Sad tidings from my pal, Ronnie Oberman, like me an early fan of rock and roll and rhythm and blues in Silver Spring, Maryland. Our hero, our paragon, Don Dillard, disc jockey of my youth, has died. He was 75 and went of a stroke, from what Ronnie heard.
When I was a lad listening to my little plastic GE radio (tubes, not transistors), I was introduced to rock and roll and R & B by this man only eleven years older than I was. His father had bought him a small low power dawn to dusk outlet. Don broadcast in the morning as we were getting ready for school and then at about 3.30 to dusk as we got out of school. He was one of us. When I was 12, he was only 23. If you think of Wolfman Jack, only with no bad attitude and totally accessible to us listeners, that’s Don Dillard. He would offer 45’s to the first person who got to the station — a storefront on Georgia Avenue — and once in a while I got one. Usually Don was the only guy there. My next door neighbor and pal, Carl Bernstein, was also a fanatical fan.
It isn’t a big exaggeration to say that rock and roll from Don Dillard saved my sanity. As my mother badgered and bullied me to study more, endlessly to study more (FULFILL AND OVERFULFILL THE FIVE YEAR STUDY PLAN!), and as I simply didn’t do it, I found good strong male energy to resist coming at me from Don and his music, from the Platters, from Roy Orbison, from the Flamingos, Harvey and the Moonglows, Little Richard, Elvis, the Diamonds, and the best of them all, Buddy Holly, so many more I wish I could remember them all but I cannot. I just remember a few special ones like the Keys. They had a verse that went like this: “Tai S’moke’em Boom Day-Eh.” The song was about Chinatown. I guess it has some drug reference I only this moment realized.
Every so often as I am hurtling down the freeway in my glorious Cadillac STS-V, with my XM set on 5, I will hear some song that I last heard in 1958 and I can remember every word, every note. Thanks to Don Dillard.
He had a great, low, insistent yet amused voice. I know I have told you this before but I can recall him telling us kids how an irate woman had told him he should not play rock and roll in the morning.
“I’ll keep doing what I do,” he said. “If you don’t like it, just move the dial a little up or a little down and we’re gone.”
I wrote about Don Dillard ten years ago in the Spectator. He wrote me a delighted letter. My father and I met him at a race track (Laurel?). He looked frail but was richly amusing and pleasant to be around. If I closed my eyes, I could hear him coming from my yellow radio on my bed stand on Harvey Road.
Now, he’s gone and my father is gone. And my mother, who really only wanted what was good for me. She’s gone, too.
I have been ill for some time now, and I really feel floored by learning about Don Dillard. This time thing, this aging thing is really getting to be too damned much. I can cope with being old and weak and sick, one day at a time. But this loss of Don Dillard. The day the music died. The day youth itself died.