Legendary ‘Superjock’ Larry Lujack dies at 73
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter December 18, 2013 9:52PM
Updated: December 19, 2013 7:36PM
Larry Lujack was a cowboy who lassoed the heart of a generation.
The popular WLS-AM and WCFL-AM disc jockey died Wednesday night of esophageal cancer at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 73 years old.
“Larry was one of the most talented, gifted performers in the history of the business,” said Fred Winston, his long-time friend and colleague at WLS-AM.
Mr. Lujack’s plainspoken manner was the compass for Chicagoans navigating the rapid musical and social changes of the late 1960s and 1970s. He loved to wear tattered brown cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and blue jeans.
Mr. Lujack was a staunch individualist whose on-air sarcastic demeanor set the stage for the “shock jock” movement. He engaged his audience with bits like “Animal Stories” with his snot-nosed disc jockey buddy Tommy Edwards; “The Klunk Letter of the Day,” and he was way ahead of his time with the “Cheap, Trashy Show Biz Report.”
His conversational approach put him center stage in the golden age of Chicago rock ’n’ roll radio. Kids would go to the WLS-AM studios in the Stone Container Building, 360 N. Michigan Ave, or the WCFL studios in Marina City to watch disc jockeys on the air through large glass windows. The personalities were a fabric of life.
I was one of those kids.
Mr. Lujack was the subject of the first “celebrity” interview of my career in 1972, when I was editor of the Naperville Central High School newspaper. At that time, Mr. Lujack worked on Saturday mornings at WLS. He agreed to meet me after his shift and I remember being nervous. He didn’t do a lot of press and I wasn’t sure how to deal with the grumpy “Uncle Lar” on-air personality. And he always closed the drapes when he was on the air.
Would this be like going to see the man behind the curtain of Oz?
He went out of his way to be nice to me.
He gave me a tour of the studio and we talked for a long time.
Mr. Lujack said he was born in Quasqueton, Iowa, where he wanted to be a cattle rustler. He was born as Larry Lee Blankenburg and took his radio name from his football hero, Notre Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack. He laughed as he rattled off his early radio stops in America’s “cow towns,” starting in 1959 at KRPL in Moscow, Idaho, followed by Spokane, San Bernadino, Seattle and Boston before 1967, when he landed in Chicago.
His secret was how he never strayed from his roots.
“Someone asked him once, ‘Why do you wear Levis and inexpensive flannel shirts from Sears?’” Winston recalled. Mr. Lujack jokingly replied, “‘Well, I’m saving my money for when bread costs $40 a loaf.’”
Mr. Lujack believed in being the same way on the air as you are off the air — a lesson learned very well by Dick Biondi, Lin Brehmer, Steve Dahl, Terri Hemmert and others. Here is Mr. Lujack from the March 1, 1972, issue of “Smoke Signals” (my high school paper because we were Redskins.): “I’m sarcastic, satirical and cynical and I don’t believe in sounding warm and friendly. The part of having a good time and being real happy is phony. I believe you should talk to people, not at them.”
We talked music:
He called Deep Purple “psychedelic nonsense.”
He loved Elvis Presley.
Don McLean’s epic “American Pie” was the rage in 1972 and Mr. Lujack did not care about that. “If anybody wants to say anything to me, they can say it in ordinary English,” he said in ordinary English. “They don’t have to make it complex. I’m not going to lose sleep at night trying to figure out what it means, because I don’t care that much.”
Grand Funk Railroad out of Flint, Mich., was very big in Naperville at the time.
“I don’t even want to talk about Grand Funk Railroad, they’re not even musicians,” he told me. But he liked the beat of Creedence Clearwater Revival and gave props to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf for contributing to rock ’n’ roll.
In 1974, Mr. Lujack would record “The Ballad of the Mad Streaker” for Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label.
“I would prefer to play Merle Haggard and Hank Snow all morning,” Mr. Lujack told me. “But the station pays me to do it their way.”
One of Haggard’s best ballads is “My Own Kind of Hat” and that song fit Mr. Lujack well.
He was proud to say he had read the Bible front to back as well has having memorized the United States Golf Association rulebook.
In 1975, when Mr. Lujack was at WCFL, he wrote his biography, “Super Jock (the loud, frantic, nonstop world of a rock radio DJ) with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dan Jedlicka. Mr. Lujack recalled how the Chicago Reader always included him on the list of the city’s leaders in alternative culture. “You’ll find Chicago’s foremost freaks, leaders of the gay community, radicals, revolutionaries, drug addicts, weirdos and troublemakers. And they put me on the list each year.
“I’ve been called elusive, a loner, a ‘Rock Garbo,’ ” I’m not trying to be mysterious or anything; the truth is, most people bore the s - - - ut of me.”
Mr. Lujack was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2004.
“He didn’t care about the Hall of Fame, or being the ‘Super Jock’,” Judith Seguin Lujack said by phone Wednesday night. “He cared about giving, and being a decent human being.”
They were married 41 years and lived in northwest suburban Palatine for 15 years before moving to Santa Fe in 1998. She said, “He was a person who cared about everybody. He was so devoted to me. His grandchildren were the apples of his eye.”
Winston said he hadn’t seen Mr. Lujack in several years, but spoke to him regularly by phone. The two almost never talked about the radio business, preferring to compare notes on rural living. Winston splits his time between his Lake Shore Drive condo and a small farm in Southwest Michigan. About a year ago, Winston called his friend to get some advice about how to handle recovery from heart bypass surgery. Mr. Lujack had similar surgery 15 years ago, Winston said.
“‘You know, they are going to clog up again,’” Winston said his buddy told him. “I said, ‘Not know, Larry, my chest still hurts.”
Winston said he’d had a “nagging feeling” in recent days that he should call his friend.
“His vibe kept popping up,” Winston said.
Early Thursday, former WLS-AM disc jockey Turi Ryder posted on Facebook: “He wasn’t showy about doing the right thing, he just DID it. The only thing I ever saw him worry about was the safety of his wife. If he had something nice to say about your work, he didn’t say it to you — he said it to management.”
In the silent, dignified style of the American West, few knew that Mr. Lujack was suffering from cancer. His wife said her husband did not want any memorial services, and that his body will be donated to the University of New Mexico Medical Center for research.
“It’s fitting that his final act is such a noble one,” she said.
A man who made so many Chicago mornings memorable rides into the sunset on his own terms.
In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, a daughter, a stepson and two grandchildren. Mr. Lujack’s son John Lujack died in 1986.
Contributing: Mitch Armentrout