From John Lennon to Elton John, Highlights from My 40 Years as a Rock ‘n’ Roll DJ

| March 1, 2012 4:00 AM video

As a kid growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, in the 1960s, I loved rock ‘n’ roll and the radio stations that played it. It was the heyday of New York Top 40 AM radio. Stations like WINS, WMCA and WABC blared out of my transistor radio during the day and under my pillow at night. D.J.’s like Murray the K, Scott Muni, Dan Ingram and many more were our trusted companions, playing the hits, introducing the new sounds and providing the soundtrack to growing up.

I don’t think I ever imagined that I might actually become a D.J. on the radio. Jokingly with friends I may have imitated the way they introduced the records or practiced reading the news or a commercial, but I didn’t know anyone that worked in “the business.” I was on track to go to college and wind up with a respectable professional job like a doctor or lawyer.

A young Dennis Elsas, left, in 1966, when he was program director and disc jockey at Queens College's nascent radio station WQMC. To the right is Rosko, a renown radio personality in the early days of alternative rock radio. Photo courtesy of Dennis Elsas.

At Queens College, I discovered there was a “speech” department and you could combine it with a serious major like political science. Speech changed to communication arts and sciences, political science faded away and most significantly, I helped to establish WQMC, the school’s first radio station.

At the very same time, the rock radio landscape was beginning to change. A 1966 FCC regulation prohibited FM radio stations from duplicating the same programming on their AM station. That meant stations were seeking more alternative and original content just as the musical, political and social revolution of the ’60s was underway. Progressive rock radio and free form programming emerged accidentally at a lucky time: when a new medium needed content. Sgt. Pepper, the Summer of Love, the anti-war movement, drugs and flower power had arrived to differentiate FM from AM. We would play records in sets of songs that we programmed on our own, exploring all types of themes with a wide variety of musical choices.

Scott Muni, left, nicknamed "The Professor" by those who worked for him, was the program director at WNEW-FM and was an early mentor of Dennis Elsas. The two worked together at the station for over 30 years. Photo courtesy of Dennis Elsas.

After a short stint working for a suburban radio station in New Rochelle, I joined WNEW-FM in the summer of 1971 in the heart of New York City. We played brand new albums like “Led Zeppelin 4” (the album that included the legendary rock balled “Stairway to Heaven“),  ”Who’s Next” and the Rolling Stones’  ”Sticky Fingers.”

Initially, I did summer relief filling in for vacationing DJs. I started out working the overnight shifts but quickly moved to all the other daytime shifts. By February 1972, I had regularly scheduled weekend shows and eventually became the station’s music director. I was working directly with the program director, the man that hired me, Scott Muni. He was one of the defining voices that I had grown up listening to and I couldn’t have picked a better teacher to guide me through this renaissance period in the music and radio business.

It wasn’t long before I was meeting and then interviewing my rock ‘n’ roll heroes — people like John Lennon, Elton John, Pete Townshend of The Who, Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia, Paul McCartney and more.

Click the images below to hear highlights from Elsas’ interviews with his rock ‘n’roll heroes:

My two hours live on-air with Lennon, following the release of his “Walls and Bridges” solo album, are still a career highlight. Meeting him at New York’s famed Record Plant recording studio gave me the opportunity to invite him to the radio station. His humor, musical insights, revelations about his time with The Beatles and candor about his on-going immigration struggle to remain in New York City, all expressed in that interview, continue to be quoted by fans and rock historians alike. I still smile about that afternoon and was honored when the recent PBS award-winning film “LENNONYC” chose to document that experience as part of his story.

WATCH VIDEO:

A video trailer for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets,” Dennis Elsas’ live multimedia journey through his personal archives.

I stayed with WNEW-FM for more than twenty-five years hosting the night-time shift, the mid-day slot, creating weekend “beach parties” and creating a bond with my listeners. After “The Place Where Rock Lives” (the station’s most memorable slogan), changed format to an all-talk format in 1999, I was fortunate to find a new radio home in New York at WFUV, a public radio station at Fordham University in the Bronx. In an on-air atmosphere that encourages creativity, I still get to do what I love the most on a daily basis, every afternoon from 2 to 6 p.m. — playing old favorites, discovering new artists and blending them all together in a seamless mix.

A recent photo of Dennis Elsas with Bruce Springsteen. Photo courtesy of Dennis Elsas.

A few years ago when I launched my website I decided I wanted to share some of my favorite on-air moments with the on-line audience. John Lennon explaining the meaning of “Revolution Number 9,” Pete Townshend discussing why he smashed all those guitars and Jerry Garcia exploring the relationship of the Grateful Dead to drugs are just a few of the highlights you can see or hear in my archives.

When I was asked to present these memories in a live multimedia presentation, I created a  show called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets.” Yes, it’s the title of a wonderful Bob Seger song  but that phrase has always meant so much more to me. It represents loyalty, friendship and the continuing legacy of rock ‘n’ roll. The show reflects all of those things, beginning with my early memories of the rock radio that shaped me, how I got to be part of the experience and the on-going opportunities to meet and interview so many amazing people.

Dennis Elsas can be heard daily on WFUV and on Sirius/XM Classic Vinyl.

  • patricia

    WHat a great article, Dennis! I am a marquis member at FUV for the first time this year, I and my daughter met you at Clearwater ’10 and at Citywinery and you gave my 6 year old a thrill by saying hello to her and her sisters (Caraline, Liana and AMberley) on the radio last year as we made our way out of town to go camping for 4th of July. I was happily surprised to see we have SOOOOO many similarities, as I count one of the best perks of my job as a pharma rep that I get to spend a majority of my day with you and Darren abd Claudia, starting at home with Claudia, getting kids to school, and then in my car listening to the radio as I buzz around Brooklyn all day. What similarities? Well, I lived for a time in Jackson Hts and this was during my years at Queens College where I did English and Poli Sci majors before attending law school. I also dabbled in college radio and am looking for a mentor, as I would love my next career to be in radio–how do you go about getting experience to be able to fill in for weekends and summer vacationing dj’s? I love the photos you posted and can honestly say YOU turned me on to my favorite band: Nada SUrf–you played Whose Authority and Weightless in one week and I put the name to that gorgeous sound and ran out and got ALL their music. THe new one is a magnificent gem, so funny the last record I recall devouring so voraciously like TSAI2A was The River, my favorite childhood album. I love your voice, your constant enthusiasm for music and for people and I thank you for how you have blessed my and my girls’ lives —Patricia

  • nancy

    Dennis–thank you for this great article. I listened to you all the way back to the WNEW-FM days. I even taped the “John Lennon” interviews onto my cassette machine. Thank you for all the wonderful memories.

  • Robert Topping

    The articles were soooo much fun to read. I was there for all of it. Somehow you seem to pick the music I need to hear and you have been doing that for me for the past many, many , many years. Thank you. I will see you this week at the Dix Hills Arts Center. Cool Runnings.

  • John

    The Elton John photo is not from 1974, and also the concert with John Lennon was on the Thanksgiving Day while the article seem to suggest it was the day after the interview.

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