (Autry would also hot-line jocks for breaks he liked or didn’t.)
Is there a Christmas song that Martindale is sick of? “If we played only what we like, I’d play Silent Night, Merry Christmas Darling and Silver Bells over and over. Even though I don’t personally care for “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” I know people get a smile or a laugh after it. And some people are hearing it for the first time.”
In this year of COVID-19, Theroux says the tone of the show won’t change. “We don’t make any reference directly to that because it’s not a cheery thought. We stick to the idea of generating that warm, romantic, and fun Christmas feeling all the way through.”
“We can all agree that we can’t wait for 2020 to be over, because of the kind of year its been,” adds Martindale. “This is a release. This is a chance to put 2020 aside and enjoy some of the feelings that that people have enjoyed since their youth.”
Martindale was able to have a multi-media career—TV game show host, recording artist with a top 10 hit–at a time when those were particularly rare for DJs. “Radio led me into TV. I enjoyed a career like few people enjoyed. If I was starting today, it would be tough. It’s tough for young people who want to be in radio,” he says.
“I listen to SiriusXM and they play music back-to-back with no personality. But I heard Neil Sedaka do a show and it was interesting. Pat Boone does an hour and it’s very interesting. [Martindale was also set to appear with T.G. Sheppard on SXM’s Elvis Channel when we spoke.] But for the most part, I don’t know where radio’s going to go from here.”
That said, Martindale does hear local radio that he likes in the Palm Springs, Calif., market including Classic Hits KDGL (106.9 The Eagle) and Adult Standards Mod 107.3. “I enjoy the personality factor. It’s fun to hear what they have to say about the singers and the stories behind the songs.
“I got in to radio in 1951 at the tail-end of the big band era. I went through the birth of rock and roll, then Beatlemania. I lived through a lot of eras in music. I’m so glad that I chose radio and later TV as my life’s work,” Martindale says. Besides being grateful for his success, “It’s been entertaining for me and I hope entertaining for the people who watched or listened.”