IF NICE GUYS FINISH LAST, WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT RICK DEES? Two years ago he was just another L.A. morning deejay. But now KIIS' fun-loving boy wonder is the hottest disc jockey in Los Angeles--and the country. He's everywhere--hosting "Solid Gold" and two syndicated radio shows, doing commercials for Chrysler and Michelob. He's cut a pair of comedy albums and even has a movie development deal in the works at Paramount. It's all made a multimillionaire out of 35-year-old Rigdon Osmond Dees III, seen above defacing one of KIIS' promotional bus boards. But around the KIIS studios, they call Dees "The Little Prince." And some co-workers say he's spiteful, petty, insecure and "just plain nasty." Who is this man who reportedly pays a Hollywood PR firm $3,500 a month for projecting that impish image? Article by Dennis McDougal
The most popular disc jockey in America was mad as hell about his tapes and he wasn't gonna take it anymore.
He was sitting in his private dressing room at Paramount Pictures, trying to explain it all with a grand analogy. He compared the destruction of his childhood collection of leaves to the destruction of his tape cartridges . . . the ones that contained sound effects of unzipping trousers, falling footsteps, orgasmic moaning and teeny squealing.
"You have to understand this: You have a leaf collection that you've been collecting for 17 years," Rick Dees said in an absolutely solemn voice. "You came in and somebody had burned half of your leaf collection up."
Dees began to sound curiously like a young Capt. Queeg relating in growing hysteria how the crew of the Caine conspired to steal his strawberries.
"You thought about those leaves. Maybe you've got one petrified leaf out there . . . and it's the only one, and they burned it too. Now, that would upset you."
Rigdon Osmond Dees III leaned forward during this brief break in the taping of his weekly "Solid Gold" TV show and reread the infamous tape memo that he had personally posted on the walls of the KIIS studios three weeks ago.
Yes, he had threatened to pressure KIIS General Manager Wally Clark to fire any deejay who touched his tapes.
"This is about as mad as I get, so, I'm proud of myself that this is the limit."
But some KIIS co-workers don't see it that way. They paint a portrait of Dees that is at once ambitious and ruthless. But more on that later.
"You see, that's one good thing that relaxes me so much," Dees went on. "I've busted ass and I've worked real hard. One of the rewards is, you can play the odds. You can go in, if you have to, and say, 'I'm sorry, but I can't take this anymore. You're gonna have to get rid of Bob or you're gonna have to get rid of me.' I've never done that, though, because I'm always afraid that they'd get rid of me! You know, that's always my horror."
His cornflower-blue eyes hardened to acrylic. In his black leather pants and thickly starched blue dress shirt, the 35-year-old madcap of L.A. radio would hardly be taken seriously under normal circumstances.
But Dees was not laughing.
"I don't want people stealing my tapes. Do you think Coca-Cola wants Pepsi to copy their formula? Heck no. You think I'm gonna give a road map to my competitors on how to win? Where I fell down? Where I failed?
"I'm not about to tell what type of zipper sound I use to make my zipper sound! I'm not about to tell you how many people it took me to get my 'yeaaa' sound! Let them figure out how many it took on their own ."
Dees grumbles that the tapes that launched him toward fame and fortune are probably being copied and passed around in Bakersfield by now. No, he says resolutely, he does not think he is being petty.
The flapping of the Time Fairy's wings, the unzipping of wino Willard Wizeman's fly, the subtle whoosh of a whoopie cushion . . . all the Dees sleaze had been rifled.
"I finally figured out that somebody has been going in the booth at KIIS and making copies of all the tapes that I had collected. They put them all back the wrong way. Everything was out of order. Everything was sprung."
Dees felt as personally violated as the woman he had called on his radio program that very morning during his "Candid Phone" segment. Thanks to a tip from a "friend" of the woman, Dees called her with the unsettling news that her breast implants had been manufactured by the Chrysler Corp., and that they were defective and had to be recalled.
After revealing to her that she was a victim of "Candid Phone," Dees gleefully observed that someone had "burned your buns!"
Someone had burned his too . . . and he was determined to get even.
"Rick Dees in the morning, you are an idiot, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha...."
Each morning from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., the a-cappella KIIS chorus chants the Dees credo to hundreds of thousands of listeners. The loony lyrics signal the beginning of another morning mix of Top 40 hits and the ofttimes tasteless but frequently clever humor of Rick Dees.
Dees owns L.A. radio and he knows it.
Two years ago, Dees was just another morning jock, fine tuning his drivetime comedy act.
He came to Los Angeles in 1979 as the Memphis deejay who created "Disco Duck," the 1976 comedy hit that remained on the Billboard magazine Top 100 for 25 weeks. Even then, Dees surrounded himself with a "cast of idiots" who helped him parody disco music by quacking through a dance tune like Donald Duck.
According to some listeners who also heard his morning deejay act in Memphis, the comedy is almost unchanged, down to the frequently aired tape of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley saying "Yes sir, Mr. Dees!" in the tone of a toady. In Memphis, Dees used the same gimmick to mimic former Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler.
For his first 18 months in Los Angeles, Dees floundered in the morning ratings at KHJ-AM until the station switched from rock to country.
"I don't like country music," Dees says now. "It's the music of the underachiever. Let's go and drink and have cirrhosis. Be a moron and, you know, kick ass. I'm from North Carolina and, you know, I've been inundated with it."
Today, Dees is a millionaire success junkie.
The Arbitron listener survey says he is the most-listened-to deejay in Los Angeles. As part of a $1-million KIIS campaign, his Formica smile and Technicolor eyes gleamed from advertising boards on buses from Santa Monica to Pasadena throughout most of 1984.
He hosts the syndicated TV show, "Solid Gold," and two syndicated radio shows: "Rick Dees' Weekly Top 40" and, beginning this month, "American Music Magazine."
He put out two albums of comedy bits and silly songs last year: "Hurt Me Baby, Make Me Write Bad Checks" and "Put It Where the Moon Don't Shine."
The first one didn't sell well and Dees is now suing his producer/distributor for $550,000, alleging breach of contract for failing to properly distribute the album. But the album is up for a Grammy this month, prompting Dees to make the observation that "there's flowers, even in the mud."
His second album, produced on the Atlantic label, gave him a hit single in "Eat My Shorts."
As part of his "Solid Gold" deal with Paramount, he's developing a feature script. He expects to get a screen credit for writing, though he says he won't be doing much of it.
"We're pitching two projects. It'll be a combination of 'Hard Bodies' and 'Porky's 7.' I'll be the star of it, but it'll be like an ensemble comedy with a lot of crazy people in it. We'll get a well-known name--somebody that's already proven as a writer--and they're gonna do it. And then we'll get together and I can give them some bits that I'd like to do. There's no way I can write an entire movie."
He also does radio and TV commercials for a dozen products, including Chrysler, Michelob, Coca-Cola, Lipton Tea and CBS TV.
He and his second wife own a home in the hills of Tarzana and he drives a Jaguar, courtesy of Whittlesey Toyota, for which he is commercial spokesman.
On the 19th floor of the First Interstate Bank Building at Sunset and Vine, the panoramic view of the city that the boyish Dees has sought to conquer for more than a decade is spectacular.
Dees won't specify how much he earns from all this, beyond saying it ranges between $100,000 and $1 million. He said he doesn't know how much he earns.
One source put his Paramount deal at $900,000 and said that his Tennessee corporation, Dees Creations Inc., gets $800,000 from Gannett Broadcasting, owner of KIIS, out of which he must pay many of his own expenses.
"I'll tell you this: I lost big on the stock market this year," Dees said.
Just a few years ago, when he was on the radio skids, he said he was earning as little as $9,000 a year. Last month, he paid a landscaper $2,000 to plant flowers around his house.
"You know, the funny thing is, the more you make, the more people give you things for free!"
Case in point: Two weeks ago, Dees stopped at a Taco Bell on Ventura Boulevard to get a taco for his 5-year-old boy and witnessed a teen-ager "dipping his hands up to his wrists in the lettuce that went into my taco, which I did not eat.
"My kid was so hungry he would have eaten anything, and he did. He ate the lettuce and whatever was on the kid's hands."
After he mentioned the incident at Taco Bell on the air, Taco Bell sent him 100 coupons for free tacos.
So what else could he want?
There's fresh kiwi fruit--peeled and sliced--on a wicker tray next to a plastic ficus plant in the corner of Dees' dressing room. A swordfish lunch is catered.
At 2:30 p.m., Dees knocks off for an hour so he can work out on his gym equipment.
There's the requisite gold star on the dressing room door and handmaidens everywhere: script girls, makeup girls, wardrobe girls.
Dees is on to the next challenge--movie stardom. Hence, eight months ago, he retained a major Hollywood public relations company, Solters, Roskin, Friedman, to remodel his image. According to one source, the firm charges clients like Dees $3,500 a month. Dees says he "cut a deal" with the firm and is charged less.
"I've got an invoice right here for $16.97 for last month," he said. "It's got a notation here at the bottom that reads, 'Sorry we couldn't do more for you last month!' "
It's tough to tell when Dees is being serious.
His public persona is clean and gag-a-minute. Here's a funny, faded-denims kinda fella who walked right out of a light beer commercial. Down home. Just the hint of a Southern drawl, but as articulate as Tom Wicker.
Rick's real taste is more Dom Perignon than Stroh's, though. He runs a tab at his Melrose Avenue custom tailor (Csibeau) and feels much more at ease in his Whittlesey Jaguar than he would in a Whittlesey Toyota.
He's been thinking about insulting a Maserati dealer on the air to see if he gets the same reaction he did with Taco Bell, he jokes.
Or is he joking? Tough to tell with devil-may-care Dees.
One thing is clear: The image he wants is not that of a scruffy on-air radio personality. When a Times photographer tried to photograph Dees at work in the KIIS studios, Dees' secretary, Chris Hamilton, said Dees had issued orders that he was not to have his picture taken in the studio for fear that he might be typecast as a disc jockey--an image he is trying to shake.
Switching on the TV in his dressing room between takes, Dees shakes his head at the vision of the game-show hosts pacing through their routines. Dees drops a kiwi in his mouth and shakes his finger at the screen.
"That's my biggest fear," he says. "I don't want to wind up like Bob Barker!"
"I admire him for his talent, but all it means to him is being a millionaire," said his former drivetime newscaster, Liz Fulton.
"Rick sold himself out. He's got three years before the heart attack. He's already at the point where he can't talk to anybody without a script in his hand."
Around the KIIS offices he's known as the Little Prince.
"Early on, Wally decided to make Rick the star and I think Rick has forgotten that," one fellow KIIS employee told Calendar on condition that his name not be used for fear of a Dees reprisal. "On first meeting, Dees is very charming and I think the public truly does love him. But he very, very definitely has to have the upper hand. The money thing is very, very important. He came here wanting to be a millionaire movie star."
Dees protests that everyone around him seems to be happy that he is making money . . . especially the management at KIIS.
"I think success is doing what you enjoy and doing it the best you can," he says, adding the postscript, "It's not really the money, it's the amount. . . . Just kidding!"
When it comes to the radio show, his devil-may-care persona is far from spontaneous. Dees knows that KIIS is his power base and that his lust for success shouldn't detract from his morning drivetime discipline.
"Nothing goes on the air that isn't planned ahead of time," KIIS general manager Clark told Calendar.
Clark is a shrewd, unassuming executive who everyone--including Dees--credits with turning KIIS into a powerhouse.
It was Clark's careful media manipulation, contest giveaways and controlled development of his glib morning man that brought KIIS to an unprecedented 10 share in the Los Angeles radio market last summer. Most local radio owners consider a 2 share respectable, a 3 share quite good and a 4 share extraordinary.
But a 10 share is an unprecedented feat in recent Los Angeles radio history.
During peak hours--morning and afternoon drivetime--it is not unreasonable to assume that as many as a million listeners tune in to either KIIS AM or FM. Since the beginning of the year, Dees' program has been simulcast on both stations. It's that kind of drawing power that enables Clark to command as high as $2,000 for a single "spot" commercial in a medium where many stations are lucky to get $50.
Before Clark launched his Rick Dees campaign two years ago, Dees' morning show had a dismal 1.8 share in the Los Angeles Arbitron survey, but, as a co-worker now points out:
"Dees doesn't talk about that. Each day, a certain number of brain cells die. In Rick's case, that includes the ones that remember how things were before Wally started them going his way."
At the KIIS console, Dees is at his creative best. Between comedy bits and hot hits, he wastes no time. He rehearses the next comic exchange with newscaster Raechel Donahue or sportscaster Charlye Wright and tapes commercials for his clients.
In fact, Dees seems "on" and desperately driven during most of his waking hours and sometimes even when he isn't awake.
"I try to take a little bit of time each day to take a nap, but even when I take a nap I'm thinking in terms of career. I take a nap under the sun machine at the spa, you know, so I'm doing two things at one time," he says. "I mean, like the makeup girl asked me, 'Did you get some tan on your neck?' So it worked! She didn't have to put makeup on my neck."
As a record winds down, Dees is searching for the next tape cartridge--the one that contains the trademark sound of the unzipping fly of wino Willard Wizeman, one of several Dees radio characters. Others include gossip-monger Groaning Barrett, ditzy actor John Revolting and cynical, two-faced Hollywood agent Bernie Shelley.
The Bernie Shelley routine always begins with Dees calling his "talent and booking agent" and having to go through a dense receptionist named Lucille. Like many a William Morris agent, Shelley is usually on the line with "a bigger name" than Dees and can't be bothered talking with him. The bigger names range from such long-forgotten stars as Tiny Tim to Soupy Sales:
Dees: I'm not trying to be rude. I want to speak to Bernie.
Dingy secretary: Certainly. Who's calling to him?
Dees: Who's calling? I said it was Rick Dees. Now listen, Lucille. . .
Dingy secretary: It's Mr. Dees, Mr. Shelley.
Bernie: Ask Ronnie if I can get back to him later, Lucille. I've got a bigger name on the other line.
Dees: It's Dees, Bernie. Rick Dees.
Bernie: Ah, Lucille, tell Liz Fulton I'll get back to her later....
"He cannot look you straight in the eye and talk to you," ex-KIIS News Director Liz Fulton told Calendar. Fulton, who left KIIS three months ago after 11 years at the station, now works at KEZR radio in San Jose.
She left in order to start a family. She contended that Los Angeles was not the best environment for a child.
On the other hand, Dees and his second wife, Julie, are raising a son in the San Fernando Valley.
Julie has her own career as a commedienne-impressionist. She's opened in Lake Tahoe and Vegas for the likes of Mac Davis and Bobby Vinton. She works regularly on both "Solid Gold" and Dees' radio shows "doing" Jane Fonda, Rona Barrett and Michael Jackson, and she and Dees opened for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers at the Forum New Year's Eve.
Julie Dees spends almost as much time working as her husband, but is not nearly as obsessed with success, according to Fulton.
"Look, you burn out," Fulton said. "I mean, how can a man get up and do a morning drive show and do a TV show and contract with Paramount to come up with a screenplay within a year and all the rest? He doesn't drink hardly at all. He doesn't do drugs. But how can you do that for years and years? Wally Clark knows a moneymaker when he sees one. He's got to be more brilliant than Mr. Dees.
"When Rick Dees dies of a heart attack at age 36, Wally Clark will go find another Rick Dees and make a million dollars off him too. He is a sharp business man. He knows when to strike, how to strike and when to bail out. When KIIS starts going down the tubes, Gannett will move Wally on to some other station.
"I love Dees and I'm scared for him, because, when he falls, there's going to be no one there to catch him."
It's obvious those snide put-downs that Dees endures at the hands of his agent Bernie Shelley every morning are pure fiction. In terms of star treatment and sheer publicity, there are few names that are bigger than Rick Dees these days.
Last September, after all, Dees got his own star on Hollywood Boulevard.
He is a hard-driving winner.
"So I'm trying to work in a few more things to do," Dees said. "I'm not using all of my time. Right now, I'm just sitting here. I should be involved in recording something somewhere."
A long-time station employee maintains that Dees is two people: a wise-cracking fun-lover and an insecure, talented and ruthless career-climber.
"The main thing is that it's totally his show. He tells everybody what to do and it takes away any control management has," another Dees co-worker told Calendar.
"It's like, when the ratings come out, he'll buy candy for all the jocks and say, 'Good going guys.' Well, that looks good on the surface, but he does it to show he is in control."
But those who work most closely with him--producer Paul Joseph and newscaster Raechel Donahue--have nothing but praise for Dees' energy and professionalism.
And yet his insecurity is apparent to anyone who has worked with him over a period of time, co-workers say. When he vacations, he hand-picks his on-air replacement "because he doesn't want anybody who sounds good on in his spot," one co-worker said.
"He's just plain nasty," the co-worker said. "Success to Dees means he gets his and the devil take the hindmost."
"When I was little, I always was the achiever trying to achieve. In school, as a young kid, I made the best grades and I was president of the school and all that stuff."
Why and how did he achieve those early successes?
"Well, I killed my English teacher. No, I did very well. I got a scholarship and I was president of my junior high school and president of the junior class in high school and president of the Key Club. Just the whole number.
"But when I got to college I was burned out on school. And I got there and we started this campus radio station and it was so much fun I let all my courses slide. What happened though was that I did get through the first four years and graduated. Now I have dreams about how I missed a whole semester of a course or something. Have you ever had a dream like that?"
Why and how is he achieving success now?
"In my case, I just don't think I would look back to now and say I really didn't give it everything I had. There's a sense of calm in that, you know? Knowing that you've really done your best gives you a sense of relaxation."
Why and how will he achieve success in the future?
"I'm a real strong believer in God. I'm not a religious person, but I'm a very spiritually connected person and I'm a Christian, and that certainly has helped me.
"I just don't feel like what happens on Earth is really that important. You know, it's all just a big joke because I'm gonna live forever anyway. Might as well have fun, right now, in my Earth suit. This is just an Earth suit and it's the spirit that counts.
"It's what's inside my Earth suit that is really gonna go on and do something. So, I'm having a ball with the old Earth suit."
Sitting in the front seat of the Jaguar is a green, simulated-leather-bound audio version of the New Testament as read by Gregory Peck.
Rick Dees listens to it everyday, seeking the right road to heaven. Left, a younger, unpolished Rick Dees in his "Disco Duck" days in Memphis (circa 1976); right, Dees' "Solid Gold" PR photo presents his current look.