The Story of King Biscuit Flower Hour’s Debut
Rock radio entered a new era on Feb. 18, 1973, when the King Biscuit Flower Hour debuted on FM stations across the U.S. The innovative Sunday night series featured recorded concerts and interviews with rock's biggest stars. King Biscuit would expand its reach to more than 300 stations before it ceased weekly production of new shows in 1993. Reruns continued until 2007.
The list of rock royalty that appeared includes the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, Steve Miller, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Band. Disc jockey Bill Minkin, the show's first host, remained with King Biscuit until the mid-'90s. Minkin dreamed up the show's title, a play on King Biscuit Time, a long-running blues radio show sponsored by King Biscuit Flour.
Minkin was also an actor, appearing in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. And as "Senator Bobby," Minkin's impression of Sen. Robert Kennedy singing "Wild Thing" became a Top 20 hit in 1967. Minkin was a disc jockey at New York's WABC-FM (later changed to WPLJ) when the station broadcast an Elton John show live on Nov. 17, 1970. Response to that groundbreaking concert, later released as the album 11-17-70, proved that fans were hungry to hear live performances on radio. (These days, a selection of King Biscuit shows are available for online streaming, purchase and download from King Biscuit Records.)
In an exclusive interview, Minkin tells Ultimate Classic Rock that the King Biscuit Flower Hour debuted in an era of tightly programmed radio playlists that made it difficult to break new artists.
What was the state of FM radio in 1973?
I was on WPLJ in New York. It was literally free-form radio, as close as you can get it. We had commercials, but we more or less played what we wanted to play. There were very few live recordings at that time. It was a big thing to have a live album in those days. Then FM went from free-form to very formatted radio. They'd actually give you a list of songs to play, breaks and when to do the commercials. And I stayed for quite a while with that. What happened to radio then happened to music. The corporate mind said, "Wow, this is a golden calf here, a chicken that will lay golden eggs for us. So we'll tell them what to do and we'll just cash in."
So radio was set in its ways by time we came on there in the beginning of '73. It was very popular, but it was controlled. You couldn't break artists so easily anymore.
How was the King Biscuit show conceived?
[Producers] Bob Meyrowitz and Peter Kauff came to me. They wanted to do a rock radio show with interviews. I had just come off PLJ. I had just quit. I got to the point where it was getting stifling. I couldn't deal with it. So it was just serendipity. Bob Meyrowitz I had known as a fraternity brother at Syracuse University. He had been a time salesman at NBC and had this idea to have concerts and interviews.
How was the first show put together?
The first King Biscuit show was Bruce Springsteen at Max's Kansas City. Columbia Records was one of the sponsors of the first shows, along with Pioneer High Fidelity and Scotch recording tape. Columbia begged us to just go down and listen to him because they were promoting Blood, Sweat & Tears. Columbia said, "Look, we got Blood, Sweat & Tears," who had three monster hits at that time, "and Mahavishnu Orchestra," because they were a brand new act and because John McLaughlin was with a lot of famous groups, Miles Davis, he was well known. Mahavishnu Orchestra was so far out to put on an FM rock station because it was neither rock nor jazz, it was a whole other thing. Talk about being stoned, they were on another planet.
Whereas Bruce was just a new guy. They really didn't know much about him. It was really underground and so they just threw that in. Pioneer promoted these listening parties in these electronics stores where you can get a thousand kids listening to a radio show for an hour. They'd bring in pizza, the kids would get loaded and they'd sit and listen. It sold a lot of stereos. They were part of the show, they sponsored the show and the music and the musicians brought them more notoriety.
As the show became popular, did the record companies still have influence on the bands that you featured?
No. Actually the reverse happened. They were trying to give us these groups in the beginning and many times they would have to because we couldn't come up with an Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Rod Stewart or the Stones every week. We were part of that whole music business machine. That's what it is. One hand scratched the other's back, so to speak, because we needed acts. It wasn't just Columbia acts. All the record companies, when they saw the numbers we were putting up and the reaction and the artists who were making live albums out of our show, then everybody wanted to get on our show.
I actually walked off the show in the second year. There were two shows with Wishbone Ash and Black Oak Arkansas. And the following week it was going to be James Taylor – at his height. We were coming off the Who and ELP and all these huge shows, but we ran out of acts and that's what we could get. So I said, "I'm not doing the show." And they called me back to the studio and said, "Is it a money issue?" I said, "I know you're not going to believe this, but I don't want to put my name on shows with those two acts, they're terrible. I had to play them on PLJ, and fans would call me and tell me, 'Take them off the air!'" And the following week they had somebody else do James Taylor, and then I came to my senses.
What were some of the most memorable shows?
The Who and the Stones stand out because of the magnitude of the events. It's hard to understand since we've seen so many live versions of the Stones and the Who, but at that time there wasn't anything like that. You couldn't see a whole Who show or a whole Stones show on television. And you couldn't hear a whole concert because nobody recorded it. They didn't have any live albums. Lynyrd Skynyrd were like the American Rolling Stones. They were a combination of the Stones and the Who. These guys were hard core. Nobody – nobody – since or before then were as insane as Lynyrd Skynyrd. They trashed everything, not just hotels. I remember they were at Nathan's someplace in the center of New York, and they just trashed it. They were supposed to publicize their album and they just creamed it.
To go out on the road with Stevie Wonder or a couple of the Allman Brothers gigs, the Who or backstage at a Stones concert, all of these kinds of things were unique experiences that I would not have had without the show.
Why did King Biscuit end?
The show evolved. There was a point in the late '80s, early '90s, where Kauff and Meyrowitz tried to expand it with new groups, and they weren't getting any cooperation from the radio stations and they kept getting demands to do the same old shows over and over again. That's what I think gave birth to New Wave and punk. You could not get new groups, especially New Wave stuff, on FM radio.
The other problem is economics. I think they weren't bringing in as much money as they used to. And they didn't go out and try to have newer versions of some of those old big groups. Because they were still touring. One of the things I think is criminal in the classic rock stations all around the country is there are guys that we know, like Springsteen and Neil Young and Elton John, who are bringing out new stuff and you just don't hear it, even on rock radio.
These great artists are getting old and they have great stories. I'd love to talk with these guys, either by phone or in the studio. An interesting twist on a new King Biscuit would be talking to some of the people that I met in those years and reflect on not only the King Biscuit shows but what they're doing now.
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