When I heard that Pete Fornatale died, I did not just think that another page had turned; it felt more like an era had really passed away. Pete died on April 26, 2012, at age 66 from a brain hemorrhage after a week in intensive care at Beth Israel Medical Center here in New York. It is not just a sad day for this city but for the country and all fans of rock and roll music.
Pete had been involved in radio since his college days at Fordham University on WFUV, and then he moved on to WNEW-FM in 1970, where his legendary status would begin. He would become one of those deejays known as a “pioneer” by fans and musicians alike, for he took the concept of radio differently than the popular jocks of the day, those with a Top 40 mentality that dominated the city’s airwaves.
As a kid I remember having to live with the Harry Harrison and Cousin Brucie type jocks who spun records (all 45s) on AM radio. In those days we all listened to WABC here in New York City and heard the same songs over again and again, and the format included the insufferable “Instant Replay” that could mean you heard Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” five or more times within an hour. Now, that was a great song, but enough was really enough.
Along came Fornatale with the idea of playing records the way I listened to them at home, meaning playing the whole side of an album (or sometimes the whole thing) without commercial interruption. To this young rock music fan this was heaven for sure, since my allowance was small and I had a trusty tape recorder. I can still remember taping Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Beatles, and my other favorites this way. Despite the static and the sometimes bouncing microphone (because I couldn’t sit still with that music going), I loved those tapes and wish I still had them now.
While many jocks talked over the end of songs, Pete let the music take its sweet time. As a great song like Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” ended, he would be like us at home, letting the needle go out of the groove after the last note and then spoke reverently afterwards. It was like being in the cathedral of rock and roll with Pete being the high priest, and I loved every one of his services and then some.
Over the years I continued listening to Pete, even as he bounced around from WNEW to WXRK and then back to WNEW for a time. He finally returned to where he started at WFUV, and all the while he continued to be the voice that soothed, played the records that mattered to him and us, and seemed to be a pioneer long after the frontier had been conquered.
One of his legacies was his show Mixed Bag, which really stood out as a definitive aspect of his career in its simplicity. Listening to songs the way we did, he “mixed” up genres and artists so that in one show The Beach Boys, Journey, Bob Marley, and Eric Clapton might all be heard one after the other. This probably defines Pete best because, in essence, his greatest accomplishment was understanding his fans and what they wanted, and he was able to do this because he was the ultimate fan of rock music.
Besides his radio work, Pete was a respected rock historian and writer of many books about Woodstock, Simon and Garfunkel and other artists, and the history of rock music. At the time of his death he was writing a book about The Rolling Stones. Pete was also the co-founder (along with the late singer Harry Chapin) of World Hunger Year, an organization that works toward ending hunger and poverty. He remained active in that organziation up until the end of his life.
Pete made an indelible impression on this young music fan and so many other listeners, and for more than forty years his name was synonymous with rock and roll, and I thought of him as just as much of a legend as those artists he loved. The sound of his unique voice may have been silenced, but its memory echoes across time and space. He will be greatly missed and remembered as the guy who changed things on FM radio here in New York forever.
Rest in peace, Pete Fornatale.
Photo Credit: wfuv.org