Pillow Talking’s Interview With SHADOE STEVENS
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present Part 1 of this 2 part interview with SHADOE STEVENS
SHADOE STEVENS gives new meaning to the words “multi-hyphenate,” “icon,” and the phrase “phoenix rising from the ashes.” He has done just about everything a person can do in show business. He’s a writer, producer, actor, entrepreneur, radio host, voice over artist, television personality, and author. Probably best known for hosting American Top 40 and for being a regular on Hollywood Squares, those represent merely the tip of the iceberg of the countless projects in which he has been involved. Like any successful artist and entrepreneur, he has had his share of ups and downs on this roller coaster called the entertainment business (and life) and has had to reinvent himself many times over. Like he often says, things go great for a while and then “[f]ate took a turn down a blind alley” (a line from his artwork, the Rocky Waters Series).
Pillow Talking was fortunate to take a ride on the coaster with Shadoe in this two-part interview. And now, here is Part 1.
PT: Thank you so much for granting us this interview!
PT: So tell us how you came up with your unique professional name.
SS: Until I got to Boston, I used the on-air name, Jefferson K. I didn’t realize there were Jefferson Kayes everywhere. I thought it was a clever name. For five years, I was a Jefferson K. In college I’d taken the name Jefferson (I liked the soulful quality) and the K from Murray the K in New York. For a period of time I did an all-soul show called The Jefferson K R&B Showcase on KQWB in Fargo, North Dakota. Then I went to work in Tucson with the same name.
In Boston, there had been a Jefferson Kaye, on WBZ-AM. There was Jess Cain, on WHDH-AM. He was the long-time number-two AM drive DJ. On WRKO-AM, there was J. J. Jeffries. Clearly, I had to change my name.
Driving to Boston, I stopped for gas, in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I called Mel Phillips, the PD at WRKO-AM, to let him know I was on my way. He told me Bill Drake, the lord of all radio at the time, the man who ran the RKO Radio Empire from Los Angeles, wanted to change my name. There I was, in a phone booth, and someone 2,500 miles away is telling me I have to change my name. At the same time, I was looking at an endless fence, stretching into the horizon, with a sign that read, “Do Not Enter! [This is an] Atomic Testing Range.”
Phillips said, “Drake was thinking something like ‘Shadow Mann’ or ‘Shadow Lane’.” I was horrified. Worst on-air name I’d ever heard. I couldn’t figure out where he got the name. In retrospect, it’s obvious. “The Shadow” was a top radio show, from the 1930s through the 1950s. Orson Welles was the original Shadow. The show opened, with an announcer saying, “Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? The Shadow Knows.” A sinister laugh followed.
If you worked in and loved radio or if you grew up listening to “The Shadow,” well then, “Shadow Lane” made some sense.
As I drove to Boston in my white Corvette, my mind raced. I had to think of a good name. I was looking everywhere, all around me, looking for words and coming up with names like Michael Roads and Richard Lane. When I arrived in Boston I had a mile-long list of names. WRKO-AM, however, had jingles and identification spots, already produced, for Shadoe Stevens. There was no way out of the name.
I was humiliated. I had to create a personality around that name. Usually, it’s the other way around. So I developed a back story which I could say with a straight face. I said the name was Native American. It means, “He who walks with light.” When someone asks about a tribal source, I say it must be Sioux or Blackfoot, since I’m from North Dakota.
It’s really either native American or French however, I think it would be spelled Shadeaux which I’ve often touted on occasion.
So when people ask, “Is that your real name?” my answer is. “It’s God’s baffling sense of humor.” God named me against my will – all true – and it is true on a really significant level because the God of radio gave it to me – no kidding. That stops the conversation and we can go on to something else and then I‘m silently laughing within, but it’s all true – you can’t have shadow without light.
PT: That’s right! So while we gather this must have been really tough – I guess we still have to ask, if you didn’t like the name, why did you keep it for the long-term?
PT: When I moved to Los Angeles, to work KHJ-AM, in August, 1970, I had hoped to change the name. But everyone said the name was too good! It was the same story at KRLA-AM. Suddenly, it was too late to change it. It’s what you do with the name that counts. “Wolfman Jack” is a horrible on-air name, unless you are Bob Smith, from Brooklyn, and you find your groove, early and easy. You can have a great name and flop. You can have a rotten name, and succeed. The trick is what you do with what you have.
After I stopped using drugs and alcohol, I decided to change everything. I tell people, “Sorry, Terry died of a tragic overdose, in 1984. It was sad, but he was weak and deserved to die.” My life got better. I married Beverly. We had two daughters, Amber and Chyna Rose. My work got more and more challenging and rewarding, as time went on. I had a chance for many exciting projects.
PT: (Wayne) I know you’re a Scorpio – I’m a Scorpio, too. I’m November 9.
SS: All right! Best people on earth!
PT: (Wayne) Yes. We are very passionate.
SS: Truly. And insatiable.
PT: (Laughs) I know you started very young. How did you get started in the business?
SS: I would make little radio things – little recordings and cut together pieces of songs on my Dad’s tape recorder. I loved talking on the tape recorder and making these stories up. My uncle found out about it so he sent me a wireless transmitter – a little kit that you had to solder together that would allow you to mysteriously broadcast from one room to another — I could be in the living room and broadcast to a radio in the kitchen. Then I went to the television repair store and asked how I could make it stronger. They told me some things to do and one of them was to give it a ground and put up a big antenna. So I climbed up to top of my three-story house – I can’t believe I actually did this, but I hung upside down over my bedroom window on the third floor and screwed in a bolt so I could string the antenna to the top of this evergreen tree. I climbed up the tree in the backyard and now I had a 100-foot antenna and it magically allowed it to hear it in the car for about a mile in every direction. [At the time] that was astonishing to me.
SS: I did this every day. I’d come home. It was “King Radio” because my family name was Ingstad. I would broadcast after school and into the night. During the dinner hour I would put on an album – one of my dad’s albums – and let it play and then run up in the middle of dinner and turn it over; then I would be playing rock and roll in the evening. One night we had gone around the neighborhood and recorded little interviews with people and so we had this contest, “Guess the Neighbor” – not thinking that anybody was ever listening or would ever call – but if they were, they could call whatever our number was at the time. And mystically, magically the phone rang and it was somebody with the right answer. We didn’t have a prize, but we kept talking about how we had to get back on the air. I gave the phone to my friend and he talked and talked and then he gave it back to me and I was scrambling trying to think of what we could do. I finally said, “Well we have a large collection of comic books and you’re welcome to come by and pick whatever you want.” (laughs)
PT: (Laughs) That’s great!
SS: They never did of course. But we were so stupid and so like – ugh – “That’s the best we could come up with!”
PT: How many people so you think listened to you? We bet you had some fan base!
SS: I have no idea. It was really silly. But it didn’t matter because to me it was all about the fact that I could do it. That I could get out there and we could put on music from the tape recorder and get in the car and take a drive and hear it – and we were like, “That’s us!” How can that even be? I did that for quite a while.
And then [one day] I was walking down the street and they had two radio stations in Jamestown. And one of them had a show at eleven o’clock every morning called “Man on the Street” and the guy would just stand outside on the street and talk to anybody who came along. I came along and he asked my name and asked what I was interested in. I said, “Art and radio.” And he said, “Radio! Really!” And then I told him about my radio station and he thought that was the greatest. He said, “What we should do is put you on the air. Why don’t you come down to the station and talk to us about it and we’ll see what we can do.” So I did. They made a show on Saturday morning and it was playing rock and roll records and talking about what was going on at school. I did that. They put an ad in the paper for “World Youngest Disc Jockey.” I still have the picture and the paper with me sitting behind this microphone with stacks of 45s around me. So funny.
PT: That’s fabulous! And how old were you?
SS: I was 11. I did that for a couple of years and then I went into working at the station on the weekends and during summer vacation and all the holidays and everything. It became a way of life. I just did that until I got to be a senior and then I needed to make real money and that’s when things took a turn. I worked on a street crew putting in asphalt – and it was nasty dirty work. And then I worked on a farm.
My friends and I went out and worked in Spiritwood, North Dakota on this farm for this little family and they were the sweetest people in the world. We would go out and haul bales of hay all day – one of the ugliest jobs – hauling bales from early in the morning until late at night out in the fields – you grab it with hooks and you lift it up into a truck and you’d do this over and over again all day long. And then we’d go back to the farmhouse and have these gigantic meals. It was meals like turkey, roast beef, and pies and everything you can imagine and we’d all sit around and we would eat like crazy because we worked so hard. And all my friends were funny and they would laugh and tell jokes. And this became a thing that we did from then on through the rest of the time we were in school.
I went from there to working on a railroad because I really wanted to make a lot of money. I worked on a railroad section crew. And this is the worst job in the universe – maybe next to going and working in a coal mine. You get up at five in the morning, you go out on the rails and replace rails and railroad ties all day long from five in the morning until eight at night and then go home to your box car. And I lived in a box car in Zap and Gackle, North Dakota. And my joke is if I had just found a pop, I would have worked in Zap, Gackle and Pop. But after Zap, I couldn’t take it anymore. It isn’t like the maid comes in and cleans out the box car. You are there with the salt of the earth – and these guys were grungy, dirty, drinking, smoking, farting guys who just told coarse jokes and laughed and farted – just nasty –
But when I finally finished the summer I had enough money to go buy a car. But it was a revelation to me. I decided that for the rest of my life, if I was doing something that I liked, it would never be work even if I never slept again for the rest of my life. If it was work it was unacceptable to me. Whatever I had to do to make myself better. So I went off to school and got a job at a radio station.
PT: That’s a great story. What were your earliest influences in terms of radio?
SS: My earliest influence creatively was Ernie Kovacs from television. And on the radio – we didn’t have television until I was ten or twelve years old – so I grew up listening to “Sky King” and “Suspense.” Another story guaranteed to keep you in suspense or something like that and they told one once that just amazed me. It was about a guy who got caught in his dreams and couldn’t get back into his body. It was so real to me, so full of imagination and it affected me forever. The town that I grew up in – we had a mental hospital – we lived in a little river valley on the plains of North Dakota which is as flat as a table but there are these little places where there are these river valleys that seemed really deep with tall hills on the side. When you fly over them today you almost can’t tell that there’s anything except for some trees and it looks like there are some drawings on the plains. But as I was growing up, there were big hills on the sides and that’s where we would ride our toboggans and sleds and stuff – and there was a little river valley.
Then when I got older I discovered we could hear Chicago radio and New York radio because of the flat plains and big 50-watt stations. So at night I could hear Dick Biondi in Chicago and Big Chuck and Dan on KOMA in Oklahoma City and Wolfman Jack on XER at times I could even get a stations in NY, CKLW in Detroit – you could hear these stations and hear these guys who were so charismatic and interesting and full of life playing all this exciting music and that all inspired me.
But interestingly enough what I wanted to be was an artist. It was like radio was something that I loved doing and it was a way for me to make money. And even when I went to college I majored in art and radio was [just] a vehicle to help put myself through college because what I thought I wanted to be was an illustrator or comic book artist – or something like that. At the time there wasn’t big money in being a comic book artist, but in advertising, illustrators were doing real well. So that was my goal. I didn’t think of doing radio as a career. It wasn’t until my fourth year of college and I moved to Tucson, Arizona when I decided I had to focus on media and entertainment because that’s what made me money and I was doing well. I didn’t think I was going to do very well as an artist or be able to make a good living so I changed to a split major of drama and journalism.
PT: In looking over your credits – talk about multi-hyphenates! You’ve been an actor, radio personality, etc. Our readers always are very interested in methods. How would you say, from a process standpoint, that you approach your various gigs? Do you have any particular techniques that you follow?
SS: It’s an interesting question and not an easy one that I can answer concisely. I conduct a two-hour seminar called “The Art of Creativity” that I’ve done at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California, at Santa Monica College, and at Beverly Hills High school. And it talks about my career and the unexpected twists and turns. And that’s what my art work is all about – Rocky Waters, the art series I did – the first piece says, Just when he thought he was winning the game they took a turn down a blind alley and suddenly he was forced to confront fear, doubt and change, and then each piece gets more and more complicated as he starts feeling smaller and more afraid and ultimately surrenders and then everything turns and in the end – one of the last pieces is called the consequences of optimism.
What I do is treat everything as a canvas. There are parameters for everything whether you are writing a screenplay or doing a piece of art or doing a radio show or coming up with a new television idea. The parameters are being able to describe exactly what you are trying to do and then genius is in the details and the details may require a whole bunch of new things you have to learn and then you do and do and do and do until at least you become accomplished at them if not a master.
I’ve been in radio and then radio turned on me and I couldn’t get a job in [the industry]. I was wildly successful – I had three number one radio stations in Los Angeles. Then I quit and no one else was interested in hiring me. I said at that time if I was going to work this hard I’m going to go for bigger stakes. So I started a production advertising business and within a few years I was doing Federated commercials. And the Federated commercials became one of the most successful regional television campaigns in US history. It was incredible how successful it was – and just when he thought he was winning the game they took a turn down a blind alley – after six years and 1100 different commercials and skyrocketing success. Luckily it propelled me. Because of my television presence I had a three picture deal with Dino De Laurentiis to do movies, and I was asked to do Hollywood Squares – I turned it down three times until I gave in; and of course, as you know, that became the number one show in the country. At that time I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t want to be announcer any more, I’d done that. [I figured] this is my shot. So I studied the Stanislavsky method with Nina Foch. I took private lessons with her for quite a while and learned all the work – how to do it, how to prepare, how to break down a script, emotional recall and memory – and then I learned Meisner method from another teacher and worked with her for a year on that. So I understood the quick automatic response of being in the moment of Meisner and the deep preparation of the method. Then I was just hoping I would get a shot.
The movie didn’t work out well. It was a 15 million-dollar movie. De Laurentiis went bankrupt in the completion of it and it was badly put together and didn’t come out – it was really a big disappointment.
PT: Which one was that?
SS: It was called Traxx. I was so unhappy with the way they did it. They sold it to HBO and they threw together a little soundtrack on it – they probably [only] paid the guy $1500 to do some music. Even the gunshots – they didn’t sweeten the thing or bring it to life. It was an action comedy about a mercenary who decides to quit the killing game and become the next Famous Amos. But he’s terrible – just terrible. When he runs out of money he is brought in as a town tamer like Clint Eastwood to go and clean up the bad guys. About a year or two ago I got the whole film and edited it again down into an hour, faster, shorter funnier; and you can see it on YouTube. I posted it on You Tube as Traxx Reimagined or Traxx Remixed or something like that. I took out all the really horrifying music and just gave it an assault kind of momentum. But that was a big disappointment.
But then I started doing American Top 40 and Hollywood Squares was [still] huge.
And then I got a chance to do a series called Loose Cannon and that was touted to be something huge, too. It was on CBS. It was a one-hour prime-time series. I was the star. It was a show like Lethal Weapon, and I was the Mel Gibson kind of character. I’d go undercover and [become] characters like the characters that I would do on Federated and I really worked hard on that. There are a lot of moments on YouTube as well of some of those scenes and some of them are pretty funny. Dean Hargrove was the writer who was very successful; he did a ton of Perry Mason and Jake and the Fatman and tons of Matlock. It was produced by legendary Fred Silverman who used to run all three networks and made them number one at different times. He got behind us and he thought we are going to make this thing huge. It was going to be a prime-time, one-hour, funny, exciting series He threw himself into it. He brought Dean Hargrove into it who wrote great scripts and we were off and running. And then Fred had a heart attack. He was out for the count. He wasn’t there to negotiate – he wasn’t there to get the thing in the right place and see that it was promoted properly or anything. He was gone. The show lasted I think 8 episodes and there you have another disappointment. And [then that one] went away.
[After that] I did another couple of little piecemeal things and then I got Dave’s World and that was four years of a top-twenty show. And that was great fun and very successful. And after Dave’s World and American Top 40 was going great guns they both ended within a year of each other. And [again] no one would hire me for anything – for advertising for radio for television – my agent fired me. Everything stopped. Fate took a turn down a blind alley.
STAY TUNED FOR SHADOE STEVENS PART 2
In Part 2, Shadoe talks about reinventing himself again, thinking out of the box, becoming an entrepreneur, raising money and creating Rhythm Radio. He also will talk about current projects and his tremendously supportive and talented family. Soon to be published.
READ PILLOW TALKING’S OTHER INTERVIEWS