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Radio, record exec Graham Armstrong dies at 60

Graham Armstrong his disc jockey days.

Graham Armstrong, in his disc jockey days.

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Updated: May 11, 2013 6:16AM

Rough or smooth, Graham Armstrong loved them all.

He relished listening to the silky Sam Cooke, the gravelly James Brown and the way Otis Redding’s voice broke when he sang about leaving his “h’-ome” in Georgia, only to wind up sittin’ on the dock of the bay.

Mr. Armstrong lived his soul-filled dream. He built an enviable collection of music and memorabilia and rose to become a force in Chicago radio and the recording industry.

He also worked for one of the funkiest musicians on the planet.

Upon his hiring as a vice president at Prince’s Paisley Park Records, he told his friends, “Oh, man — I’m going to the Purple Land.”

“He told me Prince had maybe 300 shoes in his closet,” said his friend, record executive Ken Wilson. “Dress shoes, high-heeled shoes — and one pair of basketball sneakers. And, he said of all the shoes he had, [Prince] could really play basketball.”

Prince “also was big on reading the Bible,” Mr. Armstrong told Wilson. “He had gorgeous women come over, the most beautiful women in the world — and he would read the Bible to them.”

Mr. Armstrong, 60, died last month in Los Angeles of complications from kidney disease.

His love affair with music began when he hung out at a little soda fountain with a jukebox owned by his aunt in Boonville, N.C. He was born in Chicago but grew up in Boonville, said his brother, James Armstrong.

He returned to Chicago to finish school at Austin High. Then he headed to Northern Illinois University, where he spun platters for college radio, joined the fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi and was a DJ at parties.

His big break came when he worked as an intern at WBMX-FM (102.7). He got a nighttime slot that allowed him to play what he liked to call “butt-shakin’ songs.” Next, he joined WGCI-FM (107.5). After a stint as a radio personality, he became music director and program director, said his friend, A. Scott Galloway.

“He was a great administrator,” said Chicago radio legend Herb Kent, “The Cool Gent.” “I conferred with him many times on oldies music.”

Good programmers such as Mr. Armstrong help DJs improve, while retaining the qualities that make them unique, Kent said. “Their gift is to bring out the best in you — in your ability to vocalize on the radio — and to create and to help you inspire listeners. ”

Mr. Armstrong met future stars, including a fresh-faced Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, then with New Edition. He hobnobbed with Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.

Still, he was willing to help young people just starting out. A young Ken Wilson called Mr. Armstrong to pitch some artists, back when Wilson worked for Beverly Glen Records. “He took my call. I was a little small-fry,” he said.

Mr. Armstrong had a golden ear, Wilson said. He embraced the recordings of a group called Chapter 8, featuring a then-unknown alto-voiced angel, Anita Baker.

Once, he made a deal with a young girl who asked him to play her favorite song. “She called him one night, said she was up doing her homework,” James Armstrong said. “He said he would play it, but she needed to go to bed because she had school tomorrow.”

After moving to California, he co-founded R&B Report magazine, Galloway said. He worked for magazines including Urban Network and HITS. “He was well-liked and well-known, from Chicago to L.A.,” his brother said.

But R&B gave way to hip-hop, and print journalism lost ground to the Web. He wound up as the special events coordinator at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes Peninsula, Calif., where “he flipped it into a thriving outdoor special occasions space,” Galloway said.

Mr. Graham enjoyed Art Deco architecture, Coca-Cola memorabilia and old Mercedes-Benz cars and Chevrolets. One of his vintage autos was used in the Denzel Washington movie, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” Galloway said.

He loved to visit Brazil, which always felt like home. “He enjoyed Carnival, and the beaches and the ladies,” his brother said.

He collected memorabilia on the black experience, surfing eBay and estate sales. “He would go and bid on things like first pressings of the autobiography of Dorothy Dandridge, whom he adored, or Sam Cooke pictures,” Galloway said.

Other survivors include his sisters, Patricia, Geraldine and Sylvia, and three more brothers, Sherman, Lee and Thomas. Services have been held.

James Armstrong said he will never forget how the teenage Graham tried to raise his spirits when he was stationed in Vietnam in 1969, right after Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing. “He wrote me a letter saying they had Armstrongs everywhere — from Vietnam to the moon.”

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