The Voice of the UK and Big D

I always knew that radio in the Dallas-Fort Worth was a cut above everywhere else when I growing up in the 50s and 60s. But I didn’t realize how special it was until the recent death of John Peel, the most storied voice in British broadcasting history. Several obituaries for Peel, who died from a heart attack at the age of 65 while on holiday at Macchu Picchu in Peru, mentioned he’d lived briefly in the States from 1961 to 1966 and worked at a radio station in Dallas. That mere statement went a long way in explaining the appeal of the longest-serving broadcaster on BBC’s Radio One and the host of the legendary television program "Top of the Pops" who was knighted by the Queen into the Order of the British Empire and who was described by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "an extraordinary and unique personality" who "unearthed different sounds and people and made them accessible and popular."

Peel’s Dallas radio experience made all the difference in the world.

He learned cool from his first gig was co-hosting the second hour of a program called "Kats Karavan" on WRR-AM, a station owned by the City of Dallas. "Kats Karavan" was a rhythm n’ blues show featuring black musicians hosted by a white man named Jim Lowe aka "The Cool Fool", in the tradition of Dewey Phillips, the Memphis disc jockey who turned Elvis on to black music, John R the late night blues messenger on 50,000 watt WLAC from Nashville, and Wolfman Jack howling out blues, rhythm n’ blues, and rock and roll while selling baby chicks and autographed pictures of Jesus from across the border in Mexico on the 500,000 watt blowtorch XERF.

Because of Lowe, who was also the voice of Big Tex, the 70 feet tall icon of the State Fair of Texas, an entire generation of Dallas white boys including Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, Doyle Bramhall, Delbert McClinton, and Paul Ray was turned on to the genuine article. I used to listen to ol' Jim Lowe myself when he signed on at ten pm whenever I could dial in its feeble 1,000 watt signal on my transistor 30 miles away from Dallas in Fort Worth. He’d kick off his program with the blazing instrumental "Night Train", always play his signature "What’s Behind the Green Door?", inevitably feature "One Mint Julep", or Gatemouth Brown’s hard-charging "Okie Dokie Stomp" and go from there, laying it on thick with plenty of Lavern Baker, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, and T-Bone Walker. Kats Karavan was a distilled version of North Texans could hear on KNOK, the black spot on the dial in Dallas-Fort Worth that operated between sunup and sundown.

Gordon McLendon taught Peel showmanship.

McLendon was the eccentric Dallas-based America radio giant credited with inventing Top 40 radio, among many innovations that also included the all news format and cash giveaways. His dramatic recreations of baseball games gleaned from teletype reports were so vivid they drew audiences larger than the actual live broadcasts of games until Major League Baseball banned McLendon’s Liberty Network.

Following Peel’s death, Ken Dowe, a radio station manager who in the Sixties was a morning drive mainstay on McLendon’s KLIF posted his recollections of working with Peel on the RadioDailyNews.com website. Fresh on the heels of the British Invasion led by the Beatles, Dowe cohosted a Saturday afternoon program with John Ravenscroft, as Peel was then known, on KLIF. "John was a native of Liverpool and in the ‘McLendon way’ gave KLIF an authenticity our competitors were denied," Dowe wrote. "John and I made myriad appearances around Dallas and Fort Worth during the British Invasion, signing autographs and hyping KLIF’s association with the world’s hottest new music. We spent many Saturday afternoons during the sixties on the air at Gordon’s ‘Mighty 1190’.

"About five years ago I was contacted by the BBC and invited to appear on their top-rated program, This Is Your Life. John Peel was the subject matter. I was shocked to learn ‘John Peel’, ‘The Dick Clark of Great Britain’, was in fact John Ravenscroft. John had developed a personal and professional relationship with the brightest stars of England. He arranged for dozens of music sessions at the BBC which he then played on his highly popular radio shows and exposed further during his weekly TV program at BBC, Top of the Pops.

"These early music sessions are now available in music stores from Capetown to Moscow. Sir Richard Branson was among the stars and celebrities who praised John Peel on the surprise TV program. Eric Clapton, for example, and so many others. Literally dozens of the biggest British musical successes were discovered by John Peel (Ravenscroft). Today they remain international favorites.

"Time passes…but the stars still glow brilliantly. John Peel is yet another reminder of radio’s magic carpet ride that Gordon McLendon piloted during the last half of the 20th Century. Rest in peace, John Peel, alongside but a handful of McLendon legends."

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