Norman Davis: Back to the Blues in Boise
“Legendary” is hardly a sufficient a word to describe Norman Davis and his amazing radio career. For the sake of space, I have not included every station from his over 60 years in radio. Please go to his Radio Thrills site to see more, including audio clips and photos from many of the stations. The most amazing thing is Norman is still on the air and still passionate about music and radio.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio and what other stations have you worked at?
Norman Davis: I started in radio in 1954 at KGEM in Boise, Idaho. I was taking a class in broadcasting at Boise Junior College (now Boise State University) and this was before colleges had their own radio stations. The instructor asked me and a friend to try to find a local station where we could get an hour of time for a college show. KGEM agreed and gave us a Saturday afternoon hour. The PD was stuck with a board shift on Saturdays, which he hated, so he taught me how to run the board and I ended up doing his shift (for no pay, of course). My first paying job was at KSEI in Pocatello, Idaho, an NBC affiliate. I worked the evening shift and did the usual announcer chores: station breaks, network feeds, and occasionally announcing on live local music shows. After a year or so I drove up to Spokane, WA, and got an announcer job, doing a record show in the afternoon. I had been to San Francisco as a teenager and wanted to go there, so after two winters in Spokane, and getting married with a baby on the way, we headed south to the Bay Area. I got a job doing weekends at KOBY, which was the first Top 40 station in San Francisco, and picked up some good ratings as a result until they got competition. Then I landed at KYA, also in San Francisco, from 1959 to 1965. It was a Top 40 union station and I became one of the five staff members they couldn’t fire so with subsequent owner changes, I was still there, but they took me off a very successful dedication show in the evening and put me in the newsroom, where I stayed until I got a job at KLZ in Denver. After two years there, I moved farther east to KCMO in Kansas City, then after growing long hair and adapting a hippie lifestyle I got fired and headed back to San Francisco, where I got a weekend gig at KSFO.
Then I was offered a job at an “underground” FM in Eugene, Oregon, so I took my family up there for a couple of years to KZEL and met Thom O’Hair there, who left to become PD at KSAN in San Francisco and brought me along a few months later. The KSAN gig lasted six years and it was fun, complete freedom to do whatever I wanted, a great liberating experience.
When Tom Donahue died and KSAN management decided to institute some “controls” over the music, I refused and was canned. KSJO in San Jose contacted me right away and offered me a position as “creative director” with limited air time. After KSJO I went to KKSN in Portland, which started as a really good format but disintegrated quickly. I returned to the Bay Area and got a job as operations manager at KTIM-AM in San Rafael, where I put together a big band and jazz format and hired Bobby Dale, who was another Bay Area radio legend, as a DJ.
Next serious job was KKCY “The City,” in San Francisco. It was an attempt to recreate KSAN, which did quite well for a time but the owner was forced to sell it to Jim Gabbert, who promised to keep the eclectic format but after a few months renamed it KOFY and it went to soft AC rock and four of us DJs were forced to resign.
I left the Bay Area in 1989 for a promised job at a new station in Grants Pass, Oregon, which turned out to be not what was advertised. I spent a year there and did some work for Bill Scott, who was programming a hard rock station KBOY in Medford. Went back to Boise to help my elderly parents in 1991 and spent three years there, producing a couple of blues shows on local stations and helping found the Boise Blues Society. I got a job as a blues DJ at KLON in Long Beach for a little over a year, which was long enough to verify my opinion of Southern California. I then went back to Boise, more local blues shows, split for Portland in 1994, got a slot at KBOO for a midnight blues show, “Midnight Flyer,” which I started syndicating with Felton Pruitt’s help and am still producing today. I moved to Florida in 1997, to Salt Lake City in 1999, then Taos, New Mexico, in 2001 and back to Boise in 2014 where I landed a blues host slot on KRBX, “Radio Boise,” a community radio station.
Where do you work now and how do you describe your show?
I host “The Juke Joint” Mondays at 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on KRBX, also streamed and podcast on the station’s website. The show features blues from the early 1900s to the present. All blues styles are covered and I do some history as well. I got wholly into the blues around 1990 when I was up in Grants Pass and Bill Scott had taken over the PD job at KBOY and was running a hard rock format. He was stuck with a jazz show on Sunday morning that didn’t fit the new format and he asked me if I could do a blues show instead. That’s where it started. But rock and roll is just one of the blues’ babies and I play a lot of old rock bands’ recordings of blues.
How do you prepare for your shows and do you have theme shows?
I spend 3 or 4 days working on each show, I check for blues birthdays or holidays to commemorate, and I sometimes use news as themes. I play an eclectic mix of blues of all kinds.
How much new releases and independent artists do you play?
I get a lot of new releases so I try to give them a shot at least once if they’re good, more if they’re killer. I play lots of old classics and artists, lots of independent artists, anything that sounds good to me.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I don’t remember, I was drawn to Ray Charles early and got into Chuck Berry and Louis Jordan, and then later Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James …
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
My favorite blues artists are Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, and T-Bone Walker. I’m very fond of female singers and love Etta, Bonnie Raitt, Esther Phillips, Bonnie Bramlett, Kathi McDonald, Odetta, and many more.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Guy King, an exceptionally good guitarist and singer originally from Israel, now based in Chicago. His album Truth was my favorite album last year. I’m also fond of Ana Popovic, killer guitar and sensual vocals, also recently very impressed with a Detroit singer named Thornetta Davis. Her album Honest Woman is my best of this year so far.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
I like to grow things in my garden.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
I will write a book on this some day.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
How do you want to be remembered?
As a hick from Idaho who developed a very good ear for great music and had a hell of a time playing radio.