I meant to do this blog post back in October, but had health issues sidetrack me for a bit. I’m out of the hospital and have done a few cardiac rehab physical therapy sessions. Feeling much better now, and have been back at the drawing board. Get to go back to my day job next week. Will be nice to get out of the house. I love hanging out in the Batcave, but I do get a bit stir crazy some days- especially before I was allowed to drive myself.
For this blog post we’re taking the Way-Back Machine to talk a little bit about my part in 102.7/Rock 103’s history here in Memphis, TN. I’m going to try and get the dates and events as right as I can, but most of my part happened over 20 years ago. I was A LOT younger when all this started.
A long time ago around the time when I was just getting back to the Memphis area in ’77, WZXR/Rock103 was album oriented rock (and had been a country station before that). I remember listening to it, FM100, and WHBQ (“The Top Banana“- where Rick Dees worked at the time, and Dewey Phillips, George Klein, and Wink Martindale before him.)
Redbeard was one of Rock103’s more famous DJ’s on the air, and I bought my Rockin’ Walrus license plate (which I still have) from him when he was selling the station’s wares out of their van on the side of the road off Millbranch near Shelby Drive. (Later Redbeard went on to do his syndicated radio show “In The Studio”.)
I had a lot of radio swag- Rock Card, several bumper stickers, mini-radio, and eventually a shirt. In the early/mid ’80s they kinda dropped the walrus from promo materials, and just went with a black and white logo (above- which is what my shirt looked like). They stayed a rock station up until about ’85 or ’86 when they did a brief Top 40’s format and changed the name to Z103 (think “New Coke“).
Not too long after it was re-branded and became “The Eagle- Rock 103“. I believe they dropped the Eagle from the name after a couple years, and just before that is when I come into this story.
I listened to their new morning show, “The Wake-Up Crew“, and had a cartoonist friend, Greg Cravens who did as well (Greg did the caricatures above). Around 1990-91 I was working as a printer for a silkscreen shop (Team Victory) with another buddy, Allen Tuggle, and Greg did freelance art for the owner. Greg came up with the idea of doing a Wake-Up Crew shirt with each of them- Tim Spencer, Bev Hart, and John “Bad Dog” McCormack, in their studio (and Bev’s separate room) and dropping it off to them. My boss agreed to let us print them, and I picked up some stockings and airbrushed their names on them. We presented them with the shirts inside the stockings at one of their Christmas remotes near the printshop we worked at. They loved them, and luckily the stations promotions/marketing director, Diane Hampton, was there that morning, too. We gave her a business card and an extra shirt and we began printing them for the station soon after.
A few months later in early 1992, I started up a tee-shirt shop (The Wild Hare) with two other friends, A.G. Howard and Mitch Foust– both who I had worked with when I started airbrushing at Talkin’ Tops in ’86 right after high school (Greg worked at another shirt shop before joining us at Talkin’ Tops/AdWear Graphics).
A.G. left the biz after a few months, but Mitch and I talked with Diane and the powers that be at Rock103 about selling the Wake-Up Crew tees in our store. My former boss at Team Victory continued to do the printing on the Crew shirts. Around then is when we started selling Rock103 logo shirts in-store, too.
About a year or so later we started printing them ourselves when we expanded our shop and got two manual presses. (Can’t find any pics of the Wake-Up Crew shirts or the store display- will add one later if I run across any.) We did a lot of work with Rock103 (later with 96X and K97), and did many movie premiers with them. It was a good relationship.
Greg helped us out with ad art for The Wild Hare (Memphis Flyer ads, promo flyers, our rabbit mascot, and round logo) and started doing the Ronald McDonald House Radiothon tee designs (which we printed), as well as the art for the “Best of the Wake-Up Crew” tapes/CDs. (Remember cassette tapes..?!!) One day I was dropping off tees to Rock103’s Beale Street location downtown and stopped by Diane’s office to say hi. She had a rectangle drawn on her computer. I asked what was on the screen, and she told me the design for the new Wake-Up Crew Boxed Set. When I asked if she was literally “drawing a blank” she said yes. Not sure if Greg was busy, but it was last minute and she was desperate for an idea. I asked if she needed my help and she told me I probably wouldn’t like the deadline- which was the next day! I told her I would give it a shot and headed back out east to our shop. I had met the Crew several times, and had seen Greg’s caricatures of them, but didn’t have any pics on hand to go by. This was around the time the internet was starting to hit, and you just couldn’t “google” anything. To save time on trying to create caricature likenesses out of my head (which I wasn’t as comfortable doing at the time as Greg was) or mimic what Greg had done I decided not to draw their faces at all. Instead I “thought INSIDE the box” and just implied that they are in a wooden crate with a microphone hanging above them. It was a quick and easy cartoon to draw and color- and I made the deadline.
Later, Rock103 had a sister station- 93X. Their mascot was a chameleon, and became very popular with the fans. Diane asked us to come up with some new t-shirt designs, and one of the ones I came up with not only ended up on tees, but bus bench posters (above left) and bumper stickers(above right). I had a lot of fun working on the lizard designs and regular logo shirts. We had A LOT more freedom with the alternative 96X over the more corporate Rock103.
One day Diane called me up to see how the shirt sales were going. I told her we were constantly having to go back to print on the 96X designs, but not so much on the Rock103 ones. She asked me what I thought we could do to help increase interest in the 103 shirts. I jokingly told her, “Give them a lizard.” She paused for a moment, and then replied, “What about a walrus..?” I said, “You want to bring back the Rockin’ Walrus..?!” “Maybe.” She said. She got my attention! The Crew and lizard tees had done well for us- updating and printing the walrus could be big for us, and it was.
Mitch, Dave Beaty (our new artist and my future ‘Bushi Tales‘ partner), and myself immediately started working on new ideas for updating the walrus. I was in the back sketching on a design one afternoon when Greg walked by. He liked what I was doing on this sketch, and suggested I simplify the design- make it the least amount of lines/shapes possible. That way it could work big or small, screenprinted, embroidered, or paper printed, look good on the internet, and be printed multi-color or 1-color.
I’ve always remembered that advice (as well as a few other design tips Greg gave me) and continue to use it to this day whenever I’m thinking about logos. (Mr. Womack’s logo design work has always been a big inspiration to me, too. He passed away before I got to know him, but I’ve been a big fan of his ever since I found out about him.)
So I took Greg’s “simple” advice, inked the drawing, scanned it into the computer, ran it through streamline to convert it to vector art, then cleaned it up in Freehand. Once done, I sent it off for approval and the above walrus became the new official mascot logo for Rock103. It worked out great for embroidery. Sometimes for print they would use too dark of a blue which didn’t give the logo much contrast. That’s what I get for not picking out specific PMS colors for the logo. I didn’t get to create a completely new logo- just the head. We had to go with what they had been using and the walrus would be incorporated into it, which sometimes made things difficult.
Since the 20th anniversary was coming up, and we had had some interest in the older retro logos on shirts, I suggested that each month we release a shirt with a different classic walrus logo on the front of older style tees like they originally came on (ringers, 3/4 length sleeves, sleeveless, etc.), and do a tag print of the new logo on the back. We would then unveil the new logo on tees and merch to celebrate the station’s birthday. Diane liked the idea, but unfortunately the powers that be at 103 wanted us to use the new block style logo on the front with the old walrus characters. I told her that really defeats the whole purpose of going retro and we just ditched the whole idea. Instead we went with the “Evolution of the Walrus” design I came up with (top left). It also ended up on billboards and license plates. 5 years later the RMH used my walrus head logo for the embroidered back of their letterman jackets for pledge rewards. Inside the wool jacket, the inner lining had the logo repeated over and over- it was a very cool surprise. I would occasionally get more walrus promo merch from Diane whenever I would stop by the station (hats, pens, post-it notes, coffee mugs, buttons, etc), but after she left to go work for Memphis In May, the fun freebies seemed to dry up. They also tended to not really know how to handle the logo color-wise (again, I should have been more specific), and I saw some really bad versions of it here and there. Oh, sidenote- there was one DJ that worked for 96X who HATED the station’s chameleon mascot, and didn’t mind mentioning it and the fact he wished “they would kill it off” any and every time he would come into our store. Well, danged if they didn’t get rid of the lizard. 96X went away not too long after. Go figure..! Later WMFS/92.9 would be re-branded as “96X”, and I saw the original lizard and my version on their van and promo materials. Strange coincidence- the station was just a couple blocks up the road from our original Wild Hare location.
I left The Wild Hare (now Animated Jack’s) around ’99/00 after a falling out with Mitch over the way things were being run, and the going back on a long promise of my partnership. I did keep in touch with the Wake-Up Crew and other folks I knew at the station, and started doing more volunteer work for the RMH. Greg, our friend Bob Kimball, and myself would occasionally share cartoons we did with the Crew. Tim Spencer with the Wake-Up Crew had been the station’s webmaster, and ended up contacting me about doing a “Funny Pages” section. I got in touch with Greg and Bob and some of my fellow Mid-South Cartoonists Association members (Jim Palmer, Kevin Williams, Sam Ray, and others), and we started supplying content for the site. Tim would promote it on the air as well as provide links back to each of us and our group’s site. It was a lot of fun and I came up with the idea of doing a Wake-Up Crew comic strip– which Tim and the Crew gave me their blessing on. This was before webcomics had really become a thing, or before I had even heard the term. It lasted for a couple years before Tim decided to go ahead and try something else. Their “Babe of the Day” and “Thong of the Day” features were getting more hits than our webtoons (sex sells), and to be honest, Tim wasn’t getting as many new cartoons from our group as he had been. The new had worn off for some- others just got busy with other projects. It was fun while it lasted, and actual good exposure for our group and it’s members. I think I ended up doing around 75 different Wake-Up Crew cartoons, plus a dozen or more gag strips and political cartoons. It let many of us flex our cartoon muscles.
Funny thing- Tim was known to work on the website constantly- even while on air. One time I emailed Tim and asked him, “You spend so much time working on your website and promoting it on the air, but why do you guys never put the web-address/URL on any of the promo materials the station hands out..?” He replied back, “Forest for the trees…” After that I started seeing/hearing “ROCK103.COM” on more and more promos and ads. Remember- don’t forget to put your web address on all your materials!
I ended up doing some other designs for the Crew, Leslie Wolfe (mid-day DJ), Ronald McDonald House, and others involved with the station over the years. The last design I did was for the memorial Bad Dog Poker Run tees (above).
I always enjoyed being part of the Wake-Up Crew’s Ronald McDonald Radiothon and other special events- either manning the phones and taking donations, donating art, taking pics, or just lending a hand where I could. (That’s my walrus embroidered on my hat.) I also miss dropping by the station, cutting commercials, and hearing Bad Dog’s laugh coming from down the hallway. I got to be on the air with them a few times and always had a blast- and a lot of laughs.
Oh, after the station moved from Beale and out east off American Way (when the Fed-Ex Forum was built behind the station’s Beale location), I also did a photo shoot in the new Rock103 control room one Sunday afternoon with on-air mid-day personality Leslie Wolfe. Leslie and I had become friends and she wanted them to submit to Maxim Magazine for a female DJs feature they were doing. They didn’t run them, but Tim did post them on the Rock103 site and they were a big hit. I loved the fact that the neon walrus sign ended up in the background of many of the pics- always dug that sign. Later Leslie did a TV commercial for the station and had words and my walrus temporarily tattooed on her like Goldie Hawn in “Laugh In”- which was cool, but took a while to come off..!
Over the years the station moved, changed owners, the Wake-Up Crew disbanded (Bev got let go and ended up at 98.1 The Max with many former 103 employees, Tim and Bad Dog worked together briefly before Tim was let go and/or moved away to another station up north, Bad Dog teamed up with Ric Chetter before John passed away a little later from Leukemia), the station dropped the walrus (the logo on the left was done by Greg Cravens), brought the “classic” guitar one back for a short while, dropped it again, and then to celebrate the station’s 40th anniversary apparently they decided to go for another name change and went with “Rock 102.7“…because apparently listeners get confused with “103” actually being “102.7” on the FM dial, even after 40 years of being in the same spot. I wish I was kidding, but that was their reasoning according to their Twitter account. Times change- as well as formats and station names, but apparently the way corporations think really doesn’t, especially in radio. Ugh…at least if you type in “rock103.com” it redirects you to their new rock1027.iheart.com url.
After all the good and the bad over the years, I do think it’s kinda cool to know that back in high school I used to make over-sized faux “Wink105” bumper stickers for my American History teacher, Mr. Ed Winkelmann, and that a few years later I ended up doing actual Rock103 bumper stickers- and more. I still occasionally see my walrus on a passing car’s license plate or bumper sticker. It makes me happy, and feel kinda old. 😉
So there you have it- the rise, return, and demise of the “Rockin’ Walrus” and my part in its history- well, the parts I still remember. I don’t know who originally came up with the mascot, or drew the different variations before mine, but would love to know.