Chuck Leonard Profile
By Scott Benjamin

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Scott Benjamin interviewed Chuck Leonard in November, 2002.
The audio from that interview was previously posted to Musicradio77.com.
Scott went back and wrote the following article based on it.

 

Chuck Leonard - who for decades has been one of the smoothest and most personable air personalities in “The Greatest City In The World” – had been doing the evening shift at WWRL, a rhythm and blues station, for five weeks when he received a phone call from a competitor. 

“Yeee, this is Cousin Brucie,” the voice said that day in the summer 1965. “I want you to talk to my boss, Sklar.” 

Having grown up in Chicago and then graduating from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Chuck had picked up signals from as far away as Buffalo, where he had listened to Joey Reynolds at night, but he had never heard of WABC, even though it was emerging as the biggest Top 40 station in the country. 

At the time, Chuck just dismissed it as someone in the record industry who was seeking a favor. 

"I had heard all kind of horror stories about how they try to get you under their spell and get favors from you," Chuck said, alluding to the payola scandals that had been the subject of a congressional investigation just five years earlier. 

Since arriving in Gothom, he already had received calls from Music Galore, a young female listener in New Jersey, and Big Daddy, who owned theaters in Harlem. 

“Well now I’ve heard from Cousin Brucie,” he thought. “And he even has a boss, a guy named Sklar.” 

He didn’t show up for an appointment with the late Rick Sklar, the brilliant program director who was on his way to leading WABC to an audience of 8 million listeners per week. 

The next day Chuck received messages from Mal Goode, the ABC United Nations correspondent, Roy West of NBC News, Bill Tatum, the publisher of the Amsterdam News, and Cecil Holmes, the vice president of Casablanca Records. 

"All of them were saying, 'Go see this man,' " he recalled during an interview in Nov. 2002 at Kennedy’s on West 57th Street in Manhattan. 

He took their advice but declined to accept a position as Musicradio 77’s overnight air personality. 

"I said, 'Thank you very much, but no thanks,' " Chuck said. 

He felt some allegiance to WWRL since the management of the station had brought him to New York City after he had been on the air in Baltimore for a little more than a year.  

Besides, the station was doing several shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, which was a major venue for the top soul artists. 

WABC was offering more money but not so much that he felt he could be a “ ‘Benedict Arnold’ “ to WWRL, he recalled.

 

Chuck already had rocketed from the copy desk at the now-defunct Washington Evening Star to the biggest radio market in the world in the two years since he had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois.

 

At the newspaper he took dictation, handled minor assignments and worked on the copy desk, where his boss was Carl Bernstein, who 10 years later would earn a Pulitzer Prize, along with Bob Woodward, his colleague at The Washington Post, for exposing the Watergate scandal that ultimately drove former President Richard Nixon from office. 

"Carl and I were friends at work and then we became personal friends," said Chuck, who noted that Bernstein is much nicer than how he was portrayed in the 1976 Academy Award-winning film, All The President’s Men, which was based on the two reporters pursuit of the Watergate story. 

Chuck had been program director at his college radio station, WPGU, which stood for Parade Ground Unit after the Quonset hut where it was located. 

A college fraternity brother helped him get an audition at WEBB, a rhythm and blues station in Baltimore, a short time after he began working at The Evening Star. 

For a while he worked at the newspaper until 2 p.m. and then would drive about 40 miles to WEBB to do his late afternoon-early evening shift. 

After six months he was making more money at the radio station than he would have been earning after seven years at the newspaper, unless he had a syndicated column.

“At that point, it was who’s kidding whom,” he said. “If this is where your talent is.” 

He left The Evening Star and concentrated on his radio career. 

He said he had been on the air in Baltimore for a year when, members of the chain that owned the station asked him to move to WOL, its station in Washington. 

But they quickly changed plans and sent him to WWRL, its flagship station in New York City. 

Initially, he was to take the overnight shift, but after Frank Ward, the station manager, heard him do some fill-in shifts, he gave him the evening show. 

That didn’t sit too well with the late Frankie Crocker, who was then doing the overnight show and had just announced on the air that he would be taking over the more prestigious evening slot. 

"I had been in New York two days and I had made my first enemy - Frankie Crocker,” Chuck recalled.

 

Crocker, who would star for many years at WBLS-FM, immediately left to take a position in Los Angeles.

 

Chuck’s stay at WWRL lasted seven weeks.

 

Dan Ingram, the legendary WABC afternoon air personality, heard Chuck on the air and recommended him to Wally Schwartz, the station manager.

 

Chuck received another call from Sklar after he had turned down the station’s initial offer. 

Soon after as he came off the elevator at the ABC building on the Avenue of the Americas he was intercepted by a photographer. 

"Are you Chuck Leonard?" the photographer asked. 

"Why, yes I am," Chuck replied. 

The photographer took him into the record library for some publicity shots. 

A short time later Sklar saw the publicity shoot, which was supposed to happen after Chuck had actually accepted the job, and brought him into his office. 

“If they already had a photographer there for publicity shots, I knew I was in a strong negotiating position,” Chuck recalled in a phone interview in January 2003. 

However, he again declined, saying he had a better shift at a station that he respected. 

"This is the biggest rocker in the country," Sklar exclaimed. 

Finally he "gerrymandered” a shift from 11 p.m. to midnight from the existing schedule and gave him a Sunday show from 4 to 9 p.m. 

Moments later Chuck told Schwartz that, "I have accepted this job. I don't want to be an experiment," alluding to Sklar's comment that there hadn't previously been an African-American on a Top 40 station in a major market. 

"If I can't contribute as an everyday member of the staff, I don't want to be here," he told him. "I think I won Wally's respect. He shook my hand and said, ‘I can assure you you're here because we like your sound.’ “ 

"In the 1960s, I had almost become wealthy," Chuck recalled, noting that he had tripled his salary within two years. 

“I went home looked in the mirror, and said, 'You are some kind of guy," he recalled with a laugh. 

Why was he able to travel so far, so fast? 

"I think just because my delivery was crisp, clean, quick, and that I sounded like I knew what I was talking about," Chuck said. 

Another air personality has said that Chuck sounds as though he is “smiling” on the radio.

 

"I think that's partly who I am," Chuck explained. "I love people." 

His mother, Alma, made sure that the smile was visible. 

Chuck said she criticized him after he made a personal appearance in Baltimore in the mid-1960s, saying that his smile “was artificial. 

“ ‘When you smile, your smile starts at your rear end,’ “ she told him.

 

The popular air personality noted that he has partly modeled himself after singer Jerry Butler, who was known as "The Ice Man.”

 

Chuck said in college friends called him "Jack Frost, because I was so cool." 

Growing up, he tried to emulate some of the top Midwestern air personalities, such as Syd McCoy, who was on a jazz station in Chicago, and Lucky Cordell, who played rhythm and blues. 

"They were clean, clear, crisp and spoke everyman's English," Chuck said. 

Chuck, who was an only child, said his mother, who was an English and Latin teacher and later a supervisor for Operation Head Start in Chicago, had a huge influence in developing his personality. 

His father, Charles, died from tuberculosis when he was five years old. 

 "My mom, being the proud woman that she was, always encouraged me to hold my head up," Chuck said.

 

"She would never let me us the word 'ain't' in the house," he recalled. 

Their home was filled with books, and for a while Chuck said he became “a nerd.” 

Chuck said that he was always writing things, and still dreamt of someday writing a book. 

He received a recommendation to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but turned it down since he had no interest in spending four years at sea after graduation. 

Chuck was a high honors student at Hyde Park High School, which also is the alma mater of singers Mel Torme and Minnie Ripperton  and made the dean's list in college. 

He ran a leg on the 4x440-yard relay track team at Hyde Park, which set a city record, and later ran on the freshmen team at the University of Illinois. 

At WPGU, he hosted The Illini Hour, a jazz show in which he did interviews with notable artists as Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Ted Heath. 

Chuck attributes part of WABC’ success to Sklar, who added reverb to the announcers’ voices and was considered a master at promotion. 

“Rick Sklar was a brilliant man,” he said. “I wouldn’t say he was a genius.” 

Chuck said that Sklar confided to him once that, “ ‘You don’t have to be a genius to run a successful station, you just have to surround yourself with intelligent people. An intelligent man is not going to make a fool of himself twice doing the same thing.’ ”

He said most of he air personalities at WABC were bright people who had interests outside of radio. 

“It also was the tightest-knit staff I have ever been on,” the former WABC air personality said. “You felt like family.” 

He said his closest friends were Ingram and Ron Lundy, who arrived at the station the same month as Chuck, and did the midday shift for most of his 17 years there.

“We were like the three Musketeers,” Chuck said. “We cut a wide swath through midtown Manhattan for years. 

“It was ladies, lock up your daughters, here come the marauders,” he said with a smile. 

Why has he been so successful? 

"I have a funny theory about broadcasting," Chuck explained. "I think everyone has one, five-minute radio show in them. Most of them utilize it when they're behind the wheel of a car. 

"They introduce a record at some point as if they were on the air that is what they would do at that moment,” he added. 

"But they don't think about what they would do when something went wrong,” Chuck said. “What happens when the record doesn't play, when the turntable doesn't work, when the thought leaves your head? 

“This is what radio is on a daily basis, and I've always been able to adapt to that pretty well," he concluded. 

Chuck said it also helps to have a good engineer. 

He said he became friends with Dick Sisk, who had encountered difficulties with the other WABC air personalities, partly because he “was a madman. 

"No one else could really work with him except me," Chuck said. 

 "That was because Dick knew I would reach across and strangle him," he said with a laugh. 

Chuck said the reason for Sisk’s anger was that both of his parents had died, and he was left with his dog, who died some time later. 

"I got his confidence," Chuck recalled. "I got him to know that I legitimately cared about him too." 

He said sometimes they would stop for some cocktails as he drove him home after the show. 

Chuck said it’s important to develop a rapport with people you interact with.

"You meet people, whether they're important to you or not, but you don't know what you mean to them," Chuck said. "Sometimes you run into somebody once. The impression they have of you is the one that they' have until you die. You might as well make it a good impression. Why be high-handed or insincere?” 

On the historic night of Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1974, it was Chuck who was the relief pitcher when Cousin Brucie, overwhelmed with emotion, couldn’t finish his last show after 13 years at WABC. 

He said Sklar told him, “ ‘Go pick him up, Chuck, he’s gone as far as he can go.’  

“I was almost in tears, because I realized that Bruce was a legend,” Chuck said of his friend, who was about to start a three-year stint at rival WNBC. 

Chuck took over Brucie’s time slot until George Michael, who had been at WFIL in Philadelphia, debuted Sept. 9.  

“I thought that I might have gotten it,” Chuck said of the early evening show. “Everybody wants to be King Kong. It didn’t break that way.” 

He said it was only a small disappointment. 

“I had a persona and an audience, and I had a lifestyle that related itself to the late evening show,” the former WABC air personality said. 

There was “less pressure,” Chuck said, noting that if he had succeeded Cousin Brucie and the ratings had begun to “sag,” then he “might have been looking in from the outside.” 

For years he ended his show with a Panda Bear kiss jingle, which became his trademark and prompted young girls to send him “tiny toy Panda Bears.” 

On a separate topic, he said he has a “very universal taste” in music. 

Chuck said he’s “big Beatles fan,” but that most of his favorites are from their latter years, when they were producing hit singles as “Norwegian Wood” and albums such as the Double White that was released in 1968. 

“That period when people thought they were being too pretentious,” he added with a smile. 

Chuck said his other favorites include Ray Charles, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix. 

“I have to confess, I am one of the few Americans who liked, or will admit to liking a lot of the disco era, because I thought it was a fun period of music,” he added. 

“Disco did make you want to dance, and I liked it,” Chuck said. “Everything doesn’t have to be serious.” 

For several years he hosted Sneak Preview, a four-minute show that ran at 8:25 p.m. eastern time on the American Contemporary Network that introduced songs that were considered hot prospects. 

He recalled that some of the Jackson 5 and Osmonds songs were introduced on the show.

“Some of the songs [from lesser-known artists] might not have gotten much exposure,” he noted. “Everybody had a shot.” 

Chuck said he doesn’t like the contemporary hits of today as much as the songs that were on the WABC Top 20 survey. 

“Sure, there were things like the 1910 Fruit Gum Company that the world could have lived without,” Chuck said, referring to the bubble gum group that placed its biggest hit, Simon Says, at number 10 on the WABC Top 100 songs of 1968. 

“But there was a lot more musicianship then than you run into today,” he said. “I can’t imagine much of the music today being around 20 years from now.” 

Chuck said when he’s home in Manhattan, he often watches the New York sports teams on television. 

“Anything that ends in E.T-S –[Mets, Jets, Nets] – around this town, I love,” he said.

His Sunday show at WABC used to follow the Jets games, which the station carried, during the Joe Namath era in the late 1960’s as the team climbed to its only Super Bowl title. 

“In my secret heart of hearts, I always wanted to be a sportscaster,” Chuck said.

He said he was a Yankees fan during his early years at WABC, and that the late Mike Burke, then the team’s president, extended several privileges to him at Yankee Stadium during a time when the Bronx Bombers were in decline. 

“I was probably the only guy in town on a non-sports program who gave the Yankees scores,” Chuck said. 

He became friendly with former Yankees Reggie Jackson and Bucky Dent, who he met at Regine’s on Park Avenue. 

“I liked Reggie a lot,” Chuck said. “One day I thought that George Steinbrenner did a bad thing to Reggie so I never went to Yankee Stadium again. I became a Mets fan that day. 

After 14 years at the station, Chuck was dismissed on Nov. 28, 1979 - as WABC, which had been steadily declining in the ratings, partly because of the growth of FM stations – made several changes. 

Al Brady, the program director who had taken over that fall, had asked him to visit his office before his air shift and delivered the news with Al Racco, the general manager. 

 “It was like being hit in the forehead with a Louisville Slugger,” Chuck recalled. “At that particular juncture, I was a little bitter. I think it could have been handled a little better.”

He was paid by WABC for the remainder of his contract, which ran until the next May. 

“It was a great ride,” Chuck says today. “I have no problems with ABC. 

“The people who were responsible for ending my tenure there, I barely knew,” he said. “The times were a changing. That hadn’t gone unnoticed. I kind of expected it.” 

Harry Harrison, the morning personality for 11 years, was dismissed the week before and Michael also was released in late November. 

Chuck was on the air at WXLO/WRKS-FM by 1980, and stayed there for nine years. He also was one of the rotating hosts on The Great American Record Collection, a video music show that was on New York television briefly in 1984. 

He has been with WBLS-FM off and on since then, doing the morning and mid-day shows at one point, which had some of the best ratings in New York City. He now does three shows a week between Friday and Sunday in addition to five weekly shows for the Sirius Satellite Network, which goes nationwide. 

“I think the satellite networks are where radio is going,” he said. 

Also, since the mid-1970’s did voiceovers for VIM – which, as the tag line goes, sells “The Best jeans and sneakers in America.”

However, he had a serious bout with an obscure illness in the mid-1990s.

He said one of his doctors told his wife, Pamela Joy, that, “He’s not going to get any better. He’s probably not going to come home” from the hospital.” 

“I fired him,” Chuck said. “The team can’t win if the coach doesn’t believe.

“I was being cared for but not treated,” he said. 

Chuck said he was hospitalized for two months during which his weight dropped from 165 pounds to 128 pounds. 

For two more months he had to use a cane. 

It took him about a year for him to regain full strength. 

He worked briefly at WQEW, playing the old standards, including Frank Sinatra, but “it wasn’t as much fun music.” 

He left after Walt Disney bought the station and made changes. 

“I have a lot of good old days to talk about and some great new days to talk about as well,” he said .”

Kyra Monique his daughter from a previous marriage, lived with him and Pamela Joy in Manhattan.  

Diana Joy his other daughter.

“I adore my girls,” Chuck said. 

He said people recognize him on the streets from his 14 years at WABC and from being the master of ceremonies at rock shows during his work since then. 

“I get recognized a lot in taxi cabs, believe it or not, by guys who do not look at you,” Chuck said. “And I found out the reason why. They’re used to listening to voices and not looking at the faces. They learn the voice on the radio and they hear them coming out of the back of the cab and they know who it is.” 

 


Chuck Leonard on WABC
11-26-68


Scott Benjamin's interview with Chuck from which this article was written.
11-29-02

 

 

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