When he died recently, Larry Lujack had not been a regular disc jockey on a major Chicago radio station for over quarter of a century. Yet tributes poured in not just from Chicago, but from all over the country. How was he able to evoke vivid, long-ago memories from so many people, most of whom never met him personally? It is a testimony to the medium - and to the man.
Lujack became a DJ in the early 1960’s during the emerging heyday of AM Top 40 radio. With a huge youth market across America poised to listen to rock music, the disc jockey’s job was to fill air time between music, news, traffic, and commercials with upbeat patter, jokes, and feigned excitement. The DJs of the time were basically variations on Dick Clark from American Bandstand: vacuous smiles, perpetual happiness, but somewhat less than genuine.
Lujack was the groundbreaker, the first to abandon the standard DJ attitude. Sarcastic, barbed, and blessed with a great voice for radio, if he thought a record was bad, he’d tell his audience (his own tastes ran more toward country than rock). Likewise with station promotions; if he thought they were stupid, he let the audience know. Occasionally, he’d rip commercials and even station sponsors themselves, not the best approach early in a career.
But above all, he was sincere; radio audiences, especially teenagers, had never heard such sincerity from a DJ. With the Vietnam War raging, in an era of iconoclasm and rebellion against authority, Lujack was the ultimate anti-authority figure. Not political, because his politics were never stated, and it would be oversimplistic to say he sided with kids against parents or with parents against kids. His real target was hypocrisy, no matter where he found it, and one place it was easy to find was radio itself, a fertile source of his material.
Combine that with a rapier-like wit, and a laid-back on –air persona, and he did what only a handful of others could do then or now, – make talking about everyday subjects not just interesting but compelling. Not for four hours everyday - no one can do that - but long enough that people in their cars or in their homes tuned in religiously to hear what he had to say each day. Last week after his death, person after person recounted things he said on radio over 40 years ago. Imagine the talent required to do that.
Part of his genius was making it sound so easy. As he moved between Chicago’s two radio giants, WLS and WCFL, he developed regular features, “The Cheap, Trashy Showbiz Report” and “Clunk Letter of the Day”, that sounded improvised but were actually meticulously prepared, and always listener friendly. Later in his career, he and fellow DJ Tommy Edwards created “Animal Stories”, a certifiable radio classic.
The ratings validated his approach. For over a decade he dominated Chicago rock radio and became one of the nation’s highest paid radio personalities. But the ratings never told the entire story of his popularity. The WLS signal was especially strong and clear at night so people all over the Midwest and South heard a DJ unlike any from their hometown. In Missouri, a teenage Rush Limbaugh listened, learned, and borrowed from the Lujack style liberally, including phrases still in use today such as “Talent on Loan From God”. An aspiring comedian from Ball State in Indiana, David Letterman, would tune into Animal Stories regularly and was influenced by the tongue-in-cheek delivery.
Because Lujack pushed the limits of radio, it was inevitable that those who came after would push boundaries further. Part of his legacy is the “shock jock” including Steve Dahl, Howard Stern, and Jonathan Brandmeier. They all have talent but it was Lujack who paved the ground for them to display their skills. In his later years, as the airwaves got raunchier, his ratings suffered in part because he refused to pander to the new, coarser spirit of the day.
When one of his sons died under tragic circumstances, he seemed less focused afterward. Though he never talked about his family on the air, the one time he broke the rule and briefly described his grief over his son’s death was one of the most moving segments of radio I ever heard.
As we grow older, we all remember virtuoso performances we were lucky enough to witness in our lifetimes. Perhaps it was Olivier doing Henry V, Charlie Parker playing sax, or Jordan on the basketball court. We silently regret that our children, or other young people, can never share that experience. It can be recreated, there is certainly plenty of video of Michael Jordan or Olivier. But watching video lacks the spontaneity and sense of immediacy. The performer’s brilliance can be appreciated, but not their true genius. And young people are poorer for having missed the performer live.
Thus it is to listen to tape of Larry Lujack today. The wit, the strategic pauses, and the rhythm all testify to his virtuosity. But to appreciate his genius, you would have had to be listening around 1970. The freshness and vibrancy in those old radio waves are somewhere in deep space now, but the memories attached to them are still indelibly etched in the minds of his listeners everywhere. Thanks, Uncle Lar.
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