Dick Biondi, a bubbly, fast-talking Top 40 radio personality nicknamed “The Screamer” who became one of Chicago’s most popular disc jockeys in the early 1960s and was widely heard in and around the city thanks to the station’s signal strength, died June 26 in Chicago. he was 90 years old.
His death was confirmed by Pamela Enzweiler-Pullis, director of the upcoming documentary The Voice That Rocked America: The Story of Dick Biondi.
When Mr. Biondi was hired in 1960 for a late night shift of $378 a week (roughly $3,900 in today’s dollars), Biondi was a rant at WLS-AM that had just changed its format to rock and roll, though not a shock jock. Broadcast reach in 38 states and Canada provided Biondi with a platform to grow into a major media personality as his music skyrocketed in popularity.
Inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1998, Biondi quickly established himself as a Chicago star. He called himself a “Wild Eye Trarian”. He hosts record hops and charity events. And he recorded the novelty song “On Top of a Pizza,” a parody of his 1961 local hit “On Top of Old Smoky.”
“Nobody could match his character,” Enzweiler Pulis said in a telephone interview. “He was wild, outrageous, goofy, cheerleader. He was like a big kid – he was one of us. He spoke our language.”
In 1961, the trade publication The Gavin Report named him one of the top 40 disc jockeys of the year. His nightly ratings eventually rose to the highest on Chicago radio.
Future film critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Daily Illini, the student newspaper of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that in late 1961, “Biondi had become one of the most famous figures in the Midwest” in late 1961, despite “operating in the shadowy realm of nighttime disc jockeys, rarely penetrated by national recognition or fan magazine acclaim.”
The Chicago Tribune has reported over the years that Biondi’s show captured a whopping 60 percent share of all listeners in the Chicago market. In 1962, the Tribune stated that the local audience consisted mostly of teenagers.
Enzweiler Pulis was one of Biondi’s young fans. She started a Biondi fan club and wrote a newsletter. She was 13 when she first met him at a shopping center, where hundreds of people watched as he arrived by helicopter.
“Everywhere he went, fans were mobbing him,” she said.
WLS became an important part of the hit-making machine for record companies, and Mr. Biondi played a key role in that equation. He was particularly important to Chicago-based label Vee Jay’s Four Seasons.
Another group on Vee-Jay, at least for a while, was The Beatles. And when Biondi played Vee Jay’s single “Please Please Me” in early 1963, it may have been the first time a Beatles song was played on an American station, says Mark Lewisohn, whose book Tune In (2013) is the first in a trilogy to be called The Beatles: All These Years.
But Biondi’s tenure at the WLS ended in 1963 after just three years. He complained about the amount of commercials on his own show compared to his rival station’s amount of commercials for Dick Kemp, known as “Wild Child”, and was fired. Biondi said his carping angered the sales manager. In one clash in the studio, Mr. Biondi, armed with a letter opener, had to be stopped by two engineers.
Biondi said it was one of the 25 times he’s been fired from various jobs over the course of his career.
Shortly after his dismissal, Tribune gossip columnist Herb Lion reported, “Former WLS dee-jay Dick Biondi remains a youth hero, trotting around town pushing his new album ‘Biondi Talks to Teenagers,’ which is downright perverse.”
Richard Orlando Biondi was born on September 13, 1932 in Endicott, New York, near Binghamton, to Michael Biondi and Rose Biondi. His first radio appearance was when he was eight years old when he was standing outside his studio in Auburn, New York, when an announcer he was watching told him to go inside and read a commercial for a women’s clothing store.
That was the beginning of his love of radio. In his teens, he worked as a reporter at a Binghamton station, where one of the announcers taught him the language. In 1950, after high school, he got a job as a sportscaster in Corning, New York.
For the next decade, he worked at a train station in Alexandria, Louisiana (where he played R&B and convened high school football games). York, Pennsylvania. Youngstown, Ohio. and buffalo.
He hosted a record hop event in 1957 starring Jerry Lee Lewis, who was at the height of his fame, at which actor Michael Landon took the stage and gushed about the single “Gimme a Little Kiss (Will Ya Huh?)”.
“The girls went crazy,” Biondi said in a 2003 TV interview with Chicago Tonight. “You know how good-looking he was.”
Mr. Biondi had a beard that he dyed weekly to match the official colors of his high school, which regularly hosts record hops. He sat on the flagpole for three days and nights depending on the bravery of his listeners.
And he said he met Elvis Presley backstage in Cleveland and convinced him to sign the white shirt he was wearing. Biondi then continued to wear it, but it was torn so badly by his fans that he had to go to the hospital emergency room to treat his badly scratched back.
After leaving Chicago in 1963, Mr. Biondi spent the next half century on the road. He moved to his KRLA in Los Angeles in 1963. From 1964 until his cancellation in 1965, he hosted a nationally syndicated program on mutual radio. He then returned to KRLA and introduced the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965 with fellow DJs such as Bob Eubanks and Casey Kasem. In 1967 he returned to Chicago with the WCFL.
“You know, the day I left Chicago, I started wanting to go back,” he told the Tribune in 1967.
But in 1972 he left for the station in Cincinnati. He then moved to Boston and North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, before returning permanently to Chicago in 1983 and, most importantly, on the new oldies station WJMK-FM where he served as the show’s host for 21 years. He returned to WLS (this time on his FM dial) from his 2006, when the station ended his relationship with him in 2018.
His survivors include his wife Maribeth Biondi and sister Geraldine Wallace.
Many of Biondi’s encounters with rock’s biggest names were still vivid decades later.
For example, he recalled Jerry Lee Lewis taking the stage for the second set and playing 14 songs in 1957, after Michael Landon, then starring in the movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf, wowed hundreds of fans.
“He goes crazy on the second show,” Biondi said. “He walks away, and there’s Michael Landon. He’s like, ‘Okay, baby, beat me this time.'”