O'Day, Pat (1934-2020)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 4/03/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3130

Pat O'Day: Founding father of Northwest rock 'n' roll or the "Godfather" of the 1960s teendance scene? A vampire or the catalyst? Or all of the above? There are many Northwesterners who would debate these points for days on end, but what is perfectly clear is that when it came to the business of rock music in the Northwest, Pat O'Day was the Chairman of the Board, the Grand Poobah, the Top Dog, the Big Kahuna. New York City had Alan Freed, Boston had Arnie Ginsberg, Los Angeles had Hunter Hancock, and Seattle had O'Day. As Seattle's highest-profile DJ of the 1960s and the region's dominant dance promoter, Pat O'Day ran Northwest rock 'n' roll for nearly a decade.

Radioman of the Year

In 1964 and 1965, the national radio industry acknowledged O'Day's power, voting him top program director. In 1966, O'Day was voted "Radioman of the Year" and was also honored (along with a select few other iconic radio people) with his own volume of the popular Crusin' LP series that featured his patter wedged between compiled period hits. 

O'Day's name became synonymous with KJR, the station he ran for a decade and built into an empire. To understand his impact one has to consider the power of that station -- it was not uncommon for KJR to boast of a 37 percent rating, an unheard of dominance by a radio station. Today [2001] that rating would be more than the market share of the top seven local stations (KMPS, KUBE, KVI, KIRO, KBSG, KRWM, and KWJZ) combined. O'Day was eventually promoted to program director and, by 1968, to general manager. He oversaw the production of each week's Fab-50 playlist -- inclusion was virtually the only way a record could become a hit in the Seattle area.

Additionally, O'Day produced or engineered numerous recordings by many of the top bands on the KJR playlist including the Wailers, the Viceroys, the Dynamics, and the Casuals. He also ran an extensive teen dance circuit across the region -- which was the most profitable part of his empire and perhaps the most visible. By 1962, O'Day was making more than $50,000 a year just from throwing dances. By the mid-1960s O'Day and Associates were presenting more than 58 separate teen dances a week throughout the state.

The Rock 'n' Roll Pie

When it came to Northwest rock 'n' roll, O'Day had his finger in every pie, though other local bands and promoters wanted some of that pie. In 1967, three local businessmen slapped a $3 million federal antitrust suit on O'Day, charging that he held a monopoly on the Northwest rock 'n' roll scene and suggesting that he had been involved in payola and kickbacks from the bands that KJR aired.

The legal actions took more than three years and included a highly publicized trial at which several musicians testified (Merrilee Rush told the court that she and O'Day only exchanged Christmas gifts -- a bottle of Jack Daniels for a smoked turkey). Eventually O'Day was cleared of all charges and given a clean bill of health by the FBI and other investigators. Still, O'Day's power base was weakened and he departed KJR, the station he had brought to prominence and dominance, in 1974 to develop his concert business. "The federal investigations cost me about $150,000," O'Day said later. "But I've never been further behind than when I started out because I didn't have anything when I started" (Pat O'Day interview with author).

The trial was not the first or the last time O'Day was involved in a financial controversy. Though his reputation was hurt by the charges, he wasn't down for the count. He sold his teen-dance business (just when teen dances were fading) and formed Concerts West, one of the world's biggest concert promotion firms. O'Day had promoted the Beatles in 1964, and in 1965 he had local garage rockers, the Wailers, open for the Rolling Stones and Northwest proto-punk cult legends the Sonics share the bill with the Kinks. By 1968 Concerts West was booking all the U.S. dates for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and O'Day was on the road with Hendrix. 

O'Day couldn't give up radio, though, and after selling Concerts West he parlayed his considerable wealth into ownership of a string of stations including KXA, KYYX, and Honolulu's KORL. But by 1982, O'Day was once again the center of controversy when his empire fell on hard times financially and The Seattle Times ran a feature story outlining his woes. By 1983, he was facing bankruptcy, squeezed by a $5 million bank loan. 

Out of Tacoma

O'Day was born in 1934 as Paul W. Berg, the son of a preacher. His father for years had a radio ministry on Tacoma's KMO, introducing Pat to the medium. He was raised in Bremerton, and from his early youth had only one dream: to be the afternoon man on KJR. He attended radio school in Tacoma and in September 1956 landed his first job at an Astoria, Oregon station. There, in between reading Lost Dog Reports and funeral home ads he developed his "Platter Party" concept, which meant broadcasting rock hits from remote teenage sockhops on weekends -- thus turning the medium of radio into an "event."

He moved to Seattle in 1959, lured by station KAYO, and only there did he adopt the O'Day moniker, taking it from the name of a local high school, O'Dea. By the fall of 1959, he had moved to KJR and his dynasty begin.

That November, O'Day turned the local rock 'n' roll scene (sleepy up until that point) upside down. First he hired the Wailers -- then riding high with their national hit, "Tall Cool One" -- to play a rock 'n' roll dance at the Spanish Castle, a ballroom just south of Seattle. Before long the Castle emerged as the region's premier dance hall and O'Day had his hand in almost every show there.

On the radio, O'Day was also shaking up the scene. For if radio is, as has been said, the "theater of the mind," then O'Day was surely the greatest mind-bender to ever grace Northwest radio. Working with a bottomless bag of impromptu tricks and stunts, O'Day -- who was blessed with an archetypal radio voice -- proceeded to capture the imagination of Seattle's teenagers by mixing rock 'n' roll hits with a never-ending cast of zany on-air characters including "Granny Peters," "Mr. KJR," and "Wonder Mother." It was innovative, cutting edge, and fun.

O'Day could also fairly claim credit to being one of the first DJs in the nation to experiment with an "Oldies" format. That was partially because in the late 1950s rock 'n' roll was still so young, few stations concerned themselves with yesterday's hits. But O'Day was quick to understand that a classic song will always be a classic, and he exploited this programming technique to its fullest.

Local Discs to the Top

O'Day established KJR as a station that could make hit records (think: the Ventures' "Walk -- Don't Run" and the Tijuana Brass' "The Lonely Bull"). Perhaps more important, he was one of the first DJs in the Northwest to realize the talent of the early local bands. Though O'Day had more than his share of detractors, no one faulted his commitment to local music -- no other station in history has played as many local discs as the O'Day-led KJR. Not only did he play local records (and book the bands for his teen dances), he made them hits and increased the interest in Northwest music around the nation to a level that wouldn't again be attained until the Grunge movement of the 1990s.

By the late 1960s, the bands O'Day pushed had already seen their better years and the style of radio he represented didn't go over too well with the freaks and hippies. It wasn't uncommon to see bumper stickers in Seattle's University District that said "Pat O'Day Is A Shuck." Many freaks found his bombastic, wisecracking style to be the embodiment of crass commercial radio. Great offense was taken when it was revealed that O'Day had been the secret financier behind a prominent local promoter who had been booking concerts at the Eagles Hall, the "hip" alternative to O'Day's teenybopper dance scene. It seemed there was no escaping O'Day's presence.


Sources:

Peter Blecha Interviews with Pat O'Day, 1980s-2001; John McCoy, "Pat O'Day and Radio Are Still Best of Friends," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 11, 1983; Peter Blecha, "Pat O'Day: The Godfather of Northwest Rock," The Rocket, June 1987.
Note: Pat O'Day left KJR voluntarily in 1974, a fact misreported in an earlier version of this story. It was corrected on January 28, 2002. The story was further updated on August 5, 2020.


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