WATTS: THE LEGACY : <i> ‘Burn, Baby, Burn!’ </i> : What Began as a Radio Disc Jockey’s Soulful Cry of Delight Became a National Symbol of Urban Rebellion
To his middle-aged audience, the man who calls himself Montague is a mellifluous disc jockey whose local FM radio show is devoted to ‘40s music--Big Band hits, Broadway musical tunes, Frank Sinatra. He reads his own poetry on the air, and he delights in frequent fan letters, like the one informing him that his program is now piped through the grounds of a mobile home park.
His listeners could not imagine that the same voice that now introduces Bing Crosby once invented the catch phrase that inadvertently became the slogan of the Watts riot.
Twenty years ago, Magnificent Montague was the hottest voice on Los Angeles’ leading black-oriented radio station, KGFJ, broadcasting rhythm-and-blues music. He had arrived from New York in early 1965, bringing with him a vibrant style forged by years of work on small black-oriented stations, where survival depended on a disc jockey’s ability to develop a unique personality.
His slightly raspy, almost haughty East Coast accent and blistering pace mirrored the raw, throbbing sounds of Otis Redding, Ray Charles, James Brown and scores of other popular rhythm-and-blues singers. He came to Los Angeles with a mountain of on-the-air gimmicks, one of which was a harsh, soulful cry of delight he often shouted during a record he particularly enjoyed:
“Burn, baby, burn!”
It has dogged him ever since.
For in the first hours of a hot August night 20 years ago, when hundreds of angry young blacks began setting buildings and cars afire on Imperial Highway and Avalon Boulevard and Main Street, they triumphantly screamed the most evident and analogous and hip thing at hand:
“Burn, baby, burn!”
“It was bigger than me. It’s always been bigger than me,” Montague says now with a tinge of resignation, an unusual mood for the short, trim and fiercely independent man of 57.
Montague’s phrase had been on the streets for months before Watts blew up. He had thrown it into his patter years earlier, in Chicago and New York, but in Los Angeles he added a twist: He invited his primarily black teen-age listeners to telephone KGFJ during his morning show and participate. They deluged him, and each day the opening seconds of many songs were punctuated by frantic voices telephoning on their way to school:
“My name’s Thomas Rush! I go to John Muir Junior High and I want to say, ‘Burn, baby, burn!”’
Inside the studio, Montague might growl back to his caller: “Burn, baby!”
Or, like a preacher transfixed by the power of the message he was sending, he might simply shriek in high, wailing ecstasy. Or he might demand of all who listened, “Put your hand on the radio and touch my heart!” Or, as the record faded out, vocals and horns and drums and bass lines diminishing, he might declare it simply too good to end: “Back it up and gimme four more bars!” And the last 20 seconds of the record would be played again.
The intensity of the show formed an unusual bond between the performer and his audience, as the riot progressed and “Burn, baby, burn!” became an instant, national symbol of urban rebellion, it became easy to presume that the disc jockey had somehow helped kindle or at least sustain the rioting.
Yet, as he explained during a recent interview in the small radio station that he and his wife established in Palm Springs two years ago, few blacks were further removed from Watts than Magnificent Montague.
Not only did he not live there, he did not know it existed. Nor did he feel the slightest social or political kinship with the rioters of Watts, or with the innocent residents whose neighborhoods were destroyed. Nor was he alarmed enough by the violence to immediately cease using “Burn, baby, burn” on the air; he reluctantly agreed to drop it on the third day of the riots after requests from city officials and his station’s management. Nor did he--or does he now--feel any responsibility for what happened.
“The words didn’t make them burn,” he said. “The words were already there. I just put together the melody.”
Irony in the Boast
He relishes his two years on KGFJ: “No one ever touched L.A. like the Montague fever did.” But there is some irony in that boast. For had Montague not been so charismatic, his trademark might not have spread so swiftly through the flaming nights of August.
“Someone else might have said ‘Burn, baby, burn, ' but not with the energy he could lend it,” said Roland Bynum, a KGFJ disc jockey who listened to Montague while a college student in Los Angeles and was hired to fill Montague’s slot in 1967, when Montague quit to pursue a record-producing career.
“Montague could really work an audience up and get them involved,” Bynum said. “I consider him one of the great salesmen.”
“Where I started, you had to be able to sell,” Montague said. “Mom-and-pop radio stations in the South. They wouldn’t pay you a salary--nothing. What you earned you got from selling ads for your time block. You had to have something eccentric, a gimmick, to bring in the business.”
He had gone South after growing up in the East, a self-professed “radio junkie.” “I loved the voices I’d heard, the great radio voices of the ‘40s and ‘50s, people like (newsman) Gabriel Heatter and (pioneer disc jockey) Martin Block. . . . I had the bug.”
‘Didn’t Affect Me’
Young broadcasters were often advised to look for jobs on smaller stations in the South, “but I went not knowing there was a double standard” for blacks, he said. “I didn’t know about civil rights. I knew I was Montague but I wasn’t quite cognizant I was black. There was prejudice, but it didn’t affect me directly. All I was interested in doing was running my mouth. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t deal with it.
“See, I was raised in Italian and Jewish neighborhoods. My mother was a kosher cook. I went to the synagogue--that’s emes (truth). I studied the Torah. I could set the table. Because we were hungry, she would park me in the house (of her employers) so I could eat. She would put me with the rest of the kids there and I was like family.”
Such experiences and a passion for melding varied snatches of dialect into his act helped him create his on-the-air presence, he said.
“If I had a car dealer, I would become a car huckster (doing that ad on the air). If I put a pawnshop on, I would be like the guy in the pawnshop, talking that fast talk. If I had a furniture store, I would work in the furniture store on Saturday, lure people in to buy furniture and tell ‘em who I was to guarantee my (advertising) sale. Coupled with all my taking from the greats of radio, I developed a Montague.” As always, he pronounces the name regally.
Tries New Expression
He went on to St. Louis and Houston and got to Chicago in the mid-1950s when the rhythm-and-blues style was rising in popularity because of its influence on the newly developed phenomenon of rock ‘n’ roll. Then it was on to New York, and one day in 1961 he told his wife, Rose Casalan, about a new expression he wanted to start throwing around on the air.
“Actually,” Casalan said, “I wasn’t sure what ‘Burn, baby, burn’ was supposed to mean.”
Montague is sure. He tries to explain, once and for all, to somehow put it behind him, to separate it from the looting and the burning.
” ' Burn , baby, burn ' meant that when I’m playing the record and I am snapping my fingers and I’m talking my talk, I have reached the epitome, the height--there is no more you can do! Everything is up, up, up! And that’s when"--he momentarily softens his voice for drama--"you burn, baby, burn. It is like the high-five (palm-slapping celebration). You know you’ve hit your home run. There’s no more to say. You look at the ball go, like Reggie Jackson. And when I hit that record and I say, ‘Darling, I love you,’ or ‘Put your hand on the radio and touch my heart,’ bop-bop-bop burn, baby, burn-- there was no more to say! That was the epitome! That was it!”
And then on Aug. 11, after he had finished the day’s show and gone home, somebody called and told him to turn on the radio. Watts was burning.
Lived in Bel-Air
“I didn’t know nothing about Watts,” he says, slightly exasperated. “I had never been to the South Side. I was only in town for six months--I lived in Bel-Air. I don’t know what Watts was all about. The whole social revolution--the people in Watts are from a different economic background.
“I don’t socialize with the people I broadcast to. Like a preacher. If he socializes too much with his parishioners, he can’t save their souls. So that burning and all this, and I see the sign “burn” on the walls (on television), they got it scribbled--but it didn’t even dawn on me then what it represented.”
So prominent was the slogan that it became the password to safety in riot areas. A black newsman saw groups of rioters not only shouting “Burn, baby burn” at fires but using it to greet each other, “I, too, learned to shout ‘Burn, baby, burn’ after several shots were fired at me,”’ he wrote on the fourth night of the riot.
Did Montague consider using his prominence to rally against the rioting?
“I didn’t know what the impact was until later,” he said, again exasperated. “I’m not a social reformer. I’m an entertainer. You can’t get me to make statements. I’m Montague. If you feel you’ve got a grievance, you get out there, there’s organizations for that. I don’t deal with it.
Color and Talent
“I refuse to let anybody dub me black black. I am an American who happens to be a man of color and some talent. I refuse to be segmented. . . . I had white listeners that would listen to me that wouldn’t listen to other (black) jockeys because I was not black black. The pressure to stop using the expression on the air “was artistically wrong. I could have fought it but they painted such a picture that they said there would be no more Watts if I didn’t stop. So I did. But that didn’t stop people from using it,” he said with mounting resentment, “and that didn’t stop it a few years later from being a hit for some white kids (a reference to “Disco Inferno,” a popular 1975 song whose refrain was, “Burn, baby, burn. Burn that mother down”). It didn’t have nothing to do with no riot! The cliche lived on.”
He cut off the calls from youths who wanted to keep yelling “burn,” and within two weeks had introduced a new phrase: “Have mercy, baby.” The call-ins resumed and the show was back to usual for the next year and a half, shifting to late-night hours in a head-to-head duel with rival station XERB’s increasingly popular rhythm-and-blues disc jockey, Wolfman Jack.
Montague said he left KGFJ because he could make more money in a record-producing venture he had started while on the air. He re-emerged on radio for a year in the early 1970s, doing a show with ex-rival Wolfman, broadcasting to numerous Western states from a Mexican station.
Much of that decade was devoted to researching and financing the Palm Springs station, where Montague is on the air five hours each day and may spend another 10 hours a day overseeing prerecorded ‘40s music. The man who once did radio pitches for hair-straightening cream now plugs companies that clean the artificial turf lawns of wealthy desert homeowners.
Just Plain Montague
He is no longer Magnificent, just plain Montague. “My audience is 40-plus,” he explained. “I’m not up-tempo. They think I’ve been in this kind of music all my life. I’d never played a Nat King Cole record in my life. But I studied this music six years. I’m a master of it now.”
He says he has no desire to return to Los Angeles. “I’ve mastered and tamed all the big cities,” he boasted.
“The best way to explain Montague,” his wife said, “is that when we’re driving somewhere and he misses a turn, he won’t turn around and go back to it. He’ll keep going. He never looks back.”