Rick Dees doesn’t have a face for radio.
Turns out that’s a good thing — and pretty rare in the biz, where talent is notoriously camera-unfriendly. When KIIS-FM hired Dees to host mornings in 1982, station brass quickly realized they’d scored a rare commodity.
“Rick had several things going for him: He was a hard-working, very talented guy — and a nice guy,” says former KIIS exec Wally Clark, who helped bring Dees to the station. “And what really heightened the appeal, Rick was exceptionally good-looking for a radio guy. He’s not one of those guys who came out of the basement when he was 18 and went on the air.”
As a result, KIIS threw all of its promotional weight behind Dees, whose mug was soon seen on buses and billboards all over Los Angeles.
The Dees gamble paid off. Before Dees, KIIS languished in 22nd place, Clark says. Gradually, with Dees leading the way, KIIS became the most famous top 40 radio station in the country.
“Every book, it got better and better,” Clark says. “All the way up to a 10 share — which is unlikely anyone will hit again.”
Soon, Dees was going national with his “Weekly Top 40” countdown. On TV, he hosted “Solid Gold” and later the ABC talkshow “Into the Night.” He appeared in movies such as “La Bamba” and inspired a generation of copycat morning shows across the country.
“Go back over the 50 years of L.A. radio, you’d put him with the giants of radio,” says LARadio.com’s Don Barrett. “Becoming an icon in this crowded marketplace is no small feat. To do it as long as he has is remarkable.”
Barrett says the only other L.A. personalities to come close to Dees’ stature would be fellow morning legends Dick Whittinghill and Robert W. Morgan.
Of course, Dees came to L.A. having already made his mark in both radio and music. His 1976 novelty hit “Disco Duck” hit No. 1 on the charts and even appeared in the movie “Saturday Night Fever” (Dees was given bad advice, however, and passed on putting the single on what would become the bestselling soundtrack of all time.)
He launched his radio career while still in high school, working at the Greensboro, N.C., station WGBG. He worked at several southeast U.S. stations before landing at Memphis’ WMPS, where he recorded “Disco Duck.”
Dees had crossed town to rival WHBQ when Los Angeles called. He moved out West to take over mornings on legendary KHJ-AM.
But his tenure was cut short when KHJ dumped top 40 and went country (ironic now, as Emmis recently dumped country on KZLA in order to launch the new KMVN-FM “Movin 93.9” around Dees).
Dees came close to leaving L.A. after that, but a handful of lucrative voiceover gigs kept the lights on. Then KIIS called.
His years as a morning-drive powerhouse paid off handsomely. Dees owns a farm in Kentucky, where he raises black angus cattle and grows corn and wheat. He partnered with E.W. Scripps to help create the Fine Living cable network, which is now seen in 42 million homes. He’s an investor in the Pasadena restaurant Smitty’s and is a backer of the music download site BurnLounge.
But Dees’ first love remains radio. It’s a bug that his son Kevin — who has also worked as a DJ — inherited as well.
“I still encourage people (to enter the business),” Dees says. “It’s the most personal medium I know. It’s just a voice and a person. I’ve never felt anything else like it in my life.”