Russ “The Weird Beard” Knight
So my absence as of late has been driven by a great many things, but none of them are as imposing as the passing of my father, Russ “The Weird Beard” Knight.
Residents of Dallas and Houston might know the name–back in the early to mid-1960s, The Weird Beard was one of the cornerstones of radio, covering the 7:00pm to Midnight shift. He was a pretty famous guy back then, and he was all over the place while working at Dallas’s KLIF and Houston’s KILT (I always have to check to make sure I didn’t type KLIT). Older folks from the area might have had the opportunity to hear the Beard-Man work his mystical magic over the silver airwaves, cranking out hit after hit while speaking in his rapid-fire, all-too-groovy patter where just about everything he said rhymed. Being a popular gent that he was, Dad hung out with a whole slew of cool cats–I awoke one morning as a youngster to discover none other than Roy Orbison crashed out on our couch, for instance, and later in life I met Kenny Rogers and his elder brother, Leland, more than once (I never got to know Kenny very well, but Leland was great fun; just the same, both of them are recalled by me as kind, gentle men). He also hung out with some genuine crackpots, one of them being none other than Jack Ruby, and this association led to my Dad testifying before the Warren Commission. In the history of radio, Dad had one of the highest market shares ever recorded–62%, during his time at KLIF in Dallas.
I was very young during this time, but I remember that Dad would leave to go to work before I went to bed, and wouldn’t return until the dead of night. There were plenty of times when I would wake up and look for him, but rarely found him. I would miss him terribly during those times, and my mother would have her hands full trying to keep me from crying my head off. But eventually, Dad would come home and stop in and give me a kiss, and all would be well. (Had I been older, I’m sure I might have noticed he was more than slightly drunk from his many after-work social outings, but of course I was oblivious to a lot of those things.)
His crowning achievement, the one he was most proud of, was introducing The Beatles to Houston in 1965. You can find clips of Dad trying to control the crowd on YouTube, and it’s hilarious to listen to (“Settle down, now!” was something my brother and I heard often). For decades, he had a green steam trunk full of Beatles memorabilia that we lugged around from state to state–all the Fab Four’s autographs, candid photos, a pair of Ringo’s drum sticks, some bootleg recordings and unheard interviews. It was apparently stolen during a move in the late 1970s–I would suspect one of the movers opened the trunk, recognized what lay inside for the treasure it was, and boosted it.
Despite his real talent, Dad was a scattered sort. Like most performers, he reigned supreme doing what he did, but when the microphone was switched off, he was plagued by a remarkable lack of confidence. He decided in the late 1960s to go into management, seeking more power and control, which was a tragic mistake. Leaving the microphone behind didn’t give him–or the family–the stability he desired, and we moved more times than most folks in the military, as Dad was either being fired from one station or hired by another. I got to see a huge amount of the country, however: Texas, Colorado, Ohio (twice!), Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Connecticut, New York…some other places too, I just can’t remember them. When he finally made it WNEW in New York, he was at the top of the management game, but radio is a tumultuous business, and his tenure there was only three years: 1979-1982. After that, he fell from the pinnacle of his career and stayed in smaller markets, save for his association with Perry Como and the syndicated radio show they started in the 1990s. (I did get to meet many radio luminaries, such as Don Imus when he worked at WHK in Cleveland, which my Dad ran–again, twice. Also some of the NYC radio greats: William B. Williams, Jonathan Schwartz, and Jim Lowe, who was a real sweetheart of a guy. Also Tom Shannon in Denver, and WNEW’s General Manager, Jack Thayer, who was one smart man.)
Dad fell ill a few months ago, and while his health was certainly taking a turn for the worse, his death happened within days. But when he died, I was holding his hand and looking right at him when he passed away. I have no idea if he was aware of my presence, but I think that part of the deal was as good as it could get. I was there, as was my brother, along with my stepmother and one of my stepbrothers. My mother was in Texas, and there just wasn’t enough time to bring her up.
He died at a little past 8:30pm on Friday, October 12, 2012.
So now, I’m moving on…getting back to life, getting back to writing, repairing fences and having trees cut down before the next hurricane moves in. Things are getting back to normal, and I’ll be heading to Texas next week for Thanksgiving. Life continues.
But when the night is deep and black, I lie in my bed staring at the darkened ceiling…and once again, I’m a little boy who misses his daddy.