Transmission accomplished For radio legend Don Percy, following his airwaves dream wherever it took him on the dial was worth the static
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Don Percy doesn’t mean to sound immodest. Except when he agrees to meet for a story toasting his milestone 85th trip around the sun, the legendary disc jockey, who parked his headset in 2015 but still rolls out of bed bright and early to help his son Willy with a show on Vancouver’s ROCK 101, suggests a spot with enclosed booths, all the better to prevent his highly recognizable voice from carrying too far.
Alas, the best-laid plans of mice and zany morning men often go awry.
Ten minutes after Percy slides his arms out of a black aviator-style jacket bearing the crest “KY-58, Rockin’ the Oldies,” a man who appears to be in his 60s approaches our table. He apologizes for the intrusion, but after overhearing our conversation, he felt he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to personally greet “the Master of the Morning.”
Percy, who gained that heady title in the mid-1970s, when he first took Winnipeg radio by storm, flashes his still-pearly whites and thanks the fellow for making the effort to pop by. Then, without missing a beat, he asks him, “So, do I owe you money or do you owe me?”
Returning to his bran muffin a moment later, Percy acknowledges that sort of interchange happens a fair bit when he’s out and about, including during a recent trip to the airport, when a female security officer requested his trademark growl (kids, ask your parents), before sending him on his way.
“Don’t get me wrong, you’ll never hear a complaint out of me,” he says, pausing to tell a server, “You’re missing all the good parts,” as she refills his mug.
“In a business as cutthroat as radio, where you can be on top of the heap one minute and on the street the next, it’s always a compliment to be remembered. Especially when you’ve been off the air for (counts on his fingers). Sorry, but at my age, you’re gonna have to do the math.”
According to a weathered birth certificate he pulls from the back of his wallet, Donald Andrew Percy was born in Toronto Township, a long-gone municipality located in present-day Mississauga. He grew up in what he terms a “matriarchal society.” After his father Andrew left home in 1941 to fight with the Canadian military in the Second World War, he, his mother Mabelle and his two sisters moved in with his grandmother.
When Andrew returned from overseas, he and Mabelle got jobs co-managing a local cemetery. The family lived in a house on the grounds, which explains why a caption accompanying a photo of Percy in a high school yearbook read, “Don will always let you down… six feet.”
Percy graduated from North Toronto High School, now North Toronto Collegiate Institute, in 1955. He got hired as a mail clerk with the Texaco Oil Company. One of the first things he bought with his weekly $75 salary was a transistor radio, which enabled him to pick up WKBW, a popular AM station in Buffalo, N.Y.
Night after night, he sat in his bedroom with the device glued to his ear, listening to DJ George “Hound Dog” Lorenz playing “Elvis, Little Richard, Shirley and Lee…,” all the while thinking, boy, did he want to do that, too.
One afternoon, he was leafing through his dad’s copy of the Globe and Mail when he spotted a blurb in the classified section that read, “Help wanted: junior announcer.” He sent in an application. To his astonishment, he was asked a few weeks later how soon he could start.
“The station, CFCO, was in Chatham, about 200 miles away,” he says. “My parents drove me there on Sept. 19, 1956, watched me go up the stairs to the boarding house I’d be living at, and then, vroom, vroom, away they went. I didn’t see them again for two years.”
The position paid half what he was making at Texaco. And although he only read the news on-air twice a week, at most, none of that mattered. He was living “the dream.”
A succession of moves followed. After meeting his first wife, Lenore, in Chatham, he took other jobs in Ontario, in Sarnia, North Bay, Richmond Hill, St. Thomas and Peterborough. Part of it was money — they ended up having six kids together, and as little as five dollars a week more in pay meant they were packing their bags — and part of it was Lenore declaring she wasn’t spending another minute in this or that godforsaken town, he says with a chuckle.
If it’s true you’re nobody in radio until you’ve been shown the door, Percy became a “somebody” for the first time in 1968, when he was handling the graveyard shift for a station in Toronto. One morning he was summoned to the program director’s office. The fellow told him he was forced to do something he hadn’t done in 22 years. Percy asked curiously what that was. Fire a person, came the reply.
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Fantastic, he wants me to replace whoever’s being let go.’ Only, when I asked him who was getting the axe, he said, ‘You.’”
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Fantastic, he wants me to replace whoever’s being let go.’ Only, when I asked him who was getting the axe, he said, ‘You.’”–Don Percy
Percy spent the next couple of months mailing audition tapes to stations throughout Ontario and Quebec. Give him 10 minutes and he’ll find a letter he received from a manager in Montreal, who wrote back, “Don, I want to personally thank you for sending us your tape. I called the entire staff in to listen to it, because I wanted them all to hear absolutely everything that could be wrong with a morning show.”
He eventually caught on at an ethnic radio station in Toronto where one of the owners thought it would be a great idea to have announcers sing the headlines, his rationale being that Italians love opera. (Here he leans back and croons, “Betty Jones died in a car crash today,” before laughing uproariously.)
By 1969, Percy was growing weary of memorizing new call letters, every 10 months or so. Despite having no formal training as an educator, he successfully applied for a radio-instructor position at Thunder Bay’s Confederation College. Overnight, he was pulling in more than he ever had, doubly so when, with the college’s blessing, he also landed the morning slot at local station CKPR.
It was during his tenure there that he began to develop a shtick that would later be described as, “equal parts impudence, good-natured vulgarity, shoot-from-the-lip wit and street smarts.”
“My thinking was, I could do whatever the hell I wanted (on-air), because if the station fired me, I still had the teaching gig.”–Don Percy
“My thinking was, I could do whatever the hell I wanted (on-air), because if the station fired me, I still had the teaching gig,” he explains.
Funnily enough, his boss at CKPR was prepared to do just that, after he made a racy remark during a commercial for a store selling women’s high-heel shoes. That was it, he was informed, he had crossed the line one too many times. Only when that same boss called the store to apologize, he was told there was no need, as they were sold out of the very shoes Percy had cracked wise about.
There was a stipulation in his teaching contract that he could take a year’s unpaid leave, if an opportunity presented itself. That’s precisely what occurred in 1975, when Winnipeg’s KY-58 came calling.
KY-58 offered him half of what he was earning in Thunder Bay, but because Winnipeg was a large market, and because “sometimes it’s a case of one step back, two steps forward,” he signed on the dotted line.
“Plus, there wasn’t a lot of pressure,” he adds. “CJOB had 80,000 morning listeners compared to KY’s 4,000, so the higher-ups didn’t seem to care too much about what I said or did.”
While his career trajectory was on the upswing, the same couldn’t be said for his personal life. He had split from his first wife and had barely two nickels to rub together, owing to personal living expenses coupled with child support. One time a person from work invited him out for a drink. He declined, saying he didn’t have the necessary funds to cover his share of the tab.
Percy reached a proverbial fork in the road, one morning in 1976. His partner-in-crime Mannie Buzunis had just finished reading the 8 a.m. news when Percy received a call from his sister, in Toronto. During a commercial break he learned their mother had died. A moment later, he basically quit on air, telling the audience he’d hit a wall, and couldn’t handle the pressure any longer.
“I was preparing to go back to my teaching job when the president of the company reached out, asking me to reconsider,” he says. “Apparently the station was getting calls from listeners and advertisers alike, who were concerned for my well-being, and didn’t want me to go. Rest assured: hearing somebody say they like you and enjoy what you do, can make an enormous difference.”
He was back on the air the following Monday, and the show took off like nobody’s business.
Percy readily admits that nowadays, he wouldn’t get away with a fraction of the stunts and comments that once caused a reporter to write, “You listen to Don Percy at your own peril.” By the time he and his second wife, Lorraine Mansbridge, left for Edmonton in 1981, his show, which featured callers from all walks of life, including a woman who used to give him a weekly indecency score on a scale from one to 10, was daily fodder at the water cooler.
People from eight to 80 tuned in, patiently waiting to hear him tell a female celebrating a birthday to, “close your eyes, brush the hair back over your left ear and think warm thoughts,” ahead of delivering what became his calling card, the Percy growl, which he performed by vibrating his tongue against the back of his throat, to produce a “Grrrrrrrrr” sound.
Women weren’t the only recipients. Every now and again, a dairy farmer would reach out, to request a growl for one of his cows, to increase milk production.
Following stints in Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver, Percy returned to Winnipeg in 1991. He was 67 years old in 2004 when he bade, “Good morning!” for the final time at KY-58, and 77 when he signed off for good, while in the employ of Jewel-FM.
Like we mentioned off the top, the 10-time grandfather and three-time great-grandfather (forgive him if those numbers aren’t entirely accurate) continues to rise and shine five days a week, to assist his son.
“He tells people he monitors the show, but he actually does a lot more than that,” Willy Percy says, when reached at work. “He’s one of my most valued producers whose skill set is unparalleled.”
Willy, who oddly enough competed against his father for ratings in the Vancouver market in 1990, says his dad has a knack for unearthing entertaining stories and anecdotes that can be turned into bits during a show.
“He knows what will appeal to listeners from a human-interest standpoint, as well as what will have an emotional impact. He’ll listen to our show and when he hears a segment he knows he was responsible for, it’s a feather in his cap, for sure,” says Willy, the only one of six siblings who went into the “family business.”
“The best thing is the depth of knowledge and experience he brings to the table… things I could never get from a 37-year-old co-host or 25-year-old producer,” Willy goes on. “One of his favourite sayings is, ‘Let the shoemaker stick to his last,’ which means, if you’ve been making shoes all your life and you’re really good at it, why would you ever stop? It’s the same thing with him and radio. Maybe you don’t hear his voice the way you used to, but he’s still involved in the industry.”
Aside from a pronounced limp caused by a horrific car crash in 1983 that almost killed him, Percy remains in relatively good health. That medical alert device he wears around his neck? It may or may not have gone off accidentally once or twice, and attracted responders to a favoured watering hole, he says with a wink.
Admittedly, he’s had his fair share of ups and downs. Three failed marriages attest to that. But when he is asked if he would have done anything differently, he shakes his head no.
“Forty years ago, I was in a ditch in Mexico, and God was giving me a choice: did I want to die there, or did I want to go through some difficult times? Well, considering those ‘difficult’ times also meant that I’d have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and have wonderful people stopping to say hello … yeah, it was a pretty easy decision to make.”
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Saturday, March 25, 2023 9:46 AM CDT: Updates name of college