The Story of TV's Lloyd Thaxton—In His Own Words
My interview with the "Pied Piper of '60s Rock."
During the 1960s, THE LLOYD THAXTON SHOW was the favorite TV spot for millions of teens and preteens throughout the United States. From the Monkees to the "Mashed Potato," Lloyd gave the kids an awesome mix of dance, special musical guest stars—and the great Thaxton humor. When the show left the air, he went on to produce Fight Back! with David Horowitz, over 200 segments of the Today Show, gain five Emmys, and cowrite the popular book, STUFF HAPPENS—And Then You Fix It! Just prior to his passing, he was producing a new DVD chronicling his famous teen show. I caught up with Lloyd in May of 2007 and he graciously consented to this interview:
Chuck Hinson: Lloyd, thanks for taking time out for this interview. You've got a lot of fans throughout the country, both of your teen show and of your book, Stuff Happens. First, give us a little background on the real Lloyd Thaxton.
Lloyd Thaxton: Well, my dad was born in Kentucky. I don't know where in Kentucky. I do know that it was on a farm and my dad had to leave school in the eighth grade to work the farm.
A self-educated man, he became the wisest person I have ever known. He was a newspaperman working at the Memphis Press-Scimitar when he met and married my mom. When I was only 18 (months, that is), they dragged me screaming off to Toledo, Ohio. Destination: The Toledo Blade. Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths. I was born with black ink in my nose. I think it was during that trip that I originated the phrase, "Are we there yet?"
So that's Ohio and Kentucky. Don't know of any family in West Virginia, but two out of three ain't bad.
The Lloyd Thaxton Show debuted, nationally, in 1964—and it was a hit with kids all across America. How and when did you get the idea for a teen show?
How one gets from one stage of their career to another is a long story, so I'll jump from 1950, when I started staff announcing at WSPD-TV in Toledo, to my 1959 staff announcing job at KCOP Hollywood. KCOP was developing an ongoing promotion contest that would allow all kinds of small businesses to actually get an ad on TV. With their participation in the promotion, each business was given a 15 second commercial on KCOP. In order to fulfill this obligation, KCOP had to come up with a program that could accommodate all these new commercials. At first they considered a morning show that would consist of nothing BUT commercials. KCOP's reasoning was that no one was watching the station in the morning anyway.
That is, no one but the FCC, with all their pesky little rules (like, you've got to have at least SOME programming). After much determined research, they found out that they could get around this little inconvenience by placing at least three minutes of actual programming between each two minute commercial break. The hardest question now for the station to solve was to find a program that could be broken up in three minute segments and still make sense. One lead genius in the programming department came up with the bright realization that records were all about three minutes long. "Let's get Lloyd to do a show. He used to be a disk jockey. Let him play three minute records."
A format was born: I would play a three minute record, then read two minutes of commercials. Then I play another tree minute record followed by another reading of two minutes of commercials. This would continue throughout the live program, one hour a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. I tried to run and hide, but one of the duties of a staff announcer is to do what ever you are told to do and I was told to do The Lloyd Thaxton Record Shop. What they couldn't do, however, was tell me what to do while the record was playing? (Program Director: "Lloyd, I told you no one would be watching").
And that's when the real Lloyd Thaxton stood up to the challenge. I began to create live music videos. I lip-synced records, I cut out album covers and stuck my lips in place of the artists lips, I created the singing finger-people and learned to fake the piano, the organ, the guitar, and my beat-up trumpet and trombone. I made it work. I also interviewed some great Musical guests. Anyone who was plugging a record or album jumped at the chance for the exposure. They talked, I faked their records. I did this show for three years and guess what? The ratings actually started to move up!
People were watching after all. One of them was Jerry Lewis. He became a regular guest and one of the reasons for my growing audience. After two years of Record Shop, an afternoon slot opened up and I pitched The Lloyd Thaxton Show. I told the powers that be that I would do exactly what I was doing on the Record Shop but I would be surrounded by teens. I would have them join me in doing the lip-syncs, the playing of instruments, etc., and they would add a dance element to the mix.
The combination worked. In the first year the ratings became gigantic, and in 1964 The Lloyd Thaxton Show was picked up for syndication. I was now nationwide. Between The Lloyd Thaxton Record SHOP and The Lloyd Thaxton SHOW, I did eight years. Throughout the changeover in 1961, I was doing both shows at the same time. Seven days of "Shop" in the morning and week-ends, and five afternoons of "Show" at five o'clock. Twelve one hour shows a week for the first year. When it all ended in 1967, I had done a grand total of over 2900 shows. It was a great run.
In your opinion, are there positive similarities between today's teens and the kids of the mid 1960s? If so, what would they be?
One of the most positive similarities is that the teens of today and the teens of 1960 shared one thing for sure; they were all between the ages of 13 and 20! Seriously, the teen-age years has always been a wonderful and fun time of life. I've had a chance to talk to a lot of teens today and have found they haven't changed that much. Some good, some bad. Same for the 60s; some good, some bad. Truth be known, I would rather do a show with teens than adults any time. Once you earn their respect, you are home free. It was the teen-agers who were on my show that made it the wonderful show it was. They were terrific. I loved every one of them.
Now, after the show ended, you went on to host other shows, and produced over 200 segments for the Today Show. That NBC show is number one among morning shows, and is watched faithfully by millions of viewers. What were some of your favorite segments, and how long does it take to get one of those from the drawing board to air-able product?
The Today Show represented some of my most favorite TV years. I was producing and directing Fight Back! with David Horowitz at NBC in Burbank. It started out local and small but, similar to my experience with The Lloyd Thaxton Show, it grew into a top rated hit, was syndicated, and lasted 18 years.
One of the reasons for our popularity was what we called "The Commercial Challenge." We did everything from dropping 10-ton wrecking balls on Timex watches to throwing Hefty trash bags out of helicopters. These bits were zany and off the wall (yes, we also bounced products off walls), and so exciting to do. Fight Back! delivered a powerful message.
The Today Show producers caught our drift and we were contracted to do a regular one day a week spot. These features were shot all over the country and produced and edited in Burbank. David and I flew to New York every five weeks. We presented one feature live and taped lead-ins and lead-outs with either Bryant Gumbel or Jane Pauley, and ran the other four spots on tape. Five weeks later we came back with another batch. We did this for five years. I loved it.
You also co-wrote a very successful book called STUFF HAPPENS—And Then You Fix It! with John Alston. Give us a little background on the compilation of that book, and why you and John chose that particular subject.
I met John after someone pitched one of his presentation tapes to me for a possible TV show. The show didn't happen, but John and I struck up a wonderful friendship. In our conversations we found that, though John grew up in mostly Black South Central LA, and I grew up in the WASP capital of the world, Toledo, Ohio, we had so much in common. We each had similar ups and downs throughout our careers, but somehow had always ended on the "up" side. We talked many times about what we had done right. One day I said to John, "Let's write it down." That became the basis for Stuff Happens And Then You Fix It. The message: It's not what happens to you that's important, it's how you respond to what happens. It's been a wonderful experience for both of us. John is a fantastic speaker and very successful at his trade.
Lloyd, if you could pick three specific moments in your television and broadcasting career that stand out as the most memorable, what would they be?
That's a tough one. All the moments are memorable. I have been blessed. I have always been happy with my work and it has given me so much enjoyment. Life is good.
I guess I would have to say that one of the most memorable moments in my life was when I was offered my first job out of college. It was as staff Announcer at WSPD-TV right in my own home town. It was a dream come true. Here was a station that I had been listening to all my life and I was actually WORKING THERE!
Number two big moment was the first time I went to New York City after my show went into syndication. Someone on the street came up and asked me for an autograph. It was thrilling to realize that my show was now on in New York City. Wow! BIG time!
But, I have to say that the best moment of my life was when I heard my mother introducing me to some one as "This is my son, Lloyd Thaxton."
Note, she didn't say, "This is my son, Lloyd." It was "This is my son, Lloyd THAXTON!" I was so excited and happy that I was able to make my mother that proud of me. To her, I was really somebody. I WAS A CONTENDER!
Lloyd, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. You've accomplished so much, and brought so many smiles and good vibrations to people, during your career. It's been a total pleasure talking with you.
Thank YOU ... it was MY pleasure!
TO THE READERS: Let's do a little clarification here: Uncle Lloyd entered the game as a "contender" (as anybody in the entertainment business does) ...but he left it as a true, 100 percent, American-made, dyed-in-the-wool WINNER!!
With his inspiration, we saw scores of local teen shows like Charlotte, NC's Kilgo's Kanteen emerge; various acts (some just emerging) become major "contenders" for the gold (record) due in part to their appearances on his show; thousands more feel better about (and improve) themselves through his (and Alston's) book Stuff Happens. Thanks, in part, to his creativity, we've seen the growing popularity of something called the music video. That's not including everyone who was taught a little about consumer items through his Fight Back! vignettes, or those whose knowledge was enriched by his Today Show segments!
So there you have it—the story of rock-and-roll's "Pied Piper Man": a musical elf-in-a-business-suit with lofty dreams and a never-say-die attitude that made them all come true; a devoted husband and father, DJ, broadcaster, comic, producer, writer and speaker who never let "fame" go to his head. Instead, he invested all his good fortune in his fans—and, most of all, his lovely wife Barbara and children.
When he left us on Sunday, October 5, 2008, the entertainment world mourned—but nowhere nearly as strongly as did millions of fans around this country. We realized that, in a world where people are busier fighting than talking things out—where pride takes the place of humility—where humor has been drowned out with serious, often too gloomy, reports, we needed Lloyd Thaxton. And today we certainly need more people of his character—both in the media and in everyday life.