A Passion for Rock n’ Roll
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For 37 years, Rick “Doc” West has skillfully welcomed and introduced hundreds of rock bands to dozens of venues around Fort Wayne. As the voice – the voice – of WXKE, it fell to Doc to whip an audience into a pre-show frenzy, to shine the light on whatever act was about to go on and then get out of the way. But now it’s Doc’s turn to be in the spotlight.
“An Evening with Radio Legend Doc West,” happening Saturday, September 10 at Sweetwater Sound, will give rock fans a chance to hear Doc do what he does best: tell stories about his life in music.
The fifth in the popular Fort Wayne Youtheater “An Evening with” series, this one has the potential to be the most freewheeling. Hosted by Youtheater director Leslie Hormann, the Fort will be treated to the reunion of the fabled Rock 104 morning team of Stone and Doc.
From 1998 to 2011, Stone (Hormann’s on-air persona) and Doc, with their opposing personality mix, got listeners moving at the crack of dawn. Well, almost.
“He was awesome, fun, low-key, but very unorganized. I’m very type A, he’s type B,” Hormann said recently at a local restaurant at the start of what was supposed to be a dual interview. “But Doc was always late. He was late on his first day. ”
As if on cue, Doc wandered into the bar 10 minutes late.
While the back-and-forth that will most likely happen between the two will be entertaining, and while the focus is on Doc and his vault of concert photos and stories, the first thing out of Doc’s mouth was “it’s not about me.”
“To be honest, I don’t believe in something like this,” he continued. “It’s not about me. It’s about my ability to focus on others, to bring people together and let them interact. And about my passion.”
Doc’s passion, of course, is music. And not just rock. Certainly not just the small bag of songs currently allowed on every classic rock station from Tuscon to Tucumcari, Old Honolulu, San Francisco or Ashtabula.
“I started in Columbus on college radio in ’75 and moved to commercial radio in ’76,” Doc said. “And then disco came. Had to go from playing progressive rock, Yes, Miles Davis to playing ‘Saturday Night Fever’ by the Bee Gees. Everyone kind of self-destructed. We didn’t anticipate the format changes. We thought rock n’ roll would last forever. Then it got tighter.”
When Doc came to WXKE in 1979, Fort Wayne was not a friendly place for rock bands and their fans. Concerts, mostly at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, had gone from giant parties to paddy wagon-fests. The city administration cracked down hard and the result was dismal for rock fans.
“When I got here in ’79, I was going to be out of here,” he said. “There was a lot of anger toward the authorities because of the concerts. Everybody who came here swore they’d never come back.”
A city devoid of concerts was a bleak prospect for someone like Doc. And not just because it meant less live music. It also meant fewer chances for Doc to pursue his other passion, photography. As we ate dinner and talked, Hormann flipped through a folder of Doc’s concert photographs. The Doors in 68. Rory Gallagher. Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. Jack Cassidy. Janis. The Eagles on their first tour. The folder held just a tiny sample of his photos. He’s got boxes full.
Doc doesn’t know how many concerts he’s been to. Hormann guessed 789. It’s probably more than 1,000. And for many of them, Doc had his camera with him, when that was still allowed.
“I had a good lens. I always worked my way to the front, slowly but surely.” Then, looking at photos. “That’s Eric Clapton on his comeback tour. He just kicked heroin. Look at him. Fourth of July. No shirt. In overalls. He’s introducing Yvonne Elliman. He was leering at her. He spent about three minutes giggling to himself. He was drunk. He’d kicked heroin but embraced alcohol. And he said, ‘Now I’d like to introduce you to the very, very lovely,’ then he goes, ‘God knows I’ve tried.’ I have it on tape.”
Despite Doc’s obvious passion for music, it comes across as anything but proselytizing. He doesn’t go door-to-door trying to shove anything down anyone’s throat. His method centers more on making the introduction and letting the music seek its own path. He says “check this out.” If you like it, great. If you don’t that’s fine too.
“We all grew up on his rock choices,” Hormann said. “He gives us the insight. He’s introduced us to so much music. Joe Bonamassa, for one. Doc’s a friend to wake up to in the morning. Your good friend who knows music.”
As with music, Doc has introduced Fort Wayne to some pretty cool people through WXKE. When it came time to hire a new deejay, Doc looked beyond the resumé.
“I hired Sharon Rossi, Buzz Maxwell, Liz Thatcher, J.J. Fabini,” Doc said. “I walked away from many other people that were qualified way beyond what these other people had on paper. I hired them because of their passion. My main thing is passion. The key word. Passion overrules many, many other things. It was great to see these people develop.”
As for Fort Wayne’s development, Doc is enthusiastic. He sees good things coming back to the city.
“We’re about to see another change,” he said. “I did the Kiss concert at the Coliseum the other night, and for the first time they had us park our van right next to the ticket office on the sidewalk, blasting music. And the Sweetwater people have made the future of Fort Wayne very bright artistically.”
At 65, Doc has no plans to retire. He’ll continue doing his thing on 96.3 WXKE as long as he can. He’ll continue to be everywhere, opening concerts, telling stories, seeking that communal buzz that only music can deliver.