Jimmy O’Neill, an Oklahoman barely out of his teens when he became Los Angeles’ top-rated radio deejay and only 24 when he catapulted to national celebrity as the host of “Shindig!,” one of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll shows on prime-time television, died Friday at his West Hollywood home. He was 73.
He had diabetes and heart problems, said his son, James O’Neill.
In 1959, O’Neill made radio history as the first voice heard on KRLA-AM (1110) when it dropped its country-western format for rock music. It quickly became a powerhouse in rock radio and launched O’Neill into television in 1964 as the winsome emcee of “Shindig!”
Compared with “American Bandstand,” the afternoon music-and-dance show for teenagers helmed by Dick Clark, “Shindig!” was a blast of hot air that featured frenetic dancers (including a young Teri Garr) and mingled black and white musicians in an era when much of the country was still segregated. Each episode showcased a dozen of the biggest names in pop music, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. Bobby Sherman, Leon Russell, Darlene Love and Billy Preston were also among the regulars.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” said Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, who performed on the first telecast of “Shindig!” with Cooke and the Everly Brothers. “We were like 23, 24 years old and on national television. This was like the coolest thing in the world. And Jimmy was just the perfect guy to host that show. He wasn’t slick … he never tried to be too hip. He was just the perfect guy to hold all that together.”
O’Neill opened every show with the same rousing welcome:
“Howdy-hi, Shindiggers… we’ve got a ‘Shindig!’ for you that’s so far in it’s out of sight!”
The show, broadcast on ABC, lasted only 15 months, but it made its emcee so famous with the underage crowd that it inspired a character named Jimmy O’Neillstone in the 1960s “Flintstones” cartoon series. The episode was called “Shinrock-a-Go-Go.”
O’Neill was born Jan. 8, 1940, in Enid, Okla. His parents divorced when he was a toddler and he was raised by his hairdresser mother. At 15 he took a high school class in broadcasting and, as one of the two top students, won a chance to have his own two-hour show on the local radio station. “The program director hired him on the spot,” his son said. After he graduated from high school, the director helped him land a deejay job at KQV in Pittsburgh.
He stayed in Pittsburgh for only a year before he moved to a bigger market, Los Angeles. In 1960, he became “the youngest deejay ever to be rated No. 1,” radio historian Don Barrett said Monday.
He also ran nightclubs for teenagers, including one called Pandora’s Box on the Sunset Strip and hosted a youth-oriented TV talk show, “The Jimmy O’Neill Show,” on KCOP-TV (Channel 13).
He was deejaying at KFWB when producer Jack Good enlisted him to develop a rock ‘n’ roll show for TV. The pilot was called “Young America Swings the World,” but no one wanted it until O’Neill showed it to Chuck Barris (later of “Gong Show” fame), then a programming executive at ABC.
Getting the Beatles on the show in 1964 was an experience that O’Neill said he would never forget. The British rock sensations were too busy to travel to Los Angeles, so the “Shindig!” crew went to England.
“I have two vivid recollections from those two days,” O’Neill told interviewer Gary James. “One, I nearly had my clothes torn off by the British fans as I tried to enter the studio.... They heard my American accent and asked me if I was appearing with the Beatles. I made the mistake of admitting that I was. Off came my jacket, my shirt, it was practically ripped to shreds before I got the security guard to let me in.”
When the network canceled the show in early 1966, after experimenting unsuccessfully with more mainstream musical guests, it sent O’Neill into a tailspin. His marriage to songwriter Sharon Sheeley collapsed. “I went crazy,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “I tried to burn my house down. Literally set fire to my house. I was 26 years old. I had never had a bad break before. I drank and drugged my way through my life savings.”
He eventually sobered up and returned to radio, working at KDAY from 1969 to 1971. Later he returned for two more stints at KRLA, in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
In 1991, Rhino Home Video released a compilation of “Shindig!” broadcasts that revived interest in the show.
“One of the funniest things he ever told me,” said Mike Wagner, the KRLA program director who hired O’Neill in the 1990s, “was that by the time he was 24 he had peaked already. He said ‘My career was front-loaded.’ But he didn’t have any regrets. He was an eternally young, Midwestern happy-go-lucky type. He always had a smile in his voice.”
Married three times, he is survived by his son, James, and daughter, Katherine O’Neill, both of Los Angeles; two stepchildren, Megan Rhode of San Pedro and Robin Finklestein of Pasadena; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.