One of the Final Unpublished Interviews With Shock TV Pioneer MORTON DOWNEY, JR.
By Gary James Review East Coast Correspondent
Back on February 22, 1999 we had the opportunity to speak with Morton Downey, Jr. about his career, his health, some of the people he knew over the years, and his time as a disc jockey in Syracuse.
This is the first time this interview has been published anywhere.
Review: Okay, Mort, let's go way back to the early 1960s. You worked for a radio station here in Syracuse called WNDR and announced yourself as Sean Morton Downey, Jr.
Downey: Wow! And I worked for a guy named Dandy Dan Leonard. And I took the job because I had a record out at the time called Ballad of Billy Brown on Cadence Records. It was in the top ten. I figured that's the only hit I'll ever have. I might as well get a job as a disc jockey. I'll find a station that's playing the record. (laughs).
Review: Besides yourself, who else was at Cadence? Downey: Andy Williams, Julius La Rosa, The Everly Brothers, but Archie Bleyer (owner of Cadence Records) was teed off because I was going with his daughter. He didn't want any entertainers going with his daughter. He was smart.
Review: How long did you work for WNDR? Downey: God, it couldn't have been more than six months. In those days you worked your way up through the markets. I worked for 17 rock 'n roll stations. I started off in Batavia, New York, went to El Paso then to Dayton then to Cincinnati, Syracuse, Boston, you name it. Then all of a sudden in 1964 I said, 'Wait a minute. I don't want to be in this business'. I think I went to law school and I quit.
Review: Do you realize it's taken me 11 years to reach you? Can you believe it? Downey: To get a hold of me? Oh man
Review: I read in People Magazine that you were on the Committee for Teenage Tobacco Use - the President's Committee. Downey: Yeah, I head that committee.
Review: When I called the White House they told me they never heard of it. Downey: That's interesting. The one that set that up for me was Larry King. I came into Washington and was in the Rose Garden and everyone's going, "What, are you crazy? Morton Downey in the Rose Garden with Clinton? It's interesting how you change when you get a death dealing illness.
Review: And how is your health today? Downey: Thank God, it's fine. As of two weeks ago I was still what they call cancer clear. Let's pray it stays that way. How stupid I was to smoke those damn cigarettes.
Review: What would you have said to me 10 years ago if I had said, "Mort, I like your show, but give up the cigarettes?' Downey: I would have said, "What's the matter with you pal? They're OK. What are you talking about? You're not old enough to know when they said more doctors smoke Camels than any other brand. I'd walk a mile for a Camel. Lucky Strike Red has gone to war. What's the matter with you? They're patriotic!'
Review: Wasn't Howard Stern taking bets on when you would pass away? Downey: Yeah. His bet was I would die on the operating table. He doesn't dislike me. It was just his way of thinking he was being clever. And then I got clever back and wrote a rap song with Def Jeff and sent it to him. I said, "Here's what I think of you.'
Review: Do you listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio? Downey: If you read Rush Limbaugh's book, you'll see that he replaced me in Sacramento, California when I left there. That was his first job. I recommended him because I heard his voice and knew what his politics were. Then thereafter, when he became famous and I became infamous, it became difficult for him to admit that I had given him his first job.
Review: Do you think you paved the way for someone like that? Downey: Someone paves the way for someone all the time. While I guess I did pave the way for that type of thing, along with confrontational talk shows and interviews, someone else comes along and always modifies it. You know, I get credit for the Springer Show all the time, but I no more would do a show like that. I'd pop you right in the mouth if you came at me like that. You can't have a fight every night and not have an injury. I had about four fights on my show and there were four or five injuries.
Review: Do you still use that phrase pabulum-puking liberals and what does it mean? Downey: Yeah, I do. Pabulum puking meant that you fed pabulum to babies. Unfortunately, babies chew it all up and think its great and then spit it right back in your face and you feed it all over again to 'em. That's why I used to call 'em pabulum pukers. They'd swallow anything.
Review: What was your involvement with the song 'Wipeout'. Did you write it? Downey: No. I always get credit for that. I always try to remind everybody that back in those days if you were there when the thing was done, you'd get credit. We were recording in a garage and I know it says Downey on the damn label, but I can't remember if I got credit for writing or producing it. We spread the credit around to all of us. I still do it to this day for friends of mine that I write with.
Review: You also worked in the campaigns of John and Robert Kennedy. Downey: Yes, I sure did. For Robert Kennedy I was his Campaign Transportation Secretary. I was the flunky who made all the travel arrangements.
Review: And what did you do for John? Downey: I basically put the campaign together for John in Texas. I worked Texas for him because it was Lyndon Johnson's state and he didn't want to go there and cause trouble, so I worked with Senator Ralph Yarborough and became the front guy.
Review: So when we hear these stories about the Kennedy private lives, can we say that 99 percent is exaggerated? Downey: No, 99 percent is true. But that doesn't make them less than human beings. It does not distinguish someone who can lead and someone who can't - someone who can govern and someone wwho can't govern.
Review: You didn't think of John & Robert Kennedy as pabulum-puking liberals did you? Downey: No. In my day those guys were looked as being much more conservative. They're held up in great reverence in the Black communities, but I can remember Jack saying when they started turning him around down South and sending him back up to Hyannis, "Yeah, sure. Now at least we can get responsible and reasonable maid service." So there you go. With guys that the history books write the story on, he who writes it first writes the truth.
Review: You worked a long time to get to the top. What did you think success would be like? Downey: I always thought I helped a lot of people with that show. I didn't do a show where I brought trailer park poor folks on to prove that one of them had been sleeping with someone's pet dog or something. I didn't do the stuff they accuse me of teaching Jerry Springer to do. I did politicians, bankers, and businessmen who had screwed the little guy and I'd go right after 'em. I didn't make a log of friends. But frankly, I didn't give a damn cause I was exposing people like Lyndon LaRouche for what they were doing to the little guy.
Review: After the show became syndicated something was lost. Downey: Yeah, too many controls. Too much 'C'mon, you gotta get angrier at this point. You gotta do this.' They'd come to the commercial breaks and I'd go behind the se t and they'd pop ampules up my nose. Get out there. Kick ass. Well, I never made the show up. So all of a sudden I had to look for places to kick ass to make them happy. It was not becoming contrived. And I always swore to the audience if it ever becomes more than fifty percent contrived, I'd quit.
Review: How is it that MCA ripped you off for royalties and merchandising? Did you have a lawyer look at the contract? Downey: No, I didn't. And you know what? It's something that's in the past and if I keep looking around at those things, if I keep looking behind me at stuff like that, I'll sure as hell trip over something that's in front of me that I'm not looking at.