Fred Cook died last week at the age of 83. The name may not ring a bell unless you grew up in the Mid-South, where Mr. Cook was a popular radio and TV personality for more than 50 years.
With his partner John Powell, Cook co-hosted "The Zero Hour" on WREC-AM for more than a decade during the 1960s and 70s. Even today, it's hard to describe what made the program--and the duo--so special. In some respects, it was the radio equivalent of "Seinfeld." They talked about everything (and nothing), but did it with a whimsical style that was legendary.
Long-time WREC announcer Allan Tynes reminisced about the show (and its hosts) in a 2007 post on a radio message board. He remembers that "The Zero Hour" began, quite literally, by accident:
WREC-AM was located in the basement of the Peabody Hotel in 1964. A fire started one day and most of the power was lost for several hours. I believe John was on the air at the time doing his regular midday show. The power loss did not cause WREC to go off the air. Fred came into the control room and the two of them sat in the dark and talked on the air while firemen came and went around them searching for the fire and putting it out. The entertaining conversation they held under those circumstances must have been amazing. Listeners enjoyed it immensely for the two had caught lightning in a bottle while talking over the little bright wire there in the dark basement of the Peabody.
In the weeks that followed, Fred and John discussed the event often and gradually the idea for a program evolved. I believe the first broadcast date for "The Zero Hour" was September 1, 1964. (At least that's the date of their 3rd Anniversary Show three years later.) The format was simply the two of them talking for an hour about anything that came into their heads. The commercials were live and unrehearsed. Almost the only thing pre-produced was the theme music. The show opened with a Gong sound effect followed by a song titled, "Clinkerated Chimes" from the "Musically Mad" album by Bernie Green and the Stereo Mad-Men (RCA/1958). Yes, it had a picture of Alfred E. Newman on the cover. There were other musical themes for the various bits they did, but no structured music or produced commercials like you would hear the other 23 hours of the day on WREC.
"The Zero Hour" became a popular addition to the WREC lineup and they did the show until about 1975 or 1976, I think. Ownership of WREC changed and Fred was fired and John went with WREC(G)-TV full time. Don't ask!
Fred and John's bits included "Fremont Filligree the Poet and Ziggy, the Organ Player", "Gunfolks", a fabulous rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas", "Frantic Fred, the Rock DJ" and many more. John wrote the material and usually played the straight man and they were hilarious. They had guests occasionally, but most of the time it was just the two of them. If you ever heard them, there's no need for any analysis. If not, well, I'm sorry for you. They were much better than Godfrey, in my book, better than anybody else I ever heard on the air with the possible exception of Bob and Ray.
Save a few tapes in boxes or snippets loaded onto computer hard drives, there are few surviving examples of "The Zero Hour." Powell and Cook reunited (briefly) in the early 1980s, but it wasn't the same. Today, they'd have a syndication deal and hefty bank accounts, but sadly, the hosts--and their program--were decades ahead of their time.
These days, John Powell is semi-retired and living in Arkansas, though he still does some work for a small radio station in Hardy. Fred Cook remained active as a Memphis broadcaster until the end of his life, lending his booming voice to countless radio commercials. He also served as the public address announcer for University of Memphis basketball games for two decades, beginning in the early 1970s.
Mr. Cook had one other claim to fame that (might) have put his career on a very different path. In 1954, someone from Sun Records brought Cook a release from a new singer named Elvis Presley. Cook played the record for about a minute, then pulled it off the air. "That's the worst s--t I've ever heard," he exclaimed, predicting that the artist had "no future."
Sometimes, even the greats get it wrong. And for a generation of Mid-South radio listeners, there was no doubting the talent--or genius--of Fred Cook, despite his disdain for rock and roll.