A Conversation with Pat O'Day

  • By Casey McNerthney
  • Posted 8/05/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21081
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Pat O'Day, a legendary Seattle disc jockey and arguably the city's best-known voice, died on August 4, 2020, at age 86. O'Day was program director and DJ at KJR in the 1960s when Channel 95 had ratings as high as 37 percent – with more than 80 percent of the teen audience, three times that of his competitors. He handled the Beatles concerts here and the first appearance by The Rolling Stones in 1965, among hundreds of other shows. During his time as the Northwest's top dance promoter, O'Day gave Jimi Hendrix a break at the Spanish Castle Ballroom -- and O'Day said that was what sparked Hendrix to go with his concert promotion company years later. It was Hendrix who encouraged O'Day to be the voice of Seafair, which he was for decades, always friendly with fans who stopped him to say hello.

"Dad passed peacefully at his home in the San Juan Islands," his son Jeff O'Day wrote August 4, 2020, on Facebook. "Beating lung cancer was an incredible victory for him, unfortunately, it wreaked havoc on his lungs. In his final days his spirits were high, he lived every day as though it were his last ... He knew the gifts he had been given and how spectacular his life had been. Dad was ready. The Pacific Northwest will always seem a little empty without the legendary Pat O'Day. All we can do is focus on the incredible role he had in making the Emerald City a better place to live, and the difference he made in people's lives. As his Son, I could have never imagined a better role model for me as a Father. I have never met a more faithful, loving husband to his Wife, Stephanie. He will be in my thoughts every day for the rest of my life." 

O'Day's 2003 book, "It Was all Just Rock 'n' Roll," co-written with Jim Ojala, gives a detailed account of the radio career that got him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1998. This interview by Seattle journalist Casey McNerthney was conducted at O'Day's real estate office in Friday Harbor on October 3, 2003. Some of the answers have been edited for length.

Casey McNerthney: When you were broadcasting on KJR, did you ever think that you were having such a profound effect on local musicians?

Pat O'Day: I have to tell you that all of my life I wanted to be in radio, and I never wanted anything else. I did arrive at radio right at the cusp of a change where radio had gone after being soundly defeated and nearly destroyed by television, which took all of its performers and its shows away. Radio was in the doldrums. And then in 1955, actually this thing called rock and roll radio began to develop and 1956 was when I came out of school and went into radio. And now you can move forward to the early 1960s and this new thing called rock and roll Top 40 radio is still basically brand new. And I'm right smack in the middle of it. I'm program director and music director and the afternoon disc jockey at KJR, and we're becoming a huge radio station. I didn't think of it at the time. I got up every day and did whatever there was opportunity to do. I started teenage dances in the Northwest. Did I think I was starting some brilliant new trend? No! It was just, "Hey, I think this would work, let's try it." And the same thing was true with the radio station. We were doing things and now people look back on and say "Wow that was really historic." But at the time you don't think about that. You just say, "Hey now here's a good idea. This will increase our ratings. Let's try this."

CM: What exciting times.

Pat O'Day: They were exciting times as I look back on it. I didn't realize then how exciting they were. Now I look back on it and think here I was running around the country with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and we [Concerts West] were handling all the appearances of Elvis and Chicago and the Beach Boys and Elton John and the Eagles, from Linda Ronstadt and Bachman Turner Overdrive. Bad Company and Creedence Clearwater and the Moody Blues. And we'd become the biggest concert company in the world and we were handling all the closed-circuit screens for Muhammad Ali fights in the United States. Did we think we were a big deal? I don't think so. We just said, "Gee, what can we do next?"

A little company that started in Seattle. You know, it's interesting who so many companies and ideas of huge national and international impact start in Seattle. And I give you not just Boeing, but Microsoft and so many medical advances in the field of medicine and biomedicine, Starbucks, Costco, Seattle's Best Coffee, Amazon.com, Real Networks. The list just goes on and on and on. ... I think it's the nature of the people that live in the Northwest. They have courage. They probably have genetics from families that had the courage to move out to the Northwest once a long time ago when it was considered that far remote part of the United States where it rained a lot and that's all anyone knew about it. But the kind of spirit that caused families to move out, I think those genes are very present in the Northwest and cause people to be innovators. 

CM: You were one of the main people responsible for the Beatles' visit to Seattle in 1964. What do you remember about that performance at the Seattle Center Coliseum?

Pat O'Day: Clearly, it was a night that was electric. It was different in one regard and that is, kids from the Pacific Northwest were always totally cool. Applause and cheers and shouting were somewhat muted by the "Northwest cool" that prevailed. But everyone had told the young people of America that they would scream. It started on The Ed Sullivan Show. Everyone screamed when the Beatles came on. So you had 15,000 kids there doing what they'd been told they were going to do, which was scream. And they may as well because you weren't going to be able to hear the group anyway. ... I was standing next to George Harrison and George looked at me and he reached down and pulled the electrical plug out of the bottom of his guitar for a minute. And then he put it back in and kept playing and he shrugged like, "What difference does it make? No one can hear us anyway." But it was the phenomenon of seeing the Beatles and being there and a release of all the excitement and the adoration of the group.

CM: What was it like backstage?

Pat O'Day: They were, in those days, complete gentlemen as opposed to The (Rolling) Stones. When The Stones came to town The Stones tried to see how radical they could be. They arrived at Boeing Field; we flew them down. We had the show in Vancouver, B.C., and arrived at Boeing Field for their first appearance and because the customs were there for a charter plane. And it was at that old Boeing terminal building down there on Airport Way that Keith Richards took his suitcase and heaved it against the wall and it popped open and stuff fell all over the floor because he's screaming, "If you want to search our bags, search this!" And it was all for the show. Could they get headlines? Could they raise a ruckus because they were British kids that were over in America and they just said, "How outrageous can we be and get away with it?" But the Beatles were gentlemen. The Beatles were as amazed as anyone by the success. It had happened suddenly, you know.

CM: Was it fun to be in the eye of the storm?

Pat O'Day: Obviously yes, and I always put myself right smack in the middle of the eye of the storm. But it wasn't so much wanting to be in the eye of the storm as it was this: If I was going to remain the top-rated disc jockey in Seattle, if I was going to maintain of the momentum of the radio station, the eye of the storm was the only place to be. So being in the eye of the storm wasn't motivated by the groupie impulse -- it was a pragmatic business move to be in the eye of the storm.

CM: What was it that first got you excited about radio?

Pat O'Day: I loved how radio could trigger that part of the brain that's our imagination that allows us to project these glorious images into the screen of the mind. I loved what ministers did on the radio. I loved what newsmen did on the radio. I loved radio show, from the Lone Ranger to Jack Benny to all those great shows because they could take you out of your living room, take out of your bedroom where you were listening to the radio and transport you to incredible places through your imagination. ... It requires zero imagination to watch television. But radio triggers all of those things in the mind. You can transport people to wonderland on radio. You can make their lives better. You can make them laugh. You can make them cry. You can bring emotions that television can never trigger.

CM: What do you think Seattle has lost since the pre-broadband era?

Pat O'Day: It's lost a sense of community. The young people of Seattle in the '60s and part of the '70s were all on the same page for the most part, and they no longer are. ... Is it not as good? I can't tell you that because we don't know what happens in the future. It may be absolutely wonderful. I'm not one that looks back on the good-old days other than, it was great because it did provided a homogeneous sense of community that we do not have now.

CM: You've written that your first meeting with Jimi Hendrix was at the Spanish Castle in 1961. What were the circumstances?

Pat O'Day: One of the problems we had in the early 60s was bands were under-financed. As a result, they didn't have backup amplifiers or adequate amplifiers in many cases. This would manifest itself in power overloads within the amp. ... So this kid comes up to me and he said, "I always carry my big Showman amp in the car so if the amps are to blow you can borrow my amp, so long as I can stand at the back of the stage and play with the band." He said, "I think I know every single lick any of these guys do." So I looked at him, a little guy ... He was very sincere. I didn't think about it until probably a month later, Tiny Tony and the Statics were playing one night. They blew their amp and replaced the fuse. It blew again and they would've been out of business except that, there was the kid and he went out to his car and got his amp and brought it in. He stood on the back of the stage, out of the way, and played the guitar. ... We were sitting in the dressing room in Dallas (in 1968), and by this time (Concerts West) is handling all of Jimi's appearances. Jimi said, "Do you remember the first time we met?" And I think I said, "Oh, you mean in New York?" He said, "No, at the Spanish Castle." He started to tell me the story and suddenly I remembered the night with Tiny Tony. That was the kid! He said, "You were the first one to put me on the big stage." And he had remembered it. And that had triggered his desire to go with my company, because I had listened to him. 

CM: Who was the Jimi Hendrix that you knew?

Pat O'Day: Jimi Hendrix was always just a neat kid from Seattle. Jimi was totally apolitical. This probably disappoints some in the culture to know, but Jimi was absolutely non-political. And the reason he was non-political was because he was so intelligent. His intelligence didn't allow him to go off in one radical direction or the other. ... There was a night in Birmingham where Jimi walked in the door with Monica (Danneman). Monica was about 5-foot-1, blonde, beautiful little British girl. Jimi walked in the door and had his arm around her and she had her arm around his waist. A Birmingham policeman backstage went absolutely berserk, charged Jimi, unholstered his gun, tried to swing at him. I won't use the term, but he's screaming, "That ain't right for that blank to have his hands on a white woman." The police all walked off the show. ... They would have nothing to do with the show because a black man had his hands on a white woman. I went to the dressing room. I thought Jimi would be real upset. But you know what Jimi said? Jimi said, "Hey, Pat. Fifty years ago down there things were really bad, and 50 years from now it ain't gonna make a damn bit of difference." ... That's the kind of intellect he had.

CM: You said the whole world should have met Louis Armstrong. What made his character so important to you?

Pat O'Day: You looked in his eyes and you looked at his history, and there was a guy who had been there. Had been there at a time when blacks were held in such low regard. When he couldn't stay in any hotel in Seattle. ... They just weren't accepted. ... He had worked across the country nights when the whole band would be paid $25. He and the band were on the poverty line and yet, he had maintained his class, maintained his professionalism. But more than that, maintained his sense of humor and his joy of life.

CM: Do you think seeing his personality has allowed you to be so kind to people like me who want to come and ask you questions that you've been asked 100 times before?

Pat O'Day: You know, I am so deeply appreciative of the enormous luck I've enjoyed. It was timing: being in the right place at the right time. Sure, I had the courage to go and do it. But a lot of people might have had the courage to go and do it -- they just weren't there in the right place at the right time. I consider myself so fortunate that if I am not willing to share that and share the experiences that I had the joy of being a part of, then you should take me out and shoot me. I think I absolutely owe it to history to, at any opportunity, further expand on what went on and let people relive those great days with me.

CM: Do you think Colonel Parker was the cause of Elvis Presley's deterioration?

Pat O'Day: Yeah. Colonel Parker didn't force the drugs down Elvis' throat, but Colonel Parker was Elvis' boss. Not only in his entertainment life, but a lot of his personal life. Colonel Tom Parker used Elvis for everything he could. He twisted and torqued and took every dollar out of Elvis and Elvis' career he possibly could. And when Elvis desperately needed help the Colonel didn't do a damn thing about it. I think the Colonel thought that he would lose control over a sober Elvis. I think he feared a sober, drug-free Elvis for fear Elvis would wake up and realize the Colonel was turning him upside down and shaking the coins out of his pockets every day. I was not fond of the Colonel. Elvis was a great natural resource of our nation and it's a shame that those around him, the schmoozers, cared more about how they were profiting about Elvis than about Elvis himself. Either that or they were afraid to have to courage to stand up to Elvis and his successes. They were afraid he would fire them, or something. Which means their affection for him wasn't genuine. It was one of convince.

CM: What records do you listen to now?

Pat O'Day: I like Norah Jones and I still like Bonnie Raitt. Dave Matthews Band. I love Alabama. I even love the Dixie Chicks. I'm all over the place.

CM: What do you think is the best rock 'n' roll record of all time?

Pat O'Day: "Stairway to Heaven," Led Zeppelin. It's a tossup between "Stairway to Heaven," "Satisfaction" by the Stones and other great performances. "Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John is a marvelous song. McCartney has many. Is there a better song anywhere than "Yesterday"? There are so many. "Louie Louie" has significance to it. I don't think it will go down as the greatest musical achievement in the annals of music, but it will certainly go down as one of the great dance classics of all time. "Stairway to Heaven": that is pure, great rock 'n' roll.

CM: Is there anything you would do differently if you could start your career over?

Pat O'Day: No. I would be frightened to have done anything differently because, had I done anything differently, I might not be sitting here today.

CM: Can you talk about your work ethic and your drive to succeed?

Pat O'Day: You say work ethic. My father died when I was 14 and I had to mow lawns in high school. I left school at noon every day ... I never thought there was any limit to what you could accomplish in a day. That helped me. That wasn't anything I did, it was forced on me. But I never thought there was any limit to the number of hours you could work and what you could accomplish in a day, and when you start thinking of it that way the whole thing is fun. It's, "How much can I accomplish today," not, "Gee, how hard am I working today?" There's a big difference there. So many people are worried that they give the company an extra five minutes that they don't think the company had coming. That's a good way to go the wrong direction. Just starting to think like that. Because to me, radio was so much fun and the dances were so much (fun). … There's really no limit to what we can do if we realize it's fun and opportunity.

We were talking about could what happened to me happen again? Absolutely. Absolutely. Because no one has replaced the individual. They try, but every time they try and replace the individual they fail. Every time they try to automate something. Every time they try to plasticize humanity, they fail. You see radio in many cases losing listenership when it tries to over-automate and they try to overthink the thing. ... The individual can still go -- the sky is the limit. But you've got to understand that it's going to take all your efforts and all your energy and all your imagination and all your willpower and all your desire to succeed. And that isn't just radio or music. Whether its medicine, aerospace or technology, whatever it is, it's the same thing.

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