"John Peel was the only important DJ left in the world."
--The White Stripes' Jack White
Two weeks ago, John Peel died a legend at 65--revered by critics, artists and audiences alike--but the renegade British DJ actually began his broadcast career in Dallas under his given name, John Ravenscroft. Though raised in Liverpool, Peel moved to Big D in the early '60s and sold crop insurance, a job that would surely prompt any sane man to look for a new gig. So in 1961--before the influential Peel Sessions, before Radio 1 and Top of the Pops--Peel cut his teeth co-hosting a little local program called Kat's Karavan, which ran from 1953 to 1967 on WRR 1310 AM.
Actually, "little" isn't the right word. Hosted by Jim "The Cool Fool" Lowe--none other than the booming voice of the State Fair's Big Tex--Kat's Karavan was a white suburban kid's gateway into that tantalizing genre known as black music. "It's a fast-moving, swinging show that teenagers really like," boasted one 1957 advertisement.
But when the Beatles broke in the States, it was Peel's chance to do the same. Trading on his Liverpudlian heritage and oh-so-exotic accent, Peel landed a gig at radio pioneer Gordon McLendon's KLIF in Oak Cliff, where he touted himself an expert on the Fab Four. As Peel once explained, "They'd got this idea that if you lived in the U.K., there were probably only a couple of hundred people, and they were all bound to know each other."
Ken Dowe, mastermind at the top-rated K104 FM, once co-hosted a regular Saturday-afternoon program with Peel. In a posting on Radio Daily News' Web site, Dowe remembers, "John and I made myriad appearances around Dallas and Fort Worth during the British Invasion, signing autographs and hyping KLIF's association with the world's hottest new music."
Beatlemania was at such a fever pitch that Peel became a celebrity by virtue of mere proximity. "I was suddenly confronted by this succession of teenage girls who didn't want to know anything about me at all," he has said. "All they wanted me to do was to abuse them, sexually, which, of course, I was only too happy to do."
It was the height of his career in Dallas, and yet it signaled the end: After an imbroglio with a girl who turned out to be younger than she claimed, Peel left for Oklahoma City's KOMA (he later worked at San Bernadino's KMEN). But, as Texas Monthly writer Joe Nick Patoski points out in an e-mail, "He learned his cool and showmanship in Dallas." In 1967, Peel returned to London, where he would change radio history forever.
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As a host on BBC's Radio 1 and television's Top of the Pops, Peel was an early champion of David Bowie and punk rock. He introduced audiences to Joy Division and the Velvet Underground.
In an age of contest giveaways and commodification, he never talked over the music and didn't concern himself with an artist's commercial potential. "Ninety percent of the records he played had never been played on radio before," reported an obituary in The Daily Telegraph.
Some of his most memorable contributions are the Peel Sessions, in which he invited artists to spend a day with an engineer at the BBC's Maida Vale studio for later broadcast. One such group was Denton's The Baptist Generals, who recorded their Peel Session in 2002. "Peel was very kind to us," remembers vocalist-guitarist Chris Flemmons. "His show was syndicated well beyond the U.K. I remember thinking, 'How the hell did our little porch thing end up getting played all over the planet?'"
That was the gift of a DJ like John Peel. He died of a heart attack in Cusco, Peru. As Thom Yorke of Radiohead recently said, "He's been my inspiration since I was 14. Who am I going to listen to now?"