Ron Onesti: Dick Biondi celebrates his 'Big 89'
A cup of hot cocoa in front of a crackling fire in the fall. Peacefully floating on a raft on a small river in Tennessee. Sundown over the mountains of Colorado.
As soothing, comforting and embracing as those things are, the voice of radio legend Dick Biondi is just as special to me. Which is ironic, because he is referred to as one of the original "screamers" on radio!
The "Wild I-Tralian" turns 89 this Sunday, Sept. 19. Even though he was fired 23 times from various stations around the country, Chicago was his heart, and WLS 89-AM was his home.
Biondi began on the radio as a sportscaster, but was quickly drawn to the rhythm and blues songs emerging on the radio around him. He loved that Alan Freed era that became known as rock 'n' roll. He worked with iconic names including young "upstarts" Rod Serling and Casey Kasem. He was a big Elvis supporter, winding up in the hospital during an Elvis show after a crowd of crazed fans tore a shirt off Dick after he had "The King" autograph it.
Where he probably left his biggest rock 'n' roll "footprint" was during the 1960s. He is credited with being the first American disc jockey to play the Beatles ("Please Please Me," 1963). He tells a great story of how he played the Four Seasons off the "B" side of a compilation promo record DJs would be sent at the time. " 'Sherry' took off," he says, "and the rest is Four Seasons history."
From a Chicago perspective, Biondi ushered in the Garage Band era that was fostered in the Midwest. The Buckinghams, Ides of March, New Colony 6, the Cryan' Shames, the Shadows of Knight, the American Breed, the Flock, the Mauds, Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah and so many more were all "big brothered" by Biondi.
For me personally, Dick was an Italian American hero. His song "On Top of a Pizza" and his moniker "The Wild I-Tralian" brought light to his ethnicity -- one I shared.
I would hire Dick every year to appear at the Italian festivals I would produce. He would walk the streets, taking photo after photo, the crowd loving him, and he, loving the crowd. What could be better than Italian sausage on the grill, garlic in the air and Dick Biondi on stage, for a complete Italian festival experience?
One year, at the annual Festa Pasta Vino on Oakley Avenue in Chicago, I wanted to honor Dick for always supporting our community. A local guitar maker friend visited me at The Arcada about a month before the event. I asked him if there was anything special he could make as a gift to Dick. Two weeks later, he proudly brought over a green, white and red guitar that emulated the Italian flag. It was perfect!
Dick humbly accepted the guitar on stage, proudly raising it over his head like a World Series trophy. He loves being Italian!
Another time, we held a fundraiser benefiting original Buckinghams member Marty Grebb, who has since passed. Dick hosted it, and it featured most of the bands mentioned above who came together to form a "Garage Band-Palooza" experience at The Arcada. He was the big name even among the legendary bands performing that night. But still, he was as humble as ever, shyly accepting the outpouring of love from the packed house.
I was blessed to receive an award from an Italian American organization a few years back. It was to be presented at a luncheon that happened to be the next day after a Frankie Avalon show at The Arcada. Dick was at the show to introduce Frankie. When Dick heard about the award to be presented to me the next day, he secretly spoke to Frankie about it. Frankie changed his flights the next day to later ones as Dick Biondi and Frankie Avalon surprised me at this awards ceremony. That's the kind of guy Dick (and Frankie) really is. Humble, unselfish and unassuming. A loving guy who has brought us the soundtracks of our rock 'n' roll lives.
The Arcada Theatre will host a "Big 89th Birthday Celebration" for Dick Biondi this Sunday at 2 p.m. It is a fundraiser to benefit the completion of the film documentary on Dick's life. Performers include the Buckinghams, the Ides of March, Jimy Sohns of the Shadows of Knight, the New Colony 6, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, Rosie & The Rivets, the Cavedwellers, Hot Rocks and other surprises! I will host the event along with Scott Mackay from The River radio. There will be a huge birthday card to Dick for all to sign.
As I think about growing up in Chicago, there a few things that resonate, such as the "neighborhood" aspect of rubber balls against garage walls, unlocked doors and slicing up watermelon to share at the playgrounds. I have two impressions of radio that live in my mind. One is a transistor radio in my dad's pocket with an earphone connected to his ear as he was listening to the Cubs game and Lou Beadreau on WGN. The other, is the "uncle-like" sound of Dick Biondi tossing out a knock-knock joke, giving a fun-factoid about an upcoming song, or just sharing his excitement of being on the radio.
His voice will forever live in the rock 'n' roll hall of fame that resides in the hearts of Chicago music fans everywhere!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of the Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.