(On October 13, 2011, Bob DeLeon received the MAMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Here’s how I introduced him that night—Rick Myers)
Bob De Leon spent five decades promoting Music in Modesto. Tonight, my life-long friend gets a well-deserved Lifetime Award.
I learned four things about Bob on the day we met, October 15th, 1968, that’s forty-three years ago this coming Saturday. All my life I wanted to work at KFIV Radio, known as K5, a Top-40 Flamethrower.
Today’s most-listened-to station is KAT-COUNTRY, with a 10 share. Bob De Leon and K5 Radio had a 38 share. Of all the radios in the county, nearly half were tuned to K5.
Bob was already a legend, and October 15th is my first day. I am the all-night guy; Bob comes in at six. Most morning disc jockeys arrive one minute ‘til six, unshaved, unkempt hair, trying to find the coffee pot, and spending the first 30 minutes of their show waking up.
Bob arrives at 5:30, wearing a dress shirt and a tie, and he’s carrying a briefcase. He arranges his music, and pulls out a folder with jokes and material for that day’s show. So the first three things I learned is Bob Shows Up, He shows up on time, and he shows up ready to go. He’s been that way all his life. Creativity? Yes. But he pays his dues, everyday.
The fourth thing I learned, happened when Bob gave me a reel of tape with five Dodge/Chrysler commercials from B.B.D.&O., at that time the largest advertising agency in the world.
Bob asked me to transfer the commercials from that tape to one of the tapes the station uses. The first thing you do is erase the station’s tape so that it’s clean. And you do that with a magnetic eraser. So I have these two tapes in my hands, and…I erase the wrong tape. My 18 year old life flashed before my eyes. People get fired for stuff like this! My dream job looks finished before it even starts.
I told Bob what I just did. He looked at me and said, “Let me see that tape.” B.B.B.D.&O.’s telephone number was on it. He calls New York City, and says, “This is Bob De Leon from KFIV, Modesto. Hey, what’s going on?? That tape you sent us is blank. Can you send out another one? OK, thanks.” He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Welcome to K5, Kid.” That fourth thing is true to this day; Bob De Leon is an uncommonly nice man.
He also had an uncommon talent for music. Like many here tonight, he took lessons at Gottschalk’s music! He learned the trombone, and the keyboard, and he could sing, a talent soon to be discovered.
In 1958, Bob’s story begins. Modesto High School’s Rally Squad did a dance routine to the song “Stagger Lee,” but they wanted to use live music. One of the Rally Squad knew a kid named Kent Whitt (more about him later). Kent rounded up some fellow high school musicians. Eventually these kids became Kent Whitt and the Downbeats. The rally was magical, maybe historic! That gym was jumpin’! Even the faculty woke up, and decided to book these kids at high school events.
Out of a million garage bands might come “The Beach Boys.” We’re not talking that level. But, out of a thousand local bands, came Kent Whitt and the Downbeats. Not just two guitars and a drummer, but a female vocalist, a male vocalist, a keyboard, a horn section! It was the magic of talent meeting passion.
They did more rallies and played during lunch hours. Their first paid gig was the Modesto High Senior Class Party, 1959. And like wildfire they were thee band to hire! This is unheard of: The City hears about them and hires them to play at the Maddux Youth Center.
And it builds. De Leon keeps them practicing and learning new songs. He and Kent learn how to book shows with multiple bands. They book and then sell out the biggest venues around. Listen to these places: The California Ballroom, The Tracy Ballroom, The Turlock War Memorial. Ever been there? You could land an airplane inside there. The Valley was hungry for what they were serving: They sell out at the Lodi Legion Hall, the Cloverland Ballroom in Oakdale, the Modesto Ballroom, the Turlock Fairgrounds, the Sonora Fairgrounds! If they played today, they’d say, “we’d like to play at the Gallo Center, but it’s too small.”
They were chosen to perform with recording artists, Jan and Dean, yes, ‘The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” They played with Ike Turner. They played with Dick and Dee Dee. Las Vegas came calling, think about that! They were offered a two week gig, with the possibility that it might turn into 18 weeks.
Instead, the USO came calling, and signed the group for a five-month tour of Alaska, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, Okinawa, and they’d finish in Vietnam in May, 1964. After that, they were going to tour Europe! Every show for the troops was a must-see event.
However, fate has its twists. While in Can Tho, Vietnam, Bob and Kent both get their draft notices! They go back to the states for basic training. The band was no more. In a strange twist, Bob completes basic, and is assigned right back to Can Tho, the same base! Bob said it was more fun to jump off an Army truck with a guitar, than jump off an Army truck with a rifle.
Kent finds a career. First basic training, then Officers Candidate School, then Special Forces Training. Kent becomes a Green Beret, promoted to the rank of Major in the United States Army. He is here tonight. I’d like us to honor a legendary Modesto musician, and a true American hero. Ladies and Gentlemen, Kent Whitt. . . .
Bob comes back to Modesto, and attends a radio school; there are no shortcuts. He worked at several stations, and with his talent, in a little while, he was good enough for a big-time, day-time gig at the legendary K5 Radio.
Bob is a radio star. Don’t forget, he knows how to promote shows, which he does up and down the valley. Using K5 to underwrite some costs and share in the profits, he is booking big dance shows, often Friday nights at one place and Saturdays at another. One Saturday morning, I’m getting off the air at six, and Bob is coming on. I said, “How’d it go last night?” And he said, “Pretty good.” “Did you get any sleep?” “Yeah, about half-an-hour.”
Bob put lots of local bands to work, usually 5 bands at a time, each with a following, each doing a 35-minute set. If you had a band, and you wanted a booking at “The Hotel De Leon.” Bob auditioned lots of bands. Time consuming? Yes, but there are no shortcuts. If you weren’t ready, he’d give you advice on how to improve. If you were good, you would get your chance, and that’s all any entertainer asks for.
In the mid-1980s, a new phase! Bob and fellow disc jockey, Derek Waring, brought in Modesto’s first mobile DJ Service (Today, his nickname might be “DJ-Bobbie D”). Into the ’90s they played at dances, weddings and reunions.
What a career. In all, five decades of major contributions to Modesto Area Music.
I know of no one more deserving of this year’s MAMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. All it took was a lifetime.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob De Leon. . . .
Editor’s Note: Bob De Leon lived in Modesto his entire life. He and wife Roni were one day shy of their 55th wedding anniversary when she lost the love of her life and we lost our dear friend and Modesto Radio Museum member. Bob died on December 19, 2020 from complications of COVID-19. He is in our hearts.
Read Modesto Radio Museum’s Tribute to Bob De Leon
Listen to Bob De Leon – Aircheck