Friday, May 20, 2005

A Tribute to Ed Sciaky

Mining the archives I found this article about legendary Philadelphia disc jockey Ed Sciaky who died in January 2004. This year old column was written about Sciaky in the days immediately following his death. The writer was a fellow disc jockey with Sciaky for a time about 30 years ago. It appeared in The Philadelphia Daily News on January 30, 2004.

Radio's Ed Sciaky dies. Fan and friend of musicians stricken in New York

by Jonathan Takiff

Ed Sciaky, a legend in the Philadelphia radio community and devoted fan and friend of many musicians, died suddenly on a street corner in New York yesterday morning. He was 55.

And for many of us, it will truly be remembered as a day when the music died.

"I'm going to be looking out there in the audience and he won't be there," said a broken up Steve Forbert, pals with Sciaky since the late '70s. "He was a Philly fixture to me, synonymous with the city."

"I loved him. I'll miss him," said Steven Van Zandt, longtime guitarist of the E-Street Band and host of the "Little Steven's Underground Garage" show that has followed Sciaky's "Sunday with Springsteen" on WMGK since April 2002.

For many a Philadelphia baby boomer, Sciaky's radio shows through the decades were literally the soundtrack of their lives, and an advanced course in music appreciation.

Always at the head of his class stood talents like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Yes - whom Sciaky tenaciously played from "virtually unknown" status until he'd helped to make them superstars, on almost every shift of his gigs at WMMR and later WIOQ in the 1970s and '80s. That, of course, was back in the "free-form" years of progressive rock radio, when DJs could still pick the music, indulge in their passions.

"Ed was very helpful to our band in the early days of Yes, being one of the first DJs in Philly and the U.S. to adopt Yes music," said group bassist Chris Squire yesterday.

"He was a champion of music, loved and respected all kinds of music," said WXPN mid-day host and music director Helen Leicht, who worked with Sciaky at WIOQ.

"A Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester or Barry Manilow would never have gotten play on a rock-oriented station like 'Q' if it were not for him. But Ed never saw any barriers. He appreciated good music of all kinds."

And the musicians, as well. The unusually gregarious Sciaky and his wife Judy entertained many a musician at their home, and were fixtures backstage after shows, counseling the artists on what they'd done right and wrong.

"He was on me constantly to turn up my volume," said singer-songwriter Forbert, "until I finally gave in and did it. Ed could be relentless."

Sciaky's devotion to Yes was so intense that he spent vacations chasing their tour buses across the United States and England. He traveled to Leningrad to attend and voice the introduction to an internationally-broadcast Billy Joel concert.

In Springsteen's early, just-scraping-by days, the fledgling Jersey talent slept several nights on the Sciakys' green velvet sofa, forever after to be anointed the "Bruce Memorial Couch." Sciaky also earned Springsteen his first big payday by persuading Manfred Mann to cover "Blinded By The Light," a million-plus seller.

One night this writer and friend - then Sciaky's across-the-hall neighbor and WMMR staffmate - got a knock on the door at 3 a.m. inquiring if I had a guitar to spare. Bonnie Raitt and Martin Mull were over, and wanted to jam. (As I'd get to witness, the flirtatious Mull couldn't keep up with Bonnie, in more ways than one.)

Born April 2, 1948, in New York but raised in Philadelphia, Sciaky graduated from Central High and matriculated at Temple as a math major. Then a chance visit to the studios of WHAT-FM changed his life, when Sciaky brought over an album for laid-back folk DJ Gene Shay to play, and Ed became entranced with the medium and messages of radio.

"He became one of my first unpaid assistants and almost like a son," said Shay yesterday. "It was his idea, for instance, that we take along a tape recorder to a coffeehouse show, to capture this newcomer named Joni Mitchell. Ed also kept me organized. He was always very methodical, remembered everything, even the catalogue numbers of records."

Shay, in turn, became Sciaky's mentor, helping him polish his own, similarly naturalistic delivery when Sciaky switched over to the communications department at Temple, and went on the air at then student-run WRTI-FM.

From there, he graduated (circa 1969) to Philadelphia's first, full-time progressive rock station, WDAS-FM, anointed "Hyski's Underground" after program director and air personality Hy Lit. It was a place and a time so free-spirited (and indulgent) that some DJs performed their shifts while tripping on acid. But not Sciaky, then and forever a very straight arrow. He gladly welcomed the chance to move a couple of years later to the more professionally run WMMR.

Sciaky's only real indulgence was food. It earned him the title "Hungry Ed," from Van Zandt, after Sciaky would descend upon the platters backstage at Springsteen/E-Street Band gigs.

While the noose started tugging around the neck of FM rock DJs in the late '70s, with program directors forcing play lists on the air talent, Sciaky was one of the last guys with clout, spinning his favorites (no matter how eccentric) on his "Sunday Night Alternative" sessions on WIOQ. The show lasted into the early '80s.

When he moved to the classic rock-formatted WYSP in '86, though, the DJ's hands were finally tied and much of the fun went out of the gig, he'd privately grouse to friends like Forbert. But pro that he was, Sciaky's warm, comforting voice would never let on to listeners that he didn't really want to play us "another block of Lynryd Skynrd!"

"Ed's greatest frustration of the last number of years was that the radio business had no place for someone like him who loved the music and the medium and was so adept at the medium," said Michael Tearson, a colleague of Sciaky's at WMMR and recently WMGK.

In recent years, Sciaky battled diabetes and a staph infection in his right foot that just wouldn't heal. He also had kidney failure and had dialysis, but never let on to anyone but his closest friends.

A year ago, the foot had to come off, "and Sciaky really busted his chops in rehab, to master using a prosthesis," said Tearson. "And his love of music, of all kinds of entertainment, never failed. He was like a sponge - still out at concerts, at movies, at plays, all the time. He didn't have time for moping."

"Miami Steve" Van Zandt suggested yesterday that Sciaky's fans should follow suit.

"Ed Sciaky will never die. That is what being legendary is all about. As long as the music of the bands he played lives, he lives."

Besides his devoted wife Judy, Sciaky leaves behind a terrifically talented daughter, Monica, a freshman vocal performance major at Northwestern.

Services are pending.

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