From Radio… To Records… To Radio
Ray D’Ariano’s career as a music industry executive/comedy writer/radio talent is a fascinating, studied journey. Ray was in the middle of music and radio pop culture during the 1970’s and into the 1990’s.
In the record business, he befriended giants such as Elton John, Keith Moon, Neil Bogart and Donna Summer.
On radio – he was part of the infamous WNNNBC talent team of Don Imus, Soupy Sales and Howard Stern.
Conducted By Gary West – mrpopculture.com
GW - Ray, you grew up in Westchester, where, as a teen, you got an early media start.
RD – I did. I was a big fan of radio, listening to WMCA and Murray the K over at WINS. At age sixteen I talked my way into a part-time on-air job at WVOX in New Rochelle.
GW – AM 1460. That’s fantastic. A lot of us would have loved that chance.
RD – It was fun. I got to emcee my first live show, The Young Rascals and The Left Banke.
GW – Not bad for someone still in high school.
RD – I wanted to be a disc jockey. I loved the rock jocks I was hearing, but my real interest was in the music. I wasn’t a musician. I just wanted to be the guy playing the hits.
GW – At that time – how did you rate the radio stations?
RD – WMCA was my favorite, the real deal. The DJ’s, the music. The Good Guys at Fabulous 57. Then Murray the K on WINS. He played a lot of new music and was a fantastic showman. This may sound like a sacrilege to some, but I wasn’t a fan of WABC. It was a great station. I dug Cousin Brucie’s Saturday night party show, but they also fired Scott Muni. That turned me off. But the early to mid sixties was an exciting time for New York radio.
GW – Indeed it was. Many believe it was New York radio’s best moment – (1964) with these three stations competing – all sounding (on top) of their game. Listeners flipped the dial between 57, 77 and 1010. What came next?
RD – I went to college for communication arts and got a job as a page for the Tonight Show at 30 Rock. That was a trip because my other interest was comedy.
GW – So, rock ‘n roll and comedy.
RD – Yeah and girls.
GW – It must have been exciting working on Johnny Carson’s show.
RD – It was an unbelievable time for me. While at NBC NY, I was in a comedy group called “Cain’s Children.” We worked out at the original Improv on 44th street. I was hanging out with the unknown Bette Midler and the bouncer, Danny Aiello before he ever made a film. One night Dominic and Gail Sicilia saw our set. He had just become the Creative Director at Buddah Records. He pulled me aside and asked me to call him.
GW – Did he single you out for any reason?
RD – I have no idea. Maybe he liked a bit I did. When I called he asked if I was interested in creating a humor-based sales presentation for Buddah’s annual meeting. I said, “Sure.”
GW – What year was this?
RD – Around 1970.
RD - That’s right. When I got there, they also had Curtis Mayfield, Melanie and the Isley Brothers. Neil was a pre-Beatles pop guy. So Paul Anka was on the label as was my favorite, Johnny Maestro who was with the Brooklyn Bridge. The Buddah Group consisted of about five different labels and we had the first American releases from Genesis and Monty Python. It was my first exposure to the inside workings of a record company. I was a young guy and Buddah was very exciting.
GW – How did the presentation go?
RD – Great, it was in Las Vegas. Paul Anka performed. In the month-and-a-half I put this together, I got to know the staff. Great people like Larry Harris, Nancy Lewis and Jude Lyons. It was kind of sad coming home – my time at Buddah was over.
GW – I have a feeling your time was just beginning.
RD – Well, when I got back, Neil brought me into his office and said, “I have two ideas for you. First off, I’ll offer you a job, ‘because I think you’d make a good promotion man.”
GW – Nice!
RD – I’d never done record promotion. But, Neil started out as a promo man and saw something. I thought, “If he thinks I can do it, that’s good enough for me.” Then, he gave me another choice, saying – he thought I was funny, there was this comedy trend happening in records and, “if you’d like to make a comedy album, you can do that.”
GW – Neil Bogart. Two offers. One a record deal.
RD – Can you believe it? I’m in my early 20’s and I have the president of the company giving me this choice.
GW – What did you do?
RD – I went with the album. Dominic Sicilia became my manager. The album that came to fruition was called, “Are You On Something.?
GW - How was it received?
RD – It was all over the place on progressive FM radio: WEBN in Cincinnati, WMC in Memphis, stations like that. The late Alison Steele and Dave Herman of WNEW-FM did the radio commercial. That blew me away. At the time, George Carlin had made the switchover, Cheech and Chong were hot, so, this counter culture humor fit right in. It wasn’t stand-up. It was produced bits, so the stations could play tracks between songs.
GW – Did you appear at some of the radio stations?
RD – Oh yes, and performed live at places like The Exit Inn in Nashville and the Playboy Club in New York. Touring – You’d go into a morning radio show, then perform at some club. It was at this time I began making radio relationships. But honestly, I wasn’t happy. When I was on the road, alone I didn’t like it. Once in a while, I got to tour with a band. Remember Stories?
GW – Their biggest hit was, “Brother Louie” or “Louie Louie Lou-eye.”
RD – We went out together a few times. They were great people and it was fun, but when I was doing it alone – it was a drag. So, by my own design I became an unemployed comic. From there – I got a little gig promoting a book called, “Rock Dreams” by Guy Peellaert.
GW – He was an influential illustrator and his work can be found on rock album covers from the likes of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.
RD – He did all these surrealistic paintings of rock stars – and – that was the book. It was a two-week project. All I had to do was call radio stations and offer a promotional contest. I remembered a radio guy, Jon Scott in Memphis. I called the radio station, and they tell me he’s no longer working there. He was working for MCA Records as a local promotion man.
GW – There’s a radio connection from your comedy album days.
RD – That’s right. So I call and was kidding around – saying to him, “that’s an easy job.” He tells me – “there’s an opening in New York” and he would set up an interview. He called me a few hours later, told me I was set for the next day. I thought of Neil Bogart and that he once said he thought I’d make a good promo man.
GW – That’s amazing.
RD – At the encouragement of some friends – I went – and got the job.
GW – What year?
RD – 1974.
GW – Who was at the label at the time?
RD – The Who, Olivia Newton John, Leon Russell, and Elton John was our hottest artist.
GW – So, here it is, 1974 and you are the local (New York City) promotion guy for MCA Records. What was your first record you got on the air?
RD – Turned out the station I didn’t care for as a kid, WABC, was the most important radio station for the record industry. You got a record added to WABC – you had something. If they added a record early, which they rarely did, every other top-40 station in the country would add the same song….beyond a home run. When they added a record when they traditionally did, the record would have to be top-15 nationwide and on a couple of other New York stations and it would have had to demonstrate local sales. Very tough to get on WABC. Rick Sklar was programming. WABC was the goal of every artist, every record company: the crown jewel.
GW – We forget how important this station was to the music industry. We talk about the ratings, the memories, the DJ’s – but, this side can be forgotten.
RD – That’s right. So, my first week one of the national promotion guys took me around town to introduce me.
GW – Radio stations?
RD – Yes. He gave me a breakdown on what to do. After that, I was on my own. So, I take over. I call WABC on a Tuesday to see if they added any of my records or if any of my records moved up on their survey. I had just met Rick Sklar, but that was it: an introduction. I hadn’t promoted anything, but, I find out, they added “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
GW – Your first call to WABC?
RD – That’s right. So, I go, “OK” and call the West Coast, not thinking much of it. I tell the bosses WABC had added the record, and, it was off the hook. First of all, this record had been around for a long time. It was near the top of charts nationally. Now, a record about Alabama was getting added to WABC. I just called and it happened to get added and I was given all the credit. MCA thought I was some kind of genius.
(Thanks Allan Sniffen)
RD – They thought, “The guy’s been there one week. We’ve been trying to get this record on WABC for months and now it’s on.” Then, Skynyrd’s management called to thank me. Here’s the deal, honestly, I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name of the band, but everyone who mattered believed I got the record on ABC and that’s what started my record promotion career.
GW – Right place. Right time. Right station.
RD – Exactly. The first time I ever heard that record was on WABC.
GW – Destiny.
Note: “Sweet Home Alabama” is dropped the next week by WABC. But, that was enough for Ray D’Ariano – because the week of October 8 – they added “The Bitch Is Back” by Elton John.
GW – For pop – what station did you go to first when promoting a record?
RD – WABC – even though you knew they wouldn’t play it – at least at first. I don’t know what other promo guys did – but for me – you went to WABC because, there’s a remote chance you might get an early add. On the other hand, you don’t want to go to other stations first and have Rick Sklar get offended because they don’t have the record. WABC was the big dog and you had to show respect.
GW – Who else in town?
RD – 99X (WXLO) was a big score, although they were RKO and run out of Los Angeles with Paul Drew. He always influenced what got added, but you still went to the station to pitch. The RKO chain was very important with stations such 99X and KHJ. The station that really helped the New York promotion guys was WPIX-FM. Program Director Neil McIntyre was the best. He was great to us record promotion guys and WPIX-FM always played things first. Those were the three. You also had WNEW-AM where you could get an Olivia Newton John or a Neil Sedaka record added.
GW – MCA Records had some great country talent, which in New York meant you needed WHN.
RD – That’s right. Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard. WHN played all our stuff. It was no problem. We had star country artists.
GW – You did pop, country, progressive?
RD – That’s right. But, we all did. Other record labels did the same thing; one person all formats.
GW – Suburban stations?
RD – WBAB, WRNW. WLIR was a progressive station that leaned toward southern rock and later changed to new wave. WRNW had unknown DJ and then program director named Howard Stern.
GW –For progressive/album rock – you mentioned WNEW-FM. Did you have a set day for a particular radio station?
RD – WNEW-FM was my most important rock album station. From their start until the late 70’s it was the greatest station in New York. They made a much bigger contribution to the culture than WABC just for the artists they broke, Springsteen, the Dead, Queen, Zep and on and on, As for the second part of your question, most of the stations had a set day. ‘NEW was a bit looser. If you had something hot, like a new Elton single,you got it out fast. WNEW-FM got everything first, The Who, The Stones, all the top stars. WPLJ was a good station with higher ratings. The PD, Larry Berger was a very nice guy. He knew radio. I know I had to frustrate him at times. He thought I favored WNEW-FM and he was right, but, WPLJ never touched your new non- superstar acts. WNEW-FM did. They gave them a shot. They were your place to break new records. They helped us keep our jobs. Meanwhile, the audience would decide if they liked the new stuff or not. WPLJ was a good station with some fine DJ’s, but they didn’t, as a rule, play new artists, just the big names. WNEW-FM would be playing the new “Who” album out of the sleeve – 10 minutes later – Larry would have it. (That’s how long it took to get the ‘PLJ). That’s just how it went.
GW – Scott Muni was the WNEW-FM program director.
RD – And a great DJ. He ranks up there – on top of my all-time favorite program directors. Frankie Crocker too.
RD – Later on when I was with Casablanca. WBLS had a great music director, Wanda Ramos and Frankie was amazing. He’d play Count Basie into Donna Summer, into the Isley Brothers into Nat King Cole, and it worked. Progressive R&B.
GW – When did come calling?
RD - In 1977. MCA offered me a job as Vice President of promotion out in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, my friend and Neil Bogart’s right-hand man, Larry Harris – offered me the same job for that label. Same week!
GW - That had to be a tough decision.
RD - It was. MCA had been good to me for the last three years. I was tight with Elton John, Keith Moon and Ronnie Van Zandt and their managers. I hated turning Neil and Larry down, but it was just business, not personal. I moved to L.A and worked in the Universal tower.
GW – You’re in LA! What was that vibe like?
RD – I loved my home – the whole LA deal – pool, weather. I had some really great staff members, Shelley Hoppers, Jeff Lymon, Sandi Lifson, but “New Kid In Town” by the Eagles told my story. I learned quickly that I preferred being on the street than being an executive. It was a totally different job. I was a buffer between executives and my staff….expense reports, justifications…it was a big hassle. I was there less than a year. During that time – we had one super big hit – “Car Wash” by Rose Royce, MCA’s first platinum R&B album. That was it. Elton, Olivia ,Sedaka…they all cooled off we really didn’t have any product.
GW – A&R and Promotion…was it one side blaming the other?
RD – Yes, but my defensive side says, we had the same promotion team who delivered hits for years, and Carwash as a crossover that year. The product was not good. For example, does anybody remember “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” by Olivia Newton John? It was before the play and nobody understood the record. Nobody played it either. We had a nice run – but MCA was cooling off. The days of WABC adding Elton John out of the box – were gone.
GW - So, you miss New York?
RD – Yes and, I’m not crazy about being an administrator and we had no product. As that was going on I see giant billboards for KISS, Donna Summer, The Village People. I’m thinking, “wow, maybe I made the wrong choice” – not going to Casablanca.
GW – What turned it around?
RD – I’m in New York and I ran into Larry Harris. He asked me how it was going. I told him and he said I should talk to Neil Bogart. Long story short – I go to see Neil. I had already made up my mind that – I wanted to move back to New York. I meet Neil – and he tells me he wants to open a New York office.
GW – Again – the timing was perfect.
RD – The great Neil Bogart was my fan.
GW – You’re not under contract to MCA Records?
RD – No. I really didn’t want to disappoint those folks, but – it was time to move on.
GW – New York – Casablanca Records. What year?
RD – This was the fall of 1977.
RD - In my opinion – the greatest record man that ever lived. Nobody before or after him comes close. He was a creative genius, promotion man and not afraid to take chances. If he hooked up with you, he believed in you, he’d just keep going the distance. KISS’ first three albums stiffed. Neil stuck with them, investing time, money – even producing one of their albums. Neil made KISS happen.
GW – He had a lot to do with disco’s rise.
RD – He did. While others panned it Neil Bogart embraced it. He had two promotion staffs, one to work radio and another to work the discos/clubs. Nobody else was doing that. Plus he always had great people working for him.
GW – Let’s go back to Neil MacIntyre at WPIX-FM. He was the first on radio to feature disco – as early as 1975 with “Disco 102” – a nightly show.
RD – That’s right. He was responding to what was going on in the New York clubs. His philosophy – all the people getting ready to go out to those clubs would listen. That format was copped by WKTU in 1978. At the time, disco was the most popular music in the world.
GW – You think of Casablanca as disco and KISS. Where there any (other) pop or rock artists on the label?
RD – A band called Angel, they were compared to KISS. They were very good, but suffered at Casablanca. Another great one was Trigger. The problem was the label wasn’t taken seriously by progressive rock stations. This was during that “disco sucks” BS.
GW – So, you’re at Casablanca – what are you doing?
RD – I was running the New York office – and this time, it was fun. We had people such as Worthy Patterson, Roberta Skopp, Tracy Gold, Ruben Rodriguez, Neil’s two brothers – Ira and Lance – all as creative as you could get. It was a great time.
GW – I knew Worthy growing up in N. Tarrytown – use to play basketball with him. Way back – like pre-teen. He was close to a mutual friend – the late Mike Lofaro. Small world.
RD – For sure, but if you worked for Casablanca you got right into places like Studio 54. Disco was like “Beatlemania.” It’s hard for people who don’t buy into disco to see that. But as far as pop culture goes, come on. Once we had a party at Studio 54 for the movie “Thank God It’s Friday.” We’re working the door… Casablanca. One guy is giving us a lot of trouble. We wouldn’t let him in. Turns out it was one of the owners – and we did eventually let him in. He wasn’t happy.
GW – At Casablanca – who were some of the artists you knew/befriended?
RD – We had Parliament, Cher, Donna Summer was by far, the nicest recording artist I have ever met. She was so talented – and a super lady. Giorgio Moroder produced her.
GW – She had staying power beyond disco.
RD – She was the best.
GW – Disco went up like a rocket and came down rather quickly. By 1980, it was pretty much over.
RD - There was such a disco backlash – it had to cool off. It never did with the clubs.
GW - What next?
RD – I was asked to come back to MCA by Leon Tsilis. Bob Siner, a guy who became a friend when I was out there, had become president. So, the time was right to leave Casablanca and go back to MCA as Vice President in New York.
GW – How was MCA Records at that time? c1980.
RD – Pretty grim: Keith Moon of the Who had died and there was the awful Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. It was bad, but on the bright side Elton had come back with “Little Jeannie” and his big Central Park concert. I had a little to do with that.
GW – How so?
RD – His manager and I were throwing out ideas on how to give EJ’s career a new push and – it just came out – “how about a free concert in Central Park?” It was one of two dozen thoughts, but that was the one that stuck.
GW – Amazing! Your comment made this event happen?
Elton singing, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” at Central Park
GW – Ray – What else was happening in music at this time?
RD - In New York – The Ramones and Bruce Springsteen. Both doing very different, but exciting rock ‘n roll. The Punk scene was going on, but unfortunately the biggest event at that time was John Lennon’s murder. At MCA Ronnie Van Zandt and several others died in the plane crash, so did Moonie. Elton John was leaving the label to go to Geffen. Then Lennon was murdered. That was it. I walked away. The record business was behind me.
GW – And, you kept busy.
RD - I wrote a screen play for Warner Brothers and a lot of comedy – eventually getting into radio – first Dan Neer’s production company where I wrote Joe Piscopo’s syndicated show. Then I wrote for Jay Thomas at WKTU and that evolved into doing characters on his show. One day Soupy Sales was a guest. We had a great time. A week later he offered me a gig on his new show on WNBC.
GW – WNNNBC.
RD – Soupy was hired to do the midday show between Don Imus and Howard Stern.
GW – What a superstar line-up. Those were great days at radio 66.
RD – It was big time.
GW – What was it like between the talents?
RD - Imus hated Soupy, Soupy hated Imus and they both hated Stern and vice versa. Dale Parsons – the program director – held it all together. Each one believed he was the biggest star. I had no part of any of it. All the stuff on the air – the animosity – was real. Great for the listener – but to work there was insane.
GW – You got there around 1984. WNBC was sounding great.
RD – If I didn’t work there, I’d sure be listening.
GW – It was another exciting time in New York radio – with WNBC on AM, the new Z-100 with Scott Shannon, Larry Berger’s WPLJ and the resurgence of top-40 radio. WAPP was rockin’ and WKTU even tried top-40 with Dan Ingram. The only thing that was missing – was WABC, which had switched to talk in 1982.
GW – Dave Sims was a terrific sports host at WNBC as well. Nice, nice guy. Tell us about Howard Stern?
RD – When I first met him at WNBC I didn’t realize that we had met before. I didn’t know what to expect. One day he approached a group of us in the hall and said, “Ray – I love this guy.” He tells the story that when he was at ‘RNW and was “nothing” – that as a promotion guy – I use to give him concert tickets and treated him very well. That’s how I operated, but I honestly didn’t remember meeting him, well what goes around, you know? Even when he was feuding with Soupy we stayed friends. He’s brilliant. I can’t say enough about what a great guy he really is. I haven’t seen him for a while – but, his success is well-deserved.
GW – Ray – this interview has been terrific. Can you sum it up?
RD- In high school all I wanted to be was a rock jock in New York City. After Soupy left I got to do it right up until the last music show on WNBC. It only took 20 years to get there and you just heard how it happened. Now I have a company called Lone Duck Entertainment. I do marketing, writing projects and artist representation. I’m almost done writing a book that goes into great detail about what we skimmed on today. Hopefully it will be hysterical. When you think about it, it’s been a funny journey.
Gary West – What a pleasure to interview Ray D’Ariano as we wait for his forthcoming book.
**Neil Bogart passed away in May of 1982 at the age of 39. The same week former music giant WABC radio went all-talk. Here’s that week – from the Mr. Pop archives: May 8, 1982