Rest in peace, Art Hellyer: Ray Charles, “America the Beautiful” (1972)

Art-Hellyer

(Above: Art having fun at WCFL, circa 1951.)

Sad news from the world of Chicagoland radio: Art Hellyer, longtime radio and television host, passed away last night. He was 95.

Art held the distinction of being my oldest Facebook friend.  Before becoming ill earlier this year, he was in the habit of sharing Facebook live videos in which he’d tell stories about the many celebrities he had the pleasure of meeting, interviewing, and corresponding with over a more than fifty year career. I loved the fact that Art wasn’t afraid to make use of a new technology to talk about a very old one.

I wouldn’t do any sort of justice to try and tell Art’s story.  He did so himself: his book, The Hellyer Say, is a fantastic read. There’s also a video version of Wake Up Chicago: The Art Hellyer Story, which his sons Mike and Jeff sent me a copy of years ago and I’ve kept in my office for use with radio students of mine. In a nutshell: Art started on the air in 1947, and from 1950-57 was one of the most popular – if not the most popular – hosts in Chicago radio, doing mornings at WCFL. He worked at just about every station on the AM dial in his career, crossing over to FM, and then eventually satellite when the Satellite Radio Network went on the air from suburban Mokena to the entire country in the 1980s, featuring him on the “Stardust” programming. He also – as many of us have been fortunate enough to do – taught radio broadcasting courses at the college level, preparing the students that competed with me at the left end of the dial in the late 80s who attended the College of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.

Now, there’s a good chance that you’re reading this and thinking “Why have I not heard of this guy?” In no small part that’s because the ground that Art broke in radio we now wouldn’t think twice as being earth-shattering. I mean, someone had to be the first to feature the sound of a flushing toilet on the air.  Art did that.  He wasn’t afraid to make a joke that contained a carefully-written double entendre in a time where no one DARED to do that. He’d make fun of a sponsor’s advertisement, much to the delight of the sponsor, who often saw an uptick in business. And Art was doing this in the early 1950s, before there was rock and roll to cause consternation. As popular culture evolved, the “edgy” things that Hellyer did seemed tame by comparison.  But, he was still the first to do them.

After radio, Art moved over to television. He was a booth announcer for ABC for 31 years. (One of my favorite stories Art told: He was on the mic in the days when the stations IDs were read live. He was cued and told there was only two seconds for the ID. He opened the mic, yelled “SEVEN!” and turned it off.)

I met Art in Joliet in the early 90s. I was working as the slightly irreverent host of the morning show on WLLI-FM, and Art hosted weekends on WJOL. He’d arrive at the station and laboriously carry in crates of records – 78s no less! – to play on his show. Art had a policy for live endorsements: if he couldn’t, in good conscience, endorse the product, he wouldn’t. A restaurant would not get his glowing review had he not eaten there and enjoyed it. It was a rare bit of integrity in a business that often lacks it. I’ve worked with thousands of people in my 30+ years on the air, and have been on a first-name basis with all of them.  But it always seemed right to call Art “Mr. Hellyer” until he asked me to do otherwise.

At the end of Art’s book he includes lists of many of his favorites: movies, TV shows, sports teams, and – of course – songs. His preferred list for music would make a great Spotify list as it features Perry Como, Bob Hope, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Eddie Howard… a fantastic sampling of the American songbook. But Art himself singled out one song as a favorite: the version of “America the Beautiful” as recorded by Ray Charles. “Every time I hear this rendition,” he said, “I get chills and goosebumps. It’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Radio lost one of its biggest fans – and architects – in Art Hellyer.

To hear Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful,” click here.

 

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