He was a unique person, an enigma, if you will, a living, breathing contradiction. He was often called the ultimate “shock jock.” To say he was controversial was an understatement; there was much good, but also some bad; he won many professional awards, but he was fired several times for various transgressions; he adopted an African American son, but he was accused, by some, of being a racist; he offended some with his biting, irreverent and sarcastic humor (which a lot of people took the wrong way), but he raised millions for charity and inspired tremendous loyalty among people who worked with him, such as longtime sidekick, Charles McCord. But, above all, he was entertaining. He entertained us for nearly 50 years as a radio personality, television show host, recording artist and author.
John Donald Imus, Jr. was born on July 23, 1940 in Riverside, CA. His family was wealthy, but I don’t think he had a particularly happy childhood. His parents, ran a 35,000 acre ranch in Arizona. He had a younger brother, Fred, whom many fans will remember as a frequent caller to his radio show. His parents divorced when he was 15, and his father died shortly thereafter.
Imus always admitted he “disliked” school and was generally a “horrible adolescent.” He attended various private schools, which he later recalled as “hideous.” Eventually, he dropped out of school and joined the Marines.
After receiving an honorable discharge Imus worked at a succession of jobs, some of which can be charitably described as “unusual,” for example:
- He was a window dresser for a department store until he was fired for entertaining passersby by “performing strip teases on the window mannequins.”
- He and Fred moved to Hollywood where they tried, unsuccessfully, to convince radio DJs to play songs they had written. This failure left him homeless and broke.
- He tried college, but dropped out and went to work as a railroad brakeman.
- He worked in a uranium mine, where he suffered an accident that resulted in two broken legs and a collapsed lung, which was to have a long-term effect on his health.
- In 1966 he enrolled in the Don Martin School of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences in Hollywood. He was kicked out for being “uncooperative,” but he managed to secure a broadcasting license.
- He worked as a singer/songwriter at a nightclub with mixed results.
Finally, in 1968 he secured a job as a radio DJ for a station in Palmdale, CA. Two things were notable about this job. (1) He developed his first, and perhaps best, on-air character, the Reverend Billy Sol Hargis. Hargis, an “evangelist” who was a combination of a real-life preacher named Billy James Hargis and a notorious businessman named Billie Sol Estes, was an instant “hit;” and (2) Imus’ show became the number one in his time slot and earned him a “Billboard” Award for Air Personality of the Year in a medium-sized market. This success was followed by a failure in what was to become an all-too-familiar pattern. He moved to a station in Stockton, CA from which he was fired for saying “hell” on the air and for running an “Eldridge Cleaver look-a-like” contest.
Imus’ next notable stop was Sacramento, CA. where he was fired for pranking a local McDonalds. He called them and ordered 1,200 burgers for “the troops.” Next came Cleveland, OH where he won another “Billboard” Award, this time for a major market.
Finally, in 1971 he landed in the “Big Apple” at WNBC. Great job, but on his second day he overslept and missed the entire show. Who does something that bone-headed? Are you sensing a pattern here? Once again, “bad” follows “good.”
Imus was a huge success at WNBC and its successor station, WFAN, for over 40 years – number 1 in his time slot, stand-up performances, and albums of his radio segments. But, once again, came the enigma. Along with his success came uncontrollable drinking. In 1973 he missed 100 days of work for various reasons. He became unmanageable. Even Imus characterized himself as a “jerk.” In 1977 WNBC “re-formatted,” and Imus got the “boot” back to Cleveland.
That exile lasted two years. In 1979 he returned to NY on WNBC where he was paired with his loyal and long-time sidekick, Charles McCord. Once again, however, “bad” followed “good.” Imus was still drinking excessively, but he had also become addicted to cocaine. Predictably, his work began to suffer. For example, his behavior became erratic; he took to sleeping on park benches and showing up for work without shoes; and he clashed with other personalities, notably Howard Stern, who joined the station in 1982. Their long-running feud persisted up until Imus’ death.
In 1988 NBC shifted its format once again. Bye-bye WNBC; hello WFAN. The “FAN,” as it was called, was a new experiment, exclusively sports talk radio, the first of its kind. There was nothing but sports, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with one exception, “Imus in the Morning.” Imus’ morning show was the lead-in for the FAN’s entire day’s programming. It was a big responsibility. Many people had predicted failure, but not only has the format succeeded, it has spawned countless imitators. Today, sports talk is omnipresent on the airwaves; countless former athletes have moved seamlessly to the medium upon the conclusion of their careers. Love him or hate him, one must admit that Imus, by carrying the FAN through its development years, played a large part in that.
More “good” and “bad.” “Good:”
- Imus has won countless awards and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1989.
- He has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for charities, such as “Tomorrow’s Children,” and the Center for the Intrepid, a Texas-based rehab facility for soldiers wounded in the Iraq War,
- He has visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital to boost their morale.
- He and his wide, Deidre, founded and operated the Imus Ranch for children with cancer.
- Probably, the one incident he most regretted in his long career involved the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Following their winning the 2007 NCAA championship Imus referred to them on the air as “nappy-headed hos.” Moreover, he and his staff engaged in further derogatory frivolity at their expense, which I decline to repeat here. Suffice to say, the comments precipitated a firestorm. Imus was labeled a “racist;” others came forward to report racist comments; one of the Rutgers players filed a lawsuit; and many people wanted him fired. Ultimately, Imus resolved the matter with a profuse apology to the players and anyone else whom he had offended and by offering a “mea culpa” on Al Sharpton’s show.
- He also made offensive comments against football player Adam “Pacman” Jones and Texas Congressman Joe Barton, which required further apologies.
- Some of his more notorious off-air comments: (a) referring to Arabs as “ragheads, (b) Howard Stern as a “Jew bas***d, (c) black sports columnist, Bill Rhoden, as a “quota hire,” (d) using the “N” word to describe to certain African Americans, and (e) referring to Newt Gingrich as a “fat, repulsive pig.”
As I said at the outset, Imus was an enigmatic figure. There was the “good,” and there was the “bad.” However, there was no doubt he was supremely talented and entertaining.
Throughout his life Imus suffered from various health problems. Some of them, such as alcoholism and cocaine addiction were self-inflicted. Others resulted from accidents. For example, in 2000 he fell off a horse, which resulted in severe injuries that led to chronic breathing problems, particularly at high altitudes, and according to McCord even during the shows, at times. In 2009 Imus was diagnosed with Stage 2 prostate cancer. His doctors advised treating it with radiation, but, on Deidre’s recommendation, he elected holistic treatments, which seem to have worked to a degree,
Finally, on December 24 he was hospitalized for the last time. He passed away on December 27 at the age of 79. Rest in peace Imus. You were good and you were bad, but you were always entertaining, and you will be missed.