Don Imus — sharp-tongued radio host, and longtime Beachside Avenue resident — died this morning in Texas. He was 79.
I had one semi-encounter with “Imus in the Morning.” It started with something I wrote for my Westport News “Woog’s World” column. I have a vague recollection that it was something about him and his Greens Farms estate — I think just a passing comment.
Whatever it was, it hit a nerve.
That morning, he ripped me to pieces on his show. “I don’t know who this Dan Woooooooog is,” he started, before calling me, my writing and my journalistic ethics into question.
I did not hear his rant. I never listened to him. His type of humor was not mine.
This was in the pre-cellphone days, so I did not receive dozens of “notifications.” But everyone I knew who heard it told me about it.
A couple of hours later, I flew to Pittsburgh for a soccer coaches’ convention. I checked into my hotel, and gave my name.
“Whoa! You’re Dan Wooooooog?” the guy behind me in line said.
“I heard all about you on Imus this morning.”
Thanks, Don, for those 15 minutes of fame.
(Do you have an Imus story? Click comments below. Hat tip: Jack Backiel.)
NY Times version:
Don Imus, Radio Host Who Pushed Boundaries, Dies at 79
On the air, he was an irascible, confrontational growler who led pranks and parodies that could be tasteless, obscene and sometimes racist, sexist or homophobic.
Don Imus on the “Imus in the Morning” show in 2015, the last episode to be simulcast on the Fox Business Network. He was on the air for nearly a half-century.
By Robert D. McFadden
Dec. 27, 2019 Updated 6:05 p.m. ET
Don Imus, who tested the limits of shock radio with his irreverent attacks on celebrities, politicians, racial and ethnic groups, women, gay people and practically anyone whose head stuck up out of the foxhole, died on Friday in College Station, Texas. He was 79.
A publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, confirmed his death, at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center. The cause was not specified. On his “Imus in the Morning” show on March 16, 2009, Mr. Imus disclosed that he had prostate cancer. He was advised to have radiation treatments, but said he had chosen to treat the disease holistically.
For nearly a half-century — from his start on local stations in the West in 1968, through a succession of New York regional and national radio stations and cable networks, until his retirement in 2018 — Mr. Imus, with occasional and sometimes extended timeouts for illnesses, accidents or legal problems, entertained and offended countless millions with his mercurial outbursts.
The outpouring of sympathy after his disclosure about his prostate cancer reflected not only his wide following as a radio personality but also admiration for his private charity work, raising millions for the rehabilitation of wounded veterans of the Iraq war and for children with cancer and siblings of victims of sudden infant death syndrome. Since 1999, many of these children had spent summers on his ranch near Ribera, N.M.
The public Don Imus was different. Grizzled, irascible, foulmouthed, an outrageous, confrontational growler with a buckram face, a battered cowboy hat and a gun on his hip, he spent decades on the air doing pranks and parodies that were often brutish, tasteless or obscene and sometimes racist, sexist or homophobic — all while surviving alcoholism, cocaine addiction, repeated firings and a nearly fatal fall from a horse.
In the more printable Imus lexicon, Dick Cheney was “a war criminal,” Hillary Rodham Clinton was “Satan,” Oprah Winfrey “a fat phony,” Newt Gingrich “a man who would eat roadkill,” Ted Kennedy “a fat slob,” Steve Forbes “a meanspirited creep,” Dan Rather “a loony,” Rush Limbaugh “a drug-addled gas bag.” Many listeners detected the toxins of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Mort Sahl or Groucho Marx.
Sponsors worried, but paid handsomely for airtime. His employers waffled, but took in $50 million a year and paid him $10 million. He was sued for defamation, denounced, ridiculed, shunned, hated and feared. But legions of devoted listeners — a drive-time audience of millions tuned in to 100 radio stations across the country and a cable television network — adored his irreverence and gut-fighter’s instincts.
After years on the edge of acceptable standards, however, Mr. Imus went too far on April 4, 2007, when, in his trademark drawl, he referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, which had reached the N.C.A.A. finals and was composed mainly of African-Americans, as “rough girls” and “nappy-headed hos.”
An outcry by black organizations, women’s groups and the news media ensued. The Rev. Al Sharpton organized protest rallies. Advertisers withdrew. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who was running for president, called for Mr. Imus’s removal.
“He didn’t just cross the line,” Mr. Obama said. “He fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America.”
Supporters defended Mr. Imus, pointing to his charitable work. And he apologized, saying, “This time we went way too far.” But CBS, his main employer, and MSNBC, the cable network that simulcast his radio show, canceled his show, which had been heard in New York on WFAN.
Eight months later, after Mr. Imus and CBS settled a lawsuit over his $40 million contract and a suit against him by a Rutgers player was dropped, Mr. Imus returned to the air under contracts with Citadel Radio and RFD-TV, the rural television network. The show was heard on WABC and dozens of radio affiliates, and simulcast on RFD-TV. But in 2009, Mr. Imus and RFD-TV mutually agreed to end their contract three years early, clearing the way for a simulcast on the Fox Business Network.
ImageMr. Imus went on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show in 2007 to discuss his derogatory comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Mr. Sharpton organized rallies to protest the remarks.
Bernard McGuirk, the producer whose reference to “some hard-core hos” had prompted Mr. Imus’s outburst, was back. But he had added two black comedians to the cast, and his guests included the presidential candidates John McCain, a Republican, and Christopher Dodd, a Democrat. Mr. Imus said he had been chastened. But he signaled that he would not curb himself completely.
“Dick Cheney is still a war criminal,” he said. “Hillary Clinton is still Satan. And I’m back on the radio.”
In a commentary in The New York Times, the media columnist David Carr wrote: “Mr. Imus’s friends will tell you that he is not a racist in his heart. But what is or is not in the heart of a radio talk show host is much less important than what comes out of his mouth.”
John Donald Imus Jr. was born on July 23, 1940, in Riverside, Calif., and raised with a brother, Fred, on ranches near Kingman and Prescott, Ariz. His parents were divorced when he was 15, and he was often in trouble. He quit high school and joined the Marine Corps, where he played in a band.
He later bounced around and experienced periods of poverty and homelessness, followed by trouble of his own making. As a window-dresser, he staged mannequin stripteases. He broke his legs working in a uranium mine and was a brakeman on the Santa Fe Railroad. He enrolled in a Hollywood broadcasting school, but got kicked out for keeping the G.I. Bill tuition money.
Mr. Imus married Harriet Showalter in 1969. He adopted his wife’s two daughters, Nadine and Toni, and the couple had two other daughters, Elizabeth and Ashleigh. They were divorced in 1979. He was married in 1994 to Deirdre Coleman, with whom he had a son, Frederick Wyatt.
He got his first radio job in 1968 at KUTY, in Palmdale, Calif., but switched to KJOY in Stockton, where he was fired for saying “hell” on the air. At KXOA in Sacramento, he called a restaurant, posed as a sergeant and ordered 1,200 hamburgers to go, for his troops. The Federal Communications Commission slapped his wrist, but the gag was a hit with listeners. Billboard magazine named him disc jockey of the year for medium-size markets. By 1970, he was with WGAR in Cleveland.
In 1971, Mr. Imus moved to WNBC in New York and launched “Imus in the Morning.” It was an overnight sensation, and he was soon doing stand-up comedy in clubs and cutting albums. One album was “1,200 Hamburgers to Go,” and another featured his satirical character, the Right Rev. Dr. Billy Sol Hargus, a radio evangelist who was a cross between the TV preacher Billy James Hargis and the fertilizer swindler Billie Sol Estes. In 1981, he published a novel, “God’s Other Son,” which offered more Hargus tales. Reprinted in 1994, it was a best seller.
Mr. Imus was fired by WNBC in a format change in 1977 and returned to Cleveland, but by 1979 he was back with WNBC, mixing music, talk and parody. In 1988, WNBC was sold to Emmis Broadcasting, which kept “Imus in the Morning” among the sports programming on WFAN. The show became nationally syndicated in 1993, and in 1996 MSNBC began simulcasting it.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Mr. Imus led a rock-star life and battled alcoholism and cocaine addiction. He worried about getting attacked and carried a licensed pistol. He sometimes missed work, and his health problems became apparent.
There were rants. He ran around at work in his shorts and threw money on sidewalks. He went into rehabilitation in 1987 and returned sober. But in 1992 a lung collapsed. In 2000 he fell from a horse, breaking ribs and a collarbone and collapsing another lung.
His program became more political in the 1990s, with members of Congress, presidential candidates and journalists as guests. Many were abused on the air. In 1996, at the correspondents’ dinner in Washington, he insulted President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, who were there; he later referred to it as “The Speech From Hell.” His behavior led to lawsuits, many of them settled out of court, though he was indemnified by employers.
The Fox Business simulcast ended in 2015, and Mr. Imus relocated his radio program and his home to Brenham, Texas. He was off the air for much of 2017 because of health problems, including emphysema.
On March 29, 2018, “Imus in the Morning” ended its long run in an agreement between the host and his syndicator, Cumulus Media. In his closing remarks, Mr. Imus tearfully expressed regret for his racist statements in 2007, offered appreciations for his colleagues and thanked listeners for tuning in and for their contributions to the charitable causes he had promoted over the years.
Marc Tracy contributed reporting.
Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books.
I listened to Imus in the Morning during my drive to work as a Westport teacher. One episode remains with me. Imus talks about the concept of turning the other cheek, offering face masks which he stated “come in white only”. ZING.
And then. . . .there was Al “Jazzbo” Collins, in his Purple Grotto of legend, on WCBS radio, deep below the streets of New Yawk. I was in high school then and did actually (almost) believe that the studio WAS below ground. He would talk about the “cool” purple “stalactites” that kept the grotto kool. (Polyhedron cylinders hung from the ceiling to deaden the echo). And there were “Harry the Owl” who dug Brubeck, and “Clyde” the crow, who was into Dixieland. Unlike the bombast of Imus, Collns was understated. What took him down was a show one Labor Day weekend ( I think). The National Safety Council was trumpeting success of its highway safety program in reducing traffic fatalities. Collins is reported to have commented, “Come on, folks. You’re not trying.” –to kill themselves. There’s a long piece about Collins on the website of the Bay Area Radio Museum.
I started listening to him in 1972 and enjoyed him a lot…very funny man. I never experienced him as a racist…he poked fun at every one. RIP Don Imus.
An interesting tidbit about Jazzbo was a stint he did on WINS-playing rock n’ roll! According to Rick Sklar in his book Rockin’ America, It came about because Mel Leeds, the program director of WINS, was married to Jazzbo’s ex-wife, Ginny. Jazzbo paid child support. After Jazbo got fired from WNEW, the child support payments stopped, so Mel Leeds put him on WINS so Jazzbo could resume the child-support payments.
I don’t care if it rains or freezes
Long as I have my plastic Jesus
Sittin’ on the dashboard of my car…
The right Reverend Dr. Billy Sol Hargis!
In 1992 I was the student general manager of WWPT, the Staples High School radio station. I wanted to invite Imus to be the speaker at our end of the year banquet. With the hesitant permission of Richard Mott, our faculty advisor I sent an invitation. For several weeks I got no response.
One morning I called WFAN to follow up. I got through to Imus’ assistant, which was a surprise in and of itself. She asked me about the event, date, and other information and told me to hold on. I assumed she was checking his calendar.
“Who the hell is this?”
“Why does Staples High School have a radio station?”
It was the I-man himself and I could barely talk. He asked about the event and said he’d love to do it but was otherwise committed.
I didn’t care, because I was on the phone with Imus himself…We talked for a few more minutes– mostly him asking questions about WWPT and what high school students did on the radio. When the conversation was over, he concluded by saying, “Don’t call again!”
When I moved to Manhattan in 1971 I came out of Grand Central and there he was doing his WNBC broadcast from a desk on the sidewalk right off Lexington Avenue. I had no idea who he was.
God rest his soul. He was a great comedian ala Don Rickles, Red Fox, Richie Prior and many others who would not be accepted today. There was no hate or malice in their schtik but boy did they say stuff they would be crucified for in our PC days. They played on our limitations of accepted speak pushing the limits of acceptance and allowability but most of the times it made one aware of our ability to poke fun with out meant offense. A hard concept to discuss today that makes one uncomfortable to even try to explain
IMUS in the morning was a release for so many while driving in punishing traffic every morning to mundane jobs in challenging times. We laughed we did hot hate we smiled and we will miss the Right Reverend Dr Billy Sol Hargus of the first Church of faith and discount house of worship from Del Rio Texas
Say hallelujah say amen
I believe it was the First Church of the gooey death, and discontent house of worship!
It was “The First Church of the Gooey Death and Discount House of Worship.” I had the opportunity of taking Amtrak’s Sunset Limited through there and my first thought was of Billy Sol Hargis. It is actually a town deep in the desert and the train continues along the banks of the Rio Grande River and the Mexican border from there for the next couple of hours as you get to see border agents and their jeeps and occasionally border crossers waiting for the train to pass as you sit in the air conditioned lounge.
A previous commenter said that Imus
was in the same class as RICKLES,
FOXX, and PRYOR…… really?
Personally I find that stunning since those three were true comedic icons during their prime, while Imus
was malicious in so many ways when
dispensing his “comedy”.
So was Don Rickles, he could be so malicious!
I used to listen to Don Imus in the morning commuting into work with my father the summer I worked in Stamford. So my connection is really to do more with fond memories of my dad..
End of an era though!
One of the people Imus picked on, er insulted, was a an elderly friend of my mom’s named Thistle Hawkins. She was Imus’s next door neighbor when he lived on Harbor Rd in Southport (before he moved to Beachside Ave, Westport.) Known as “Tee” to her friends, she was a kind, soft spoken widow whom my mom got aquainted with at church..They often went out to lunch Sunday afternoons at the Hunt Club as Tee was a member there. Tee told my mom that she tried to invite Imus over for lemonade and cookies one summer afternoon as she was trying to be neighborly. But he declined the invitation. Then he began to pick her to pieces on his radio program. Be careful who you try to make friends with!
I confess to loving me some Imus. Sure he could be offensive and went too far sometimes but he was funny, whip smart, incredibly well-read and — in these increasingly partisan times — was one of the few hosts who was equally at home with Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Bill O’ Reilly, Jeff Greenfield and John McCain. But if you really want the inside scoop, track down Westporter Lee Davis, who as the WFAN general manager had the burden and blessing of working with Imus for many years.
According to Howard Stern, Imus spewed racist remarks off the air as well. Lee Davis got his start as “Boy Lee” as the gofer for Howard Stern when the later was on WNBC. When Lee Davis got promoted, he was replaced with “Boy Gary,” who is still with Stern as Gary Delebato.
Gary Dell’Abate. :^)
Long time Stern listener (I participated in “Death Trivia,” another game who’s title might offend some of the folks here, and “Dial-a-date.” Boy Lee sent my prizes (a Smiler’s Salami, and a Steve Perry album. I didn’t “win” the date.). Those games were in the afternoon on W Ennnnnn Bee Cee.
The ranch “charity” came across as suspect and a PL Newman/Hole In The Wall wanna-be. If you look at charitynavigator.org (a good place to vet many charities) the ranch didn’t do that much. It seemed like the ranch was a homestead for Imus paid for by donations. IMO.
In the 80s, DON IMUS, on his show “Imus in the Morning” on WFAN, kept me laughing on my daily drive from Norwalk to Mt. Kisco, New York. He and his pal comedian Rob Bartlett, created some of the funniest skits ever heard on radio.
His interviews were plentiful and included (on a regular basis) the late NBC newsman Tim Russert, NYT op/ed columnist Maureen Dowd, author Anna Quindlen, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, NBA star Charles Barkley, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, just to name a few.
The Rutgers women’s basketball comment for which he was fired was actually first said by his producer Bernard McGuirk (who took no blame). But Imus repeated it, took the heat, and was fired.
Imus had many “causes”, and one was kids with cancer. He not only raised millions of dollars for research over the years, but created a “camp” in Arizona (I think) fashioned after an old west town, where kids would go for a week or two (each accompanied by a nurse) and learn to ride horses, shovel stalls, be issued cowboy boots and hats – no special sick kid treatment for these campers.
RIP IMUS. Godspeed on your next journey (which I hope brings you back in a similar form!).
Imus Ranch in New Mexico, did great work for many many years
When I was a WPD detective I was assigned to investigate an ongoing theft issue at Imus’ Beachside Ave. home while it was under construction. We hit it off and I ended up working for him for about 10 years handling any Ct. security issues. Back in maybe late 90’s I was sitting on my living floor wrapping Christmas gifts while listening to the show. Imus had Corky Laing (Mountain drummer and a very funny guy) on the phone. As I recall Corky was in a car heading to an airport. For about 45 minutes they spun stories of their alcohol/drug fueled exploits spanning like 20 years. I was laughing so hard I was crying. It may have been the funniest and best radio that I had ever heard…. Thanks for the memories Don..RIP you were one of a kind…
Dave, I think it’s possible Imus knew Corky from their Westport connection.
I’m pretty sure Corky lived here back in the day. I know he was friends with Gail and Terry Coen and definitely spent time at their Soundview home over the years.
One more Westport link here: Corky Laing took over as the drummer for Mountain from ND Smart, who played with Barry Tashian and Bill Briggs of The Remains after Chip Damiani left the band in 1966.
ND, incidentally, was part of two landmarks in sixties music history: he performed at the Beatles’ last-ever concert in 1966 at Candlestick Park when The Remains were the opening act and he played at Woodstock in ‘69 with Mountain. I’m not sure anyone else had that privilege and distinction.
Hi Fred. And the Westport connections just keep on coming..Good stuff and thanks. Happy New Year!!
Mountain’s national promotion director, Rich Totoian, lived in Westport.
Interesting aside: I had no idea, until I read his obituary, that Don Imus was a Marine.