By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — Notwithstanding words such as “legendary” and “iconic” are grossly overused, Larry Lujack was nonetheless an unquestionable legendary, iconic Chicago personality. The radio world lost a quintessential on-air talent Wednesday night when the 73-year-old “Super Jock” passed away at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Especially in the Midwest, countless air personalities hoping to advance to the biggest of the big time when AM radio was king would talk up vocals on audition tapes, liberally using signature slogans like “The Big 89,” “The Rock of Chicago,” and “Music Radio, W-L-S.” The list of WLS’ on-air roster read like a veritable “Who’s Who” of the Top 40 glory days and there was no bigger name or more dominant personality on that – or any other – list, than “Uncle Lar,” Larry Lujack was. One could not possibly hope to find a more apt description for Lujack than his “Super Jock” moniker, although last night, his wife Judith commented, “He never thought of himself as the ‘Super Jock’ or this larger-than-life personality. He was just Larry, he loved those around him.”
Lujack had not done an in-depth trade publication interview in 20 years, but in late-2003, he graciously agreed to one with me at the time when I was special features editor at Inside Radio. At a loss to know how to properly label himself, Lujack never thought he was “a guy who played records,” he remarked to me 10 years ago. “Yes, I played music, but I talked about stuff.” When you think “Super Jock,” only one name leaps to mind and Lujack confided that he “stole it” from a listener. “It sounds so trite now, but at the time, it was a great bit.” A fan used the term in a letter sent to Lujack, who was inducted in the Radio Hall of Fame in 2004 and, along with actor/comedian Bill Murray, was inducted in the Illinois Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 2001. “I don’t even remember when ‘Super Jock’ started,” Lujack noted in that interview. “When I read it in that letter, I knew I needed to glom onto it. If you tell people long enough that you are a ‘Super Jock,’ they start believing it.”
With the exception of a short-lived fling on Chicago’s WUBT “Jammin’ 103.5,” Lujack’s entire radio career was spent almost exclusively on the AM dial. “That was where the money was,” he mentioned in all honesty to me. “Being the shallow kind of guy I am, that’s where I worked. I had offers from FM stations, but the AM guys were always willing to pay a whole lot more money.” A classic line found on several vintage air check tapes is Lujack promoting a station feature that predicts the outcomes of fights from local high school football games. While synonymous with Chicago, Lujack toiled in other markets, including a disastrous four-month Boston experience in 1966 as “Johnny Lujack” on WMEX. “The guy who owned the station was on the hotline every 30 seconds,” Lujack maintained. “He listened all the time and would tell you things he wanted you to say and you had to say them. He did not trust anyone else to do anything and probably worked himself to death. If you wanted to call your wife to know how your kids’ doctor appointment went that day, you couldn’t use a station phone. During your lunch hour, you had to go to the drugstore and use a payphone. It was that ridiculous. I just couldn’t take it anymore and haven’t been back to Boston since.” The first place he “had freedom” was in Seattle at Pat O’Day-programmed KJR-FM. In a staff meeting, O’Day reminded Lujack and the other air talents that they were hired because of their creativity. “Pat wanted us to have a genuine good time on the air and didn’t mind if we screwed around with the format. The only two things we could not do were things that would jeopardize the license or anything that would lose advertisers. Whatever it is that I do got started at KJR.”
Fantasies about working at WLS extended to 1961, when Lujack did nightly duty in Rantoul, Illinois as an Air National Guardsman. Working at “little bitty, cow town markets,” Lujack had stints at such Idaho locales as KCID, Caldwell and KRPL, Moscow. “I listened to Dick Biondi at night on WLS and thought if he could make it, so could I,” Lujack joked. “My dream was to someday work at WLS.” It would take a while and the road ran through WLS’ archrival, but Lujack eventually got his wish by starting out in Chicago on the all-night show on what was then WCFL. “When I flew in for the interview on WCFL’s money, I decided that, while I was in town, I might as well go across the river and talk to the people at WLS.” That was precisely what he did and WLS told him some changes were in the works. Lujack was on WCFL’s all-night show for about four months when WLS called and asked if he would be interested in doing afternoon drive.
In-place in WLS’ PM drive slot for about two years, Lujack was then handed the wake-up shift and did mornings until 1972. He points out, however, that mornings started getting to him. One day at 4:00 am, he saw a cab sitting outside the station. WCFL PD John Rook stepped out of the cab and handed Lujack a note that read he (Lujack) was tired of working mornings and that he should call Rook. When Lujack finished his air-shift that morning, he dialed Rook. “They offered me a whole bunch more money to do afternoons again,” Lujack said. “So I went back in 1976. WCFL did well when Rook was there. We even beat WLS for the first time ever, but he had some problems with management or they had problems with him. All of a sudden, he was out and it wasn’t fun there, anymore.” WCFL’s ratings soon hit the skids. The station retreated from its head-to-head battle with WLS and slapped on an automated Beautiful Music format. Everyone was fired – except Lujack, who had a no-cut contract. “I went to work every day, but it was tough,” Lujack explained. “All I did was time, temperature and read a spot every 15 minutes. It was difficult, because I knew they didn’t want me there.” Then a deal with WLS came along, so he returned to do mornings.
When it came to naming the greatest top 40 air personality, Lujack turned his attention to Southern California and his choice was one of the most dynamic, frenetic and entertaining individuals to ever sit behind a microphone. “As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever been able to compare to The Real Don Steele at laying down the hits,” Lujack emphatically declared. “He was the best. I don’t even know [whom] I’d put as second in that category, but it would be a far distant second. What he did with the limitations and strictness he had was amazing. You have to be damn good to pull that off and make it fun to listen to; I couldn’t have done it.” Bored by those who do shock radio, Lujack bluntly remarked in that 2003 interview, “It is no fun to listen to, lacks creativity and is a lazy way of doing radio. Howard [Stern] is very successful – you can’t say [otherwise], but how much lesbianism can you take?” On the other hand, however, Lujack acknowledged that Stern and a few others doing that brand of radio possess talent. “If they weren’t doing that stuff, they’d still be a humongous success, but rather than working at it, they’re taking the lazy way [out]. These guys have many listeners, but their listeners are all morons. It would be very depressing to me if I had to program to morons. These people are so stupid they need someone on the radio to tell them how to think. Rush Limbaugh is in that same [category]. He’s pompous, arrogant and appeals to people on this planet who are too stupid to think for themselves.”
At the time of his interview with me, Lujack was ecstatic to again be working with old friends Tommy Edwards and John Gehron at Chicago’s WRLL, which Lujack joked stood for Radio Larry Lujack. “Retirement isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” Lujack told me in 2003. “Playing golf all the time gets very boring real quick.” Last night as Judith reflected on her late husband, she noted, “He was just the most amazing husband – a person who cared about everybody. He was so devoted to me; his grandchildren were the apples of his eye.” Social media was abuzz at Lujack’s passing. A cross-section of comments posted on Facebook included former Chicago general manager and programmer Barry James (BJ McCarty) who writes, “I had the honor of working with his longtime partner Tommy Edwards a few years ago. They were some of the real reasons why I pursued a career in radio. It was imagery – it was magic. Thanks, ‘Uncle Lar’ for painting the picture and creating the dream.” Just last week, another WLS-era heavyweight on-air personality – Kris Erik Stevens – sent “Super Jock” a Christmas card. “This blows me away,” Stevens notes. “Such a loss. Larry was an amazing talent and a great friend. Damn!!! Sad news to hear of his passing.” Renowned hot AC WPLJ, New York programmer/wake-up talent extraordinaire Scott Shannnon comments to me that Larry Lujack was, “one of the best to ever do it. How many of us grew up listening to him thinking, ‘Man if I could only do that for a living.'” Yet another outstanding programming/morning talent – adult contemporary KMXZ, Tucson’s Bobby Rich – summarized it well by rhetorically asking, “‘Super Jock’ is gone? Devastating. That news is difficult to comprehend.” Former WJBR-FM, Wilmington Delaware program director-morning talent-Detroit on-air personality Michael Waite states that Lujack was, “The absolute best. He broke boundaries that nobody had the stones to do. We have lost a true pioneer. The guy who inspired so many in our business to pursue their dream. ‘Uncle Lar’ broke the mold and paved the way for so many talented folks to push the envelope. My heart is sad as the talent that I admired more than any other has been silenced forever.” Noted voiceover and imaging talent Howard Hoffman remarks that, “New York had Dan Ingram. Los Angeles had Don Steele. Chicago had ‘Uncle Lar,’ and he was magnificent.” Having worked with “charming and delightful ‘Uncle Lar'” in 1979-1980, Bob Leonard writes, “He was an amazing guy. He loved his wife, golf, and his Waylon Jennings records – not necessarily in that order. The first time I met him was in the elevator in the Stone Container Building in Chicago. I was introduced as the new morning man on the FM. He shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to WLS – I wish you moderate success.'” Shebops Productions owner Turi Ryder insists that Lujack taught her to “always give credit to everyone who helps you; to prepare like crazy; and to protect your family and your co-workers from harm or hazard. He once saved me from a nutcase who was sitting in my car. When editing, he said to leave the pauses in. He wasn’t showy about doing the right thing – he just did it. The only thing I ever saw him worry about was the safety of his wife. If he had something nice to say about your work, he didn’t say it to you – he said it to management. He was a complete professional, and one of the most generous people with whom it has ever been my honor to work.” Longtime ABC Radio News anchor Bob Hardt checks in to state, “He was one of the greats when WLS was a great station.” KTWV “The Wave,” Los Angeles on-air talent Bryan Simmons remembers, “listening to air-checks of ‘Super Jock’ back in my baby-deejay days. What a loss.” According to CBS Radio senior vice president and Riverside market manager Harvey Wells, “Even when I got sick of the same songs being played over and over and over, I never got tired of what was between the records when Larry Lujack was on-the-air. Heaven just got its morning-drive jock.” Lujack’s wife Judith confirms that her husband, “only cared about giving, and being a decent human being. It was about giving to charities.” Lujack, who lost his yearlong battle against esophageal cancer, apparently did not want any of what we just did and what you just read. He had no use for an obituary or memorial. Judith maintains, “He was a very private person.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief for RadioInfo. Email him at Kinosian@RadioInfo.com.