Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Real Don Steele

The Real Don Steele was larger than life. For thirty years he ruled the Los Angeles airwaves, most notably on 93/KHJ “Boss Radio” in the 60’s and 70’s. Outrageous, electrifying, thrilling – that was Real on…and OFF the air.

Typically, after his afternoon show he would go to a Hollywood watering hole, Martoni’s and get plastered. Steele never did anything in moderation. One night Sinatra walked in with his fierce bodyguards and disappeared into a back room. Steele wanted to meet him. The others at his table told him it was a bad idea, Sinatra never liked intrusions, and he was in no condition to meet anybody. That didn’t stop Steele.

He marched into the back room where Sinatra was now eating, surrounded by his henchmen. Frank looked up and was startled. Steele stood before him and in his loudest booming voice began singing “Strangers in the Night”. Then, after one chorus, passed out face first in Sinatra’s pasta.

Talk to anyone who knew and loved him. They have a hundred of their own stories, each as good or better.

The Real Don Steele would have been 73 this week. There is a tribute website that features pictures, and a few samples of his work. If you want to hear the greatest cookin’ jock to ever crack a mic in the heyday of top 40, check him out.

Real also appeared in some highly prestigious films such as EATING RAOUL, DEATH RACE 2000 (starring Sylvester Stallone), ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, and Ron Howard’s first directing effort, GRAND THEFT AUTO. Television credits are equally as impressive: TALES FROM THE CRYPT and HERE COMES THE BRIDES.

I had the pleasure of working with him at two radio stations, K100 and TenQ in LA in the 70’s. He also fell off my couch stinking drunk one night and my wife still invited him to dinner again.

His catch phrase was “Tina Delgado is alive, ALIVE!” shouted by some unknown frenzied girl. No one ever knew the story behind it -- who Tina Degado was or how he came to use it. Even what the hell it meant. But it didn’t matter. It was all part of the excitement this larger-than-life personality created for “the magnificent megalopolis of Boss Angeles” three hours every day…and especially on “Fractious Fridays”.

His birthday was April 1st, I wish that maybe his passing is just an April’s Fool joke. That would be so like him. And at 3:00 I could turn on the radio, “Devil with a Blue Dress” by Mitch Ryder would come blazing out of my speaker and I would hear “The Real Don Steele is alive, ALIVE!”

He is in my heart. And always will be.

Thanks to Nancy Plum for the following montage from the first day of TenQ. In the bottom left photo that's me standing behind Steele.


Jeff said...

He was also this guy featured on a billboard in the movie GREMLINS. Note the style of the billboard, which happens to match another movie by Spielberg, who was the executive producer of GREMLINS.

And that's my contribution to the "Virtually Useless Movie Trivia" file.

Mike Bell said...

I never got to meet The Real Don Steele. I came close. Of course we all wanted to be The Real Don Steele then.

Back when I was a little baby DJ and programming a college station in Bakersfield, me and one of the KERN jocks, J.J. Jackson, went to a college radio seminar at UCLA. Two of the speakers that day were Boyd R. Britton (Who I'd end up working with years later at KROQ) and Dr. Demento. I struck up a conversation with Boyd outside after the seminar. While we were talking, Dr, Demento wandered up and joined in. The next thing I knew, Boyd had invited us over to the Ten Q studios to look around. We drove over to Western and went inside. Rich Brother Robin was on the air that day. The Production studio was still dressed out for Don Steele's bits in "Grand Theft Auto."

Rich told us that we'd just missed Steele. He'd come by to pick something up that he'd left at the station the day before. We'd missed him by minutes. By minutes! Damn!

It was still kind of mind blowing. Rich Bro, Boyd and Demento all hanging out with us that day in the studios of the hottest station in LA. For a kid just starting out in radio, it was a bit heady.

And to drive home what a small world radio is, my current GM was a sales dude there at the time as well.

Tina Delgado AND The Real Don Steele are still truly alive. ALIVE!

Anonymous said...

I miss the real Don alot.
I won a trinket from him on air at KHJ in the 60's.

For fans of that style of music and presentation I recomend the 60's channel on XM. They do a fine job with the frenetic imaging and babbling dj's of the day and of course the great songs.


Wayne said...

Was he an alcoholic till the end?

thomas tucker said...

I wonder what Sinatra said and did after that happened!

Brian Phillips said...

What a shame. When I lived in San Diego, I went to school at UCSD and had a courier job that took me to Los Angeles five days a week. The Real Don Steele was my drive-time buddy on KRLA. I can still hear him say, "Traffic alert! Traffic alert! Traffic alert! Rhonda, Rhonda, Rhonda!"

I also remember an ad that he read for "Akai Electronics" which he turned into a mad Karate kiai, "Akai!!"

I will miss him.

WV: Rockint - contraction for someone who isn't a flying squirrel.

I'd rather not, but Brian Philllips said...

OK, so I didn't know he had passed twelve years ago. Oops and sorry, but I still miss him.

Anonymous said...

Boy, do I miss radio.

Jon J said...

In the "good old days", working in radio was the most fun you could ever hope to have with your clothes on.

Anonymous said...

"He also fell off my couch stinking drunk one night and my wife still invited him to dinner again."

Now THAT'S a compliment.

Verifier: Perlyars - pirates' teeth.

UncleWalty said...

you should write a screenplay about Don Steele. He sounds like a fascinating guy.

WV: monor-the kissing disease for kids

Mike Bell said...

Ken, as you know Don Steele could talk up any song ever recorded and never step on the vocal.

A friend of mine at KHJ told me a story about when the switch was made from playing records to playing music on tape cartridges.

As a joke, the engineers extended the intro on one of Steele's trademark kickoff songs from about a ten second intro to about a minute.

Without ANY misstep, Steele talked the entire thing up and didn't step on the vocal.

Michael Hagerty said...

The story is right, the details aren't. KHJ played vinyl until well after Steele's departure in 1973.
The prank was on Real's birthday (April Fool's Day) at K-Earth in the 90s...and you can hear it by following the link Ken provides and listening to the excellent tribute to Steele there. It is a classic!

Mike Bell said...


Thank you for the clarification. The details get a little cloudy through the years. Too many years of runnin' my headphones WAY too loud.

Michael Hagerty said...

You and me both, Mike!

Andrew said...

Grand Theft Auto was just on TCM, and The Real Don Steele was right in the middle of it! Thanks for the tribute, Ken.

Michael Hagerty said...

Not that I imagine anyone is still following the thread 7 months later...but in the interests of internet accuracy....

The photo montage is mis-dated by a year...Ten Q's debut was December 26, 1976...not 1977.

Want proof? Go listen to the huge number of Ten Q Real Don Steele airchecks from early 1977 on

ahenryg said...

I worked at KHJ TV in the 1970's and knew Don Steele, he however only knew me when he had been drinking, which was pretty much all the time. He was so focused on his work though that I never heard him sler his words. He was otherwise completely professional. I'll never forget the morning I came back late for a staff meeting and ran into the mens room. Don was there and asked "Why the rush"? I explained and he said "You wash your hands and I'll comb your hair". It's the kind of guy he was. "REAL" neat to know. I'll never forget him, on or off the air.

Art Stevens said...

It's a real shame that an outstanding talent such as Don, has not yet been inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. Does anyone know if this can be organized?
Art Stevens

Rhonda S. said...

I grew up in Orange County in the early 70's and can still hear "Tina Delgado is alive, Alive!" There was also a "jingle" that had the lyrics "jake the snake and the real don steele..." Does anyone remember this? Who was it?

Rhonda S. said...

I grew up in Orange County in the early 70's and will forever remember "Tina Delgado is alive, Alive!". There was also a "jingle" that included "...jake the snake and the real don steele..." Do you know who did this? Would love to hear it again.