Book Excerpt: New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock
Murray Kaufman, known to listeners as Murray the K, was New York's top-rated DJ in the mid-1960s. Born in Manhattan, Kaufman began his career as a nightclub emcee and music promoter.
Kaufman broke into radio in 1958, hosting the late-night Swingin' Soiree on WINS-AM. Kaufman staged outrageous stunts like a contest offering a prize to any girl who came to the station in a bikini—during a blizzard. Many took him up on his offer.
When Alan Freed was indicted that year for tax evasion during the payola scandals, Kaufman moved into his primetime slot. Kaufman used the next seven years at WINS to introduce his manic mix of silly segues, cooked-up stories about the songs he played, and catchphrases like "submarine race watching."
In 1959 Kaufman began to present shows that featured the latest rock acts at Brooklyn's Paramount Theater and later the Brooklyn Fox.
Kaufman was a tireless promoter of black R&B acts that included Jackie Wilson, Ben E. King, and Joe Tex, preferring to play their records instead of covers by white artists. Kaufman was an early promoter of Motown's Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, and the Temptations.
Kaufman hit his stride as Beatlemania swept the country in 1964. The Ronettes and other American groups that opened for the Beatles in the UK tipped off Beatles manager Brian Epstein that Kaufman was key to the band's success in the States. Epstein sought out Kaufman with scoops about the band.
When the Beatles arrived in the US in 1964, George Harrison dubbed him “the Fifth Beatle” on the train ride from New York to Washington, D.C. As the band and Kaufman moved between cars, a security guard stopped the DJ. “He’s OK, he’s the fifth Beatle,” Harrison quipped.
The tag stuck. Kaufman broadcast his radio show from the Beatles' Plaza Hotel suite, was backstage at their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, and staged the band's second show at Carnegie Hall.
"Today I laugh at it. The Fifth Beatle. What the hell?" Kaufman told the San Francisco Examiner in 1979. "To me, it's a very parasitical kind of tag. After a while I really prayed they wouldn't come back, they should live and be well, but they shouldn't come back.
“From 1959 to 1964 Murray the K had made it on his own. I was my own star. The close association with the Beatles did project me. But I was cast in a role as a subservient. A lot of my career was dependent on this association with the Beatles. I didn't want my career dependent on anyone."
Kaufman was instrumental in bringing many British bands to the US including the Zombies, Herman's Hermits, The Who, and Cream. Kaufman remained at WINS until the end of 1964 when he learned the station was changing to an all-news format the following year.
In 1966, Kaufman became program director and primetime DJ on WOR-FM. With Kaufman’s guidance, WOR-FM became the first commercial progressive rock station in the country.
Kaufman played "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix when it was still an import single and was an early champion of Bob Dylan’s electronic rock. Dylan asked Kaufman to introduce him at his first electric concert at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens. Kaufman told the crowd, “It’s not folk, it’s a new thing called Dylan.”
When WOR hemmed in its DJs with a set playlist, Kaufman complained and was fired in September 1967. "I saw it coming in 1965," Kaufman told Billboard. "Music has reached a maturity and, in many cases, amplifies ideas and attitudes. People in radio are still treating it as if it were for teenyboppers."
Kaufman participated in a variety of radio shows in the 1970s. A “Salute to Murray the K” concert at Madison Square Garden was planned in 1982, featuring Dionne Warwick, Jay & the Americans, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Rascals, and other artists he’d helped over the years. Kaufman’s deteriorating health at the time made the concert impractical. Kaufman died at 60 in 1982.
Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock.
New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock