Writing under the name Nils Johansen, recently deceased radio announcer Mark Elliot fought many a battle to quieten inner demons that found him vulnerable as a child. In the following feature, reprinted with permission from its author, the Ottawan reminisces about music and musicians that have moved him in his life. It was to be one of his last written reminiscences as he died from pneumonia on January 11.
It was a cold Ottawa evening in 1982. A Thursday? A Tuesday?
I can’t remember it exactly, but who cares?
Really great memories don’t happen on anybody’s timetable. So, when they do happen it’s a wonderful surprise!
On this cold night, there was a show with the band Teenage Head opening for my buddies — Holly Woods and Toronto! Topping the bill was Bill Henderson and Chilliwack! A solid night for early 80’s Canadian rock bands!
My radio station set me up to do my evening rock radio show from backstage, except…
A fuse blew, or a diode died…Something electrical shut down the broadcast line I was on speaking to the studio. Dead Air. The nightmare of “live” radio. So, I raced to my car and high-tailed it back to the studios while my producer scrambled to cover for me.
(I can hear my producer saying “Where is “Stairway to Heaven?” The deejays cover for running to the bathroom or grabbing a cigarette on the back patio. Led Zeppelin earned the 1980’s deejays undying love for making a hit seven minutes and thirty-eight seconds long! 7:38! Hell, I remember having a quickie during “Stairway”, but that’s another story.)
It was 10 pm before I could make it back to the arena for the show. So, while “Stairway to Heaven” gave me a grand finale that night on the radio, I rushed to introduce the headliners, if nothing else. After all, everything we’d planned seemed to have gone wrong. Now I was racing to introduce Chilliwack on stage, and it was a real race!
At the arena, the show was running on time, and Holly Woods had already done a couple of encores with her band Toronto. This band were the best of friends. I had promoted them on ABC radio in the U.S. Stories I wrote about them went around the world with my syndicated writing.
Holly had gotten the crowd of thousands in the arena chanting my name like a football rally cheer!
Before launching into their hit single “Your Daddy Don’t Know” Holly thanked Ottawa and me for our support by cheering my name “Mark Elliot!” over and over again before launching into the song! She was bringing the house down like only a great blues maven can do… and she is one of the best!
The band finished their set, the lights came up, and the roadies set the stage up for Chilliwack. Sometime about 10 minutes later …
One of those amazing moments of my life was about to happen, and I was as oblivious as I could be.
Racing back to the arena at Lansdowne Park I hustled through the turnstiles where Dennis Ruffo, the show promoter met me with his usual grin. It was a hurried rush as he hustled me into the backstage and I was ready right as the band was about to hit the stage. There were the usual quick “hellos” when I saw Bill Henderson and the guys in Chilliwack, and then I was whisked onstage to the microphone.
The spotlight hit me, and I said: “I’m Mark Elliot” only to be blown over by a response I had never had in my life! The applause seemed never to stop…
“I hope they like us that much!” said Bill as we passed when I finally got offstage. I can’t remember anything else from that moment until I got backstage with Holly in the dressing room. It was so stunning and meant so much! This was better than any platinum album to a guy like me. How many deejays do you know who get that kind of respect from the artists they play on the radio?
George Belanger and the guys in Harlequin were among my best friends in the music business. “Innocence” was a song that played like an anthem when I first played it in 1980. Bassist Ralph James was yet to become the manager of managers in the live music business in Canada.
Thinking back now, we were all in a moment in time — a moment when we were all on the cusp of who we became. It seems so innocent now.
Hindsight is truly 20/20. The interviews I did with a teenaged Bryan Adams were of a kid whose voice had yet to change. Like Bryan, we were all a bunch of kids dreaming of making it big and supporting each other on the way.
I had a system to help my friends by planting stories about them in my reports for ABC. All I needed was a slow news day in the U.S. When that happened I could slip in a story about Bryan, or Toronto, or Jane Siberry. Ray Danniels, the manager of Rush always had some tidbit I could use, and my editor at ABC Radio in New York was always happy to have a good story to run.
Warren Cosford of CHUM Toronto was a well-known broadcast executive who had noticed my work and sought me out for one of his special projects promoting Canadian music internationally. He was to become my mentor, my friend and my confidant. Warren made sure I had the connections to keep up a steady flow of stories that flowed out of my office in Ottawa daily. (“Mark Elliot for ABC News, Ottawa (?)” was my regular tagline on my reports — leading to the inevitable question: “Why does ABC News have an entertainment reporter in Ottawa Canada?” Regardless…it worked!)
One payback for me came in the friendships I developed like the love I had for Holly, Sheron Alton and the gang in her band, Toronto.
Even people who were mostly just acquaintances were amazing. Like Kimberly Rew, this savage little guitarist and songwriter with Katrina and the Waves. I can still see him bouncing like a kid on a new pogo stick laying down the licks on his hit song “Walking on Sunshine!
Blind guitarist and prodigy Jeff Healey knew me the minute he heard my voice in the dressing room. My bond with Jeff was that I was the first deejay to chart one of his records and push stories about him through his publicist Charles Comer.
Charlie’s legend was that he came to the U.S. with the Rolling Stones in 1964. Today his job was working with guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, or as he always called him “My Stevie!” Amazing characters were everywhere in my work.
After hours when the radio show was over, a delight to me was sharing jokes backstage with Tina Turner. Or, telling and retelling Mississippi delta blues legends backstage with John Lee Hooker. Or sharing a drink and relaxing with Muddy Waters… I had a dream when I was a little kid that someday I’d get to know these people I’d idolized. I had a dream as that little kid and now it all came true!
Ottawa was certainly an odd place to find myself in the 1970s and 80s conversing with legends of Mississippi blues, but this was where I found myself. I was in my twenties and on the radio it was still the heyday of AM Top 40 where the disc-jockey was the star as the personality who tied the music together with a patter of jokes and stories. “Instant requests” from listeners — Pre-taped by my producer and seeming to find the exact song requested magically.
There was still magic to what went on behind the microphone back then, and for those of us who understood it, it was a tool we could use as part of the entertainment.