On this day in history : 25th October 2004 – The world of radio and music is left shocked and in mourning following the sudden death of DJ, record producer and journalist John Peel….
Revered in the broadcasting and music industry John had been the longest serving of the original Radio disc jockeys…. He had died at the age of 65 of a heart attack with his wife, Sheila, at his side, while on a working holiday in Cuzco, Peru…. The death of this broadcasting legend was to hit so many, not least those at Radio 1, the BBC station to which he had devoted so much of his working life….
John Robert Parker Ravenscroft was born on the 30th of August 1939 in a nursing home on the Wirral, Liverpool and he grew up in the Cheshire village of Burton…. His father was a successful cotton merchant; John had a middle-classed upbringing and attended boarding school….
From an early age he loved to listen to the radio, the likes of Radio Luxembourg and American Forces Radio; he was also an avid collector of records…. He completed his National Service in 1959, then worked in a Rochdale mill for a while before travelling to the United States in 1960, where he had a variety of jobs…. One of these was at ‘KLIF’ – a Dallas radio station – being a ‘fellow’ Liverpudlian he became their official Beatles correspondent…. It was also during this time in the States that John got married for the first time; although his wife returned to England with him it was to be a short-lived marriage, ending in divorce….
John returned to the UK in 1967 and began to work for the pirate radio station Radio London…. He hosted a late night programme that became called The Perfumed Garden – playing music emerging from the hippie scene of California, blues, folk and psychedelic rock…. He adopted the name ‘John Peel’ at the suggestion of a work colleague at the station – and his distinctive radio voice began to become recognisable to many – as it would to so many more over the years to come….
Radio London closed on the 14th of August 1967 and Radio 1, in an embryonic state, launched – with its first programme, hosted by Tony Blackburn, going out an air at 7am on Saturday the 30th of September 1967…. John’s first programme for the new station was called Top Gear…. The BBC were at a bit of a loss at how to sail such a modern ‘ship’…. They were still at the time airing a mixture of recorded music and live studio orchestra…. With Radio 1 being conceived through the popularity of stations such as Radio London and Radio Caroline they needed a few ‘pirates’ onboard to show them how it was done….
John was to go on to host Night Ride – a programme of words and music, featuring guests…. His personal friend Marc Bolan appeared on it, as did The Byrds, John Lennon and Yoko Ono – to name but a few…. After 18 months the show ended – the BBC still hadn’t quite caught up with how society was moving and the bosses did not approve of the unpredictability of a real-life show…. But John’s characteristic broadcasting style had been unleashed, with a formula of live music, chat and records that would stay with him….
Then along came punk…. The BBC boffins were keen to exclude any undesirable music genre – and punk in their eyes represented the most unpalatable of the unsavoury…. But with John’s keenness for new music they had voiced their concerns too late, as he had in fact been playing little else…. He was the saviour of many an unsigned act – helping to launch thousands of careers by giving them airplay…. He was the first to introduce The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Rod Stewart and Blur – the list is almost endless…. There are so many bands and artists we would never have heard of if it hadn’t been for John Peel….
He could often be seen presenting BBC One’s Top of the Pops – and he also broadcasted on the BBC’s World Service…. His independent overseas work included broadcasting in Holland, Germany, Austria and Finland….
On the 31st of August 1974 John married Sheila…. He had been working on a television show when he spotted her in the audience…. Feeling a little shy he had a note delivered to her; three years later they had bought a country home in Great Finborough near to Stowmarket, in Suffolk…. They went on to have four children, William, Danda, Tom and Flossie…. Tom now has his own radio shows on the BBC….
Suffolk was a good retreat for John – an escape from the busy city life of London…. He came to realise he did not care much for the hustle and bustle…. Becoming involved in his local community in Suffolk he began to run a youth group….
In 1998 John was awarded with an OBE for his services to broadcasting…. Although he was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 61 it looked as if the new approaching millennium was going to be rosy for him…. He was still at the top of his game and as popular as ever…. He had just become a grandad and after a trip to New Zealand had caught the travel bug…. He began doing some work for the Daily Telegraph as a musical travel writer….
And so it came to be that whilst on his travels he was to suffer a fatal heart attack…. Over a thousand people attended his funeral, tributes poured in from across the globe…. Radio had lost one of its heroes…. When his death was announced on Radio 1 it was followed by his favourite song, Teenage Kicks by the Undertones….