‘Burn! Baby! BURN!’

Bob co-authors the autobiography of the R&B deejay who enthralled him as a kid

Look, I gotta tell you this story. It’s not much about journalism. It’s more about my life. I offer it now to celebrate the publication of a book that started in my 12th-grade chemistry class 38 years ago.

'Burn! Baby! BURN!'

'Burn! Baby! BURN!'

It happened because one day the kid next to me was telling the kid next to him about a disc jockey–a black disc jockey–who was screaming like a man possessed, playing all these great rhythm and blues songs that the white stations never played. This was the Fall of 1965, and in my part of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, at a high school where maybe three of the three thousand students were black, this was extremely hip information. “Magnificent Montague!” one of the boys kept saying. “You gotta hear Montague!”

I tuned in the next morning before school–KGFJ, 1230 on the AM dial, a distant journey from “Boss Radio,” the carefully formatted home of the Beatles and Beach Boys at 930–and there it was, this dynamic parallel universe, full of people I’d never heard of, like B.B. King and Johnnie Taylor and JJ Jackson. It was full of rough, hidden classics by black artists whose full brilliance never crossed over to white radio: Otis Redding’s “Mister Pitiful” or The Contours’ “First I Look At The Purse,” which I still remember giggling at the first time I heard it. (” . . . If the purse is fat/that’s where it’s at!”)

About the only black music I’d heard before was the more tepid sounds of Motown or Brook Benton or Diana Washington or the country-and-western style of Ray Charles But what really froze me with delight was Magnificent Montague himself. He was feverishly shouting or screaming, like he thought he was one of the artists-and damned if he wasn’t.

There was real-life drama here: Coming in as a listener shortly after the Watts Riots, I was able to infer that Montague once had a favorite expression that he used, and the listeners would call in and scream it: “Burn, baby! Burn!” This subculture, with so much urgency and mystery, pulled me along, left me ever-wondering: What was Montague going to do on the air today? What were his callers going to bring to the table? Because his show felt like it was the most important thing in his life, it became the most important thing in my bleak social existence. It made me want to wake up in the morning.

A few months after I started listening to Montague, I graduated high school and started attending a state college down the street from home. I’d sit in my parents’ ’59 Rambler station wagon a half-hour before class, transfixed by the show. There were 25,000 students on that campus the year I showed up, 98% of them white. I had no friends there that first semester and I did not know anyone who listened to what I was hearing. It was mine, mine alone–for about a year and a half. Then, in the Spring of ’67, Montague left KGFJ, for whereabouts unknown. I stopped listening. I probably would have anyway: One afternoon around that time, I heard both Jimi Hendrix and the protest singer Phil Ochs for the first time at a friend’s apartment and soul music’s lure began to fade.

I graduated college and became a newspaper reporter. In the early ’70s, Montague showed up again, briefly, on a station broadcasting out of Mexico, working with Wolfman Jack. It seemed like that gig lasted a year or so, and then Montague faded completely into a romantic memory, something that, on the occasions I pondered it, made me wonder if he could really have been as magnificent as I remembered.

Bruce Springsteen was the most important guy in my world in 1985 when I realized the 20th anniversary of the Watts Riots was approaching. I was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, trying to think of an anniversary idea, and “What happened to . . . ” popped into my head. I walked over to my city editor and started telling him about this crazy deejay who had coined “Burn, baby! Burn!” on the radio before the riots. It was all news to my boss. Sure, he said, tell the story.

I called KGFJ and got lucky. The veteran station exec who answered the phone had worked with Montague and, all this time later, knew where he was: On the air in Palm Springs. I called Montague and explained that I was an authentic former fan, now armed with the capacity to tell his whereabouts to a million newspaper readers.

“I’m not interested,” he said. “Don’t like to talk about the past.” Eventually, he budged. I was invited to drive to Palm Springs. There’s a moment near the end of “American Graffiti” when Richard Dreyfus’ character finally meets the town’s popular deejay, played by Wolfman Jack, and realizes that he’s not black, but a pudgy Popsicle-licking white guy. Montague was black, all right, but what stunned me, in much the same way as that movie scene, was how slight he was–maybe 5-foot-5, built like a featherweight boxer. How could that booming sound have come out of this man?

Twenty years later, it still pained Montague to confront the way “Burn, baby! Burn” had become the theme song of the Watts riots, and so many other subsequent societal outbursts. It was, he tried to tell me, the perversion of something perfect that had transpired unconsciously between him and his listeners. “The words didn’t make them burn,” he said cautiously. “The words were already there. I just put together the melody.”

Gradually, he warmed up, until it started to pour out of him. You have to understand how I came up, he said, how hard I had to work, how I learned to sell ads on radio, and then to sell myself. How I learned to become as large as the artist whose record I was playing. “Burn, baby! Burn!,” he said, “meant that when I’m playing the record and I am snapping my fingers and I’m talking my talk, I have reached the epitome, the height–there is no more you can do!” His words came faster. “Everything is up, up, up! And that’s when”–he momentarily softened his voice for drama–”you burn, baby–burn. It is like the high-five. You know you’ve hit your home run. There’s no more to say. You look at the ball go, like Reggie Jackson. And when I hit that record and I say, ‘Darling, I love you,’ or ‘Put your hand on the radio and touch my heart,’ bop-bop-bop BURN, Baby! Burn–there was no more to say! That was the epitome! That was it!”

A few years after the article ran, I got another call from Montague. He’d sold the radio station and moved back to Los Angeles, he explained, and wondered if I would take a look at his collection.

Of what?

Books, he said. Paintings. Pamphlets. Movie posters. Engravings. Black. It’s all black.

I drove over to his apartment and he told me the story about how he’d fallen in love with collecting African American memorabilia. There were thousands and thousands of pieces of it in a warehouse in El Monte, a suburb of Los Angeles, he told me. He wanted me to help him find a way to turn it into a black history museum.

I was confused. Why would a man whose persona was clearly built on living for the moment turn into a history collector? I didn’t realize how long he’d been doing this. I wrote another story, and my newspaper published it.

A few years after that Montague called me again, and our conversations led to the notion that perhaps the two sides of his life could be a book. In 1992, we started a series of interviews which would continue off and on for several years, interrupted by his radio consulting jobs, my reporting and editing work and several unfulfilling encounters with a publishing industry that wanted an autobiography that fell into one predictable category. This infuriated Montague. “I am not simply a deejay!” he’d say, and the book that resulted, published in October, 2003 by University of Illinois Press, is testament to that. It spits in the face of the marketing niches that make popular culture so sterile. It’s the story of a complicated man who is both fiercely proud of the little-known accomplishments of his race and disdainful of a society that has attempted to define him by limiting him to a racial box. He wants you to know him as more than a black man–or a deejay.

The longer we worked on the manuscript, the more both of us understood what the book should sound like. It should sound like his show on KGFJ, or on WWRL in New York before that, or on WAAF in Chicago before that: a long, on-the-air rap about the glory of music and the glory of tracking down historical achievement.

Montague’s recollections swooped from era to era, creating fragments of a monologue that would eventually be glued together. I began supplementing his stories with research on the personalities whose paths he crossed. I was fortunate in that Montague, like all collectors, was a pack rat. He still had the printed speech of Paul Robeson from a half-century ago. He still had the poster advertising one of his huge New York soul concerts from four decades past. He still had a tape of an on-air conversation with Sam Cooke. He still had the surrealistic novel he’d written in the early ’60s about a black boy’s encounter with scores of legendary black achievers.

Montague moved to Las Vegas in the mid-’90s, so our collaboration began taking place largely by telephone. For several years he grew more concerned about turning his history collection into a Los Angeles museum than telling his story. When the museum plan fell thorough due to a lack of financial support, the book regained primacy in his life.

So behold a hybrid: an entertaining American history book that’s also an American history-soaked entertainment book. And enjoy, as I do, the realization that those whimsical moments in high school sometimes lead you places you never imagined.

Reprinted from “Burn, Baby! BURN! The Autobiography of Magnificent Montague,” published in October, 2003 by the University of Illinois Press.

Want more? Go to www.magnificentmontague.com. You can find links to order the book and also find audio clips of Magnificent Montague’s theme song and other performances.