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Dr Demento – Page 3

The genesis of Dr Demento...

READERSVOICE.COM: When rock and roll was sweeping the U.S. in the 1950s you developed your interest in its roots, ie rhythm and blues. Where did your research start when you started going back into the history of R and B, and what course did it take?

DR DEMENTO: In the fifties there was almost no literature about the history of blues or R&B. There were fleeting references to it in the jazz literature, not always accurate. I just picked up records and tried to figure out where they fit in. I did have a general idea of when records were made, from their catalog numbers.

The Country Blues by Samuel Charters, published in 1959, was the very first book with any kind of substantial info about pre-WWII guitar blues.

In the 1960s I spent many afternoons researching my thesis at the Billboard offices in L.A., going through old issues and taking notes by hand.

RV: How old were you when you were a student manager of the campus FM station at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon? What did the job entail?

DR D: I was the student manager for two years. I was 20 when I started.

It involved signing up people to do air shifts, giving them rudimentary training in using the equipment, and trying to make sure they showed up.

It also involved lining up the benefit folk concerts which were our main source of operating income.

RV: When you were at UCLA you did a masters on the evolution of rhythm and blues in the 1940s and 50s. I was wondering if you could list some songs from the 1940s which could just as well be described as rock and roll songs.

DR D: “Choo Choo Ch-Boogie” – Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five; “Good Rockin’ Tonight” – Roy Brown, covered by Wynonie Harris; “Guitar Boogie” – Arthur Smith (a country release from 1945).

RV: When did you move to Los Angeles to start working at radio station KPFK- FM playing pre WW2 blues and country?

RV: I moved to L.A. in 1963 to enroll in UCLA’s then-new M.A. program in Folk Music Studies (no longer offered). Affiliated with this program was the John Edwards Memorial Foundation, which archived and studied commercial country and blues records.

I became the JEMF’s chief archivist (officially employed by UCLA as a research assistant).

The JEMF decided to launch a weekly half-hour radio show and got KPFK to run it, with me as the host. This was not until 1965, so I’d already been at UCLA for two years.

During that time I made two or three guest appearances on other people’s shows on KPFK. The show ran for nine months and was also carried sporadically on other Pacifica stations, or so I was told.

RV: How did you come up with the character Dr Demento when you started your Dr Demento Show at KPPC in L.A. in 1970?

DR D: I did not “come up with a character.” Starting in 1969, Steven Clean invited me to be an occasional guest on his show and play records from my collection. These segments were well received and in October 1970 Steven decided to make them a weekly feature.

I was just being myself. One night, out of the blue, Steven called me “Dr. Demento” and it stuck.

The “character” evolved after that (and is still evolving, for that matter).

RV: What influence did djs “Obscene” Steven Clean and B. Mitchell Reed have on your style and what were they like?

DR D: Steven’s soft-spoken yet intense on-air demeanor was a great influence, as was his talent for putting together sets of music that flowed nicely and often told a story.

That was the acme of music programming in those free-form FM days. He had little formal training in radio, he was just himself, so he was my #1 model.
I admired B. Mitchel Reed enormously, and he was friendly to me, but he was not as great an influence on my style. He was a former Top 40 DJ, and still had that professional gloss (and the sort of baritone voice that was almost a necessity before the free-form era).

RV: What was it like working at KPPC back then? Did you meet or hang out with any musicians, like Frank Zappa, and if so, what were they like?

DR D: The KPPC staff was like a family, lots of love and mutual support. However, I was only at the station once a week, so I did not get in on all the good times, such as the legendary Elton John pie fight.

I met Frank Zappa before I got involved with KPPC. A friend at UCLA grad school who knew him arranged for us to meet, and I became a regular at Mothers shows around L.A. in 1966 and ’67.

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