There goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say, hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
And there goes the last DJ
—Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “The Last DJ”
Then there was the time George Harrison—the George Harrison—spotted the tantric yoga button on his lapel from across the room and made an effort to get past the usual crush of press and music executives to meet the kindred soul.
“He could see I wasn’t asking questions, I was listening, so I was different, and there was this break, and he said, ‘Can I get you a cup of tea?’ And I’m about to frigging weep.”
We are three hours into a visit with Cerphe Colwell, and the stories show no sign of letting up. The names drop like nails on a workshop floor: Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, Bonnie Raitt, Howard Stern, Jerry Garcia, Stevie Nicks, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, Robert Plant, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, the Rolling Stones for crying out loud … Is there anyone Colwell hasn’t met and befriended?
“We spent some time together, and we talked,” Colwell says, absurdly calmly, of his encounter with Harrison. “It was lovely.”
A photo taken at the event ended up being the cover shot on Colwell’s 2016 autobiography, Cerphe’s Up: A Musical Life with Bruce Springsteen, Little Feat, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, CSNY, and Many More (Carrel Books), written with local journalist Stephen Moore. Colwell’s grin, now that you know what was going through his mind, is priceless.
So, who is this guy? Here’s who he is now: For the past five years, he and his internet enterprise, Music Planet Radio, have been voted “Loudoun’s Favorite Radio Station & DJ” by the readers of the media outlet Loudoun Now. “And that means we beat WTOP[-AM], all the FMs, even the country station,” he’s quick to add.
Colwell, who we will call Cerphe because for the first 40 years of listening to him, we had no idea he even had a last name—it was always just “Surf”—has been a fixture of the region’s rock ’n’ roll airwaves since 1971. Remarkably, at 71, he has managed to remain not just relevant but revelatory for listeners across an astonishing spectrum of ages.
His stock-in-trade is “classic rock,” but when he started playing the records during his first gig, as a college undergraduate, at Bethesda, Maryland’s legendary low-watt, progressive, free-form station WHFS-FM in ’71, it was the first time those iconic songs had ever been played. And now they are “classic.”
In other words, the first time Washington heard Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” in 1973 was, most likely, the first time Cerphe played it on the station’s turntable. Now the song is in our cultural DNA, and Cerphe has a framed gold record on the wall in his Leesburg home, sent to him in 1975 by Columbia Records to commemorate Springsteen’s milestone achievement of selling more than 500,000 copies of his 1975 album, a little number called Born to Run.
The gold record was a reward, in a way, for believing in Springsteen when he was playing Washington’s humble Childe Harold venue in 1973; Cerphe brought him to the station to introduce him to listeners. Relationships ensue when Cerphe interviews you.
After nearly seven years, in 1977, Cerphe was fired by the station’s owner—most likely for Cerphe’s climbing popularity—and went from cultish WHFS to corporate WAVA-FM in Arlington. Suddenly he had 50,000 watts and basically the same mandate—play what you like as long as it’s good—and he formed a larger audience. He intensified his on-air persona and became one of the few “must-listens” during FM radio’s heyday. It didn’t hurt that he worked with other popular jocks, including Howard Stern, a longtime friend.
At WAVA and DC101, he was the one who teens and young adults listened to on Friday nights; it was as if he was in the car with you, playing those songs just for you. The DJ kept the party rolling, reminding you sotto voce that Friday was “date night No. 1.” Squeals ensued.
Cerphe made it into the national spotlight on Sept. 19, 1985, when he was called to testify on behalf of the radio and recording industries before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The hearing was in response to the Parents Music Resource Center—the PMRC, headed by then-Sen. Al Gore’s (D-Tenn.) wife, Tipper—which wanted to put parental guidance labels on music.
It was his friend Frank Zappa—Cerphe is in Zappa’s autobiography—who got him invited. Also testifying were Twisted Sister front man Dee Snider, whose flowing blond mane made quite an entrance in the hearing room, and John Denver, the buttoned-down folkie who the committee thought would testify in favor of the censorship they were intending but did an eloquent 180-degree flip when given his chance.
Cerphe, in a suit and tie, shag haircut and impeccable moustache, warned that censorship would backfire and, ultimately, “this action will be a false cure—and just another disease at worst.”
Despite his celebrity, broadcast is a heartless business. In 2009, when his employer, 94.7 The Globe, switched formats from classic rock to pop and sent the staff, including Cerphe, packing, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, quoting Cerphe in an exit interview, wrote, “If he had his own station, he said, he would keep some of the popular acts of decades past but add new music to expand the playlist: ‘If I could, I’d put [WHFS] of the ’80s together with what we’re doing now, add [new music] and put it in a blender and hit liquefy.’”
Hello, Music Planet Radio.
Where do DJs fit into the entertainment landscape in 2021? It’s bad enough that the music industry is so fractionalized that it’s impossible to establish an identity. Worse, electronic performance artists appropriated their initials—DJ—when playing laptops in clubs.
“DJs hearken back to the golden age of radio, where you got to know their personalities, and that added to the listener connection,” says Jeremy Tepper, the longtime program director of several stations for SiriusXM, including the DJ-driven Outlaw Country and Willie’s Roadhouse (Willie being Nelson).
For the past several years, satellite radio has been at the forefront of keeping DJs employed for stints long enough to develop followings. “The DJs put the music in context,” Tepper says. “Since our stations span so many dimensions, someone has to connect the dots between Sun rockabilly and Sweethearts of the Rodeo, right up to what’s happening today, such as Tyler Childers.”
Popular streaming services that deliver nonstop tunes curated by the listener themselves fail on many levels. Lee Abrams can count three.
“One is the DJ at the Top 40 station who adds energy to the show, where he just keeps the momentum coming,” he says. “The other is the talk show like a [Howard] Stern, and the third thing is a lost art: What you don’t hear anymore is the sort of embellisher, who takes listeners on a little journey and really has something to say.”
Abrams was co-founder and chief programming officer of XM Satellite Radio in Washington, DC, in 1999, developing new formats, improving old ones and exploding the rules of radio as it was known. These days, Abrams consults on media content and corporate leadership, among other things, posting morsels on the rabbit hole website leeabramsmediavisions.com.
“I think a DJ needs to fit into one of those three general areas to be effective today, but because of autopilot, the era of the DJ is over,” he says. “But if a DJ really has something to add—if you can take somebody on a journey—they can be very important, a great component, but unfortunately, very few do. Putting music in context is a great skill. Unfortunately, there are very few that have it.”
Music Planet Radio—available on the web, with an app and via Amazon’s Alexa—if allowed, takes listeners on a journey, but not in a podcast way with narration. Cerphe bills the 24/7 stream as “rock without rules, music without borders.” While its roots are in classic rock, there is plenty of newer material, including things you’ve never heard before.
“The idea is to find the sweet spot for listeners, for the adult audience that grew up on classic rock and likes classic rock a whole lot, but also likes to hear new music that makes us happy,” he says. He lists Ray LaMontagne, Lana Del Rey, Portugal. The Man, Black Pumas, among others. “It works. Yeah, it works,” he concludes.
The station’s hard drive has some 5,100 titles in its memory, compared to “the same 130 songs” at a classic rock station Cerphe referenced for us earlier.
So how does a contemporary DJ not only manage to develop a global following but also win local awards doing it? By becoming part of the community.
Cerphe and his wife, Susan Butler Colwell, moved with their cat, Ponce deux Leon, to a comfortable gated community in Leesburg five years ago after a long stay in Reston. (The house is a remarkably uncluttered and tasteful collection of collections, including a wall of 8,300 CDs, rock portraits, vintage toys and other pop culture memorabilia.)
They have been married 21 years but have known each other much longer, when she was an overnight announcer at WJFK in 1989—in fact, she’s the electronics engineer behind the internet station. The inevitable didn’t occur until both of them were divorced, decades apart, but finally single at the same time.
A former correspondent for NPR’s The Savvy Traveler show, hosted by Rudy Maxa, Susan is a principal and founding partner of a real estate investment firm specializing in affordable housing in Baltimore. She’s also hard at work—in a converted bedroom across the hall from Music Planet Radio (her three screens are bigger)—on a debut novel called The Summerlands: A Mystical Tale of Angels, Elementals, the Afterlife and Souls on Missions.
The “metaphysical fiction” is set in Leesburg. The heroine, Sera Parker, a goddess who doesn’t know it and won’t believe it, works at Mom’s Apple Pie, the longtime Loudoun Street bakery. Other locations that will be familiar to area residents include North King Street’s Lightfoot Restaurant, The Barns at Hamilton Station Vineyards, the historic Tally Ho Theater, Fabbioli Cellars, DIG records and boutique optical shop Eyetopia. The book is due any minute (check susanbutlercolwell.com for updates).
Like the novel, Music Planet Radio is firmly set in Leesburg, a place that has, Cerphe says, “a community spirit we saw immediately.” The station airs local public service announcements and sponsors several public festivals—Acoustic on the Green, Tarara Summer Concert Series, the Flower and Garden Festival, the all-star Jingle Jam, among many others—and in turn is sponsored by local businesses. He also engages a wide audience on various social media platforms.
And the stories continue. Cerphe became known, among other things, as “the DJ who wears clogs.” The backless wood-and-leather shoes had a day—for men, anyway—in the post-hippie era of the ’70s. They were avant-garde and a bit daring in an age when “unisex” was sometimes misunderstood.
“When I was at the radio station, I’d be on my feet for four or more hours a day, and I just found clogs to be the most comfortable,” Cerphe says, adding with a raised foot, “I’m still wearing the same brand.” That would be Sweden’s Troentorp, “clog makers since 1907.” And now you know.
And about that Little Feat album appearance. Cerphe became friends with many of the artists he interviewed at WHFS. “We were really fans of the music, and we would go out and meet new bands that we liked,” he says.
Among those was Lowell George, the leader of the eclectic rock band Little Feat. Cerphe was backstage in August 1977 at Washington’s Lisner Auditorium the night the band was to record part of a live album that became Waiting for Columbus.
“Lowell [George] just asked me if I would bring the band to the stage,” he says, the result of which is on the album: That’s Cerphe leading the audience in spelling “F-E-A-T” three times before the song “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” These days, the familiar intro is considered part of the song. The record became one of Feat’s best-selling albums, peaking at No. 18 on the Billboard rock chart and No. 38 on the all-time Classic Rock chart.
So not only does Cerphe play classic rock, he’s part of it.
Cerphe Colwell has rubbed elbows and shared microphones with countless celebrities. Here are a few highlights in his own words.
Bruce Springsteen: It was a magical evening in 1973 when Bruce Springsteen made his DC debut at the Childe Harold, a small but venerated venue at Dupont Circle. I got there for sound check where the seven-piece band set up in a small front window. I introduced myself to Bruce, told him how much I liked his album and invited him to my show. He agreed, got lost on the Beltway and was an hour late for the interview! Worth the wait … he brought the band and played a radio concert. I was elated.
Howard Stern: I first heard Howard Stern when he came to DC101 in 1981. He’s authentic, a great interviewer and all-around good dude. I lent filmmaker Ivan Reitman’s team some DC101 props that were used in Howard’s film Private Parts. Howard has always been gracious, seems to be happy, and I’m glad he is. I always thought he had superstardom mojo. He recently re-signed with SiriusXM for five more years and has been on satellite radio since 2006.
Stevie Nicks: Stevie Nicks and I go back to 1975, when Fleetwood Mac was my in-studio guest. Stevie and Lindsey Buckingham had just joined the band. Both were American “new kids” in a very successful British band, so Mick Fleetwood did much of the talking. Stevie and Lindsey repeated how excited they were to be in the Mac, and I let them know that I loved their previous solo Buckingham Nicks album. That got smiles and attention from Stevie. She was wearing a peasant blouse and jeans, an early prototype of leather and lace (pun intended). I once saw her at a Bed Bath & Beyond store in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I lived in the ’90s. I didn’t want to bother her while she shopped for those 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. She later told me that Bed Bath & Beyond was her favorite store! In 2004 she started her charity Band of Soldiers for wounded soldiers. She’s quiet about it, but she won the Outstanding Achievement Award at the 2015 USO of DC-Baltimore Annual Awards Dinner. She holds the record for most hours spent over a five-year period visiting combat-wounded service members at Walter Reed Hospital. She said, “I am more proud of this than Fleetwood Mac or any of the other things I’ve done.” RESPECT.
The Rolling Stones: In 2002 the Rolling Stones played FedExField, and my radio station, 94.7 The Globe [and others] ran a contest for listeners to win tickets and meet the band. The Stones seemed happy to do this meet-and-greet and were guardedly nonchalant. Near the end of the event, a door opens and [Washington Football Team owner] Daniel Snyder walks in, carrying a football. The listeners all recognize him. Dan opens his jacket, pulls out a Sharpie pen, autographs the football and hands it to Mick. Jagger had no idea who Dan was. Nobody introduced him. No words were exchanged. Snyder departs, and Mick leaves the football on a table next to jumbo shrimp. The band smiles and leaves. Hold. My. Beer. It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll, indeed.
Linda Ronstadt: I met Linda Ronstadt in March 1974, when she was recording what became her first No. 1 album, Heart Like A Wheel, at Track Recorders in Silver Spring, Maryland. Lowell George of Little Feat was helping (she included a brilliant version of his song “Willin’” on that LP) and brought her along for an interview on my WHFS show. We talked about what mattered to Linda growing up: popular folk music like Peter, Paul and Mary, traditional Americana, such as the Carter Family and Bob Dylan. Her four previous solo albums had done well, but on that day, when she and Lowell sang live on my show, we didn’t know her next record would make her a superstar. Her 1978 album, Living in the U.S.A., was released with an initial shipment of 2 million units, or, in music industry parlance, the album “shipped double platinum.” Heavy man, very heavy.
Van Morrison: In 1968 in my hometown of Boston, I was listening to WBCN, a favorite FM station. They reported that Van Morrison had moved to the area, living in nearby Cambridge, and was forming a band. He wasn’t widely known then, but his classic song “Gloria” had already achieved status as a bar band staple. I loved Van Morrison’s early hit “Mystic Eyes” with his first U.K. group, Them. In the summer of ’68, I’m driving in Harvard Square and come to a red light. Standing on the street corner was Van Morrison. Van the Man! It was dreamlike. Then he crosses the street. I park the car and run back to the corner to look for him. But Van is gone. He’s nowhere to be found. Of course, in my mind I had already put Van’s band together with musician friends I knew around town, and I, needless to say, would be his new bass player. Well, the stars did not align. He played DAR Constitution Hall in October 1974, and his label, Warner Brothers, invited us. Backstage, Van seemed very cold and didn’t want to talk to anybody. I was OK with that. I got to meet him. I go back to my seat, the lights go down, and the voice over the PA says: “Good evening, welcome to Constitution Hall. Please refrain from taking any photographs. Thank you. And now, Van Morrison.” Early in the show, a flashbulb goes off. Van stops singing, does a 180-degree turn and walks off stage. I waited a few minutes, then a few more. The crowd starts mumbling. Because I had a backstage pass, I got up and went to see what was going on. I was curious. I got to his dressing room. He was sitting alone and weeping. Now would have been the wrong time to ask him if he remembered seeing me in Harvard Square at that red light.