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Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Old Story Made New with Legendary DJ
“Mama, you’ve already told me that story,” my daughters often say. Worse, they like to summarize my stories to prove they’ve heard them before.
But recently, to my surprise, daughter Andrea didn’t recall one of my stories and she’d been a participant in it. I discovered this block in her memory as we were trying to think of the name of a great pizza place we used to frequent in Atlanta. Andrea still lives in Atlanta, and I thought she’d recall the name and location.
“We went there the night we met Skinny Bobby Harper,” I said.
“Don’t you remember him? He wore thick glasses, had black hair” I said. “We were standing in line at the pizza place. He commented on your outfit. It had been Western Day at Roland Elementary School. So I’d braided your hair in pigtails and you’d worn an ankle-length dress that day.
“I don’t remember,” she said. “How old was I? Seven?”
“I’m surprised you don’t remember. We talked about it afterwards.”
Unable to pique her memory of that evening, I rehashed it:
“What is she supposed to be?” he asked.
“That’s what she considers Western,” I answered and explained about Western Day.
“Yes, she absolutely right, she looks like Laura Ingells, Little House on the Prairie.”
After my long day, my mind stalled. “Do I know you? You look familiar.”
He flashed a smile. “Your ex-husband, an old boyfriend, perhaps?”
I laughed, “No.”
He refused to give me a clue, but as I stared, trying to place him, I thought of a recent article I’d read. Could this man be the inspiration for the character Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati, as the article had said? The photo looked like him. “Are you Skinny Bobby Harper?”
He offered his hand. “How do you do?”
I told him I’d read the article about him.
He said Hugh Wilson, a friend of his, had written and produced the popular sitcom WKRP. Wilson had been the ad guy at WQXI in Atlanta where Harper used to DJ. Wilson wrote for the Mary Tyler Moore Show, before he created WKRP, Harper said.
Harper had ventured into television more than ten years prior, as one of TV’s ground-breaking video DJs on what was known as the Now Explosion. That show was telecast in Atlanta on Ted Turner’s channel 17 and was nationally syndicated.
I’d read about Harper’s colorful language. (He sometimes swore on the air). He’d been fired from a number of radio stations, although others stations clamored to hire him regardless, due to his immense popularity and talent.
In talking to him, I found him sweet and respectful, and after we got our pizzas, we sat at adjoining tables, Andrea and I at one table, he and his daughter at another.
The next morning I was driving Andrea to school when she said, “Mama, why don’t we listen to the man we met last night at the pizza place?”
I scrolled the radio channels until I found him, although I wasn’t prepared for what I heard him say: “Do you know what day it is today? It’s be kind to Sandy Ryles day.” (My last name was Ryles at that time.) He repeated the “Be kind to Sandy Ryles day,” a number of times and said, “If you see Sandy Ryles, be kind to her. It’s her day.”
I smiled until I thought my face would break, as I drove Andrea to school; then drove myself to the Marta station to catch the train to Georgia State University. Back then I was working on a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism.
I wanted to call and thank him, but I didn’t have a cell phone. No one had cell phones then.
But from that morning on, I always listened to him. He made my days happier and brighter. He’s been called a comic genius, and he was.
He created a character called “Lavern” from the “Never Say Goodbye” nursing home. Lavern was also a member of the “Toe-to-Toe-With-Satan Church of the Constant Struggle.”
There were many other skits he performed over the radio, and as I listened, I pictured Lavern and all the characters he created. He also reported on how many moo cows were seen in Atlanta.
Sandwiched in between his skits, he played lovely tunes, like Smokey Robinson’s The Tears of a Clown, and so many of my favorites, too many to name.
In talking to Andrea and reliving all of this, I realized I’d lost track of Skinny Bobby Harper after I moved to Florida in 1990. A google search brought sad news. He died of lung cancer in 2003. He was only 64.
But I feel blessed to have met and listened to him, and I’m sure I’ll repeat this story about the Hall of Fame, legendary DJ. How he made me feel like a queen for a day and brightened my mornings. If only I’d called to thank him for bringing me such joy.
I’m trying to make amends by spreading some of the joy he gave to me, and the next time I tell this story to Andrea and Rene, they’d better not say they’ve heard it before. If they do, I’ll come back with, “I’m your mother. If I want to repeat old stories to make them new again, I should have that privilege.”
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Below you’ll find the link to my latest novel, A Message in the Roses, based on a murder trial I covered as a newspaper reporter in Atlanta. Warning: contains steaming romance.