DJ Tom Shannon, a top jock at CKLW during Golden Era, has died

Susan Whitall
Special to the Detroit News
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How many radio personalities can say they dated Ann-Margret, that their show theme song become a Top 10 hit, and that they helped launch “96 Tears” by Question Mark & The Mysterians into the world?

Tom Shannon, a top jock at the “Big 8,” CKLW Detroit-Windsor during its golden era, did all that and more.

CKLW DJ Tom Shannon

Shannon died Wednesday from pancreatic cancer, in Salinas, California, said Rob Lynch, longtime partner of Shannon's daughter Catherine. He was 82 and had been under hospice care after a recent diagnosis. Shannon had been living in California since his 2005 retirement from radio.

With his tagline, “The sun never sets on the Shannon empire,” the handsome, smooth-voiced legend was touted by CKLW for his “Irish charm and wit” in newspaper ads in the '60s.

“He was good-looking, smooth and cool in every way,” said Pat St. John of Sirius XM satellite radio, adding: “He didn’t act cool, Tom was cool.”

Radio historian Art Vuolo was a longtime friend. “Nobody will ever have a show theme song become a national hit, because there aren’t many theme songs anymore,” said Vuolo. “For that matter, there aren’t many personalities on radio the likes of Tom Shannon.”

In 1969, Shannon was voted the No. 1 pop music disc jockey in the United States and Canada, earning him the Bill Gavin Radio-Record Award, the industry’s top honor.  That same year Pat St. John, just 18, was hired by CKLW hired for his first music DJ job. Despite the disparity in career arcs, Shannon wasn’t cocky.

“I just loved listening to him,” said St. John. “He didn’t scream. Tom was this friendly, down to earth guy, somebody you really wanted to know. You could have a cup of coffee with him and he was genuinely interested in you. A very rare talent.

Before he figured out that he needed to find his own style, St. John admits he copied his hero, admiring how effortlessly friendly and real Shannon sounded. “He just kind of spoke, he didn’t put on a voice. He really seemed to talk to you one on one.”

Michael McNamara, whose documentary “Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8” featured Shannon and other surviving CKLW jocks, said: “Until he agreed to be a part of our CKLW doc, I didn’t realize that Tom’s off-air voice was just the same as his on-air voice --smooth, friendly, curious, bemused and open.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when music was as vital as food and water, the DJ was your curator, confidante and constant friend. We couldn’t have had a truer friend than Tom.”

Born in Buffalo, Shannon earned a degree from Buffalo Teacher’s College, and taught high school for a time, while hosting a radio show at night.

By 1961, he’d stopped multi-tasking and chose radio. “I’ve never regretted it,” Shannon told The Detroit News. “Not just the money, really. This thing is in my blood.”

After a brief stint reading news as a teenager, he got his first job in music radio at Buffalo’s 50,000-watt pop giant WKBW, where he joined a staff that included Joey Reynolds, Dick Biondi, Danny Neaverth and Russ "The Moose" Syracuse. WKBW played the hits of the day for an audience that included a huge swath of the east coast.

Shannon’s theme song was “Wild Weekend,” a tune he co-wrote with Phil Todaro while he was the nighttime jock on WKBW. It was recorded as a punky, saxophone-heavy instrumental by a local Buffalo group, the Rockin’ Rebels, and drew regional buzz.

In 1962 the record came to the attention of a larger label, Swan. But in order to license it, Swan had to track songwriter Shannon down in Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he was serving in the U.S. Army.

They came to an agreement, and “Wild Weekend” reached No. 8 on the national charts in 1963, selling more than a million copies.

Having ruled the Buffalo market, Shannon moved up to another 50,000 watt powerhouse, CKLW, in a bigger market: Detroit-Windsor. There, he was one of the “Happy Fellas,” along with Dave Schafer and Bud Davies, playing contemporary hits  on “Radio 8-0.”

CKLW, a Canadian station with a physical location in Windsor but claiming Detroit-Windsor, had a vast audience in Ontario, Michigan and Ohio. Shannon played the hits baby boomers wanted to hear, ending his night shift reading poetry over mood music, a “bearskin rug” schtick that set the stage for the “Pillow Talk” radio shows of the '70s and '80s.

When change came in 1967, under Paul Drew, and CKLW tightened its format into the frenetic “Big 8” of legend, Shannon was one of the few holdovers from the more relaxed “Happy Fellas” era. He adapted to the high energy format easily, earning the Radio-Record award for top disc jockey two years later.

Listen: Tom Shannon on CKLW in its pre, “Big 8, Radio 80 days

Listen: Tom Shannon on CKLW in 1967

Listen: Tom Shannon on CKLW in 1968

As St. John quipped: “When (CKLW’s format) went tight, it didn’t matter, Tom was just friendly in a shorter amount of time.”

Shannon’s influence on music is most apparent with the success of “96 Tears,” by Question Mark and the Mysterians. The single, on the tiny Pa-Go-Go label, had landed on Shannon’s desk at CKLW in 1966. He played it. His listeners liked it.

“They were just a bunch of kids from Flint with this interesting record,” Shannon told The Detroit News in 2002. “So I called a few friends in the business and told them about this song, and how popular it was here.”

One of those friends was Neil Bogart, an A&R man for Philadelphia-based Cameo Parkway Records who was on a tear, signing up Michigan talent. He hopped a plane for Detroit to track down the group, made a deal, and “96 Tears” was rereleased by Cameo Parkway. It is now forever in the pop history books.

In 1969 Shannon was on the air for some 26 hours a week, between radio and TV. Along with his weeknight CKLW show, he held down afternoons on Saturday, and, in 1968, when Robin Seymour was ousted from his “Swingin’ Time” TV dance show, Shannon took over the show as “The Lively Spot.”

CKLW-TV’s program director Elmer Jaspan told The Detroit News that  Shannon had a “youthful personality and a rapport with the teens” that earned him the slot.

The dancing teenagers were soon dropped, and the show became “The Tom Shannon Show,” conceived as a “Tonight Show” for younger people. For Shannon, it was a way to parlay his warmth and engaging conversational style into drawing out guests including Henry Ford II, Tiny Tim and John Sinclair.

Broadcasting careers are nomadic, and after a stint at WXYZ, Shannon moved to Denver in 1972, where he hosted an afternoon movie show at KWGN-TV, along with a radio gig. He returned to Detroit five years later, to do mornings at CKLW.

By 1981 he was doing mornings on The Tower, WTWR; then he was back at WKBW Buffalo for a time, then departed. In 1997 he returned to Buffalo when an oldies station, WHTT-FM, lured him back to do afternoon drive. That was his last radio job — he retired in 2005.

 “I've been doing this for 50 years,” Shannon said to the Buffalo News, adding: “I don't just play oldies, I played them when they were new.”

Friends and former colleagues point out that Shannon’s genial nature and kindness was evident on or off the air.

Former air personality and cable executive Scott Westerman, who runs the site celebrating CKLW’s competitor, was 13 when he first encountered Shannon at the Detroit Auto Show.

“He couldn’t have been kinder or more attentive, and he reinforced my desire to pursue a broadcast career,” said Westerman. “Years later, at a Detroit Radio reunion, I told him that story. ‘You always want to inspire the next generation,’ Tom said.  I’ve never forgotten that.”

Shannon is survived by his partner Marva Hoffman, daughters Catherine and Vita, son Gianmichael Shannon, brothers Larry and Kevin, grandchild Elisabetta Shannon, and former wife Annette Stramaglia. 

His closing line on every show: “Above and beyond all else — later.”

Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

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