When I heard that Louisville radio legend Bill Bailey passed away early Saturday morning, there was a bittersweet moment that seemed to take on more weight as the news sunk in. For many WAKY radio listeners who grew up in Kentuckiana in the 60’s and 70’s, Bailey’s growl and guffaw would pour out of many a clock radio as we tumbled out of bed.
The more I recalled of those years, my sadness rose to laughter. Good times, indeed.
Bill got me out the door to classes at Eastern High School at dark-thirty in the morning with anything from Grand Funk to Carly Simon, Petula Clark to the Bee Gees. Oh, and on many occasions, if I was lucky and had some extra time, the rock operatic , “MacArthur Park” would make me late. And make me and Bailey wonder, what in the hell’s going on with that song?”
Then again, I wondered what must it have been like to be in that studio with the Duke? Jaw-dropping commentary in a voice with a honk that was not front porch Kentucky at all was the brand of humor for Bailey’s shift.
Reed Yadon was a young fellow who was lucky enough to become part of the morning production team and grew to be a close friend to Bill. I always thought it was clever and off the cuff for Bailey wrangle with Yadon, almost as a foil, and fly seat-of-pants into the breaking day.
Decades later and still exuding boyish charm, WHAS 11 meteorologist Reed Yadon is one of my favorite broadcast personalities. He is a dedicated fan of Louisville and an advocate for the human side of any story or community event. Not only is he on the air, he’s in the air as a the station’s chopper pilot. I start every Saturday morning with Reed. Quite a bit different from the early weekdays in the 70s.
I had to ask him for some comments on Bill and he was in the process of putting his thoughts together. It is posted on the WHAS 11 Storm Team blog yet I want to include his tribute for our Pulse of the City blog. His poignant observations blend well with this hilarious accounts and I’m glad to share them here.
It was not lost on me after hearing that the Duke has passed away this past Saturday it was also the date on which the “Today” show first aired. It is ironic that a program that invented a form of morning television shares a date with Blll Bailey who pioneered a form of morning radio that is now the standard,
Many times it is only in looking back that we gain perspective and insight into events. That is the case with the Bailey Show. I am still amazed how often people will share their memories with me via email or in person. The impact of that show was far and wide. I was the “straight man” for Bill. It was not the Bill and Reed Show it was the Bill Bailey Show. I was there to steer the car from the backseat. When Bill would try to run us off the road my job was the keep us out of the ditch. If Bill was not quite factual I had to get him back on track. Many times I also played the devil’s advocate.
I was just a kid at the time, but I also realized I was so fortunate to be a part of something bigger than either Bill or me and something that would live on and on. I owe much credit to Bill for whatever success I have had in this business. The over a decade spent working with Bill was not unlike studying with the greatest in any profession. Bill was a born communicator who could in a matter of seconds “read” a group of people when he was speaking. I am often asked how we decided what we were going to talk about on a given morning. The answer is we didn’t. As the chemistry developed it was my job to “feel” where Bill wanted things to go each morning. In the vast majority of cases I could get that feel within minutes of Bill coming in the back door of the station. I could tell by his mood and energy level what was on his mind. Whatever the topic, you could be sure it set the agenda for water cooler conversation the rest of the day in Kentuckiana.
Bill connected with people because he was real. What you saw or heard is what you got. His roots were blue collar. Bill took his job seriously, but never took himself too serious or over rated his importance. He was just a guy who enjoyed talking to people. Listeners hung on his every word. Knowing that he made someone’s day a little better or gave someone a reason to laugh on a miserable morning was the fuel that fed his fire.
The Bailey Show had the ability to take everyday slices of life and turn them into humor and human interest. NPR calls them driveway moments today, but during the Bailey Show era they were a daily thing. Listeners sitting in their car waiting to get out because they were glued to whatever was happening on the program.
Permit me share a few “Bailey” stories, since that is the most common request I get to this day.
Bill was the original management pit bull. When a memo would come out that work areas should be cleaned and everyone dress accordingly because the home office “suits” were coming to town, that memo ended up in the trash. The Duke would make some on air comments ending with “I am going to wear that I always wear and do what I always do, and I don’t care what they think”. He was true to his word. When our New York consultant would send down comments about things he thought could be done differently on the air, Bill would read the actual memo on the air and add his own comments about why he didn’t care what that “little creep” in New York thought. He might also ask that I let him know if I were to see the guy in the station because he wanted to explain a thing or two him, to which I would suggest that maybe the Duke should think twice because the boss put a lot of stock in what the guy had to say. The on air discussion would end with Bill saying, “the devil with all of them, your Duke of Louisville doesn’t have time for such balderdash”. Bill just knocked one out of the park for everyone driving to work with similar feelings about their own boss.
We did quote a few preacher routines. This gave Bill a platform to rant and rave about any given topic. He would do it in the form of a fire and brimstone preacher. I would drop in organ music as Bill was preaching and at times Bill would launch into a verse of “I Come to the Garden Alone” (probably his favorite religious song) or “The Old Rugged Cross”. These bits were classic and Bill was able to draw on a pretty darn good knowledge of the Bible. He was raised in the Bible belt and was a Sunday School regular. At the beginning of Lent one year Bill announced he was thinking of preaching on Easter Sunday. We had an instant history making bit. I took the bait and asked Bill if he knew where and any other details. During the next couple of weeks it was decided Bill would hold an Easter sunrise service at the top of Iroquois Park. We discussed sermon topics, time of service and decided Bill would be dressed in a white robe. This theatre of the air was becoming reality to our listeners who started calling and writing. Where could they get tickets, how would they get to the top of the park? A bus company actually offered to provide buses. This thing was taking on a life of its own. I can’t tell you the amount of mail and number of calls. Management got a little worried, so about two week before Easter we toned it down. This was a routine that was just that, but it went viral. Turns out we had to cancel because of too many “logistics” and other details. I will always believe Bill could have pulled off the sermon and we would have had a crowd.
The station was located near Kunz Restaurant in downtown Louisville and the chef, J.B. Hart was a Bailey fan. Thus we had steak, ribs, you name it for breakfast. I would make the short trip up the ally between newscasts. One morning J.B. sent rabbit for breakfast. Guess what the Duke did while eating the rabbit? He proudly announced that J.B. Hart had killed the Easter Bunny, and so kids needed to know there would be no Easter Bunny this year. Within minutes our phones lines were in melt down mode and J.B. was calling our private line pleading “get Bill to say something because I am getting calls”. It didn’t take the Duke long to cool things down when he announced it was not THE Easter Bunny we were having for breakfast, but one of the Easter Bunny’s elderly assistants, thus Easter was safe.
These stories go on and on, and to this day our listeners remember them.
The Bill that many people didn’t know was a guy with a heart the size of Texas. A guy with untold talents. He was a great portrait painter, who could also paint landscapes. One of which I own. He could refinish furniture and give it new life. Bill was also quite a carpenter where designing desks, bars and the like are concerned. He also actually had a pretty fair singing voice, which at times you got samples of on the air. The Duke kept up with current events and could converse on current topics with a lot of knowledge.
Money and fame were not what drove him. It was reward enough knowing he made someone laugh, gave them something to think about or made someone’s bad day a little brighter.
We were fortunate to have managers and program directors, Don Meyers and John Randolph especially, who had trust and faith in us to not cross the line, even if at times they had to define the line. In all fairness the role for Bill’s straight man was defined by Allen Bryan when he and Bill were first paired at WKLO. I had the good fortune to take over the job at WAKY with Bill. It was the ride of a lifetime and a front seat to radio history.
I feel free to share this personal detail now. Bill and I had agreed many years ago we always wanted to remember each other and our time together as it was in the day. We never wanted to see each other in decline. To the extent possible I have tried to remain true to that conversation with Bill. My last conversation with Bill ended with “I love you Reed”. I said the same to him, but we never said goodbye.