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Mad Daddy

Cleveland, the ultimate Midwestern nowhere metropolis, has produced more than its share of atypical personalities. Jimmy Scott, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Lux Interior are all natives, and the city served as a key breakout radio market for rock & roll. Fabled as the home base of DJ Alan “Moondoggy” Freed and of jock Bill Randle, who gave Elvis his first serious airing outside the South, Cleveland claimed a proclivity for nurturing hipsters that reached its most frantic apex with the untamed big-beat platter jockey Mad Daddy.

The rap-rhyme mania of Mad Daddy (Pete Myers) sparked rock & roll tongue-tripping to new heights, igniting a fervid cult (a teenage Lux worshipped him), but Myers’ publicity-drunk pace ultimately destroyed him. While murky cassettes of Mad Daddy’s shows have been passed around for years with appropriate reverence, the New York indie Norton Records has rendered a profound service by making his nuggets of nuttiness available for mass consumption on Wavy Gravy!

The San Francisco–born Myers gained his first broadcasting experience in psychological warfare for the Army during the Korean War. True to form, he didn’t necessarily seem to be on our side, cooking up a War of the Worlds–style broadcast that proclaimed a sea dragon was thrashing about in Tokyo Bay; it was so convincing that when General Douglas MacArthur heard it, he ordered troops to mobilize.

An aspiring actor before he landed a job in Ohio as a broadcaster, Myers used his thespian skills in a stunning run of unscripted jive patter and sound effects. He worked with eight turntables, layering echo, outer-space tones, rocket launches, bubbling cauldrons and spooky chords between his blood-curdling laughter and rants (“Jet speed, saucer blasts, smoke and fire, Mad Daddy flies up higher and higher!”) as lead-ins to the kind of gutbucket-funky R&B selections rarely heard outside a handful of black-operated Southern stations like Memphis’ WDIA. He was a big champion of Andre Williams (particularly “The Greasy Chicken”), and also spun Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and trashy instrumentals like “Train to Nowhere,” conjuring a sleazy miasma of honking saxophones, jungle tom-toms and manic guitar.

Mad Daddy was both myth and reality. Kids lined up outside the studio at midnight waiting for him to emerge, which he always did after donning a black cloak and smearing on freakish greasepaint. Myers also hosted a TV horror show where he appeared only in upside-down close-up. He achieved such popularity that he had his own shoe line, Batty Bucks — suede, with a bat-shaped leather flap. At one point, pissed off over something or other, he reportedly locked himself in the booth and played the same easy-listening record for two weeks. (The episode was later filmically adapted into a DJ marathoning a Crickets disc in The Buddy Holly Story.) After he was yanked off the air for 90 days due to an FCC violation, Myers, desperate to stay in the public eye, parachuted into Lake Erie as 300 fans watched, none aware that it was his first such jump. He had wanted to partially fill the lake with Jell-O, but “couldn’t corner the market.”

A Mad Daddy indeed, and the 50 tracks on Wavy Gravy! bristle and ooze with his spontaneous rapid-fire insanity. Even commercials become surreal, like his 1959 Gillette pitch: “Did you ever see a Martian beard?/The whiskers are purple and curly and weird/And two faces are harder than just one to shave/So two-headed Martians just naturally rave/For the cooler more comfortable shavin’ they get/With push-button lather and blade by Gillette.” Myers’ cadence and emphasis was perfected to a delirious ideal, and Gravy drips with his wigged-out, zoomeratin’ lexicon. “Yeah my show’s nutty but you know it’s never dull/Just as long the light burns in my skull,” he’d cackle, but as with all krazy 1950s rock phenomena, the carnival ground to a painful halt. After a disastrous move to New York in the early ’60s, bereft of context in the flower-power era, in 1968 Myers himself blew the light out — with a shotgun. Wavy Gravy! is a chance to dig one of radio’s most extreme geniuses, and a poignant celebration of cultural wildlife now sadly extinct.

THE MAD DADDY | Wavy Gravy! | (Norton)