Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tom Clay was a wack job.

I cite three prime events that prove my thesis :
1. He was busted for payola and lost his job
2. Despite this he went on to defraud the residents of Detroit of about half a million dollars.
3. He accidentally cut a top 10 single.

These were not three random events. These were well thought out goals. Tom just wasn't working off the same life-planning sheet as the rest of us.

Mr. Clay was born in 1929 an indigenous New Yorker (real last name Clague) He rose to popularity in the1950s as a Detroit area DJ on 1490 WJBK-AM. It was a good gig that parlayed into side gigs hosting dances and such. He screwed it up in 1959 by accepting over $6,000 in payola bribes. In 2005 dollars that would be over $40,000. By comparison, Alan Freed took in about $34,000 in payola bribes at the same time. i.e. small fish = small bribes. More on that here and here.

He gets lucky and crosses over to work at a Canadian station in the same market 800 CKLW-AM in neighboring Windsor, Ontario. At the time, the station was a taste-making Top 40 station, back when AM stations could do that. He did a Beatles interview there. More here.

So after burning his ass mishandling the till, he gets fired from CKLW-AM for something equally as bad. He hatched this scheme. He started a non-existent Beatles Fan club. And members paid $1 to join. The club had no benefits so the $1 just got a sticker or something. But with 80,000 not-so-bright members that means 80,000 one dollar bills appeared in his personal PO box. That's $506,940 in today's dollars. So yeah, they really had to fire him.

He tried to stay in the Motor City, but after some short gigs at 1310 WWWW-AM, 560 WQTE-AM, and WTAK-AM he had to leave town. He did manage to get some part-time work at 1020 KGBS in Los Angeles. It would never parlay into a full-time gig... but it dive get him production studio access which turned out to really matter. It was there that he put together a medley of sorts. It was based around the song "What the World Needs Now Is Love" performed by the Blackberries. (performed first by What the World Needs Now Is Love, I think) Over this he interspersed a narrative including sound clips of speeches by John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. It was schlocky but so was that 7 o'clock News/Silent Night song that Simon and Garfunkel did in 1966 and it's considered a classic protest song.

The first single by Tom Clay What the World Needs Now Is Love went to #8 on the billboard chart. A follow-up album had respectable sales, but his second single single, "Whatever Happened To Love" tanked and he ended up collecting unemployment checks. Tom did a show on 1490 KBLA-AM. But his time in radio came to and end and Tom finished his career doing voice over. Cancer got him in 1995. If it interests you his hit single was originally part of an LP. It's tracklisting is as follows:

     (Side 1)
1. What the World Needs Now (Abraham, Martin & John) - 6:19
      2. Whatever Happened To Love (Butler, Tom Clay) - 3:13
      3. What's Going On (Cleveland, Gaye, Benson) - 3:07
      4. For Years? (Tom Clay) - 1:58
      5. The Victors (Tom Clay) - 4:35

      (Side 2)
      1. MacArthur Park (Webb) - 1:32
      2. This Guy's In Love with You - 4:13
      3. Baby I Need Your Loving (Holland, Dozier& Holland) - 2:30
      4. Both Sides Now (Mitchell) - 3:50
      5. Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon) - 2:30


  1. Anonymous12:58 AM

    Despite Clay's transgressions, he was the best of that eras personality djs. As a Detroit teenager in those years, you hung on every word those guys uttered. Nobody cared about the time and temperature. I will admit after almost 50 yrs these airchecks sound goofy in spots. But their influence then puts todays hit radio to shame. thanks for your blog. check out the web site
    detroitradioflashbacks.net for airchecks of Clay and others

  2. I couldn't agree more

  3. Did you know that two of those "members" won in a competition a hang out time with the Beatles?

    I know that this 'wack job', loved his family, loved radio, he was adventurous and lived life well until he died painfully of non-Hodgkin lymphoma!!

  4. Anonymous12:39 AM

    I grew up in LA and listened to radio incessantly from 1955 on. By far Tom was and still is my all time favorite jock. Actually his first gig there was at 1580 KDAY in Santa Monica from July, 1961-April, 1962. He lost the gig when the station changed from rock 'n' roll to soul and hired an all black air staff. Tom was so different than any other jocks because he did so many zany things on the air and got away with it like finish playing a record, back announce it and then take it back and sing along with it. He would count down the number4 of records he played and at the end of his show "tucked them into bed" for the night.

    Clay returned to LA in 1965 to KBLA in Burbank and aired from 4:00-8:00 and was followed by Big Jim Wood, one of the great soul jocks of all time. It was the greatest one-two punch in LA radio history.

    I met Tom many times and he was a true gentleman who truly loved what he did and loved his audience. \

    Wayne Echt
    Las Vegas

  5. Anonymous1:36 AM

    Tom also worked at KMPC and KZLA. Your outline of his L.A career, incomplete and out of sequence, is misleading and makes your post come off as a third-rate smear piece aimed at a dead man.

  6. I'm not writing his biography retard. This is a blog. I reserve the right to summarize and skip details since I'm nto writing his life story. Furthermore, it's not a smear. He was totally a wack-job. Great DJ but a nutbar just the same.


  7. I don't know why you have a beef with Tom Clay and what's with the retard? Tom was my voice coach circa 1991 in Los Angeles and although we were not the best of friends, he was a friend at a point when I needed one.

    It wasn't until a few years ago I read about his scandales on the internet as he never told me about that part of his life.

    Tom made a good living out of doing voice overs as well as coaching and I will always appreciate his patience with me.

    And to Mom of Two you are right, it was because of his love of his family that Marylin Monroe would call his show. She loved hearing him talk about his kids.

  8. Corrected version

    I don't know why you have a beef with Tom Clay. Tom was my voice coach circa 1991 in Los Angeles and although we weren't the best of friends, he was a friend at a point when I needed one.

    It wasn't until a few years ago I read about his scandals on the internet as he never told me about that part of his life.

    Tom made was an in demand voice over artist and coach who made a good living out of what he did, and I will always appreciate his patience with me.

    And to Mom of Two, it was because of his love of his family that Marilyn Monroe would call his show. She loved hearing him talk about his kids.

  9. I have no beef with any dead people so far as I know. (except maybe Ronald Regan) He was very eccentric, and (allegedly) guilty of bribery then later allegedly) of mail fraud. He was a criminal. But even hardened criminals can love their mothers.

    It's more important with history to tell the truth than to make people happy. I won't engage in revisionism. He was a felon, this needs contextualized with any good contributions he made.

  10. Jose, your are right, he commited criminal acts, but not all criminals are wack jobs. Anyway I met him later in his life, when he had pretty much mellowed out.

    can you please delete my first comment as there is an identical one right after, with corrections I made

  11. I think you're being pretty unfair to Clay; unless you're the type to believe everything you read, you really don't have the whole story, and if you did, you'd be pretty embarrassed about some of what you've "reported" here.

    Clay was not a "wack job." He was a radio pioneer, a brilliant producer, and a dedicated family man.

    In Clay's day, payola was just as illegal -- and just as common -- as speeding on the interstate highways is today. Until Alan Freed's case in 1960, it wasn't even illegal.

    The Beatles club was not a scam. It did, in fact, award its announced prize, a visit with the Beatles themselves. The way it was handled may have been questionable, but it was known to the station's management. Clay was fired only after the station's notoriously wimpy management wilted during a public outcry over the money, and decided to blame everything on him alone. It was neither the first nor the last time a radio station forced an air talent to pay for their own poor decision-making.

  12. Unfair? He didn't steal office supplies, he scammed Detroit listeners for HALF A MILLION DOLLARS! (corrected for inflation) Madoff had a family too. That does not offset his felonies.

    If you think Clay was a patsy in a station management conspiracy you need to cite your source. I'll always read them, and entertain the possibilities presented by additional information.

  13. Anonymous1:07 AM

    Wow! Sorry I'm so late, Tom. Still thinking about you so many, many years later. I was there, back in BALTIMORE...tuning into Radio 80. Missed the last night you were on CKLW because of a storm. "I don't like you....I love you".

    You touched me...you affected me. I'm who I am because of you. It's been a good life with more to come, you'd be happy for me.

  14. Anonymous6:29 AM

    I remember Tom lay from 1963-1964
    when he was on cklw. I lived in cleveland but could pick up the station loud and clear.
    He was a great story teller which ade his show great and allowed you to use your imagination which kids today lack.
    I remember his next to last show , he spun a yarn about getting out of the radio business. The next night when he was to have his last show I could not pick up cklw on my radio and am now convinced the turned down the 50000 watts of power to limit pick-up.
    He was the best of the best.
    The whole payola thing was the way it was back then and what you got on the air waves was a lot more variety of songs instead of the boring top 40 that followed.

  15. Anonymous12:54 PM

    I think you're wrong about how much Tom Clay required for joining the Beatles Booster Club--I read elsewhere that it was $1 (rather than $41), which still netted him $86,000. I'm glad I didn't get sucked into that deal, but believe me, as a 13-yr-old, there's no way I would've sent in $41, whereas a buck might've been a possibility. Re-check you facts! What I recall was attending his 'Beatle Booster Ball', an attempt to combat the 'STAMP OUT THE BEATLES' campaign started by a PR guy at U of Detroit...

  16. If you try to type the dollar sign and fail to hit the shift key in proper sequence you just get a "4." that was a typo. That's why it contradicts the following sentence. It is corrected. Source: SH-BOOM!: The Explosion of Rock 'n' Roll (1953-1968)

  17. Anonymous10:44 PM

    I went to 2 of the Beatle Booster Balls in Detroit in 64 I guess. They were fun. He would send two people to meet the Beatles in London then come back to Detroit with stuff the Beatles supposedly gave him to give to the fans. He would call off ticket numbers and those kids would win a lock of hair, a signed item etc. The weirdest thing was that when you left he stood there and had the fans kiss a ring he was wearing. Not sure why but that was what he did.

  18. Tom Clay was great. This blog is fantastic. Fritz is doing a fine duty, reveling many scattered facts from an era that is now becoming what shall be officially classified as: OF LONG AGO. So sayest the future. So sayeth me.

  19. Anonymous4:02 PM

    Does anyone have a recording of his signoff, I believe on WJBK, where he slowly narrates to "I can't get Started With you"? Would love to hear it.

  20. There were Beatle Booster Balls in other cities. I attended the one in Buffalo.

  21. Anonymous6:38 PM

    I was a kid when Tom Clay was fired in Detroit for taking payola. For me, it was devastating. I really liked him. Saw him at Edgewater Park in the late 50’s. He really connected with his fans. Maybe I was too young then to understand. But I didn’t see what the big deal. The songs he played were the ones I liked. So what if got money to play them.🤷🏼‍♀️ And today. What is thst compared to other crimes. Years later when he came out with the record “ What The World Needs Now” I was so happy to hear he was still around and successful.

  22. Anonymous4:49 PM

    Anyone know the two kids who won a trip to London to meet the Beatles and their story. Would be interesting.