Obituaries

Dick Biondi, Fast-Talking Star of Top 40 Radio, Dies at 90

Dick Biondi, an exuberant, fast-talking Top 40 radio personality, nicknamed “the Screamer,” who in the early 1960s became one of Chicago’s most popular disc jockeys and, thanks to the strength of his station’s signal, was heard well beyond the city, died on June 26 in Chicago. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by Pamela Enzweiler-Pulice, the director of a forthcoming documentary, “The Voice That Rocked America: The Dick Biondi Story.”

Mr. Biondi was a yeller, though not a shock jock, at WLS-AM, which had just changed its format to rock ‘n’ roll when he was hired for the late evening shift in 1960 for $378 a week (about $3,900 in today’s dollars). The station’s reach into 38 states and Canada provided Mr. Biondi with a platform that made him a major media personality as rock music’s popularity surged.

Mr. Biondi, who was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1998, quickly established himself as a Chicago star. He called himself “the Wild I-tralian”; hosted record hops and charity events; and recorded a novelty song, “On Top of a Pizza,” a parody of “On Top of Old Smoky” that in 1961 became a local hit.

“Nobody came close to his personality,” Ms. Enzweiler-Pulice said in a phone interview. “He was wild, outrageous, goofy and uplifting. He was like a big kid — he was one of us. He spoke our language.”

In 1961, The Gavin Report, an industry publication, named him the Top 40 disc jockey of the year. His evening ratings eventually rose to the highest in Chicago radio.

Despite “operating in the shadowland of the night-time disk jockey, where the glare of national publicity and the adulation of the fan magazines seldom penetrates,” Roger Ebert, the future film critic, wrote in late 1961 in The Daily Illini, the student newspaper of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, “Biondi has managed in the past two years to become one of the most famous men in the Midwest.”

The Chicago Tribune has reported over the years that Biondi’s show attracted as much as a 60 percent share of all listeners in the Chicago market. In 1962, The Tribune said that most of his local audience consisted of teenagers.

Ms. Enzweiler-Pulice was one of Mr. Biondi’s young fans. She started a Biondi fan club and wrote a newsletter. She was 13 when she met him for the first time at a shopping center, where hundreds of people watched him arrive in a helicopter.

“Wherever he went,” she said, “fans mobbed him.”

WLS became a critical part of the hit-making machine for record companies, and Mr. Biondi was a significant player in that equation. He was especially important to the Four Seasons, whose label, Vee-Jay, was based in Chicago.

Another group that was on Vee-Jay, at least for a while, was the Beatles. And it is possible that when Mr. Biondi played their Vee-Jay single “Please Please Me” in early 1963, it was the first time a Beatles song had been heard on a station in the United States, said Mark Lewisohn, whose book “Tune In” (2013) is the first of a projected trilogy called “The Beatles: All These Years.”

But Mr. Biondi’s time at WLS ended in 1963 after only three years. He was fired when he complained about the amount of commercials on his show compared with that of a competitor, Dick Kemp, known as “the Wild Child,” on a rival station. Mr. Biondi said that his carping angered the sales manager; in one confrontation at the studio, Mr. Biondi, armed with a letter opener, had to be restrained by two engineers.

This was, Mr. Biondi said, one of 25 times he was dismissed from various jobs over the course of his career.

Soon after his dismissal, Herb Lyon, a gossip columnist in The Tribune, reported: “Ex WLS Dee Jay Dick Biondi, still the youngster’s hero, trotting ’round town, pushing his own new album, ‘Biondi Talks to Teenagers,’ a real twist.”

Mr. Biondi in 1998, the year he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.Credit…Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Richard Orlando Biondi was born on Sept. 13, 1932, in Endicott, N.Y., near Binghamton, to Michael and Rose Biondi. He first performed on radio when he was 8, and, as he stood outside a studio in Auburn, N.Y., the announcer he was watching asked him to come inside and read a commercial for a women’s clothing store.

That started his love affair with radio. As a teenager he worked as a gofer at a station in Binghamton, where one of the announcers tutored him on his diction. In 1950, after graduating from high school, he got a job in Corning, N.Y., as a sportscaster.

For the next decade he worked at stations in Alexandria, La. (where he played R&B and called high school football games); York, Pa.; Youngstown, Ohio; and Buffalo.

He hosted a record hop in 1957 starring Jerry Lee Lewis, who was at the apex of his fiery fame but was upstaged at the event by the actor Michael Landon, who talked his way through his single “Gimme a Little Kiss (Will Ya, Huh?).”

“The girls went nuts,” Mr. Biondi said in an interview on the television show “Chicago Tonight” in 2003. “You know how good-looking he was.”

Mr. Biondi grew a beard, which he dyed from week to week to match the official colors of the high schools where he regularly hosted record hops. He sat on a flagpole for three days and nights on a listener’s dare.

And he said he met Elvis Presley backstage in Cleveland and persuaded him to autograph the white shirt he was wearing; Mr. Biondi then wore it to a hop, where fans shredded it so badly that he had to go to a hospital emergency room to treat his badly scratched back.

After leaving Chicago in 1963, Mr. Biondi spent the next half-century bouncing around. He moved to KRLA in Los Angeles in 1963; hosted a nationally syndicated show on Mutual Radio from 1964 until it was canceled in 1965; and then returned to KRLA, where in 1965 he and his fellow D.J.s, including Bob Eubanks and Casey Kasem, introduced the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. He came back to Chicago in 1967, at WCFL.

“You know, the day I left Chicago, I started wanting to come back to it,” he told The Tribune in 1967. “It’s the only place I’ve ever been that’s made an impression on me.”

But in 1972 he left for a station in Cincinnati. He later moved on to Boston and North Myrtle Beach, S.C., before coming back to Chicago for good in 1983, most significantly as the host of a show at a new oldies station, WJMK-FM, for 21 years. He returned to WLS (this time on the FM dial) from 2006 until the station ended its association with him in 2018.

His survivors include his wife, Maribeth Biondi, and his sister, Geraldine Wallace.

Many of Mr. Biondi’s encounters with rock luminaries remained vivid decades later.

For example, he recalled that after Michael Landon, who was then starring in the film “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” wowed the crowd of several hundred fans in 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis went onstage for his second set and performed 14 songs.

“He goes crazy in the second show,” Mr. Biondi said. “He walks off and here’s Michael Landon. He says, ‘OK, pretty boy, top me this time.’”

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