Backstage with the Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti: Dick Biondi Celebrates HIS “Big 89”
Ron Onesti: Dick Biondi Celebrates HIS “Big 89”
There is a cup of hot cocoa in front of a crackling fire in the fall, there is peacefully floating on a raft on a small river in Tennessee, and there is sundown in the mountains of Colorado. As soothing, comforting and embracing as those things are, just as special is the voice of radio legend, Dick Biondi. Which is ironic, since he is referred to as one of the original “screamers” on radio!
The “Wild I-Tralian” turns 89 this Sunday, September 19. Even though he was fired 23 times from various stations around the country, Chicago was his heart, and WLS AM89 was his home.
He began on the radio as a sportscaster, but was quickly drawn to the rhythm and blues songs emerging on the radio around him, and loved that Alan Freed “Rock and Roll”era. He worked with iconic names including young “upstarts” Rod Serling and Casey Kasem. He was a big Elvis supporter, winding up in the hospital during an Elvis show after a crowd of crazed fans tore a shirt off Dick that he had “The King” autograph.
Where he probably left his biggest Rock and Roll “footprint” was during the 60s. He is credited with being the first American Disc Jockey to play The Beatles (“Please Please Me”, 1963). He tells a great story of how he played The Four Seasons as a “B-Side” of a compilation promo record DJs would get at the time. “Sherry” took off,” he says, “And the rest is Four Seasons history”.
From a Chicago perspective, he ushered in the Garage Band era that was fostered in the Midwest. The Buckinghams, The Ides of March, The New Colony 6, The Cryan’ Shames, The Shadows of Knight, The American Breed, The Flock, The Mauds, Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah and so many more were all “Big Brothered” by Biondi.
For me personally, Dick was an Italian American hero. His song, “On Top of A Pizza” and his moniker “The Wild I-Tralian” brought light to his ethnicity, one that I shared.
I would hire Dick every year to appear at the Italian festivals I would produce. He would walk the streets, taking photo after photo, the crowd loving him, and he, loving the crowd. What could be better than Italian Sausage on the grill, garlic in the air and Dick Biondi on stage, for a complete Italian festival experience?
One year, at the annual Festa Pasta Vino on Oakley Avenue, I wanted to honor Dick for always supporting our community. A local guitar maker friend visited me at The Arcada about a month before the event. I asked him if there was anything special he could make as a gift to Dick. Two weeks later, he proudly brought over a green, white and red guitar that emulated the Italian flag. It was perfect!
Dick humbly accepted the guitar on stage, proudly raising it over his head like a World Series trophy. He loves being Italian!
Another time, we held a fund raiser benefitting original Buckinghams member Marty Grebb, who has since passed. Dick hosted it, and it was most of the bands mentioned above who came together to form a “Garage Band-Palooza” experience at The Arcada. He was the big name even amongst the legendary bands performing that night. But still, he was as humble as ever, shyly accepting the outpour of love from the packed house.
I was blessed to receive an award from an Italian American organization a few years back. It was to be presented at a luncheon that happened to be the next day after a Frankie Avalon show at The Arcada. Dick was at the show to introduce Frankie. When Dick heard about the award to be presented to me the next day, he secretly spoke to Frankie about it. Frankie changed his flights the next day to later ones as Dick Biondi and Frankie Avalon surprised me at this awards ceremony. That’s the kind of guy Dick (and Frankie) really is. Humble, unselfish and unassuming. A loving guy who has brought us the Soundtracks of our Rock and Roll lives.
This Sunday, 2pm at The Arcada Theatre will be a “Big 89th Birthday Celebration” for Dick Biondi. It is a fundraiser to benefit the completion of the film documentary on Dick’s life. Performers include: The Buckinghams, The Ides of March, Jimy Sohns of The Shadows of Knight, The New Colony 6, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, Rosie & The Rivets, The Cavedwellers, Hot Rocks and other surprises! I will be hosting the event along with Scott Mackay from The River radio. There will be a huge birthday card to Dick for all to sign.
As I think about growing up in Chicago there a few things that resonate. The “neighborhood” aspect of rubber balls against garage walls, unlocked doors and slicing up watermelon to share at the playgrounds. I have two impressions of radio that live in my mind. One is a transistor radio in my dad’s pocket with an earphone connected to his ear as he was listening to the Cubs game and Lou Beadreau on WGN. The other, is the “uncle-like” sound of Dick Biondi tossing out a knock-knock joke, giving a fun-factoid about an upcoming song, or just sharing his excitement of being on the radio. His voice will forever live in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that resides in the hearts of Chicago music fans everywhere!