MLK, James Brown, and Me

James Brown - The Legendary TAMI Show Performance

In 1968 I was PD/OM at KCOH, an R&B radio station in Houston. I had been trying to move from KELP in El Paso to a larger market, and hopefully more money. So the day the phone rang and a voice asked if I’d like to go to Houston, (at the time the countries 11th market), I was very interested. The hitch was that I wanted to stay on the air and they wanted an off-the-air manager; but the money was a nice bump and I decided to accept the offer, not realizing what the format was.

So I loaded up the Mustang, attached a U Haul Trailer, and headed east. Houston was popping with the new Astrodome and the booming ‘Oil Bidness.’ The station itself was in a freestanding building with “Looking Glass Studios,” and the deejays could wave and call out to passing cars. It turned out to be an R&B station, not Rock, but the city’s large African American population made it very popular and profitable. Things went along well for a year or so, I did most of the production, created the weekend schedules and tried to control the music selection, although I’d hear strange tunes every once in a while. Then suddenly one afternoon, terrible news changed every thing.

I was at my desk when a newsman came in and told me Martin Luther King had just been assassinated in Memphis. Shocked, I realized I had to act quickly and went into the studio to tell the jock, Skipper Lee Frazier, to pull off all the spots, (which caused chaos and rebellion in the Sales Department), and to stop playing the Hits and go to Gospel music.

Skip got it immediately, and quietly informed his audience of the terrible event. Back in the hallway it was obvious the building was empty, everyone had left the station. My Mustang, (usually dwarfed by the deejay’s Cadillac’s), was all alone in the parking lot. The Captain always stays with the ship, so I sat down in the booth with Skipper Lee, and we began discussing what we knew of the murder and taking calls from upset listeners.

As darkness fell, the street in front of us filled with people, many holding transistor radios to their ears, furious at the loss of their beloved leader. The AP wire had stories of American cities with rioting and neighborhoods going up in flames. We decided not to talk about it, fearing that it would saprk similar behavior in Houston. Then the hotline rang, only a few people had that number, so I answered it. “Donnie, this is James Brown, I’m in Boston, and I’m calling around the country to try to settle things down, would you put me on the air?”

Skip patched the phone into the board and Mr. Brown began an emotional plea: “Don’t burn your houses, or riot in the streets, because you’ll just be hurting yourselves,” or something similar. Then he said, “There’s a young white man in the radio station and he’s a friend of mine, let him go home to his wife and baby girl.”

James Brown, Don "Donnie Dare" Sundeen, Mike "Danny Dare" McKenzie, 1965

Then the crowd parted, and an HPD car slowly crawled toward the building and stopped by the front door. Two officers were inside, one holding a shotgun. Skipper said, “You go on Don, they won’t hurt me and I want to stay and try to calm things down.”

On the way home the cops explained that James had called the Mayor before calling the station to explain what he was doing, and had been given the go ahead to call us, and they’d send a car to me pick me up. The next morning I went back expecting to find the Mustang gone or burned to a crisp, but it had not been touched. Still, I felt the time of a white PD at a black station was over, and it was time to move on again,; where and to do what I had no idea. In the last few years there have been some critical comments concerning James Brown’s treatment of people in general; but as for me, I think he may have saved my life.

#JamesBrown #DonSundeen #Legends #RockandRollHeaven #Soul #PersonalStories