Remebering Swingin Sweeney

By Scott Westerman curator@keener13.com

The Red Eye Grille straddles the northwest corner of 7th avenue and 59th street in New York City. It’s just blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater where Letterman and Colbert performed and a short walk to the heart of Broadway.  In the summer of 2014 it was the home for a reunion of many of the original Keener Keymen. In attendance were Bob Green, Jerry Goodwin, Gary Stevens and Robin Seymour, personalities from the dawn of WKNR’s notoriety. Scott Regen came soon after.  John Meagher and Jim Brooker represented Contact News with Pat St. John and Jim Kerr representing the long tail of the Keener legend. Frank Maruca joined via Skype. At the center of the action was the man who found the venue, the host and sometime master of ceremonies, Frank “Swingin” Sweeney.

It’s now almost two years later as I meet Frank and his long time companion, Stephanie for lunch at that same hallowed location. It’s clear that he’s royalty here, warmly welcomed by the staff, who exude genuine love for an amazing spirit who became Keener’s second morning man in the wake of Mort Crowley’s dramatic departure.

Frank Sweeney likens the radio business of the 50s and 60s to professional baseball. “You started out in the minor leagues and if you were lucky, you eventually made it to a major market operation.”

His own circuitous route to the majors began in the northeast and wound its way through Pennsylvania and Ohio before the confluence of timing and talent brought him to Detroit.

“I was working at WKBN in Youngstown when I learned that Mike Joseph was programming this new Top 40 station in the Motor City. Another colleague, Frank Maruca had been hired as the PD and I was tapped for the noon to 3 shift. By the time I arrived, Mort Crowley had quit and all of a sudden, I found myself on the morning show.”

It wasn’t the ideal assignment for a distinctively non-morning constitution, but “Swingin” Sweeney, a moniker he was given during his Pennsylvania swing, made the best of it. “I probably followed the format more religiously than the rest of the guys did, because I had been a program director before and had to enforce the rules. But eventually, the ‘intelligent flexibility’ that Bobby Green aptly described as the vibe at Keener, allowed us to evolve in step with our audience.”

Sweeney’s creative license was revealed in two interesting events. “We somehow ended up with a half dozen cats that we decided to give away as ‘Keener Kittens’. They were gone in an instant. The audience loved it. And then there was the time I became a Godfather. I was mentioning on the air that it was something I always wanted to do and this guy called up to say that his wife was having a baby in a couple of weeks, offering me the opportunity.”

Part of Frank’s duties included creating the weekly WKNR Music Guides. “It was a mix of art and science. The record promoters played all kinds of games to try to convince you that everything they pedaled was a hit. You developed a good sense for what the top 13 songs should be. But take a look at the lower reaches of the charts and you’ll see a lot of questionable tunes float in and out of the playlist.”

There was no question that Motown was a big part of the Keener sound and Motown talent often appeared at WKNR record hops. “I remember one of the label’s promoters contacting me to ask if he could bring a new group to one of my events. It was a girl act that didn’t yet have a name. They turned out to be the Supremes.”

The acts would show up and lip sync to their records. The crowds ate it up.

When Berry Gordy’s sister, Loucye Gordy Wakefield, passed away in July of 1965, Frank was invited to the funeral. “Every Motown act except the Supremes was in the balcony singing in the choir,” he remembers. “Diana, Flo and Mary were in New York appearing on the Ed Sullivan show.”

Sweeney had the singular distinction of introducing the Beatles during their first appearance in Detroit. “Frank Maruca said, ‘you’re the oldest so you get to introduce them.’ I remember them as being four young kids who were as fascinated by the fan reaction as the audience was with them.”

Burning the candle at both ends was particularly hard for a morning man and on more than one occasion, Sweeney’s drowsy driving attracted police attention. “One night, about 2AM I was pulled over by two of Dearborn’s Finest. Based on my weaving, they accused me of being drunk. As I was trying to convince them that I never touched the stuff (I still don’t), I happened to mention that I was “Swingin” Sweeney from Keener. That changed the whole conversation and they ended up escorting me home.

Frank’s sleep deficit ultimately ended his Keener career. On August 14, 1965, he was poised to move from air talent to Assistant Program Director. “Not for the first time, I overslept. Jerry Goodwin called Frank Maruca who was there when I turned up. I let my Irish temper get the better of me and when Frank ordered me to move to the 10PM to 1AM shift, I quit. That opened the door for Dick Puritan to move to mornings. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Sweeney quickly found work at WOHO in Toledo and then moved to WKWK in Wheeling West Virginia. “It was an operation that was similar to WKNR and it was there that I first got involved with the Miss Universe Pageant.”

Sweeney discovered he had a knack for the organization and operation of beauty pageants, ultimately rising to Senior Vice President of the Miss Universe organization before striking out on his own and a long career as a pageant licensee. Look for the Miss Universe television coverage from 1982 on YouTube and you’ll hear Frank’s dulcet tones as the voice over announcer, a side gig he had for nearly a decade.

Today, at age 82, he’s virtually retired. He and Stephanie live three blocks from the Red Eye Grille. He considers his Keener connection to be one of the most memorable experiences of his life. “Bobby Green, Jerry Goodwin and I became lifelong friends. That’s the power of Facebook for you. I’ve always felt that Bobby was the most brilliant talent that WKNR ever had. And Jerry found his niche as a performer, still involved in theater, television and film to this day.”

Sweeney describes the Keener Magic as, “Capturing lighting in a bottle. These were amazing guys who found themselves in the right place at the right time. They created a brand that still endures in the hearts of just about everyone who grew up during that era.”

We finished our lunch, toasting WKNR as the waitstaff brought over freshly baked cookies and cotton candy. Like many in their 80’s Frank’s perambulation benefits from an electric scooter. As he made his way to the exits, the regulars waved and shook his hand. “Keep rolling,” one called out, “you inspire the rest of us.” As we parted and I turned to head back toward Time’s Square, I thought that this comment probably best described the atmosphere at Keener in the 60s.

“You don’t realize you’re making history when you’re in the middle of living it,” Frank Sweeney told me. “For those of us lucky enough to have worked at WKNR, it’s been a pretty good run.”

As I look over the careers that many of the Key Men have had since, I’m inclined to agree.

May 25th, 2017 | Posted in Keener
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