The legacy of Doug Lauderdale, one of the last real DJs
It was unmistakable.
When Doug Lauderdale went on the air each Saturday night with his WDVX radio show “Rumble,” it was like being taken back to the days of classic 1950s and ‘60s radio. He was a fast-talking, quick-witted powerhouse. He aimed to fire up his audience, make them laugh, make them bounce to some music and leave them far happier than when the show started. He was a guy who connected. His three hours on the air felt like a visit with a very hyper yet joyful friend.
When Lauderdale died of kidney cancer on July 27, it was a body blow to music and radio lovers. It was like the airwaves had lost a source of energy. The sound of thunder grew ever more distant.
“He was a radio warrior,” says Tony Lawson, general manager of WDVX and the man who came up with the idea for the station. “He had that attitude that when you walk out of the control room at the end of a shift, you might be exhausted. That’s a lost brand these days.”
“The first time I heard him, I knew he’d been in radio a long time,” says Paul Amero, Lauderdale’s longtime friend and fill-in host of “Rumble.” “He had a sound and flow, and he knew the music. I think he was a veteran of 18 different radio stations, and I think he’d been fired from most of them. Every great radio guy from the ‘60s to the ‘80s had been fired.”
Lauderdale was born in Dover, Delaware, on Dec. 23, 1958. In addition to working at radio stations in Knoxville, Madisonville, Nashville and Denver, he had served time in the Marines, worked as a coal miner, a prison guard, a cook, a bartender, a pawn shop clerk and even as a cowboy. His regular paying gig for years in Knoxville was as a stagehand.
In 1984, Lawson, future WDXX chief engineer Don Burggraf and Lauderdale all were working for the same radio group in Knoxville. But, Lawson says, they didn’t really know each other until later when Lauderdale was working the stage on the “Tennessee Shines” shows when the music series was held at the Bijou Theatre.
Lawson says Lauderdale pitched the idea of the show, but Lawson was a little skeptical that Lauderdale would keep up with it.
“Tony came up with the idea of a rockabilly show,” says Amero. “I think Doug had asked him off and on for about two years.”
The two finally agreed on a show that focused on rockabilly and explored the fringes of Americana music. Lauderdale often (and gleefully) went right off into the fringes.
“Then he never missed a show,” says Lawson. “He answered all questions with actions. He got his own Facebook page for the show and ran with it.”
“Anything Doug committed to, he’d do it,” says Amero. “Up till Feb. 16, he never missed a broadcast in six years. One time he drained the gas out of his lawnmower to have the gas to get there! Then Doug would call me almost every Saturday night and ask, ‘How’d the show sound?’”
Lawson says when he first heard Lauderdale play Link Wray’s song “Rumble” to open the program, he knew Lauderdale was on to something.
“It just gave you an idea of what was to come,” says Lawson. “It was fun. You can ‘make it’ that way on the air. Whatever else needs to addressed has to stop because a lot of folks depend on you. People can tell if you’re doing something else, and that’s something that Doug understood.”
Musician and onetime WDVX specialty-show host Sam Quinn remembers meeting Lauderdale in person before hearing him on the air and being wowed by his energy.
“I was like, ‘THAT was a whirlwind!’ Knoxville really took notice when he went on the air. He was like Robin Williams: You think he’s talking nonsense, and then he ties it all together at the end. He was a real hoot.”
Lauderdale reminded Quinn of Johnson City radio personality Mike James, known as the “Tennessee Midnight Rambler,” a favorite when Quinn was growing up. Or maybe even the Marx Brothers.
“There is no net,” says Quinn. “They’re just rolling with it. I don’t believe Doug ever knew what he was going to talk about beforehand. He just started talking, and he always landed it. It was beautiful, chaotic, calamitous … I don’t believe there are many burgeoning DJs out there like that.”
Quinn also was impressed by Lauderdale’s deep knowledge of music.
“I remember talking to him for about 10 minutes about Wet Willie,” says Quinn. “Have you ever talked with ANYONE about Wet Willie for 10 minutes? No, you haven’t!”
Lawson says Lauderdale reminded him of some of his early radio-personality heroes, as well.
“He reminded me of why I got into radio in the first place,” says Lawson. “He was solid. I loved when we’d get together because we’d exchange old radio stories. He had an interesting history. He had a passion for what he did. You always knew where you stood with him. He was spontaneous but prepared. He was all the things you hope for in somebody you put on the air. I wish I’d tapped him earlier. We could’ve had a couple more years.”
Lauderdale proved so dependable and likable that he was asked to host the Saturday edition of the popular “Blue Plate Special” show.
“Any time Doug was here, you knew you were going to have a good time,” says Amero. “No matter who it was, he’d make them feel like they were the greatest performer in the world. If it was a guy who could barely play and sing, he’d make them feel like the reincarnation of Hank Williams. Performers and audiences thought the world of him. No matter where they were from, he’d make them feel like this was their home.”
Off the air, Amero says Lauderdale was quick to help a friend and always found someone on the street with whom to talk. Still, says Amero, Lauderdale was probably a lot deeper than he ever let on.
“Everybody saw his jovial self,” he says. “But on bright sunny days, he’d keep the curtains closed. He loved dark, stormy weather. A lot of radio guys are like that. They’re the focus of attention when they’re on the air, but then when they’re off … Doug was a talented guy, but it seemed like there was always something holding him back. I think he was a lonely person.”
Divorced, Lauderdale had a daughter, Allison; a granddaughter, Evie; and a brother, Darrel, all of whom visited when Lauderdale became ill.
When Lauderdale initially experienced symptoms of disease in 2017, he was so consumed with taking care of his ailing mother that he ignored them.
Amero says that when Lauderdale came to his house for a visit that year, he didn’t look good. When Lauderdale politely refused the offer of a beer, Amero knew something was up.
“He said, ‘What do you think it means if you pee blood?’ I said, ‘It means you go to the doctor!’”
Lauderdale didn’t, though, believing his condition was caused by a work injury. When Amero would ask him later about the condition, Lauderdale would insist that he was fine.
“In November, I noticed his weight loss,” says Amero. “He was also starting to sit more, and he was never one to sit much. But then every week I’d notice his voice. It just didn’t have the intensity and liveliness in it.”
Lauderdale said that he was simply tired from taking care of his mother.
A month after Lauderdale’s mother died in January 2018, he finally visited a doctor. Amero and his wife, Libby, accompanied him to the emergency room. Lauderdale was diagnosed with hydronephroma, a cancerous kidney tumor.
“I asked the doctor how big it was,” says Amero. “He said, ‘The same size as the kidney.’”
While Lauderdale managed to return to do a few shows, the illness sapped his energy and spread throughout his body.
“Every week for about six months, all I got was, ‘When is Doug coming back?’” says Amero. “I knew the answer, but I couldn’t tell people that.”
Lauderdale died at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center on July 27. It seemed appropriate to everyone who knew him that it would be the radio station that would plan the official memorial: a musical one that will take place at Barley’s in the Old City on Sept. 20.
“He had his own positive energy, and it affected a lot of people at WDVX,” says Lawson.
“Anybody would have a good time when they were with Doug,” says Amero. “If he was in a bad mood, you never knew it. When the microphone was on, his cylinders never misfired. And it was his favorite thing in the world to stand there for three hours and play the music he knew probably better than anyone else.”