Get Down!: Cleveland radio legend Murray Saul turns 80

By Frank W. Lewis • Published in Cleveland Free Times, May 7, 2008

 

Murray in front of his old apartment near Coventry Road.

Murray in front of his old apartment near Coventry Road.

Holiday party, sometime in the ’70s. Cleveland area music-business people, from record companies, retail outlets and radio stations. John Gorman, program director for rock station WMMS, is there. So is his colleague and friend Murray Saul, the station salesman known across Northeast Ohio for weekly on-air rants that, for thousands of listeners, officially kick off the weekend.

Murray spots a guy across the room, a record company promoter, and mumbles something about his polka-dotted shirt. He then approaches the guy and asks where he’s from. The guy answers, and Murray seems to have expected the reply. Murray then asks a question about the house the guy grew up in. The guy indicates that he’s right. Murray asks several more questions, about the guy’s family. The guy is smiling now — clearly Murray knows him somehow — and other people standing nearby are listening, waiting to see where this is going.

Murray pauses, nods, says matter-of-factly, “I do believe I fucked your mother.”

Telling the story 30-some years later, Gorman is almost breathless with laughter.

 

IT’S PROBABLY SAFE TO SAY there was never anyone in American rock radio quite like Murray Saul, and never will be. Gorman’s memoir, The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio, includes what is likely the most thorough account of Murray Saul’s pre-radio life. He was born in Cleveland in 1928 and raised on the East Side, near Eddy Road. After graduating from Glenville High School he bounced around for a while, serving in the military, taking some courses at Ohio State, traveling across the country with a carnival. Along the way, he tried pot and liked it.

He returned to Cleveland in 1950 and worked primarily in sales. Always willing to try something new, he opened his own men’s wear shop near Collinwood High, hoping to cash in on the stylish young men who attended classes there. It didn’t pan out. In the early ’60s he moved to New York, but it wasn’t long before he missed his first love, Cleveland. By ’65 he was back in her sooty embrace.

He was working as a traveling salesman, criss-crossing Cleveland’s East and West sides in the days before highways made that easy. He met a younger woman named Barbara and married her. In 1967 he worked on Carl Stokes’ campaign for mayor. Through the campaign he met Marvin Chernoff, a fellow salesman who would bring Murray in on the ground floor of the next big thing: calculators from Japan. For the next few years Murray raced around town, trying to keep up with the demand and making money faster than he could count it.

Then, in the spring of 1970, his life was changed by a movie. Woodstock, the documentary about the legendary 1969 concert, introduced the longtime jazz fan to the music of the baby-boom generation. He was transformed. He soon discovered the local rock station, WMMS, and listened constantly. Bill Bass’s Saturday afternoon show became the highlight of his week. He’d drive around, smoking pot and grooving to music made by and for people two decades younger than him.

Around this time Murray, Barbara, her brother Craig and some others piled into a VW bus “and we went around the country,” he recalls in an interview, “tokin’ our asses off and looking out the window.” They returned around Labor Day, 1971, but for Murray and Barbara, picking up where they’d left off was not an option. He realized that the trip had been “the high point and low point of our marriage.” The price of calculators was plummeting, taking Murray’s commissions along with it. And the whole world was changing; there was so much music to hear, so much partying to be done. “The business was not making it,” he says, “and the marriage had peaked, and my head was going off in different directions, and that’s when my wife and I divorced. But I stayed friends with her brother, and that was the key to everything.”

An old photo album, repaired with red duct tape, shows in grainy snapshots how Murray was born again in the spirit of rock and roll. “If the house was on fire and I needed to grab one thing, this would be it,” he says, patting the cover. Flipping through the pages, he tells the stories behind some of the images and it becomes apparent why the album is so meaningful to him. He points to an almost 40-year-old photo of him and his wife; he’s wearing a tie with a knot the size of a fist. “I went from being this guy,” he says, tapping the photo, “to this guy,” pointing to another, from a year or two later, in which he’s dancing shirtless.

Increasingly drawn to the lifestyle of the younger generation, Murray sought out his ex-wife’s brother Craig, who was a student at Kent State. He wanted a vacation from the real world, and the apartment where Craig lived with three other students was the perfect place to take it. Murray was already bald on top and was old enough to be their father, but he had years of experience talking his way into places and making people feel comfortable. And he’d been smoking pot since before they were born, which lent him a credibility that nothing else could.

 

ONE DAY IN NOVEMBER 1973 he took his infiltration of youth culture to the logical next step. He called WMMS and asked for an interview with the sales manager. He got one, and recalls telling the man, “I’d been a salesman all my life … and I could go into a business and explain who the listener of WMMS was like nobody else could, because I was one of them. I had never sold radio or advertising or anything like that, but he heard me.”

Murray also mentioned that he smoked pot. He got the job. On his first day he was invited to lunch with others from the sales department, and they lit up in the car on the way to the restaurant. “He was an oddity in that regard,” John Gorman says of Murray’s age, “but he could smoke more pot than anyone else. He lived the lifestyle of a much younger person. As I got to know Murray I realized that he was one unique character.”

“He had that look,” Gorman says, referring to the wild hair that still sprouted from the sides and back of Murray’s head, and his long, equally untamed muttonchops. “He had that voice,” deep and smooth, except when he was really cranked up about something; then it took on the texture of a gravel driveway strewn with glass. Gorman knew he had to get this guy on the air somehow.

In his book, Gorman recalls overhearing Murray on the phone with his elderly, nearly deaf aunt. He was telling her what day he would visit, but she couldn’t hear him. “Frustrated,” Gorman wrote, “Murray shouted into the phone, ‘TUESDAY! TUESDAY! TUESDAY! TUESDAY!’” And he recounts the party at Murray’s apartment on Euclid Heights Boulevard around the corner from Coventry Road, when Murray bellowed to a coworker who was playing air guitar, “Get down, Walter! Walter, get down! Get down! Get down, dammit!” These moment inspired what would become known as the Friday “Get Downs,” the weekly maniacal tirades that would make Murray famous. (Listen to one here.) murraysaul

“We had no idea it was going to take off the way it did,” says Gorman, who co-wrote the scripts with Murray each week. He heard stories that factories and mills all over town came to a halt at 6 p.m. every Friday, as radios were turned up for the ceremonial spinning of Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” immediately followed by the “Get Down,” the official start of Cleveland’s weekend. He recalls getting letters from outraged parents, demanding to know how they could tell their kids to stay away from drugs and alcohol and sex when a man Murray’s age glorified all three every week on the radio.

Murray embraced the role of city wildman. His apartment was “party central,” he says proudly. Gorman adds that everyone who knew him then has a story about Murray causing a scene in public. He wasn’t obnoxious, exactly — just blunt. “You always know where you stand with him,” Gorman says. “He’s incapable of not speaking his mind.”

There was the time Murray and Gorman were having dinner with several colleagues. Gorman was into a conversation at one end of the table when suddenly Murray shot up from his seat, knocking it over, thrust a finger at a man sitting nearby and shouted, “Well, what’s your idea of fucking heaven?” Whatever turn in the discussion had set him off, Murray wouldn’t let it go, even when the man tried to leave the restaurant. Murray followed him, repeating, “What’s your idea of fucking heaven? I have a fucking right to know!” Gorman recalls hearing a woman sitting nearby saying, “I hope he doesn’t have a gun.”

Someone called out for Murray to watch his language. He looked around, then said, “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” “And then he sits down and keeps eating,” Gorman recalls, “like nothing ever happened.”

Oddly, though, Murray was at least as comfortable, if not more so, with his other non-sales role at the station, journalist. He interviewed guests for serious topics on Jabberwocky, a Sunday morning public affairs show, and We The People, a series of five-minute clips played every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon. In these he was nothing like the madman who fired the starting gun for the weekend; he was thoughtful and insightful, holding his own with guests like Dennis Kucinich and talking about issues like regionalism before anyone even called it that. The gig tapped into a part of Murray that he hadn’t forgotten, but few knew — the curious, well-read, passionate student of history and son of a city that was dying before his eyes.

Murray’s radio career ended as abruptly and unpredictably as it had began. Marching in a Labor Day parade in 1977, he heard a young boy on the sidewalk chanting, “Got-ta, got-ta, got-ta get DOWN, dammit!” In a flash, he says, he realized that the phenomenon “had burned out. I knew that it had peaked, and it was no longer the hip thing, it couldn’t be.” Later he would tell Gorman that he didn’t want to become like J.J. Walker, tattooed forever with the word “Dy-no-mite!” Of course, Walker existed on a whole other level of fame high above Murray’s, but the most popular salesman in Cleveland would not be dissuaded.

He tried a new signature phrase, “Let it be known,” but the moment had passed — a fact not lost on management when Murray demanded a contract. Having outgrown his role and outlived his usefulness, Murray was fired from WMMS.

 

FROM THE PASSENGER SEAT of a small Toyota, Murray offers a free tour of Cleveland’s proud past to an audience of one. He points left and right, explaining what was built in this now-abandoned building, what shops lined that nearly desolate street. He remembers when Cleveland was productive and proud and contributed more than its share to winning a world war. Caught up in his storytelling, he seems not to notice when he knocks the rearview mirror askew with a sudden sweep of his arm.

Murray loves these driving tours. He can talk for hours about specifics sites and whole neighborhoods, and how they were changed forever — almost always for the worse — by decisions made far away. Thus engaged, it can be difficult to steer him back to the topic of his own life.

After ’MMS, he landed at Elektra Records as a promoter. “My job was really to take John Gorman to lunch,” he says. He loved it, but eventually lost the job in a major shake-up. He later worked in the sales department at Scene, when it was still a locally owned, music-centric paper. John Crobar, then a Scene rep and later a Free Times sales manager, recalls Murray crowing, “I want to be John Crobar when I grow up!” after Crobar closed an important deal.

Murray had always drank — he says alcohol fueled his infamous public displays of belligerence — but by the late ’90s his consumption was out of control. Gorman organized an intervention, and after a torturously long afternoon of pleading and threatening, Murray’s closest friends and doctor convinced him to check into rehab immediately.

Gorman called the next morning and was told Murray had left. Murray then called Gorman. “And he said, ‘Before you say anything, I swear to you that I am never going to have another drink in my life,’” Gorman recalls. Murray went on to explain how repugnant he found the 12 steps, and that they wanted him to stop smoking pot too. That was a deal-breaker. “He made some Charlton Heston-like comment,” Gorman says, laughing, “about how he would stop smoking pot when they pried the joint from his cold, dead hands. And he never had another drop of alcohol again. But he still smokes pot like a Rastafarian.”

 

MURRAY IS SEATED with a guest in Phoenix Coffee on Coventry, a favorite hangout, when a wavy-haired man approaches cautiously, holding out his hand. His name is Glen, he explains, and he couldn’t leave without asking about Murray’s WMMS jacket. The logo on the back says 101 FM, not 100.7, indicating that the blue satin number dates back to the station’s glory days.

Glen goes on to describe a bootleg he has of a Springsteen concert at the Agora. ’MMS introduced Glen to the Boss back when the former was just 15, and the music grabbed his heart and never let go. Just recently, Glen says, he overrode a life-long fear of public speaking to sing “Thunder Road,” a capella, at an open-mic night.

“Did you used to listen to the station all the time?” Glen asks. “I mean, you know, some people just wear the jacket.”

“Oh, I listened,” Murray says, smiling sheepishly. His guest asks, “Are you going to tell Glen who you are?”

Glen is intrigued. Murray pauses for a moment, then opens the jacket to reveal an old t-shirt that features caricatures of several ’MMS personalities. His finger lands on a smiling visage framed by the lower half of an Afro. “That’s me,” he says.

“No!” Glen says, his eyes wide. “That’s you?” Not waiting for an answer, he launches, picking up speed and volume with each syllable: “Got-ta, got-ta, got-ta, got-ta get … DOOOOOWNNN!”

“Dammit!” Murray adds quietly, beaming.