“What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin & John” by Tom Clay
Mowest Records 5002, 45 r.p.m. single, 1971
Man: “What is segregation?”
Little Girl: “I don’t know what seggerashom [sic] is.”
Man: “Ah, what is bigotry?”
Little Girl, uncomfortably: “I don’t know what biggery [sic] is.”
Man: “What does, uh, hatred mean?”
Little Girl: “I don’t know what that is.”
Man: “Uh, what is, uh, prejudice?”
Little Girl: “Uhm…I think it’s when somebody’s sick.”
In the late 1970s, I knew a man named John Moen who was a sales rep for WYNE Radio in Appleton, Wisconsin. John also, for a while, had a talk show on WYNE in 1979 that aired weekdays between 11:00 a.m. and Noon. I would occasionally lend him records to drop into his program if he needed to fill the full hour on a particular day. On June 5, 1979, the eleventh anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, I lent him a copy of the Tom Clay record “What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin & John.” John indicated that he didn’t think he’d ever heard it before, but he’d give it a play. He played it at the very beginning of his program that morning. John was so moved by the record that he couldn’t say anything on the air until after the first (early) commercial break.
Spoken word records, although not particularly common, were occasionally hits on the Billbosrd Hot 100 in the first two decades of the rock era. Most were stand-up comedy pieces or novelties that would later become staples of Dr. Demento’s radio show, like Stan Freberg’s merciless 1957 lampooning of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” in which Peter Leeds keeps interrupting Stan’s vocal “interpretation” and an argument erupts. In November 1964, Lorne Greene, then the star of the popular NBC-TV Western series Bonanza (and a former newscaster for the CBC network in Canada known as “The Voice of Doom” during the Second World War), hit #1 with a piece of Western poetry titled “Ringo,” ostensibly inspired by 1880s Arizona outlaw Johnny Ringo (although the fact that a certain rock drummer was having amazing commercial success that very same year, also using the name Ringo, certainly didn’t hurt matters); a year and a half later, TV announcer Frank Gallop offered a parody, “The Ballad of Irving (The 142nd Fastest Gun in the West),” of Greene’s record, which also cracked the Top 40 for about a month.
However, a few of them were indeed serious, and frequently those of a conservative political bias were given radio airplay. A news commentator for Grand Rapids, Michigan, radio station WMAX, Victor Lundberg, recorded a Paul Harvey-type monologue about his disapproval of elements of the then-growing youth counterculture, “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son,” that reached the Top 10 at Christmastime of 1967 (ironic that the record had been issued on the Liberty label, considering the disapproval of liberties taken that the thing was based on). And in the winter of 1974, two different versions of a Gordon Sinclair commentary over Toronto radio station CFRB from the previous year hit the Top 40; under the title “Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion),” Sinclair’s original broadcast, atop a bed of an orchestra playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” made it to #24 on the Billboard Hot 100, at the same time that a remake by CKLW Windsor newscaster Byron MacGregor, laid over “America the Beautiful,” made it to #1 on Cash Box’s pop singles chart.
Arguably the most memorable of all such records – on which, interestingly, the man credited as its performer is heard only for a handful of seconds out of its over six minutes of length – was created by a one-time co-worker of MacGregor’s at CKLW. Many recall Tom Clay today as a complex man, whose transgressions could be as troubling as his aural creations were moving. Very few who came into contact with him, even if only from afar over radio carrier signals, were not moved by his talents.
It was as Thomas Clague that he was born in Binghamton, New York, in 1929. By the time rock ‘n roll arrived in the mid-50s, Tom wanted into it. He took a few minutes off from his job – washing windows on buildings in downtown Buffalo – to talk his way into the afternoon drive airshift on WWOL, an otherwise Polish-language ethnic radio station. Clay, not unlike other early radio disc jockeys (Alan Freed, Hunter Hancock, Dick Biondi) plugging the rock ‘n roll beat, was an overnight success in Buffalo and Southern Ontario, leading to bigger gigs at WSAI Cincinnati and WJBK Detroit.
It was while at WJBK that Clay, as Jack The Bellboy, got caught up in the “payola” anti-rock ‘n roll witch hunts of 1959-61; he’d taken over $6,000 from record promoters for playing certain tunes at a time when the practice was perfectly legal. Payola was a practice that actually went all the way back to Vaudeville and minstrelsy; during the Congressional hearings about payola in rock ‘n roll, one Ohio disc jockey admitted that, after he had helped popularise a record by the non-rocking Perry Como, RCA Victor kept sending him cases of cheese that, since he had a lactose allergy, the jock simply stuck in a corner of his basement, “stinking up the house for weeks.” The only thing the scandal ever proved was that radio disc jockeys have always been criminally underpaid in relation to the income they generated for their radio stations.
Like several other Eastern U.S. disc jockeys caught up in the scandal, Clay moved to the West Coast in 1961 and took a job at KDAY Los Angeles, where, coincidentally, Alan Freed had also popped up after WABC and WNEW-TV New York canned him for his payola activity. An example of the kind of thing he did at KDAY was the time he took a Jackie Wilson record, played it for a verse or two, then opened the mic and shouted, “Man, did you hear that? Can this cat sing or what?! And listen to that horn section behind him! Listen when the horns come in." And then he started playing the record again. He’d do this for an entire 20-minute section of the show. Unfortunately, KDAY was a daytime-only station trying to compete against the 24-hour powerhouses KFWB and KRLA, already established as rock ‘n rollers since the ‘50s. Freed didn’t last very long there, but Clay continued at KDAY until April 1962, when station management canned everybody on the air staff, replaced them with a Soul music format and all Black disc jockeys in an effort to compete against KGFJ. After a little while as a part-timer at KRLA, and then at KDEO San Diego (co-owned at the time with his old employer, WSAI), Tom had to skedaddle back to Detroit.
Fortunately, Detroit had several other rock ‘n roll stations at the time, one of which was right across the drink in Windsor, Ontario, CKLW. At 800 kHz on the AM dial, CKLW had a Canadian clear channel signal that covered most of North America at night (WJBK, on U.S. local frequency 1490 kHz, had a signal you couldn’t pick up in Grand Rapids). Clay had built a huge following across eastern Canada and the U.S.A. over CKLW by the time November 22nd, 1963, rolled around. It turned out to be an extremely important date in Clay’s life, in multiple ways.
A few days after President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on that date, a girl from a Detroit suburb, Candy Greer, wrote a poem reflecting her impressions of that terrible weekend. Titled Six White Horses, it is not connected to Tommy Cash’s 1970 Country hit record of the same title, although both touch upon the John Kennedy assassination. Tom Clay, who always wanted to have something of deep meaning to say between the rock ‘n roll records, found a copy of the Candy Greer poem in early 1964 and read it on his program. CKLW was deluged the following day with requests for a record of Clay’s reading of the poem; before long, CKLW put out a record of that tape, with proceeds of the record’s sale going to a local charity.
1964 was also, of course, THE Year of The Beatles, and like every other disc jockey working at a rock station that spring – well, maybe not Mort Downey in San Diego – Tom Clay cooked up an idea to plug himself into Beatlemania. He announced to his listeners that they could join the International Beatle Booster Boobies if they sent him one dollar at a Windsor post office box. Over 80,000 members were logged into the IBBB, and while there were legitimate items the members could get – among them being a record of an interview with The Beatles that Clay had recorded in England and a chance to meet John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves when they played Olympia Stadium that September – it appears that Clay hadn’t set up the business correctly, leading to his being canned by CKLW (and fellow CKLW air personality Dave Shafer doing a little jail time for his involvement in the IBBB, which the Canadian government considered to be “international fraud”). CKLW replaced Clay with Terry Knight, who later had some recording success with a backup band called The Pack (a 1967 single updating Ben E. King’s 1963 hit “I Who Have Nothing” barely missed the Top 40 in ’67) before The Pack broke away and morphed into Grand Funk Railroad. After making the rounds of the remaining Detroit rock stations – including WWWW, the same outfit that later gave Howard Stern his first major market morning show – Tom went back to Los Angeles again.
This time, Clay landed at KBLA, a one-lung outfit on 1500 kHz that could barely be heard in some parts of Los Angeles. While at least KBLA was a 24-hour license, not only did it have little chance of beating KRLA or KFWB in the ratings, shortly after Clay joined KBLA, KHJ – co-owned at the time with CKLW by RKO General – rolled out its revolutionary “Boss Radio” format, which trounced its three Top 40 competitors in the ratings by years’ end. KBLA’s reaction was to can the entire air staff, Clay included, and go with an automated, jockless Top 40 format. When that got even worse results, KBLA went back to live disc jockeys playing the hits – including Humble Harve Miller, whose evening show served as the basis for his appearance in the 1980 movie comedy The Hollywood Knights (about car club hijinx on Halloween Night of 1965), former KRLA morning man Emperor Bob Hudson, and KHJ cast-offs Roger Christian in middays and Dave Diamond’s “Diamond Mine” psychedelic rock show late at night – but the weak signal doomed its possibilities, and in late 1967 KBLA switched to a Country format as KBBQ. In the 1970s, KBBQ gave way to another rock format as KROQ, but that format would only become successful once it took over KPPC-FM Pasadena’s old frequency and started playing ‘70s punk rock. KBLA’s old frequency of 1500 kHz has long been silent in Los Angeles.
Tom Clay, on the other hand, did his best not to stay silent. He went back to KRLA for a little while, and it was during that period that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, the latter murder taking place at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. Only a few feet away from RFK when he was shot had been an acquaintance of Tom’s, a news reporter named Andrew West. West had been a reporter at KHJ during its first months as a Top 40 station, and was now working for KRKD, the Los Angeles affiliate of the Mutual Broadcasting System. The tape of West describing the immediate aftermath of the shooting in that ballroom kitchen remains a landmark of broadcast journalism.
In 1969, Clay joined WCBS-FM New York, but he didn’t last very long in that job, either. He moved to Los Angeles a third time the following year, taking a part-time job at KGBS, a combination of a 24-hour FM signal and an AM signal that usually broadcast during daylight hours only but had special permission to turn the AM transmitter back on for a few hours every Sunday night when another station on its 1020 kHz frequency, KDKA Pittsburgh, shut its transmitter down for weekly maintenance. While Clay was still in New York, CBS’ record label, Columbia Masterworks, put out a documentary album by Walter Cronkite called I Can Hear It Now: the Sixties. Tom had a copy of that album when he returned to Los Angeles, and while the KGBS gig didn’t offer much in terms of air time or pay rate, it did give him access to a production studio, where he edited together a batch of sounds from that album into an audio collage that he’d play on his show.
The collage started out with the conversation between the man and little girl quoted at the beginning of this essay. It immediately fed into recordings of U.S. Marine drill instructors calling cadence, separated by the sound of automatic rifle fire. The sounds spoke for themselves, with the U.S. war against Vietnam having become bitterly unpopular by 1971.
Next was an audio clip lifted from the Cronkite album. It was of news reporter Ron Jenkins, who, on November 22, 1963, was covering President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas for local radio station KBOX. Jenkins was waiting for the Kennedy motorcade at Dallas’ new Trade Mart, where Kennedy was scheduled to speak that noon hour. Jenkins says, “We’re at the Trade Mart, the motorcade is coming by here. I can see many, many motorcycles coming by now, police motorcycles. We just heard a call on the radio for all units along Industrial to pick up the motorcade, something has happened here, we understand there has been a shooting. The Presidential car coming up now, we know it’s the Presidential car, I can see Mrs, Kennedy’s pink suit. There’s a Secret Service man spread-eagled over the top of the car, we understand Governor and Mrs. Connally are in the car with President and Mrs. Kennedy. We can’t see who has been hit if anybody’s been hit, but something is wrong here, something is terribly wrong. I’m in behind the motorcade trying to follow them, it looks as though they’re going to Parkland Hospital…” Then Clay himself cuts in with the words, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin. Dallas, Texas. The flash, apparently official: President John F. Kennedy died at 1PM, central standard time.” This was actually lifting the text of Cronkite’s own reading of the bulletin officially announcing Kennedy’s death, but as Clay couldn’t get the rights from CBS News to use that clip, he simply re-did it himself.
Next was a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final public address, at Memphis’ Masonic Temple on April 3, 1968: ”[We’ve got] difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind! Like anybody, I would like to live!” Immediately after that, we hear Senator Robert Kennedy, then running for President, two days later, after Dr. King was assassinated: “No one can be certain who next will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed.”
Finally, we come to a section dealing with Robert Kennedy’s assassination. We hear Kennedy’s last public words to the crowd cheering on his victory in the California Democratic Primary of June 4, 1968: “[Los Angeles] Mayor [Sam] Yorty just sent me a message that we’ve been here too long already. So, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.” After the crowd cheers, Clay inserts part of Andrew West’s tape from that night. West says, “Senator Kennedy has been sh—Senator Kennedy has been shot, is that possible? Oh my God. Senator Kennedy has been shot. Rafer Johnson has a hold of the man who apparently has fired the shot. [amidst pandemonium] Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the gun! His hand is frozen! Take a hold of his thumb, and break it if you have to, get his gun! All right? That’s it Rafer! Get it! Get the gun, Rafer! Hold him, hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”
The next voice heard is Senator Edward Kennedy, the brother of John and Robert, delivering his eulogy at Robert’s funeral. “Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. That is the way he lived, that is what he leaves us. My brother need not be idealized, nor enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, but be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw hurt and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him, and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched, and who sought to touch him, “Some men see things as they are, and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were, and say, ‘Why not?’”
Then, again, the conversation between the man and little girl at the beginning, given a new sense of poignancy by the sounds of history we’ve just listened to. Eventually, the collage was edited over recordings of the vocal group The Blackberries performing the Burt Bacharach – Hal David song “What the World Needs Now is Love,” which had been a hit for Jackie de Shannon when Tom was at KBLA in ‘65, and “Abraham, Martin & John,” a Dick Holler song that had been a Top 40 hit for Dion in 1968 and twice, for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Moms Mabley, the next year.
It was the greatest work Tom Clay ever constructed. After a few plays over KGBS, Clay got several offers to issue the collage as a commercial record. He turned down several labels’ offers of up to $20,000 in advance money and instead placed it with his old Detroit acquaintance, Berry Gordy, at Motown Records. It was released on Mowest, a Motown subsidiary label, in mid-1971. Radio stations around the United States began playing it, and by August, it was a Top 10 hit. It even got radio airplay in Australia; and Radio Nordzee International, a “pirate” radio station playing pop music from a few miles off the coast of The Netherlands, began getting requests for the record before the station ever played it.
The record eventually sold over four million copies in the United States, but Tom Clay never got an official Gold Single for that feat. Official Gold Singles were issued by the Recording Industry Association of America after its own accountants audited sales receipts received by the releasing label, but since Motown didn’t join the RIAA until years later, Clay’s record was never audited. And, in a tape Clay sent to a fan in 1982, Clay complained that, while he was supposed to be paid eight cents per record in royalties by Motown, the label hadn’t paid him one nickel of the $300,000 he was owed. (Whether or not he got paid after ’82, I know not; the record was out of print by then.)
Tom’s radio career picked up a little after that. He got another full-time gig at KPPC-FM Pasadena, a while before the station morphed into KROQ-FM, but even that didn’t last very long. He eventually went back to his old home in Buffalo. Although his record sold phenomenally, very few stations bothered playing it in their oldies rotations, which explains why my pal John Moen was unfamiliar with it when he played my old copy of it eight years later. It would frequently get airplay on radio talk programs on the anniversaries of the Kennedy and King assassinations; Larry King sometimes played it on his overnight talk show on the Mutual network in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In the ‘80s, Clay, who still did the occasional voice-over work in radio and TV, put together a second audio collage, which he titled “Time for a Change.” Like “What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin & John,” it was made up of actuality clips, but this time relating to events during the Reagan Years – the assassinations of John Lennon and Anwar Sadat, the shootings of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, The U.S. military activity in Lebanon, Grenada and Central America. By the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he’d updated it to include pieces of “What’s Going On” by both Marvin Gaye (another old acquaintance from Detroit) and Cyndi Lauper. He’d run the thing past various record companies, which were all impressed – but, by that time, singles were dead and none of them could imagine a whole album of this stuff would appeal to a mass audience. He didn’t get paid for selling four million copies of one record, and couldn’t get the follow-up put out because there’d be no money in it.
Tom’s son Ron Clay went on to become a locally successful disc jockey on WQMF in Louisville, Kentucky, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, occasionally putting the old man on the air when he drove down from Buffalo to visit. Ron Clay died of cancer in 1995. By then, Tom was himself battling the non-Hodgkin lymphoma that would take his own life over four years later, on November 22, 1999 – the 36th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
At this point in my life, there are four records that can still bring a tear to my eye. There’s Eva Cassidy’s immaculately soulful interpretation of “Over the Rainbow,” made even more poignant by the circumstances by which it became a hit for her after her death from cancer. There’s the great John McDermott’s incomparable version of Eric Bogle’s First World War story “And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda’.” Harry Chapin’s story of loneliness among common folks, “A Better Place to Be,” also does it. But those three are based in fiction, the historical inspiration for the Bogle song notwithstanding. Tom Clay’s meditation on the political violence of the 1960s, on the other hand, is completely based in fact, and just as emotionally powerful. It is, and remains, an artwork by which other artworks are measured.