Rock‘n’roll presenter Dr Rock is celebrating his 20th anniversary on BBC Radio York. Charles Hutchinson meets Charles White, the Irishman behind the cult show.

LITTLE Richard couldn’t have put it better. “A Wop-Boppa Loo-Bop, A Wop-Bam Boom,” roared the Georgia tornado. “Brought up on Catholic Mass, suddenly hearing that for the first time was like getting out of the Bastille after 40 years’ imprisonment,” says rock‘n’roll specialist broadcaster and author Charles White, alias BBC Radio York’s Dr Rock. “It was a feeling of exhilaration and fun, an ingredient that’s now missing from modern-day life.”

Dr Rock, an Irishman who made his home in Scarborough, is celebrating his 20th anniversary year on the North Yorkshire station, where his joyful voice, encyclopaedic knowledge and hyena laugh have become a weekly institution.

“Music raises the spirit,” he says. “It’s not a coincidence that music occupies a bigger area of the brain than language.” It all began with Little Richard, Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally, when Charles was growing up in Roscommon in the west of Ireland. “Walking down the street, I heard Long Tall Sally and it was as if I’d opened our front door and the Niagara Falls had come through,” says Dr Rock, who is fond of florid imagery.

“Our piano was a sacred place for religious icons and family portraits and then you see Little Richard doing what he did on a piano. I had a go but everything fell off. ‘You’re not Little Richard’, my mum said. ‘You’re Little Wretched’!”

Charles, or Chas as he is known at the radio station, came from a musical family and dutifully tried to learn the piano, but while his teacher wanted him to play Chopin, Charles was becoming hooked on rock‘n’roll.

“My joy was sharing music with other people, playing a 45 and then turning it over and discovering another joyous song,” he says. The habits of a DJ were beginning to form already.

Nevertheless, a professional life ensued in a very different field, as Charles White studied chiropody in London, qualifying in 1963 and becoming a lifelong member of the Institute of Chiropodists. “That was my livelihood; that was my bread and butter,” says Chas, who ran his practice in Scarborough for more than 35 years and still does a clinic once a month at the McCain’s factory. “I’m called a podiatrist now,” he says.

Why Scarborough? “I met my wife in London and she said, ‘Come to Scarborough’, as she’s from there. I was expecting coal heaps, dark moors, beer-swilling rugby players covered in black mud, but I fell in love with the place and didn’t want to go back to the Smoke,” says Charles. “Moving to Yorkshire, I became a member of the master race!”

Scarborough played its part in Charles developing a broadcasting career. “When the BBC radio show Any Questions came to the Grand Hotel in 1968, I faced up to a panel that included Enoch Powell to ask, ‘Why do politicians insult the public’s intelligence?’. Afterwards, the host, David Jacobs, recommended that I should work in radio.”

Rock‘n’roll was the natural outlet for Chas, who had joined the Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis fan clubs and started collecting 78s and wind-up record players, magazines and albums.

“Many years ago I gave a talk on rock‘n’roll to the Scarborough Roundtable, and one of the town’s education officers was there and said I should do a course on rock‘n’roll,” he recalls.

“So I started a three-month course at the Scarborough School of Art and Technology, which began with the psychological roots of listening to sound, from the moment you hear your mother’s heartbeat to my passion for rock‘n’roll.”

The Daily Mail picked up on the course, coining the name “Dr Rock”. Charles duly became a regular guest on Charlie Gillett and Stuart Colman’s show on BBC Radio London, BBC Radio Tees and Radio Humberside during the 1970s and ’80s.

Crucially too, he chalked up many appearances on American stations on his numerous trips across America, bringing him into contact with rock‘n’roll’s pantheon of greats, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, initially through meeting producer Robert Blackwell.

Meanwhile, aside from chiropody and broadcasting, Charles opened Britain’s first rock‘n’roll museum on the Scarborough foreshore in 1983, having built up a collection of memorabilia. “I remember managing to get hold of gold discs for Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock and Gene Vincent’s Be-Bop-A-Lula as well as discs from British artists,” he says. “We’d arranged to open on the Good Friday, putting these picture discs and albums on the roof, but the day before we opened the roof collapsed with all these dead pigeons everywhere!”

By 1994, at the invitation of station manager Geoff Sargieson, Charles began his BBC Radio York weekly broadcast and it now stands as one of the longest-running cult shows on the British airwaves. “I love communicating with people, and I’m delighted that people say I have the gift of the Irish blarney,” he says.

“When I was studying physiology, I was called forward to explain something and afterwards the tutor said: ‘you’ve just heard someone who didn’t so much kiss the blarney stone as it must have fallen on top of him’.”

He believes his skills in dealing with his chiropody patients, as he works on their feet, have helped him in the radio interviews that have become such a feature of his shows, whether talking to Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn or Pop artist Sir Peter Blake.

“You get a variety of people from all walks of life coming to your clinics, so you have to be perceptive in developing the art of communication,” he says.

What makes for a good radio show, Charles? ”Most of all you have to make it interesting, and I find that the truth is far more exciting than fiction, though you get a lot of neurosis nowadays, being told you can’t say this or that on air,” he says.

“Well, I think that if someone has an interesting life, you have to look at all aspects of that life, like finding out the marvellous stories attached to how or why songs were written.”

Charles’s fascination with the lives behind the songs has led to his ghosted autobiography for Jerry Lee Lewis, Killer: The Baddest Rock Memoir Ever and his equally definitive biography, The Life And Times Of Little Richard: the ultimate conclusion to a path that had begun with joining their fan clubs.

“He may been called the Killer, but I always found Jerry Lee Lewis a real southern gentleman, and he could give a song the life force of a Tennessee Williams play,” says Charles.

“Little Richard is an amazing man. He has a great humanity about him. As I said in the book, he really represents the American psyche because he’s gone through the world of racism, he emanated the world of sexual confusion, and he has a way of using religion as a protective force and a way of surviving in the vicious world of Hollywood and the entertainment industry.”

Like a John Peel or a Bob Harris, Charles White is a unique, original radio voice and musicologist, a counter to the “sub-moronic DJs with their sub-moronic comments” that he bemoans today.

After nearly 2,000 episodes, he still enjoys discovering and sharing music with his loyal listeners. “People want interesting, exciting, good music, and if you just start playing your own favourites all the time, you’ll be out of the business,” he says.

“Humour is a great safety valve too for a presenter, and a sense of self-mockery, as if you’re chatting with a group of friends in the front room, rather than just quoting facts, which is like reading from a ledger.”

He puts the longevity of the cult Dr Rock show down to “respecting the public’s intelligence”. “Anyone can do a frivolous show but music is important to people and you want to take it seriously for them, and they love hearing about the characters. Above all, I like to entertain,” he says. “Life’s a very brief episode and there’s no point being boring.”

At 72, Dr Rock is not ready to be stopped in his tracks. “The main reason I still do it is I enjoy it and people still enjoy listening. If they didn’t, I‘d exit stage right.”

Dr Rock’s weekly show is broadcast on BBC Radio York on Sundays at 5pm.


Dr Rock’s fact of the day

The last job that Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler did in his journalistic days at Yorkshire Post Newspapers was to write the obituary of Jimi Hendrix.

Did you know?

Charles White’s The Life And Times Of Little Richard was on David Bowie’s list of 100 Must-Read Books in Bowie’s 2013 exhibition at the V & A, London.

Did you know too?

Charles White is a member of the Sons Of Neptune, the Scarborough group of all-year bathers that campaigns against sea pollution.