Monday, February 15, 2010

For Ocala's Roby Yonge, it was perhaps the fastest ascent in the history of Top-40 radio, a rocket-ride to the pinnacle of his profession. It took Yonge less than a decade to rise from Ocala High School to his lofty position as the youngest disc jockey on the nation's most powerful station.

But it all unraveled one night in 1969 amidst a confluence of alcohol abuse and poor judgment. When Yonge died--in 1997 at age 54--he was remembered as the announcer who was fired on-the-air from WABC-New York for spreading the rumor that Paul McCartney was dead.

The story of Roby Yonge reads like a modern morality play, a lesson in what happens when real-life collides with our dreams.

Yonge was born at Ft. Jackson, NC, in 1943, the son of an army officer. The family soon moved to Ocala where Roby became hooked on radio. His first paid job--at fifteen, in 1958--was as a high school reporter for a small Ocala station.

Four years later Roby was hired by WCKR in Miami. There he met deejay Rick Shaw (still a fixture in Miami, playing oldies for WMXJ). "Roby had this natural talent to entertain and make you laugh," Shaw remembers. "It's not something that can be taught. Roby was just gifted. He had great pipes, too--a voice that sounded great on the radio."

In 1963, Shaw was hired by WQAM, Miami's top-rated Top-40 station. "I convinced the program director that Roby could be a great jock," Shaw said. It was Yonge's first big break.

Roby was an immediate hit on WQAM, especially among surfers. "As a joke one day I called Roby 'The Big Kahuna,'" Shaw remembers. "Roby loved it. He read books about Hawaiian surf lore and how the natives wore seaweed on their heads and chanted mystical prayers to make the surf come up. And Roby actually did that. In 1966, WQAM held our first annual Big Kahuna South Florida Surf Meet. It was all tongue-in-cheek: You can't surf South Beach because--well, there's no surf."

The night before the event Yonge visited South Beach. "He put seaweed on his head and chanted prayers," Shaw recalls. "Sure enough a hurricane blew up overnight. The next morning there was eight-foot surf on South Beach. Kids were convinced Roby did it. The next day ten thousand kids show up for surfing, live music, and food."

Thus Roby Yonge became Big Kahuna--the handsome young prince of the sea with power to command the tides. In the fall of 1968, Yonge mailed tapes to larger markets in hopes of moving up the career ladder. "One day," Roby later recalled, "I got a message to call Rick Sklar at WABC in New York. I crumpled the paper up and threw it away. I knew it was a joke."

Sklar was WABC's no-nonsense program director who ruled his station like a monarch, and for good reason. WABC was the most powerful station in America, heard in 40 states and sections of Canada and Mexico.

A few days later a telegram arrived at Yonge's home in Coral Gables: CALL RICK SKLAR AT WABC IMMEDIATELY. Sklar offered Yonge a job; there would be a ticket waiting for him at the National Airlines counter--a ticket to New York, radio's Everest.

When Roby arrived at the counter there was no ticket; someone at WABC, apparently, had forgotten to purchase it. Yonge, a life-long believer in the occult, should have recognized the omen. He paid for the ticket himself.

Roby was assigned WABC's coveted 1pm-3pm slot. Relations with the autocratic Sklar soured, however; Roby bristled under the station's tightly-restricted format, where jocks were expected to play certain songs on schedule and keep chatter to a minimum. "Roby was a non-conformist," Shaw recalls, "who did things his own way, ruffling the feathers of authority." Yonge was soon shunted to the overnight "graveyard" shift.

In early fall of 1969, Sklar informed Yonge that his contract would not be renewed when it expired in November. On the night of October 21, 1969, Roby sat down at the mic for his midnight-to-6am show knowing his short career at the apex of American radio was nearly at an end. About 30 minutes into his show, Roby's broadcast took a bizarre turn:

"...There's really something strange going on with the Beatle Paul...and I'd like to be able to say I told you about it first. Two weeks ago I ordered every Beatle album...I played them backwards and forwards and I played them at every speed. After ten years in broadcasting, I have never felt so sure of a thing as I feel right now..."

Roby took his listeners through a lengthy list of "clues" he had culled from Beatle albums: The left-handed bass on the grave of the Sgt. Pepper's cover, the ambiguous lyrics to any number of songs.

Then Yonge committed the ultimate sin: "Notice on the Magical Mystery Tour," he said, "the numbers that come out if you really get very, very high and look at the front of the album...You can see numbers if you get really high on something--OK? Work on that..."

From today's jaded perspective it's easy to underestimate Yonge's indiscretion. In 1969, however, you simply did not go on the nation's flagship station and exhort listeners to imbibe hallucinogens.

Roby began to ramble . "Listen very carefully to Revolution #9," he told listeners. "Play it on a two-track machine after you've recorded it on a four-track machine and play it backwards"--as if listeners had access to such sophisticated equipment.

At 1:30am, at his home several blocks from the station, Rick Sklar was awakened by a phone call from the WABC newsroom. "You better turn on your radio," Sklar was told.

At 1:54 am, Sklar--still in his bathrobe--burst in the studio door. The record "Backfield in Motion" was playing. Yonge was on the phone with a friend from Miami. "Roby, hang up and get out," Sklar barked. When Roby froze, Sklar jerked the phone out of his hand and slammed it down.

Yonge, flanked by Sklar and an armed security guard, walked to the end of the hall and rode the elevator to the lobby. The ride was eight floors down, but it must have seemed an eternity to Yonge, a free-fall into a career black-hole from which his life would never recover.

Yonge soon returned to Florida, where his life seemed haunted by the ghost of a Beatle who, as it turned out, had never really died at all. Roby's contract as spokesman for a furniture chain dissolved with the firm's bankruptcy. He landed voice-over commercials for a cruise line; one of their ships caught fire and the spots were pulled. Ads he recorded for a regional airline were canceled when one of their planes crashed. There was a failed investment in an unsuccessful recording studio.

In 1985 he reunited briefly with pal Rick Shaw, playing oldies on Miami's WAXY. Yonge's mom, Nancy, recalls that her son was, "at least once, schnockered on the air." Roby began to drift. "He moved around quite a bit," Nancy said, "and got hired and fired a lot." By the early '90s, Roby--by now twice divorced--had moved back to Ocala.

His final job on radio--in 1993, at Miami's WMRZ--was a talk show about the occult. Finally, Roby could indulge his interest in the supernatural. He even continued to insist that McCartney was dead. The show didn't last.

Yonge's health was fading. He began bleeding orally--blood on the pipes. "The alcohol was poisoning him," Nancy said.

The end came on July 18, 1997, in a bottle-strewn room in a run-down Miami motel where Yonge had been living. Roby--broke, unemployed, and too ill or high to get out of bed--summoned a motel handyman with a promise of twenty dollars to fetch a bottle of whiskey. By the time the handyman returned with a bottle, Roby Yonge, once the handsome young prince of American radio, lay dead.

Private services were held in Ocala. After laying her son to rest, Nancy Yonge felt obligated to take care of one last bit of business. She mailed the motel handyman a check for twenty dollars.

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 8