Book of Records: Landecker looks back on legendary career
John Records Landecker (1977)
No radio star in America burned more brightly in the 1970s than John Records Landecker.
But after reading his stunningly candid new memoir, Records Truly Is My Middle Name, it’s a wonder the guy didn’t just burn out. If the alcohol, cocaine and other drugs didn’t kill him, then his four wives, all the other women in his life, or the maniacal managers he worked for probably could have.
Happily for all of us, Landecker is alive and well at 65, and still on the radio today — hosting evenings at WLS-FM (94.7), occupying the same air shift and uttering the same call letters he did when he first took Chicago by storm in 1972.
It’s a fitting time for Landecker to look back on his long and influential career, along with more than 30 friends and colleagues who contributed their insights and recollections to this splendid, thoroughly engaging memoir.
The story begins with his arrival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his parents prophetically chose his mother’s maiden name — Records — as his middle name. “They had no way of knowing that their son would become a radio disc jockey, or that this name they had chosen would become my unlikely calling card,” he writes. But if that didn’t foretell his destiny, by the time young John set up a pretend radio station in his bedroom closet, this precocious baby boomer’s future was set.
Those early years at 50,000-watt WLS-AM (890) were a magical time for Landecker and for millions (yes, millions) of devoted listeners all over the country. While still in his 20s, he elevated Top 40 radio to performance art each night with his quick wit, high energy and rapid-fire style, honing such trademark bits as Boogie Check and Americana Panorama. (See for yourself: There’s an award-winning documentary on YouTube about Landecker, Studio A: A Profile of a Disc Jockey, produced in 1977 by James R. Martin.)
He also inspired a generation to follow, including a kid from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, named Jonathon Brandmeier, who not only emulated Landecker but went around impersonating him in bars to score free drinks. “He didn’t just talk,” Brandmeier recalls. “He had this rhythm in his voice. If Larry Lujack showed us all that it was OK to be yourself on the air, John Records showed us not to forget the showbiz. Records was showbiz. He worked the music. He talked in rhythm with the music, on the beats; he became a part of the song. There was no better radio guy, pure Top 40 energy, no one better.”
If Landecker sounded different than every other jock, it was by design: He insisted that his microphone be turned down and the music be turned up. “My mind started reeling,” engineer Al Rosen recalls. “For one thing, no DJ had ever told me to bring his voice down before, and second, it did sound amazing. When John did an introduction over the intro of a Chicago record, his voice was actually just a little lower than Peter Cetera’s! It did put him inside the music, and I think [that] was a subliminal part of the Landecker show sound.”
The ’70s were a golden age for talent at the Big 89, too. There were no rivalries because each personality was unique and respected, encouraged by great managers like John Gehron to let his or her creativity flourish. “I haven’t worked at a radio station before or since that had the kind of camaraderie we had at WLS in the 1970s,” Landecker writes. “It was like one big non-stop party.”
Especially in Bob Sirott, the afternoon star who preceded him, Landecker found a kindred spirit. “On the air we treated the radio station as a tool for our amusement,” recalls Landecker. “We would show up on each other’s shows unannounced. There was nothing phony about our on-air kidding around. Everyone genuinely liked each other.”
The toughest nut to crack among their colleagues was Larry Lujack, the morning legend. Soon after he arrived from WIBG in Philadelphia, Landecker made the mistake of declaring in a jock meeting that he didn’t think Elvis was that great. Lujack, a huge Elvis fan, glared at him: “You don’t know anything about music, you... Phil... a... del... phia... FUCK!”
Fast-forward five years later to the day Elvis died. Landecker, who was at the station when the news broke, was sure the Elvis-loving Lujack would want to know. So Landecker called him at home. “Who cares?” Lujack growled into the phone. “I’m taking a nap.”
While the mass quantities of alcohol and drugs Landecker ingested must have taken their toll, changes in the radio landscape were even bigger factors in his decision to leave WLS in 1981. By the time up-and-comer Steve Dahl signed to host afternoons on WLS-FM, Landecker already had an offer from CFTR in Toronto. “It wasn’t about Steve,” Landecker writes of his parting. “It was about a company that had spent years telling me things had to be done a certain way, suddenly doing a complete 180, with yours truly on the wrong end. I felt betrayed. I was hurt; extremely upset.”
Though he was out of the market less than three years, things were never the same for Landecker when he returned to Chicago at the end of 1983. Calling it his “descent into darkness,” his stints at WLUP, WAGO, WCKG and back at WLS were, for the most part, unhappy and unsuccessful. “While my ratings were descending, my personal life was too,” he writes. “By this time, I was really drinking heavily, and when I say heavily, that’s not an exaggeration. One day I showed up for work with a full bottle of vodka. I was drinking openly in the studio, right out of the bottle.”
After a detour at WPHR in Cleveland and a brief role as a talent agent working for notorious con man Saul Foos, Landecker landed a morning gig at WJMK in 1993. A lengthy part of the book covers his 10-year stint there, no doubt because his loyal and talented executive producer at the time, Rick Kaempfer, worked closely with him on the memoir and published it through his Eckhartz Press.
Kaempfer coaxes his former boss to tell just enough about the wild and reckless days (including the cocaine-fueled threesome that lasted a whole weekend) to be racy without being lurid. But the most revealing passages are those in which Landecker confesses his guilt as a less-than-ideal father of two daughters.
“My drugs and alcohol did heavy damage to my family and my relationship to my children,” he writes. “I put my children in many inappropriate situations. I exposed them to parts of life that are not for kids. . . . I can only try to be a better person today. I have an eight-year-old granddaughter who has never seen me drunk, and I love her to death. Whatever parental DNA I’ve got left will be passed on to her when needed.”
As forthright as he is about his sins, Landecker doesn’t go out of his way to call out others. I’m pretty sure I know the apoplectic program director who threatened to fire him if he played the Dixie Chicks, and the spineless general manager who forced him to call and apologize to every listener who complained about his show. But I wish he’d named names.
Records Truly Is My Middle Name includes a treasure trove of rare photos and personal mementos along with a 30-page addendum featuring transcripts of his best bits, parody songs and interviews. While official publication is set for March 28 — Landecker’s 66th birthday — it’s available for ordering online now at eckhartzpress.com.