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He’s an Angel 

Oldies, goodies and Huggy Boy

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
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The New York Times recently ran an article titled “Chicano Radio’s Fading Signal,” which implied that Sancho’s cold-blooded ousting from KPCC earlier this year symbolized an era’s end. The 8-by-9-inch photo atop the article showed DJ Dick Hugg at the microphone.

For 50 years, the honeyed baritone and puckish banter of Hugg, a.k.a. Huggy Boy, have held forth on L.A.’s airwaves. He is firmly established as a cornerstone of Los Angeles pop culture. Lighter Shade of Brown gave props on their record “Huggy Boy Show.” The Blasters’ classic “Border Radio” was, says Dave Alvin, inspired by Hugg’s dedication show on XPRS. Hugg is both icon and family heirloom.

“I have people coming up to me with their grandchildren. They all listen to my show,” Hugg says in a rare moment of immodesty.

Hugg, who won’t give his age (the math says he’s 70-something), is a classic. If Damon Runyon could have conceived of a rhythm & blues disc jockey, it would have to have been Huggy Boy. Chilling after midnight in Canter’s, he looks like Central Casting’s “old record biz” type, a throwback in this shock-jock era. But L.A. embraces idiosyncratic DJs. Unlike Rick Dees, however, whose popularity fluctuates, or Dr. Demento, whose audience turns over every few years, Hugg is a constant. His fans from the ’50s still tune him in, as indeed do many of their grandchildren. For a year and a half, he’s held weeknights 9 to midnight at K-EARTH 101. Before that, 14 years at KRLA — a Chicano-oriented oldies station — delivering a richly eclectic R&B morning show, playing everything from doo-wop to East L.A. proto-punk garage bands to War. His rapport with callers-in gave the show a pronounced vintage regional flavor. He was loose, flirting with the women and telling callers to “cut the cholo crap” when they would lapse into barrio mannerisms. He sees himself as a forefather still hanging in.

“I know the era of personality disc jockeys is over,” he says. “I’m the George Burns of my field.”

But he’s bankable, not quaint, having outlasted many stations for which he’s worked. His K-EARTH ratings are strong (“except if the Lakers are on”), and he still draws big on the record-hop circuit, where many of the oldies he spins are records he helped make hits. He’s presented live shows, including Elvis Presley’s first in California (in 1956, at the Pan Pacific Auditorium), started (short-lived) labels and released oldies albums. But his career is radio.

“When I started, it was rhythm & blues,” he recalls, “then rock & roll, then soul, or Motown, then the Beatles. I always went with it. That’s my secret. Not that changing with the times is some great secret.”

Hugg’s flexibility in the field served him well, especially in his early days broadcasting on KWKW via live remote from the Dumas Drive-In at Whittier and Atlantic.

“I wore Robert Taylor’s gladiator costume from Quo Vadis, and roller skates. See, back then, a DJ was either suave or nuts. I knew I could convince people I was nuts.”

Shortly after, for KRKD, he transmitted nightly from Dolphin’s of Hollywood, the R&B record mecca often visited by industry types, from stars to promo men, at Vernon and Central.

“Back then, you couldn’t just go into any record store and buy rhythm & blues. Dolphin’s was open 24 hours, and every night down there was a big party. I did my show from the window. The people buying records were both black and white. It was different then. More respect. You didn’t worry about if someone had a gun.” (Dolphin probably should have. In 1958, he was shot to death.)

Among Chicanos who embraced rhythm & blues, Hugg and Art Laboe became like Alan Freed and Dick Clark. While they started at around the same time and attracted similar followings, their respective flavors are as different as pepper and sugar. Hugg is irrepressible and chatty, while Laboe’s refined manner suggests a senator graciously addressing his constituency. Laboe’s personal oldies industry (state-syndicated show, Original Sound Records and the “Oldies but Goodies” compilation discs) is considerable, second only to Dick Clark’s. Conversely, Hugg is too mercurial to have built a diverse portfolio. His single durable asset has been being Huggy Boy.

With Hugg on deck, K-EARTH has cornered SoCal’s huge dedication-show audience, which is predominantly Mexican-American. Its total playlist is 500 songs, heavy on the Motown, not to mention schlock-poppers like Neil Diamond and Elton John. In its prime, KRLA had 6,000 songs in rotation, and none of them was “Sweet Caroline.” (KRLA went all-talk in 1998.)

Hugg doesn’t complain. He knows where his bread is buttered and, narrower playlist notwithstanding, still controls his on-air presentation.

“Every show I’ve done has a flow, even on my worst nights. I know how to get a feeling going. And K-EARTH works because the programming is for L.A. Other stations come out here with program directors from the East Coast, who program East Coast oldies. If you know anything about the record business, you know that something could have been a smash in, say, Detroit, and barely scrape by in L.A. K-EARTH plays what people here want.”

Hugg endures as L.A. oldies radio changes. Mega 92.3 has a new rhythm & blues oldies format. About whether its listenership overlaps with Hugg’s, the ratings haven’t yet spoken. Regardless, an R&B oldies station with more requests for “1999” than “Angel Baby” represents change.

And Hugg knows intimately how his listeners pass music through the generations while still changing with the times. Few disc jockeys have been able to claim half a century of hands-on, up-close interaction with both old and young fans. Huggy Boy can. And 50 years of succeeding have taught him how to see past his own place in his profession:

“The biggest stations here broadcast in Spanish. Someone told me, ‘Huggy, say you’re an American living in France and you find an American station. Whatever they play, if you can understand what they’re saying, that’s what you’ll listen to.’

“Now there’s this Spanish oldies station [Recuerdos, FM 103.9], and I think they’d hit bigger with the kids if they were bilingual. The kids know the music from their parents passing it down, but a lot of ’em speak English.”

The New York Times claims that Chicano radio listenership is assimilating and shrinking, but Hugg feels “the audience always changes. It used to be when you said ‘Mexican’ you probably meant East L.A. But it’s La Puente, Montebello, the Inland Empire — all kinds of places. It’s grown, branched out. It’s more bilingual now. But the kids still like oldies. Go to the swap meets — it’s kids, not parents, looking for old records. I know what the writer [of The N.Y. Times article, Ariel Swartley] meant, but there’s too many individual people to say ‘All Chicanos do this.’ You’d never read ‘All whites do this’ in a newspaper.”

Huggy Boy is an anachronism in these cynical times. So is Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby,” Southland radio’s all-time most requested dedication, which Hugg premiered in 1961. These days, when every aspect of electronically transferred media is special effects–oriented, “Angel Baby” is all wrong — lo-fi, out of tune, drummer losing the beat, saxophone like a car horn, vocal devoid of the melismatic Whitneyisms that rule contemporary radio. It’s like the original version of King Kong in a Matrix age.

Yet it still resonates with five generations of Angelenos of all colors. “Angel Baby” and Huggy Boy have proved durable, maybe even everlasting. Will Macy Gray’s current hits mean as much in 39 years? Will the Baka Boyz? Huggy Boy is optimistic about their chances.

“I know the kids give me a certain respect because I’m old,” says Hugg, “and they’ll have their oldies from what they’re listening to now. Playlists change. The programmers add more songs. But everybody knows I mean ‘Angel Baby’ when I say ‘The National Anthem.’”

Hugg points to an empty table.

“Rodney Bingenheimer from KROQ was sitting there when I walked in. He’s got his audience, his specialty. I’ve got mine. Personalities like me, Rodney, Laboe — we get an audience, we keep it. We know what they want, and they know where to find us. As long as that’s the case, I’ll be here.”

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