From 1961 through 1965 Tom Donahue was not a San Francisco rock scene-maker, he was the scene. He and Bobby Mitchell took over the Cow Palace on occasional weekends and put together 20-act, two-song-apiece (some singers didn’t know more than two) package shows that constituted the be-all and end-all of live rock ‘n’ roll in those days. Donahue was among the first to see talent in local boy Sly Stone, whom he hired as producer for his Autumn and North Beach labels. Together, they went on to squeeze hits out of the Beau Brummells and non-hits from the Great Society, the Tikis, the Vejtables, the Mojo Men, and the Knight Riders.
A listener like myself could only marvel when Donahue took over as program director of the early KMPX in 1967—here was the man who had taken you through grade school and the Monotones, high school and Dion, who now seemed determined to be part of your life no matter where it took you, as long as it didn’t take you out of the Bay Area. I liked the idea of listening to Tom Donahue from the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll to its end, whenever that might be.
One got a chance to know Donahue on KMPX, and later on KSAN. He took care with his shows, working carefully to build a set of three or six songs toward some pleasing resolution. Always, Donahue was open to new music, and never was he forgetful of the old.
He did as much as anyone to rescue Van Morrison’s career from its post-Them shambles, being perhaps the first DJ in the country to play Astral Weeks, an album I first heard on Donahue’s show, probably about two minutes after the Warner Bros. man handed him his copy. His shows were never faceless, never pointless, never anything less than the good times of a man who loved his music and the stories that went with it.
Tom Donahue was, simply, the great DJ. I’m glad I grew up listening to him. The truth is, I never expected him to die before I did.
One thing about living in the Bay Area all my life, and about being in the same relative age group as Greil (separated by 8 years and a day), is that he often wrote, and writes, about things local to me. I experienced Tom Donahue pretty much as Greil describes it here. No disc jockey ever meant more to me in my life than Big Daddy. One thing Greil didn’t know when the above was published is that less than a month later, Ralph J. Gleason also died (https://greilmarcus.net/2014/07/21/ralph-j-gleason-1917-1975/). What Donahue was to Bay Area radio, Gleason was to the rest of Bay Area music culture. It’s fruitless to pin down exactly when “The Sixties” died, but I can assure you, when Donahue and Gleason died over the course of 5+ weeks, my heart was broken in ways that I can still feel.