Les Marshak on the air at Musicradio WABC
Les Marshak today!
(photos courtesy Les Marshak)
Les Marshak had the night off from his job as a staff announcer at ABC and was about to hop into bed when he turned on Musicradio77 WABC, where he frequently did the overnight newscasts.
Suddenly he heard the overnight air personality, Roby Yonge, taking phone calls about rumors that Beatle Paul McCartney was dead.
He was breaking the format, which was sacrosanct at the time, Les recalled during an Oct. 22, 2005 phone interview with Musicradio77.com. I freaked out.
Les had arrived at WABC in 1961 after Scott Muni, then the evening air personality, called him on the air to tell him that he had won the stations Star Search competition.
Les, who was a sophomore in the Pharmacy program at Columbia University in New York City at the time, developed a relationship with Scott and assisted him during broadcasts from Freedomland and delivered high school sports reports on Scotts show.
About two months after winning the Star Search, Cousin Brucie, a young air personality at the time, returned to New York City from Miami and had Les assist him on his late night WABC show and during his appearances at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. He even became the stations Youth Director.
Through the mid and late 1960s Les worked at Radio NY Worldwide, a shortwave operation with studios in New York City. He hoped that it would be a launching pad to landing a show at WABC, which had become the most listened to station in the nation.
In the summer 1969 he was hired as a staff announcer at ABC, working with such touted veterans as Milton Cross, Carl Caruso and Joel Crager.
Some of those guys went back to the early days of radio, Les recalled.
Roby, who was about the same age as Les, had arrived at WABC in late December 1967 from Miami, where he was particularly popular with the surfer crowd. His arrival coincided with the elimination of such network commitments as The Breakfast Club and the nightly Newscope.
Now playing more music, within six months WABC built a huge lead in the ratings over its arch rival, WMCA.
Initially, Roby had worked Monday through Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m, following Ron Lundy and preceding Dan Ingram.
However, his career started to decline in early 1969 when he was moved to a short-lived 45 minute spot between Dans and Brucies show, then the Sunday late morning-early afternoon shift and finally in late summer to the overnight hours after the affable Charlie Greer left WABC to work at WIP in Philadelphia.
Reportedly, the stations legendary program director, Rick Sklar, had already decided not to renew Robys contract.
On that fateful morning of Oct. 21, 1969, Rick, who had received a call about an inordinate number of phone calls coming into the station, called Les and he ran down to the station and went up to the studios with Rick who had summoned a guard with a pistol.
Roby was removed from the building and Les said he went on the air and read a disclaimer because the station was afraid of lawsuits
He finished Robys show that night.
Rick told me to keep doing what I was doing, and for more than three months I had the show and I was on top of the world, Les said.
However, Les said he also was nervous. It helped that the late evening air personality, Chuck Leonard, whose show immediately preceded his air shift, offered some encouragement.
Chuck was a great guy and a funky guy, who was very supportive of me particularly during the first shows at WABC, Les said. He gave me reassurance and we would talk about the station while having dinner together.
At the time WABC and other Top 40 stations across the country had an incredibly broad play-list.
The station would be playing Henry Mancinis Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet and then go into the Rolling Stones with Honky Tonk Women, Les said, referring to the Mancini instrumental that placed 17th on the WABC Top 100 of 1969 Rolling Stones rocker that finished third on the survey for that year.
In a sense it was refreshing because you had everyone from kids to people in their 40s and 50s listening, he added.
He discovered that many of the overnight listeners were either college students during the wee hours of the morning and then blue collar workers who were on their way to work around 5 a.m. shortly before Harry Harrison went on the air during morning drive time.
But you would get other people, as well, since New York is the city that never sleeps, Les said.
He said that even though WABC had won the ratings war with WMCA it was a transition time since FM was making a huge dent.
WABC had a terrific sound with the production, the jingles, the air personalities, but you also could sense that the station was trying to become hipper, Les recalled. At one point they even had Bruce drop the Cousin from his name for a while Although he got it back.
His status at WABC remained uncertain for more than three months.
When I would come in during the day, Dan Ingram would tell me to get Rick to make a commitment to me, Les recalled.
Rick went over tapes of my air work and it seemed like they grooming me for the shift, he said. Then he called one day and said not to come in that night, and it was a bit devastating.
In February 1970, WABC hired Jay Reynolds from Indianapolis, Ind., to do the overnight show. He stayed with the station until late February 1976 when Bob Cruz became the overnight air personality.
However, getting on WABC just for that short period was a huge career boost, said Les, who was working weeks later at WPIX-FM and became its morning air personality in 1971.
He had been interested in a career in radio and television from the time he was growing up in the 1950s in shadows of Yankee Stadium in the New York City borough of the Bronx.
When he went to the games he would spend 50 percent of my time watching the field and 50 percent glued at the press box. I was fascinated with the play by play announcers.
His favorite was the legendary Mel Allen, who worked the Yankee games from 1939 through 1964 and was the highest paid sportscaster in the country for much of that time.
When I was 10 or 11 years old Mel Allen signed my autograph book, Les recalled. He was a larger than life figure.
He had the greatest ability to communicate with people and had a sense of humor, Les said. Mel was a people guy who was warm and loving, Les said.
At one point, Les dreamed of becoming a sportscaster.
I could see a Little League field outside my bedroom window and I would announce the games with my toy microphone, he said. I guess I never regretted going in that direction because the lifestyle of a play-by-play announcer means you have to be on the road a lot, which is hard on a family.
In the mid-1980s, Les was hired to do the voiceover promo for Major League Baseballs All-Star game and when he arrived for the taping the producer said he had a surprise for him.
He walked into the studio and discovered that he would be working on the promo with Mel Allen, who gave him a hug.
When we sat down, I asked him a question about a particular game and he had an incredible rol-a-dex of memories.
He could vividly recall moments from games in the 1940s, Les added. All of the sudden I saw the engineer motion for us to speed things up so that we could start taping the promo.
Les did the morning show at WPIX-FM until 1977.
By that time he had so much voiceover work that he decided to concentrate on that career.
He had started by doing production pieces for the station and then picking up spots for record companies and commercials that were taped at the station.
For nearly 30 years he has been one of the premier voiceover announcers in the business.
He said that he was the announcer for the Tony Awards for 21 consecutive years and did the Academy Awards in 1992, 94 and 96.
There is so much adrenaline involved with doing the live shows, Les said.
He has been the voice for NBC Sports for many years, has handled Macys commercials since 1986 and also currently does work for Dateline NBC, The Today Show, Chris Matthews Sunday morning interview show, Court TV and Nick News.
There is a different menu every day, said Les, who lives in New York City and has a weekend home on Long Island. You get up and you dont know which people are going to call or have contacted your agent.
His agent, Don Buchwald, who also represents Howard Stern and formerly represented Dan Ingram, handles many of the arrangements.
Les said his early music training has been of help.
My work as a kid on piano, where I did concerts, has given me a good ear for the copy and I can do things instinctively with narration and voiceover work, he said.
I can switch gears in pacing, inflection and attitude, Les added.
Very often the people producing the commercial dont know exactly how it should be done, he said. They leave up to you. I try to manipulate my voice to go to where we have to be.
He said a voiceover announcer also has to have a clock in his head.
If you do a segment in 12 seconds and they say they want it in 11.7 seconds then you have to have a feel for what three-tenths of a second is like, Les said.
He said that technology has made it easier for people to succeed in the profession today.
With digital equipment, an audio engineer can do more with a tape, Les said.
There also are more opportunities as a result of cable television and the Internet, he added. There also are more women working in the business now.
My answer changes every year, Les said when asked if he misses being a radio air personality. When I first left radio, I definitely missed it.
However, now I dont think I would fit into any of the formats that are in New York City, he added. I miss what I used to do, and the only place where that is available is on the satellite networks now, Les said.
I might consider doing one day a week at Sirius in the future, he said, referring to the New York City-based satellite network that offers commercial free music, including channels with hits from the 1960s and the 1970s.
Les wife, Nancy, a real estate broker, has been best friends with Brucies wife, Jodie Morrow, for decades.
However, Brucie noted in his 1987 autobiography that it was another friend of his, Rick Shapiro, who encouraged him to ask Jodie out. They were married some months later in December 1974.
Jodie called me one day and said that I never would believe who she was going out with, Les recalled.
The four of us have been inseparable every since, he said. We even travel together.
He also works regularly on Brucies Variety Childrens Telethon.
The last few months were unreal, Les said, noting that Brucies friends were a little depressed when his 23-year career at WCBS-FM ended in June 2005 after the station switched its music from oldies to the iPod-inspired Jack format.
But Bruce saw a silver lining, he added. He knew that CBS-FM wasnt going to be an oldies station forever.
I think the move to Sirius with a national audience has been a renewal for him, Les said regarding Brucies Wednesday and Saturday night music shows on Sirius 6 and the Thursday night talk show on Sirius 103. He is a lot more involved in the production of his shows than he was anywhere else.
He has so much vitality that you knew he wasnt going to retire to a rocking chair, he added of Brucie, who recently turned 68.
On another topic, Les said that Scott Muni helped establish WABC as a premier music station through the early 1960s.
Scott had been a superstar at WMCA and he brought a different dimension to WABC than you would hear in a lot of the air personalities of the early 1960s, he said. He wasnt a Top-40 shouter.
He could communicate through this unusual vocal apparatus, he added. There also was a lot of sex appeal there for the women in the audience.
He had so much charisma that he could have been a television personality, Les said.
He said that he believes that Scott made a good decision in leaving WABC in August 1965 to seek a career in the broader FM formats. He went to WOR-FM and then spent many years at WNEW-FM before moving to WAXQ-FM in 1998.
He did not want to be constricted by the Top 40 format, Les said. He was not a typical Top 40 guy.
On another subject, he said his Ivy League education has benefited him during his careers as a voiceover announcer and radio air personality.
Being in the Pharmacy program at Columbia was almost like being in pre-med, Les said. I needed a security blanket because everyone told me that there was no security in radio.
I think my education has helped me in radio and voiceover work because getting through a demanding curriculum like that gave me discipline and it made me tenacious, he added. I think it helped me in starting right in New York and working my way up through the biggest market.
I encourage people to go for their first love, Les said. Dont let anything stand in the way.
Les Marshak on WABC: October, 1969
(aircheck courtesy Les Marshak)
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