He was there when rock and roll was born in the 1950s. He hosted Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones in the ‘60s. And he helped promote Philadelphia’s unique soul sound in the 1970s and ‘80s.
That voice was silenced when Hy Lit, the top-40 radio pioneer, died Nov. 17, 2007 at age 73.
White and black
It was 1954 when South Philadelphia-born Lit returned to his home town after college at Miami University.
At a promotional basketball game, Charlie O’Donnell, then program director of “Negro”-formatted WHAT(AM), offered Lit a Saturday morning job on the air.
O’Donnell, now the voice of TV’s “Wheel of Fortune,” was pleased with his new disk jockey, even though Lit was the only white jock on the station. O’Donnell offered him a daily nighttime show called “Rock and Roll Kingdom.” Lit’s first night on the air didn’t quite go as planned.
“He played ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ at the wrong speed and then said a bad word on the air,” said Sam Lit, son of the radio great and keeper of his flame at www.hylitradio.com.
“But it got better after that and Hy caught on. Black audiences made him an overnight sensation because he was able to talk their language using slang and rhymes. The other stations in town were playing Frank Sinatra and Patti Page so this is where rock and roll began.”
When Hy Lit approached WHAT station owner Dolly Banks to ask for a raise commensurate with his audience size, he was told to “get it from the record companies.” That meant payola, which was not illegal at the time. Record companies were forthcoming with cash and other goodies for deejays, who in those days were allowed to choose their own records.
“But Hy would never play a record he didn’t think would be a hit,” said his son. “A lot of new artists he liked got their first exposure on his show and went on to become national stars.”
In 1960 the U.S. Senate began its inquiry into this practice of “pay for play” and caught a lot of big names in its web including fellow Philadelphian Dick Clark, who insisted that artists give him publishing rights to their music.
“Hy always declared everything he got on his taxes, so he never got a lot of heat,” said Sam Lit. “What it was really about was the fact that New York senators didn’t like black rock and roll and feared for their daughters. There was a racist current that was really behind the payola scandals.”
In 1956 Hy Lit moved briefly to middle-of-the-road WRCV(AM) and brought with him his nighttime “Rock and Roll Kingdom.” However, the NBC-owned station also required him to assume the air name “Johnny Dollar” to host “Sinatra and Company” in the afternoons, a show that was syndicated over the NBC radio network.
Eight months later Hy Lit made the biggest career move of his life, to WIBG(AM), which was set to kick off a top-40 format.
“Hy had a 71 (Arbitron) share on Sundays and a 46 share during the week at his peak,” said his son. “It was a rocket ride that lasted until 1968.”
Up and down the dial
| At WIBG, 1966. Sam Lit notes, ‘Hy is in Studio B and you can see the engineer behind the glass. WIBG had fully engineer assisted studio operations. The engineer controlled all audio levels for the studios, turntables and cart machines and the on/off microphone switch. The DJ had to wave his hand to have the mic turned on and off. Behind the engineer is the 50,000 watt RCA Ampliphase.’ credit: Photo courtesy HyLitRadio.com|
The end of the WIBG monopoly on young demographics came when Walter Annenberg, who also owned WFIL(TV) and TV Guide, decided to change WFIL(AM)’s format to top-40 to compete with “Wibbage.”
“When WFIL changed formats, it started with no commercials, promoting ‘non-stop music,’ said Sam Lit. “That put a crack in WIBG which was saddled with a lot of ads and news. My dad quit and went to WDAS(FM) as general manager and program director to launch ‘Hyski’s Underground,’ one of the first progressive radio programs in the country. Dad also ran the ‘Soul Patrol’ afternoons on WDAS(AM). WIBG lost its ratings lead and was eventually sold. To show you the great management they had over there, the station owner gave up the license to WIBG(FM), saying that ‘FM will never make it.’”
Next, Lit the elder moved to WIFI(FM) in 1973, where offspring Sam would join the staff in 1976. As time went on Hy landed at WPGR(AM), starting an oldies craze that remains unabated. This led competitor CBS to flip its WCAU(AM/FM) to oldies and hire Hy to work there. The call letters were immediately changed to WOGL(AM/FM) and Hy spun the tunes seven days a week.
“Hy wanted to select his own music because he knew what the audience wanted,” said his son. “The owners there, CBS, wanted a short playlist of tested songs. Hy was moved to the FM side, where he stayed for the next six years.
“The management gave my dad one spot an hour, 24 hours a day, to promote his outside record hops. He made more money with those appearances than he did on the air up until about 2002. When a new GM was brought in, he reduced my dad’s airtime after it was made public that Hy had Parkinson’s disease in 2001.”
The disease didn’t seem to affect his ability, but the still-popular personality felt he was cut back because of this and sued the owners of the station. He also was upset that they had taken away his promised spot each hour with no reason given. The lawsuit was settled in 2005.
“We got a monetary settlement and free airtime to promote HyLitRadio.com,” said Sam Lit.
Both the senior and junior Lits worked on the Web site, which offers three streaming music formats. Sam carries on the work and licenses some of the technology he developed for the Web.
Sam had stories
Sam Lit recalled a funny story about his famous father.
“Well, when he brought Elvis Presley to Philadelphia, his manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker came, too,” said Sam. “The show was sold out and at the end of it, Parker came over to my dad and said, ‘I wanna thank you, boy,’ and he gave Hy $5. Can you believe that? My dad got $5 as emcee for the concert.”
When the Beatles hit town, special security measures were needed.
“We had a hard time sneaking the group into the Philadelphia Convention Center so Police Chief Frank Rizzo hired a truck from Hackney’s Fish for the boys to travel in, and sent out a limousine as a decoy. That worked. When my dad introduced the Beatles on stage, you couldn’t even hear the guys play for all the screaming. At the end of the show, the Beatles stayed overnight at our house because the fans were watching the hotels.”
A postscript to the story is that Hy Lit had given away so many tickets to the concert that it lost money.
Lit senior shared the secret of broadcasting with his son.
“He spoke softly and said to me, ‘Listen very carefully and take this wisdom with you. When you are talking to your audience, you must reach out and touch their minds; you must reach deep into their souls and you must maintain their undivided attention long enough to say, ‘and now a word from our sponsors.’”
As the late Hy Lit said at the end of his reign at WIBG, “Til we meet again and never part, sleep warm, my love.”
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