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Washington's Wolfman Jack

Adam Bernstein

Don Dillard, who died May 28 at 74, operated a 250 watt station in Wheaton that was a force in bringing rock music to a local radio audience weary of Doris Day, Percy Faith and Eddie Fisher. Dillard's obit is here.

Dillard was a powerhouse in the late 1950s and early 1960s, along with TV dance show host Milt Grant, in introducing early rock bands to the local scene. Moreover, Dillard hosted "sock hop" dances at the Silver Spring Armory, Glen Echo park and other locations to promote the music.

What I found most intriguing was a comment by Joe Lee, who grew up in the area and ran a record shop in Rockville. He said many other DJs were told not to play "too much" rock music in the late 1950s, for fear of alienating the widest possible audience. Dillard did what he damn well pleased because his father owned the station. It was called WDON, in his son's honor.

Actor, lawyer and economist Ben Stein, who grew up in Silver Spring, once summed up Dillard's approach: "If listeners called in to complain about Don Dillard playing rock music in the morning, Don had a few words for them. 'I'm going to play what I like. And if you don't like what I like, just turn the dial a little bit in either direction -- and we're gone!' Never before or since have I heard such perfect insouciant self-confidence about a man's choices or how well he knew he fit into his world."

We welcome any further memories of listening to Dillard on the AM dial or at a local sock hop.

By Adam Bernstein  |  June 2, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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DC in the late 50's and early 60's was a mecca for the amalgam of musical trends that became the dominant cultrural force of Popular Music.
We always had a strong Rockabilly component and R&B and Gospel were on the radio as well. Country and Bluegrass were part of the cultural mix as well- WDON & WINX, WEAM & later WWDC with CJ the DJ who brought the Beatles to DC were heroes.
Milt Grant gave DC our own American Bandstand on Channel 5- we knew those kidsnot the Jersey Kids we saw on Channel 7.

Ben Stein is right- cruising the Hot Shoppes parking lots, going to Sock Hops at the Armory or Glen Echo and being able to hear the beginnings of the musical cultural revolution on AM radio made DC an incredible place in which to grow up.
The death of a Don Dillard and the recent retirement of Don "Cerphe " Colwell are reminders of the passing of a bygone era.
Link Wray, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton at the Crossroads in Bladensburg.Emmy Lou Harris at a dive bar near Union Station Country Gentlemen in Georgetown, Roberta Flack on the Hill, John Eaton in the Bar at the Fairfax, Charlie Byrd and Doanld Byrd -great local music was everywhere live and on radio.
Long live the memories of pre-April 1968 DC and the vibrant music scene in every genre that existed here.

Posted by: JeffreyMenick | June 2, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate all your work -- a real craftsman. And I was impressed by your obit on Don Dillard in which you captured this man in words. As you wrote so eloquently, he was really the most original DJ of his era in this area ... and a really good guy as well. You should know that Dillard played a small cameo part in George Pelicanos's book "Hard Revolution", published just a few years ago.

I just sent the following note to my daughter:

"Today's Post contains an obituary for Don Dillard (p.B5). As you will see from Bernstein's great obit, Don was a DJ "Pied Piper" to many of us who were in school in the late 50's and early '60's. When he told kids (on the air from little WDON) in Silver Spring or Bethesda to sound their horns, you couldn't hear in Silver Spring or Bethesda. He ran record hops in SS and in Hyattsville at the armories, where people hung out and pretended to be "cool." During daylight hours when the little station was on the air, you could hear it blasting from practically every car arriving at and leaving high school in Bethesda."

Posted by: sklingel | June 2, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I just wanted to write and thank you for your write on up on Don Dillard. As a teenager I also worked at WDON. Barry and I shared a show called Spotlight on Teens every Saturday. After about six months or so Don also placed me on the payroll. I substituted for him numerous times on the air, and also MC'd the Record Hops. When another Disc Jockey resigned I was fortunate to get his slot before Don came on the air at 3PM.

Don was a real character. Your article was right on. He had a real understanding of the music, and more important the generation that loved Rock N Roll.

Not many know it but Don was a big sports fan and was extremely fast as a runner. He and I used to have races and Don could still pick them up and put them down in his twenties.

Many thanks.

Ken Davenport

Known as Kenny Davenport back in the Day!

Posted by: Posttime2 | June 3, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

My wife and I have been friends with Don, his wife, Martha, and daughter, Donna, for many years. I got to know Don when I worked at WASH-FM in the '60s, and we were friends ever since. According to what Don told me,it is true that his father set up WDON for him to operate, but with a play the kind of music his father liked, which was basically big bands, standards, etc. (By the way, his father and mother were wonderful people. In addition to being a brilliant radio engineer, Don said his father played a mean violin.) Anyway, Don started out with the prescribed format, but soon began to branch out so-to-speak. He said it became a sort of cat and mouse game as it behooved him to know when his dad was within earshot of a radio speaker. Don said many a time when he would be playing something he preferred, his dad would suddenly appear at the studio door, which he had locked for just such an eventuality. Don Dillard did march to a different tune in those days and I'm sure that if there's a rock-n-roll heaven, he's up there spinning them nonstop. I will miss hearing the sound of his great voice, immensely. But I will miss his friendship most. When Don was your friend, you had a good friend.

Posted by: englefoxrun | June 3, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Dick and I have known Don, his mother, wife and daughters since the early '90's and have appreciated Don's wit, knowledge of the rock 'n roll generation/music as well as his tireless following/commentary on current political trends. He had an innate ability to analyze what he read/heard and "put the puzzle together" in a way that when verbalized made anyone within earshot set up and think!
His penchant for life inspired all those whose lives he touched and he lived life with an upbeat/positive attitude despite the many "bumps in the road" that would have taken its toll on any normal person.
We will certainly miss those phone calls and the humor always displayed by our Mr. Donald Dillard. Dick will miss those "tips" on the "fourth place plays" at the racetracks...Don was a great handicapper and many of their conversations centered around the current races.
Don was truly an "artist"..even to the point of the creative work he did on the interior painting of their home. We were amazed when we saw his handiwork.
But...most of all the highest compliment we can pay to Don is that he was truly a great friend. We will miss him.

Marilyn/Dick Keating Fairport, NY

Posted by: makeating | June 4, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

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