The 1971 "Chevy on the Levee" Promotion
March 30, 2019
(editor note: Below is a collection of recollections from Bob Sherwood, Dave Williams and Don Christie (J.D. Hinton)
regarding the KROY “Chevy on the Levee” promotion. They have been edited for brevity and clarification.)
Bob Sherwood writes:
In 1979, shortly after I became President of Mercury Records I signed a Production deal with Rod Stewart. The initial release was by (then) John Cougar. It did OK and we did a second LP in 1980. [E]arly on it was clear that he was an exceptional talent. So, we (Rod Stewart, Johnny’s management and I) made the decision to convince the brilliant Steve Cropper produce him.
[W]hen the album was completed, as was customary, I had the first listen. It was at his co-managers Upper East Side apt. in NYC. It was obviously well done and had a lot of potential. John joined us at the end and we had a very productive conversation about a video, his tour and general support. He then left to go “play.”
At that point the managers asked if I’d stay to listen to something else. The “something else” was a just-completed recording by Don McLean. I really wasn’t interested…McLean was a very ‘cold’ artist, a bit quirky and unlikely to have another “hit.” Purely as a courtesy to them I agreed to listen to a couple of tracks -- and then I heard “Cryin’ “ and lost my mind! I’d been a Roy Orbison fan since high school and LOVE ‘Cryin’--- it’s on my Top 10 Desert Island Disc list and Top 3 of “Loved and Lost” songs.
Back to the point: As many adult beverages from Tennessee, the Napa Valley and various regions of France had flowed during the evening, I advised that I would listen to the entire LP in the cold light of day, consult with my chief A&R execs and give them an answer in a day or so. Both my senior guys were totally against a signing. They thought “Cryin’” had a chance to be a Hit, but there was nothing else on the album worth releasing. I passed.
Producer Jimmy Lenner picked it up for his new label/production deal with RCA. The single went No. 1! The week that happened both of my A&R guys found it necessary to be in Bolivia and Belarus scouting new talent -- so I wasn’t able to find them and strangle each.
You don’t pass on Number 1 records! What an embarrassment.
However, both ultimately were right. There were no follow-up singles and both Lenner and RCA spent a ton trying to create them.
The way of these things.
Ps---and I still love his version of “Cryin’”.
Dave Williams writes:
My brain is getting wrinkled. I'm not sure but I think we've already recounted the American Pie promotion KROY stole from…KNDE. I'll keep it brief. American Pie came out in…1971. Somebody on the national radio scene, I don't remember who (might have been Jack McCoy at KCBQ), was selling a fully produced serial breaking down McLean's song and interpreting the mysterious lyrics. KNDE bought the package and began promoting it days in advance of its airing.
Chuck [Roy, Program Director] called a meeting in his office, gathered us all there and gave us a written interpretation of the song. Chuck assigned each of us a portion of the song lyrics and interpretation to rewrite. We did it that very day and, as I recall, it hit the air that evening while I was working 7pm-Midnight.
[KNDE’s Program Director] called me on the request line in a full-blown panic. He told me I MUST stop airing the segments immediately. I told him nicely that I was doing what I was told and that he wasn't my boss. Then, he gave me his phone number and asked me to have Chuck or Dwight [Case, General Manager] call him. I called Chuck, Chuck called [KNDE] and there was no issue, legal or otherwise. We had kicked [their] ass fairly and squarely.
As we released one produced segment after another, rotating the entire process around the clock for several days, we had many reports of people parking in their driveways and being late to their college classes as they sat waiting for the next episode. Yet again, KROY fever ran unchecked, an epidemic that engulfed Sacramento.
That was great but we weren't finished.
We followed that up with the KROY “Chevy on the Levee” promotion in which Bud [B. Winchell Clay, Production Director] wrote a "car rally" set of puzzling instructions for me to read on the air over a period of a couple of hours. As I delivered the final instruction hordes of KROY listeners rounded the final turn and arrived at a spot on the American River levee (see above photo) where they found...the other KROY jocks waiting near a Chevy. (I think it was Martin's [Wonder Rabbit] Camaro.) They gave the listeners "American pies" (those packaged apple and berry confections you can still get at convenience stores) with $1, $5 and $10 bills enclosed in the wrappers.
In grand KROY tradition we brought a cultural phenomenon home to Sacramento, branded it as our own, and thoroughly humiliated a competitor.
That's the story as I recall. I look forward to embellishment from those of you who were there.
Don Christie [JD Hinton] writes:
I did not know about the KNDE scenario until this conversation. I looked it up. This Don McLean record did arrive in October of 1971.
Thank you Dave and Rabbit and Bob. I LOVE remembering this time and story. Mr. Rabbit’s Camaro was the “Chevy” at the Levee that night. I was in a second car (I don’t remember whose car) with the other DJs. I do remember getting to the levee location just before the AUDIENCE following Dave’s show clues discovered where the exact location was. Rabbit’s car was already there. We got out and spoke for a moment. There were no lights or banners or anything special to indicate THIS was the spot, but…a couple of REALLY GOOD GUESSERS’ cars arrived before the final clues had been broadcast. I recall Chuck didn’t wait. He took the lead and immediately began handing out the Hostess Pies and then a few more cars began arriving. We all began giving away the pies and they were gone in a flash. [T]he DJs jumped back into our cars (including the Camaro) and began driving away as CARS - CARS - CARS began pulling through that area and heading for the location where the clues led. Those otherwise quiet neighborhood streets suddenly looked like people aiming for parking lots at a Raiders or Niners game.
The "Chevy on the Levee" secret location (pssst! On Alhambra and "C" Street along the levee) with Chuck Roy and Wonder Rabbit. Rabbit was the only KROY employee with a Chevrolet!
The motivating, energetic "Music Power" format was the platform upon which 1240 KROY endeared itself to a fiercely loyal audience. From the fall of 1968 through the fall of 1973, KROY was No. 1 in every Arbitron rating book. KROY, known as "the 1240 Rock," dominated stations with 50 times its transmitter power. KROY's secret was chemistry--a potent combination of disc jockeys with winning personalities who were attuned to the pulse of the city and who played an infectious blend of "top 40" hits, many of which were "hitbound" on KROY before they were heard on more timid radio stations in other cities.
But KROY was far more than just a pop music radio station that helped set musical trends and awarded thousands of dollars in prizes to listeners. It was a vital part of the community. KROY had consistently high visibility throughout the city, staging fun events, sponsoring concerts, and organizing goodwill public-service activities that showed the station's concern for the city and its residents. Arriving in the trademark purple KROY fire truck, the station's disc jockeys played host year after year to thousands of Sacramentans at Gibson Ranch picnics, Bridal Faire presentations, teen fairs, and other events.
Similarly, KROY's innumerable contests involved the listeners on a personal level, often with sensational results. When Don McLean's "American Pie" soared to popularity, Sacramentans remained riveted to their radios as KROY dispensed clues leading to a secretive prize location. As the final clues were revealed, the station's listeners converged upon a levee where the KROY disc jockeys were parked in a Chevy--a reference to a lyric line in the song--and they were handing out pies stuffed with $10 bills. The station's haunted mansion, presented in cooperation with a local youth organization each Halloween, became a perennial favorite, as did its Fourth of July spectaculars at Cal Expo.
1240 KROY embodied the spirit of Sacramento.