Well, Rock & Roll Radio listeners, hear the rumble of the underground airwaves? Set your dial to BFYP-FM 84.8 for a musical revolution …
Big Daddy’s knockin’ on the door … Break On Through (to the Other Side) ♪
aka Thomas Coman, “Big Daddy”
1928 ~ 1975
Best known at KMPX & KYA/San Francisco, California
(Interview with wife, Raechel Donahue)
Yep, times they were a-changin’ on the open range of 1960s radio. It wouldn’t take an army to begin a revolution … just a maverick jock or two. Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue fit the description in a big way.
“I think it was 1966,” said Raechel Donahue, “we went to I think, the Longshoreman’s Hall—a big hippy ball, down by the Haight [infamous San Francisco corner of Haight & Ashbury]. We got out of the car and looked around; there were all these people with buckskin fringe and feathers in their hair, and wild-‘n’-crazy hats, and you know, you see one or two of them [usually] but there were thousands of them. Maybe I’m exaggerating; maybe hundreds.”
Raechel took a deep breath and continued her memories in her husky timbre, “Tom looked at me and said, ‘It’s as if someone just lifted a giant flat rock! And we crawled out from underneath.’ We’re looking around, goin’ ‘Hey man, hey … I know you.’”
San Francisco, 1967—right from the get-go it was gonna be a crazy year. Actor Ronald Reagan settled into Sacramento’s mansion as governor of California; wild child band, The Doors, released their self-titled debut album; and Golden Gate Park hosted the Human Be-In.
Many musicians rebelled against authority and war through their music, decidedly not popular on the AM station turntables. But they resonated with fans who could find them, and FM innovators capitalized on the open market.
Slowly, more new FM stations began to creep onto the radio dial. Smart management catered to listeners who quested for unique music, and DJs who ignored the Top 40 rules. Reveling in its freedom to snub the radio establishment, AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) flourished.
About this time, Tom’s business ventures prospered and he became less enamored with AM radio and Top 40. “Tom was sick of bubblegum music – Sugar, sugar, honey, honey* …” A late ‘60s example, Raechel mimicked the lightweight song in her 2002 Rock Jocks documentary. [*Archies 1969]
A fan of local experimental musicians, The Doors, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and other trendsetters of the era, Tom’s frustration matched theirs. As the AM stations snubbed their music, he Rocked out at home, searching for a groovy alternative to the staid Top 40 format.
Tom wasn’t the only one whose attitude changed with the music … countering a downward spiral of collective depression, hippies ushered in a year of Flower Power and “Make Love, Not War” events—the Human Be-In kicked off the year and led into a steamy Summer of Love. The Donahues would be right in the thick of it.
A find-a-need-and-fill-it kinda guy, Tom began poking around the San Francisco Bay Area looking for a radio station he could make his own.
Early in 1967 Tom found another like-minded DJ in Larry Miller, spinning an oasis of “folk rock” in a sea of foreign-language daytime programming. He “did his own thing” from midnight to 6:00 a.m. on San Francisco’s KMPX.
Tom persuaded the station owners to let him replace the daytime shows as their contracts expired, to feature album-oriented rock and local musicians.
He began April 7, 1967 by preceding Larry’s show, his mellifluous voice booming a new kinda radio to the San Francisco Bay Area.
With barely a thought that he was leading a radio revolution, Tom also hired Raechel (nee Hamilton) and charged her with creating a staff of “chick engineers.”
“He decided we should hire women because he felt women performed better at technical jobs … and he thought they’d be more inclined to work hard and not be jealous of the DJ and want to take his job.”
Finally getting some Top 40 recognition, by June, The Doors were lighting up KFRC’s “Big 30” chart. The weekend of the 10th, the station hosted Fantasy Fair & Magic Mountain Music Festival at the top of Mt. Tamalpais, north of San Francisco.
The rustic amphitheater Rocked with what’s considered one of the first-ever large-scale music festivals. It preceded the more professionally advertised Monterey Pop Festival, and set the stage as a prototype for major outdoor Rock events.
A lengthy lineup of up-and-coming local and national music included The Doors, Canned Heat, Steve Miller Blues Band, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Every Mother’s Son, The 5th Dimension, and the venerable Dionne Warwick.
In an ethereal, idyllic environment, the venue offered a weekend of Flower Power, visceral vibes, and top album tunes not on the Top 40, that slid off your mind with the light haze that wafted through the trees.
I wanted the short* “Light My Fire” to go on forever. We (yes, yours truly was there) swayed as one, entranced with its hypnotic beat. The Doors song sat at #2 on the KFRC Big 30 chart for June 7, 1967. The following week, it floated to #1. (*The album version is a heavenly seven minutes of musical mayhem … that day, I’m sure it was even longer … and yet, still not long enough.)
But we might never have tripped out on the raucous sounds of Rock and Roll in all its psychedelic glory that hot summer day, if not for Tom Donahue and freeform radio.
Raechel recalled their interaction with rising stars: “We had a nightclub called Mother’s. All these groups played there. Tom and I had The Dead on our record label, and as the emergency crew. Tom is the one who got Warner Brothers to see The Grateful Dead, and negotiated for them a 12% contract, when all the rest of the world was getting 3%. They played the club for free.” Um, I should hope so …
Raechel, rules, and the beat goes on …