Shortly after the Spring 2012 issue of FORDHAM magazine was on its way to readers, we were saddened to learn that Pete Fornatale, FCRH ’67—legendary DJ and rock historian, subject of our “Seven Questions” feature—suffered a fatal stroke. He died on April 26.
Pete Fornatale’s voice always brings me back to my childhood.
I grew up in northern New Jersey during the 1980s, the youngest of three brothers. At home, in the car, the radio was always on—and certain voices (other than our parents’) were omnipresent.
The two I can conjure today with the greatest clarity and fondness, the two heard so often they seemed to emanate from the walls of our home, belong to New York Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto and Fordham’s own Pete Fornatale, FCRH ’67.
But they weren’t just voices; they were personalities and companions.
I could sense that Pete Fornatale lived and loved and truly cared about the music he played. To my adolescent ears, his voice on the air was always assured, sunny, friendly, funny, and—above all—knowledgeable.
When I first heard him, he was already well into his career at WNEW-FM, the station where in the late ’60s and early ’70s he and his fellow DJs were at the heart of a revolution in popular music and culture. Not only did he play the tunes I loved (thanks to my brothers’ expansive record collection) and others I’d soon grow to love, but he also interviewed the artists and imparted a generous passion for the music that nurtured my own enthusiasm.
As a kid, I’d scour the liner notes of classic albums by the Who, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, among many others, but I’d always learn something more from listening to Mixed Bag with Pete Fornatale. He’d talk about the making of this or that record and, perhaps best of all, he would find and share connections among albums and artists and what was happening in the world at the time. That approach informed and delighted me and kept me guessing what he’d play next.
In 1989, Fornatale left WNEW-FM for K-Rock, and I (and many other music fans) followed him there. Then Fornatale followed me—or so I like to think. In February 2001, about six months after I started working at Fordham, he brought his Mixed Bag to WFUV, Fordham’s noncommercial, listener-supported radio station.
(In truth, he returned to his roots. In November 1964, when Fornatale was a sophomore at Fordham, he created Campus Caravan, WFUV’s first rock and roll show, the show that would grow up to become Mixed Bag.)
On a Saturday afternoon this past February, soon after the AFTRA Foundation honored Fornatale with its 2012 award for excellence in broadcasting, I took the opportunity to interview him at WFUV for a Q-and-A article in the spring issue of FORDHAM magazine.
It was Presidents Day Weekend, and he was getting ready to broadcast his show, which would include an hour’s worth of music for “the common man—the people who are the inheritors of the day off on Monday.” I congratulated him on winning the AFTRA award, then told him—by way of introduction—about the connection I’d made between his voice and Phil Rizzuto’s, two of the most indelible from my childhood.
“I think it’s one of the things I enjoy most,” he said, “because it’s so easy to be forgotten and yesterday’s news in broadcasting. To have sort of planted a flag in people’s hearts and kept it there is a real thrill.”
We spoke about his early days on the air at Fordham, and how grateful and pleased he was to have brought his career full circle.
“Right from the beginning,” he told me, his shows were designed to “take a listener on a trip by playing a series of songs together that built up steam and took them somewhere.”
He added: “I’m always trying to put together music or concepts or themes in a way that if a person is listening to me in the car and they get to where they’re going—the mall, the restaurant, or even their own driveway—they won’t get out of the car until the end of the set because they want to take it to its natural conclusion.
“When people write that to me, that’s one of those recurring affirming notions that tells me that I’m on the right track and that I should keep doing this even after all these years.”
When I asked him about his seminal days at WNEW-FM, he shared a story that, he admitted, gives him “a little sadness.”
Sometime around 1970, when he was the new kid on the block, a reporter wrote a feature story about the station and its on-air personalities for The New York Times Magazine. “In the piece, he said, WNEW-FM is a family,” Fornatale recalled. “And let me see if I got this right: Rosko was the soul, Scott Muni was the heart, Jonathan Schwartz was the intellect, Alison Steele was the femininity, Zacherley was the eccentricity, and I was the youth.
“Now my two bits of sadness attached to that are: the article never ran, number one. And number two, today, Rosko could still be the soul, Scott could still be the heart, Jonathan could still be the intellect, Alison could still be the femininity, Zach could still be the eccentricity,” he said, his voice rising in pitch and volume, “but there’s no f—ing way that I could be the youth! That’s a bummer.”
I laughed with him but begged to differ: what about that timeless couplet from Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”: “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” Did he feel that way?
“Oh, well, there’s some truth to that,” he said, especially considering his full-circle trip back to WFUV.
Now, as I recall Pete Fornatale’s voice coming to me through the black plastic boombox in the bedroom of my childhood, I hear his ever-youthful enthusiasm, his rock and roll wisdom, and his easy laugh.
And I’m reminded of the prayerful words to another Dylan song:
May you build a ladder to the stars
and climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Play it loud and listen.
—Ryan Stellabotte, Editor, FORDHAM magazine