Art of the DJ on Display for Pete
I'm listening to Vin Scelsa's heartfelt tribute to Pete Fornatale on Idiots Delight. Vin's doing it with his eloquent words and music, just the way we knew he would. Don McGee hit all the right notes earlier on Mixed Bag, as did Dennis Elsas and Darren DeVivo on Thursday and Friday. They all did it their in their own way, as I will try to do on the Sunday Breakfast.
What we've all been doing in a way is paying tribute to the Art of the DJ, in this case the DJ being Pete Fornatale. Rita Houston suggested the idea for Public Radio Music Month, which wraps up in a couple days. The first 8 installments of the series focused on DJs from around the country before turning its attention to FUV's own (our weekday hosts - Claudia, Darren, Dennis, and Corny - plus Vin) during our membership drive. Pete could just as easily been included, but the intention was to spotlight him and others in the future. As it happens, we've spontaneously orchestrated a symphony in at least five movements that honors at length the very art that Pete personified.
Part of what made Pete special was that he was a product of a particular moment in time, as he often noted himself - the moment when the FCC mandated that FM stations not simply simulcast what was airing on AM and when there was an explosion of artists creating exciting new music that couldn't fit on AM. It was a time when it mattered more how you put the music together and could talk about it than how mellifluous your voice was. Let's face it, Pete would have never been hired on an AM station. Neither would I. (Dennis Elsas might have, but not many others.)
Pete, Vin, Dennis, and I all came out of college radio and happened to be at the right place at the right time. My professional break occurred in Philadelphia in 1969 when I called WMMR (the sister station of WNEW-FM) and asked what would happen when the host of "The Marconi Experiment" went on vacation. "He's going on vacation next week," I was told. "And the guy who was supposed to fill in can't do it. Do you have a tape?" "Yes," I lied. I stayed up all night making one, drove it down to Philadelphia, and they were desperate enough to put a very nervous college junior on the air for a week. Crazy.
I first heard Pete around the time when we were both doing weekend shows (he on on WNEW and me on WMMR), and I assumed he was also still in college. It turns out he'd graduated a couple of years earlier. By the time he became a full-time DJ on WNEW, I was working in Chicago, so I don't have the memory bank many of you do of those halcyon days of WNEW-FM in the '70s. I do have some great memories of that decade in Chicago, including getting to know Steve Goodman and John Prine when they were first starting out. But being on the air in New York was different. You were at the center of the universe. You have John Lennon come on your show for three hours, as Dennis did, or have James Taylor and Carly Simon call you from their hotel room on their wedding night, as happened to Pete.
Those guys could have experiences like that, but still feel like real people on the radio who happened to love music, just like you. That's a quality Pete carried with him all his life. As he became an elder statesman of rock in the last decade, he made more and more public appearances, either at book signings or the multimedia presentations he developed about Simon & Garfunkel and Woodstock. Inevitably, he would be greeted by fans who'd tell him how they'd grown up listening to him. I know he was always gracious. Pete was a more complicated person than you might think, but as a close friend said to me, "He loved being Pete Fornatale." One of many tragedies is that Pete was at the peak of his creative powers when he died, with a new book on the Rolling Sones pretty much completed and his memoirs in the works. Oh, the stories he could tell...
Pete and I worked together for 11 years, starting in 1985 at WNEW-FM, when the program director hired me to produce "Mixed Bag" and "Saturday Morning Sixties." Pete was initially skeptical of having a producer, but we hit off. We'd meet at his house on Long Island or mine in Queens to map out each week's show. I know he respected my input, but it was his vision we were servicing. Over time, we became like an old married couple, who could finish each other's sentences.
I had already been doing radio professionally for 16 years by then, so I was hardly a neophyte, but I definitely learned a lot from him about the structure of a radio program and the art of interviewing. Pete was one of the best interviewers ever, in part because of his innate curiosity. As a producer, it was a privilege to work with the conversations Pete had with the likes of Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby and Nash, Leonard Cohen, and Peter Paul & Mary. Pete said the secret was establishing trust. He was always prepared, and he listened. When you do that, good things happen. Those are lessons I still follow.
Pete had a brief career as a teacher before radio took over, and in many ways he always was a teacher. He loved remembering dates and stats (which is probably why he also loved baseball), and they provided a great springboard for him to create sets or whole shows. Every latter-day Mixed Bag show was one extended theme set. I'll confess I'd groan sometimes at the song choices he'd make to illustrate the themes, but he sure did his homework, and he'd delight in introducing his student engineers to songs or cultural phenomena that happened before they were born.
Those engineers became his sidekicks. Pete was generous in that way. During our days together on Mixed Bag (and later The Sunday Show on K-Rock), I was his fill-in when he was away, and when he wasn't available to interview artists during the week, he was comfortable with my doing them in his stead. As a result, I got the chance to interview artists like Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, and Tom Waits. Nice work if you can get it.
I realized this week that I probably wouldn't be in public radio if it weren't for Pete. My first esperience with on-air fundraising was producing the Hungerthon broadcasts Pete co-hosted with Bill Ayres of World Hunger Year. I'm sure I wouldn't have gotten my first public radio job at WNYC without that on my resume. And I'm sure I was approached to take over the Sunday Breakfast at WFUV because of my experience with Pete. Before I accepted, I asked the station to make sure that Pete (who was working full-time at WNEW-FM in their "Classic Rock with Classic Jocks" phase) wasn't in a position to do it - he should have first dibs. He wasn't, so I accepted, 15 years ago this month. I've been able to develop my own vision for Sunday morning, not identical to Mixed Bag, but certainly influenced by it. I know how lucky I am to practice the Art of the DJ in my own way and how lucky I am to have known Pete. He was a pioneer and a pilgrim and a passionate champion of the artists he loved. Gone far too soon, but never forgotten.