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Johnny Holliday

Johnny Holliday, born on October 15, 1937, is an American sports and radio broadcaster from Miami, Florida. He began his career as a disc jockey in Georgia and Florida before moving on to the radio station WHK in Cleveland and WINS in New York City, notably hosting the station’s last music broadcast in 1965. Holliday then became a top radio personality at KYA in San Francisco, where he co-hosted the Beatles’ final concert at Candlestick Park in 1996. Dubbed the “Voice of the Terrapins”, Holliday has been a sportscaster for Maryland’s football and basketball teams since 1979. He has also co-hosted the pregame and postgame shows for the Washington Nationals, Nats Xtra, with Ray Knight since 2008 and contributed to ABC’s sports reports, marking him a fixture of sportscasting in the DC/Maryland area. The durability, generosity, and graciousness Holliday has shown both on and off-air have made him one of the most and deservedly well-known broadcasters in radio history.

Spectator Magazine: When did you change your name and why?

Johnny Holiday: I never changed it; Holliday is my middle name. So I got my first job and the gentleman at the radio station in Perry, GA, said, “So you’re Johnny Bobbett?” I said, “Yes sir.” “Do you have a middle name?” And I said, “It’s Holliday, my mother’s maiden name”. He said, “Why don’t we go with Johnny Holliday?” I said, “Sure.” But everything legally is John Holliday Bobbett, also known as Johnny Holliday.

SM: Tell us about the magic of those top 40 radio days and what was exciting about those days. In the studio, top 40, early 60s?

JH: I think those were the golden days of radio. From 1958 through maybe 1969, about eleven years. It was a great time, and the disc jockeys, kind of like pied pipers, kids could really identify with you, latch onto your show. I think the oldest guy on the air was probably twenty four, I was twenty one when I got there. It was a time when the music was innocent, you never listened to lyrics as much as the rhythm of the song. The disc jockeys were role models basically and you knew there were no off-color remarks, none of that stuff. The stations wouldn’t allow it, so everything you did was above the word, everyone sounded like they were have the greatest time, playing music, going out to schools to do photo ops, having a thousand kids on a Friday night or a Saturday night and you’re playing records, giving away albums, drinking Coca-Cola. It was just an innocent time, and I think the best time of radio.

SM: It seemed like the best time of an era, like the zenith for America right after World War 2 when everybody came back. It seemed like a magic time. Can you talk about some of the magic rap that was being played over the airwaves those years?

“And if I’d give the time I’d say it's fender bender bumper jumper chrome cracker time.”

JH: Magic rap was so bad that it worked. I’d just try to be a little different. You make things rhyme, something a little bit different. And if I’d give the time I’d say it's fender bender bumper jumper chrome cracker time. Which is kind of stupid, and then you’d play a ballad and you’d say “this is one for the sad, suffering secretaries, let’s take you elbow deep in the ballad bowl”.  Stupid things like that, but it worked.

SM: Tell us a couple more.

“I called myself the refugee from the sunshine state, every teen queen’s dream, the king of the side walker’s association, stuff like that.”

JH: I called myself the refugee from the sunshine state, every teen queen’s dream, the king of the side walker’s association, stuff like that. We had all these cliché sayings we’d use. But the funniest thing, the guy that was on after me, from ten to one, at night, was named Pete Meyers.He did a show called Mad Daddy, and he was brilliant. He did an afternoon show as himself and then at night he would put on a black cape with a hood, he’d cover over the window to the studio so you couldn’t see in and he would do three hours of rhyme, with echo.

Everything would rhyme and the kids just went nuts over this guy. Then he did it in New York City but it didn’t go over.

SM: Did you like the music you were playing?

JH: Did I like it? Yeah, I really did. Yeah. I don’t think you can fake it, if you don’t like it, and you’re trying to pretend like this is great, I think it comes through. But some I liked better than others.

SM: One thing I want to mention about New York. You hosted WNIS’s last rock show of 1964-1965. Describe the scene there and how all the crowds were.

JH: I played the last record on the station as music. We were notified in, I guess, March, that they were going to change the format and become all news, so we basically thought they were stupid and so did our manager. He said, “This’ll never work, no one’s going to listen to an all news station in New York, when it’s not still the number one station in New York after all these years,”. But I have airchecks and I have tapes of my last show – it was taped, it wasn’t live. It was on a Sunday night, so we taped the show earlier, and all we did was, we just said ‘I’ll see ya, see ya soon.’

SM: In San Francisco, late 1960's, how do you think the hippies reacted to music you were playing?

JH: We played their music because we had to compete. That's when FM stations began playing longer cuts, album cuts, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, those great artists. So for us to compete we started playing selected cuts from longer albums and our boss was smart enough to invite any artist that wanted to stop by KYA and visit with the guys who were on the air, whenever they wanted. So I would be doing the show from 3–6 in the afternoon and next to me was Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane. The next day Janis Joplin is sitting there for 3 hours with me. The next day Linda Ronstadt sitting there with the Stone Poneys. The next day, you know, the list goes on and on and on.

SM: Tell us about, you were saying Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, who do you remember, obviously other than those three people, any interesting stories or someone who struck you in those sets? You would be working but you certainly must have gotten the vibe from some people stopping in who you either liked or found really intriguing or thought were really spacey?

JH: Here's the fun. I don't think they really accepted me because I'm dressed like this and they are a little different. I mean they got everything, it’s a little bit different. But I think they knew we had a power station so they were going to be nice to us and they were going to come by and if they visited, that's going to ensure we are going to play their songs, probably Sly Stone we got to be very good buddies with Sly. Sly produced Bobby Freeman's record, "Do You Wanna Dance," and he told me the story that Bobby Freeman couldn't sing so they would go to the studio and he would have to edit and edit the whole thing together to make it sound like he was singing. That was the challenge he had with Bobby Freeman, "Do You Wanna Dance." 

SM: The thing that you have said a number of times about the Top 40 and I think it was true about the 60s, culturally, every couple days something was happening. It seemed like every couple of days a new song was coming out. How many number one songs did Creedence have in that one year? I mean they had a phenomenal number one year like seventeen or something in one year. It blew me away. I thought maybe eight and that would have been amazing. It might not have been seventeen but it was a whole lot. But everybody would be waiting for one song after another. Didn’t it strike you that every couple weeks a new song was coming out? And every couple days something new was happening, politically, culturally: the war. And everything felt like we were surfing on a wave for a decade, waiting, the wave was curling and the whole time stuff was happening.

JH: I think, I mentioned Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Frankie Avalon, and those guys are still performing today as the Golden Boys. If you get a chance to see them, they are dynamite. You talk about cross sections of audience, they got young, they got old, they got blue hair, they got green, everybody loves what they are doing but I remember like Frankie Avalon, he had DD Diamond and it seemed like a month later he came out with another song, Venus, and he just had hit after hit. Bobby Rydell the same, Neil Diamond too. All these guys did the same thing. Once they get on a role, you expect it. I think the audience expected new stuff to be just as good but they would always change a little bit. There would be something different about beat or about the lyrics that would differentiate from their other hits. I think they kept ahead of the times.

SM: How come you segued from Top 40 DJ to sports casting in 1978?

JH: Well, I knew I could always do sports, there just had to be the chance that somebody would give me, and the thing that caught my attention was I did a game with Wes Unseld, and he had just retired from the Bullets, and we did a college basketball game – Georgetown and Western Kentucky. And so the check I got for doing that game was equal to what I got for six days a week playing records at WWDC. So I said, something is wrong with this picture, so maybe I should look into maybe doing more sports. And it was all timing, I think that probably I had not run its course with music, but I wanted a different challenge, and certainly sports gives you that. And you can do football, you can do baseball, you can do basketball, you can do boxing, you can do all sorts of things. And that’s why I made the change.

SM: If you came in ’69, although you weren’t doing sports, you arrived virtually the same time Lefty arrived.

LM: I remember being somewhat fascinated by Lefty’s approach at hockey, he was almost bigger than the game. And people would go to see him stop on the sidelines, that good ol’ southern boy humor and charm. He was superstitious, too.

SM: Was he?

JH: Oh, yeah. When I took over the games, they said, “Okay, one of the things you do, you tape an interview with Lefty, for the pregame show, and you gotta go out and do it a day in advance.” And I’m thinking, ‘Why a day in advance?’ Well, he’s always done it that way, so I said to myself, there’s gonna be a right time, I’m gonna ask him, can we do it before the game? And that time came, we were down in North Carolina, and I said, “Coach, can we just do the pregame before the game?” “Yeah, that’s fine.” So I had laid the groundwork and then next year I said, “Why don’t we just do this. I’ll get together with you an hour and a half before the game and it’s up to date, instead of me coming out a day in advance.” He said, “That’s fine.”So, when he moved onto James Madison, they had me and Greg Manning come down and do a television game for him, that they won. So he insisted, every game they were on television, because we had won that game, he credited us. We did every television game, we kept winning. And he said, “I’m not getting rid of you guys ‘til we lose!”

SM: What moments do you think of when you think of announcing Terp basketball?

JH: Probably the post-game interviews that I had to do with him. Gary was one of the few coaches, if not the only one in America, as soon as the game was over, as soon as the teams exchanged handshakes, he would come right over to us and put the headset on. So the post-game interview was carried in the arena and on radio, so if they’re about to lose the game, all my thoughts are, ‘well, how am I gonna – they had a twelve point lead and they blew it and they’re gonna lose this game and Gary’s gonna be hearing about two minute.’ And that’s the toughest thing. But what amazed me was that he was always at his best after a loss, always at his best. And I would cringe trying to think how am I gonna set him up, and I learned, after a while, don’t be analytical about the game, it’s not my job to tell him what went wrong, just say, hey coach, this loss, to Duke, this is tough. Let him go ahead, and he would be brilliant and just roll with it. And then when we taped his television shows, I could always gage, by the way he came in, how the show was gonna go. If he walked onto the floor and said, “Let’s go,” it was business and there was no messing around. If he walked in and said, “Hey, Johnny, how the hell did we lose that game last night?” it’s gonna go okay.

SM: How do you go with the flow? Like on certain things when you have to handle certain things that are really tough... How do you deal with it?

“The toughest thing I’ve ever had to encounter was surviving the plane crash in ’75.”

JH: That’s a good question, how do I deal with it... The toughest thing I’ve ever had to encounter was surviving the plane crash in ’75, and then going through what we did with our grandson 5 years ago with a brain tumor. That was tough. I would have changed places with him in a second if I could have, no kid should have to go through that.

SM: Real quick, tell us about the plane crash. That slipped by me, I didn’t know you were in a plane crash. What happened?

JH: The guy lost—The guy crashed the plane. He lost control of the plane on landing, wind shear got him.

SM: Is this a big plane or a private plane?

JH: No, private, Cessna 182.

SM: And is this around here or...

JH: No, this was in Oxen Hill. We had gone down to Lovingston, VA, to deliver food and clothing to a 90 year old woman who lived at the top of the mountain in Lovingston, VA, south of Charlottesville. And she was written up in the Washington Post in December 1974, and she had survived the floods, the rains, and she lived in a log cabin at the top of the mountain. And the rains came, and all the flooding came down the mountain, and behind her house was a rock as big as this room which shielded the water to go around her cabin. Log cabin. And she was saved, but people were killed around her... So the Post did a beautiful story about her, and I was doing the morning show in DC, and I saw this story, and I called the writer, and I said, “I’m gonna—” she just had a phone put in. And I asked, “What’s she like?” “She’s very proud, so if you’re going to interview her, talk to her, that’s fine, but don’t give this pity stuff to her, because she doesn’t want to hear that”. So I put her on the air, and she was magnificent. 90 years old. So the next day I came to work, and there were boxes of food and clothing for this lady. And they kept coming every day. So we chartered a plane, we had a guy named Captain Dan, and one of his friends had a plane. So my daughter Tracy, who was 11 at the time, was with me, we’d go down, we’d land in Lynchburg, and the Red Cross—

SM: I went to high school in Lynchburg.

JH: Yeah! And Tracy went to Lynchburg College. So we put all the food and clothing and we go- and she’d given us directions. “Go down 29, there’s an abandoned gas station, turn left, you go up this dirt road, there’s a tree across the road, go around the tree, at an abandoned church you turn right”, it was like a Walt Disney movie! And we went to the top of the mountain, and there’s this little log cabin with the smoke coming out of the chimney. And she’s on the front porch, about 4 foot 10. Got her apron on, a little knit cap, and a stick—

SM: Don’t tell her she’s 4 foot 10!

JH: Oh yeah! So she’s got a stick in her hand, and the dogs running around, so we had a whole truckload of stuff, and she was not about to let me come up on the porch of her house. So my daughter says, “Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom”. So I said, “Ms. Dora, could Tracy use your bathroom?” Well she didn’t have one. Outhouse. She said “absolutely”, comes down, takes her hand, takes her around, and I’m thinking, no this can’t be. But that’s what it was. So Tracy says, “I’ve never been to a bathroom like that before”. So we came time to leave, and I said, “Ms. Dora, we’ve got some stuff for you”. “Alright, bring it on in”. So she got a lantern, she got a light, takes us inside, and she says, “Just put ‘em in here”. She opens up a room and the room was full! Of things from all around the country, because the Post story went nationwide. So long story short, on the way back, the guy crashes landing. So, I take the brunt of it, I was in the front seat. And I go into the console, my nose was smashed, the stick goes up here and shatters the spleen.

SM: Was this when you were in for 30 days, in the hospital?

 

“So they take my spleen out, and I’m there 30 days. Yeah.”

JH: Yeah. ’75, yeah. And Tracy didn’t get a scratch, she was wedged between the front and the back seat. So they take my spleen out, and I’m there 30 days. Yeah.

SM: Hell of a story.

—Johnny Holliday for Spectator Magazine, 20__

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