Peeling Back John Peel's Dallas Daze
For years, I tried to contact legendary BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel about his days in Dallas -- back when he was known as John Ravenscroft (his birth name), "Beatles correspondent" for KLIF. Never had any luck; he was a busy man and was almost as famous, if not more so, than most of the artists he featured on his radio show, among the most influential in the history of rock and roll. We came close to connecting in 2003, when the paper version of Unfair Park was still in the old KLIF building on Commerce Street downtown, but never did. He died a year later, in October 2004, while on vacation in Peru with his wife Sheila. Peel was 65.
He left such an indelible mark on rock and roll that there remain dozens of Web sites (this is a great one) dedicated to his radio show -- entire broadcasts of which you can download from a site called Kat's Karavan, so named for the legendary R&B show that aired on WRR-AM from 1953 to '67. The BBC maintains a site where can check the complete guest list over the decades and hear snippets of performances done for Peel's show -- the immortal Peel Sessions, featuring the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Flaming Lips, Soft Machine, Cat Power and hundreds of others. Here's his This is Your Life -- that's how big he was.
When he died, Peel was in the middle of writing his autobiography, which was eventually finished by wife Sheila Ravenscroft with help from some of his old friends and colleagues. Titled Margrave of the Marshes, it will be published June 1 by Chicago Review Press, though it's already available through Amazon. And in it, Peel details his life in Dallas -- down to the streets upon which he lives and the girls upon whom he climbed. A history of Peel's stay in Dallas, accompanied by some choice excerpts, is after the jump, as well as one of my favorite Peel Session performances.
First, how did Peel wind up in Dallas? After all, he was born near Liverpool in August 1939. His father was actually a cotton merchant with friends who worked here, at the Cotton Exchange. After John completed his military service in 1959, his old man asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his life. When John said, in short, Nothing much, his father shipped him off to Texas to learn the family business. He first wound up in Houston, stayed only a night or so, then came to Dallas to work at the Cotton Exchange, which was not to be his lot in life.
From Margrave of the Marshes: A Self-Portrait of the Most Important DJ in Rock History:
The boss of the company -- I can't for the life of me remember his name or that of the company -- didn't seem as interested in me as I had hoped or expected. He didn't seem to know much about my dad or Strauss and Co., the family business, either. And this was not the full extent of his ignorance.
"Hey, John. Where you from?" he asked when I was shown into his office.
"England," I replied, modestly but accurately.
"England," he repeated. "Is that in France?"
I met a lot of this sort of thing in Texas. Folks, even those who appeared educated, even sophisticated, had very little idea what went on outside Texas, even across the border in Louisiana.
Peel wound up living at the downtown YMCA, where he befriended "the first two black men to whom I had ever spoken." They spent their free time drinking Country Club Malt Liquor at a barbecue joint near the Cotton Exchange. Peel wound up moving out of the YMCA after "a fellow resident attempted a sort of rather half-hearted rape" in a shower and took a place on Gaston Avenue, in an "inexpensive boarding house...presided over by a magnificent old gal named Miss (pronounced Mizz) Smith." There, he met a "guitar-playing son-of-a-gun" from Waco named Edgar Wortham, who would take Peel to a bar near a drugstore close to their residence.
Peel turned 21 in Dallas -- an occasion he marked by "watching Peter Sellers in Two-Way Stretch on my own in a cinema attached to Southern Methodist University." In 1961, he met John Kennedy during a trip the candidate made through downtown Dallas; there are two pictures Peel took of JFK in Dallas that appear in the book, proof of their brief encounter.
Eventually Peel left the Cotton Exchange and, through an friend, hooked up with a man from Highland Park who got him a job "as office boy with the K.T. Martin Insurance Company [that] dealt exclusively with crop-hail insurance." He also became a Deep Ellum regular, Peel writes, finding a secondhand record store there specializing in seven-inch singles. And he became obsessed with WRR and KBOX -- WRR, especially.
Kat's Karavan was something else. The DJs were wry, well informed -- although not so well informed that you couldn't occasionally pick them up on some small detail in the life of, say, John Lee Hooker -- and the effect of hearing [Lightin'] Hopkins, Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, interspersed with comedy tracks from Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart or Brother Dave Gardner (a big local favourite), booming out of the car radio as you cruised with your mates to Garland or Mesquite or Richardson to try you luck with the girls at a different drive-in, was galvanising.
There are pages and pages in the book about Peel's days in Dallas -- his memories of a particular girl from Bryan Adams High School he used to screw "on the shores of White Rock Lake," his fondness for a "Dr Pepper Icy," his nights spent listening to Russ Knight, the "Weird Beard" of KLIF. But he never quite finished his Dallas chapter. Instead, that comes later in the book courtesy Sheila, who, using John's diaries and recollections, pieces together what happened to him in Dallas -- "the site of one of his brushes with the law, which, through infrequent, left him a whiff of the outlaw."
Sheila writes about John's co-creation of the Dallas County Cricket Club, which is still around today; a photo of his membership card can be found in the book. While there's no mention in the book of Peel's first radio job -- according to the always trustworthy Wikipedia and other sources, Peel deejayed the second hour of "Kat's Karavan" on WRR for free -- it does detail how he came to be KLIF's resident Beatles expert.
After John made a call to KLIF, to correct Russ Knight, more commonly known as the Weird Beard, on some point of fact about Liverpool, Knight -- or should that be Mr Beard? -- hired him as the show's official Beatles Correspondent... In his capacity as KLIF's voice of the Beatles, John would be called upon to answer whichever enquiries about the Fab Four the young Dallas audience saw fit to send his way, though there would typically be a record played between question and answer, to give John time to find out the name of Paul's pet marmoset, or how many sugars Ringo's Auntie Beryl took in her coffee.
John wrote in his own diaries about how his house on Potomac Avenue became "a little hive of carnal activity" when female Beatles fans found out KLIF's Beatle boy lives there. "If they were anxious to sacrifice their virginity to a Man From Liverpool it was churlish, even unpatriotic, of me to refuse to cooperate."
And it goes on -- one swell anecdote after another, told by the man himself about the seven years he spent in the States, most in Dallas but a few in Oklahoma City. Hard to imagine how that must have gone -- the voice of the BBC in OKC. Howdy, mates? --Robert Wilonsky