Passed/Failed: Paul Gambaccini

An education in the life of the DJ
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The Independent Online

Paul Gambaccini presents the Saturday evening Radio 2 show America's Greatest Hits and has also broadcast on Radio 1, 3, 4 and 5 Live, as well as Classic FM and breakfast television. He left the US for a postgraduate course at Oxford and became Britain's youngest DJ. He won the 2003 Sony Music Broadcaster award. His Radio 4 series For One Night Only starts on Saturday 27 August.

In 1954 I went to a kindergarten in New York, in the Bronx. I had a project to design a fire-truck out of paper. I didn't make it red but drew it in sections of different colours: I anticipated psychedelia!

In 1955 we moved to Westport, Connecticut. It was like moving to fairyland: it was a very rural setting. A tree at the end of our dirt road had so many different-coloured leaves that when I first saw it I could have sworn some of the leaves were blue.

When I was nine and in the fifth grade at Greens Farms Elementary School, we had a gang led by a friend called Denis O'Neill (who in adulthood wrote The River Wild, the film starring Meryl Streep). He got to assign everybody's nickname and was the first person ever to call me "Gambo". This has followed me wherever I've gone: when I came to England, Linda McCartney started to call me "Gambo".

I skipped the fourth grade because my classmate Eric Tomassi was so bright that they wanted him to skip a grade - with a friend. Eric and I edited the school magazine. At 11 I went to Long Lots Junior High. We went to the Metropolitan Opera; I forget the actual opera but I was blown away by the proscenium arch.

As we were piling into the coach, one of my friends, Chuck Whalen, started singing "Runaway" by Del Shannon. I had stopped listening to the radio because Elvis had been drafted, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were in disgrace, and Little Richard had found God. Even in the version by Chuck Whalen, this song encouraged me to go back to the radio - and I never left. At 14, I went to Staples High School. In my first year I was in the Boys Glee Club and in my second and third years I was in the choir. With George Weigle, our inspiring teacher, we sang an amazing repertoire. The highlight of the year was a Christmas concert when, in blue robes, we would enter the auditorium, carrying candles, and sing "The First Noel". At the end, the choir and orchestra combined for the "Hallelujah Chorus".

I was accepted by four Ivy League universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth. When I went to look round Dartmouth, I was thrilled by the natural beauty of New Hampshire. Also, Dartmouth had the largest AM radio station in the country, WDCR, operated by students, and I heard releases by Simon and Garfunkel and the Lovin' Spoonful ahead of their being played in New York.

I went to the station's freshman night and passed the voice test. For my first year I was a newsman and in the summer I learnt to be a disc jockey.

We decided to do a 38-hour marathon for charity. Half an hour into the marathon, a plane crashed on the outskirts of town, killing more than 30 people, and we sent students out to report on it.

I saw the ultimate demonstration of keeping one's cool. A gentleman in a three-piece suit came in. I was standing next to a newsman who told him that his wife, his child and a close friend had been killed, to which the gentleman said: "Thank you", and walked away.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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