Bill Randle

DJ credited with establishing Elvis Presley

In the 1950s, Bill Randle was one of the best-known disc jockeys in the United States and he played a crucial role in establishing Elvis Presley in North America. Unlike many American disc jockeys, he did not shout his way to the top and he imparted information as he played his records.

William McKinley Randle, disc jockey: born Detroit, Michigan 14 March 1923; married 1948 Annalee Africa (died 2000; one daughter); died Cleveland, Ohio 9 July 2004.

In the 1950s, Bill Randle was one of the best-known disc jockeys in the United States and he played a crucial role in establishing Elvis Presley in North America. Unlike many American disc jockeys, he did not shout his way to the top and he imparted information as he played his records.

William McKinley Randle junior was born in 1923 in Detroit, where his father worked for a motor company until the Depression came. He was then reduced to selling eggs and bagels door to door. By 1937 young Bill Randle was showing an entrepreneurial spirit by introducing and then booking jazz bands in night-clubs. He promoted his concerts on air when he became a radio disc jockey and he met his wife, Annalee Africa, at one of his dances.

In 1949 Randle was fired for playing a black record (by Nat "King" Cole) on his white radio station. Undeterred, he moved to Cleveland but he was soon in trouble with his radio station, WERE, also for playing black records. In 1951 "Whiskey and Gin", by a new artist, Johnnie Ray, was released - at first Randle did not like the record but he changed his mind when a rival disc jockey, Phil McLain, played it every day. Randle invited Ray to Cleveland for a promotional tour and its success led Randle to claim that he had discovered Ray.

The tall and studious Randle was always looking for songs and acts that he could help on their way. He passed the song "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to Mitch Miller and he suggested that the Crew-Cuts should cover a black record, "Sh-Boom". Both suggestions led to gold records. Tony Bennett, too, admitted, "I would not be where I am today if it were not for Bill Randle."

In June 1953 Randle promoted a show in Cleveland featuring Bill Haley and his Comets, Billy Ward and his Dominoes and the boxing legend Joe Louis with his band. It was distinctive for its time by mixing black and white performers and appealing to both races.

As well as broadcasting five hours every weekday for WERE in Cleveland, Randle hosted a Saturday-morning show for CBS in New York. When he was given the first releases by Elvis Presley for Sun Records in Memphis, he deemed them too unsophisticated for New York, but he championed them in Cleveland, becoming the first northern disc jockey to do so.

In 1955 Time magazine ran a feature on Randle, asking "Is this the most important man in radio?", a question certain to needle another Cleveland disc jockey and promoter, Alan Freed, who had come up with a name for the new music - "rock and roll". At the time, Randle was making around $100,000 a year.

In October 1955 a short film about Randle's career was proposed, to be called "The Pied Piper of Cleveland: a day in the life of a famous DJ". On the day in question, Randle was MC-ing a concert at Brooklyn High School starring Pat Boone, Bill Haley and his Comets and the Four Lads and introducing Elvis Presley as the opening act.

Presley performed five songs and Randle had the foresight to tell the director to film the entire set, but due to a disagreement, the film itself remained unedited and was never released. "Elvis was shy until he got on stage and then he just exploded," Pat Boone recalled,

At first the Cleveland high-school kids didn't know what to make of him with his turned-up collar and his long, greasy hair. He looked like a guy that would be on a motorcycle or from the poor part of town, but there was an electricity about him. The kids liked him very much.

Randle aspired to managing Presley but by then Presley's management had been taken over by Colonel Tom Parker. In January 1956 Randle introduced Presley for his national TV début on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show for CBS Television, but had little more to do with Presley after this point.

Later that year, Randle released his own single, "The Disc Jockeys' Love Song". In 1957 he produced a blues collection, The Big Bill Broonzy Story, which was nominated for a Grammy. He helped to establish Sam Cooke and Bobby Darin as stars.

In the Sixties, he still broadcast but he spent much of his time studying and he became a teacher in American studies, among other things. He made various field recordings, including some Shaker music, and his collection was subsequently donated to the library of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Randle enjoyed racing cars and flying planes and he collected the cartoons of R. Crumb.

In 1987 Randle qualified for the Bar and established his own practice, specialising in bankruptcy. In 1992 he declared himself to be the owner of the footage of Elvis Presley's performance in Cleveland, but the film has never been seen in full and the whole thing, which must be rock-and-roll gold, is shrouded in mystery.

Randle continued to broadcast for WRMR in Cleveland until his death.

Spencer Leigh



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