2020-08-24 05:26:04 UTC
Sonny Fox, who was ‘Sonny in the Morning’ for decades of Miami radio fans, dies at 73
BY HOWARD COHEN
AUGUST 15, 2020 11:34 AM , UPDATED AUGUST 17, 2020 01:00 AM
For decades, “Sonny in the Morning” wasn’t just the weather description for a typical South Florida summer day.
The phrase was familiar to thousands of radio listeners since the 1970s who heard it on the former rock station WSHE 103.5 FM, contemporary pop WHYI Y-100.7 FM, oldies format Majic 102.7 FM and WKIS KISS Country 99.9 FM.
In an entertainment business that is about as stable as the tropics in September, Sonny Fox was a seemingly constant presence on South Florida airwaves for a generation or two of listeners.
FOX A PEER OF PROMINENT SOUTH FLORIDA DJS
Fox came to prominence at a time when radio DJs became household names through the force of their personalities. Their personas, piped into our cars, homes and office transistors in the 1960s and 1970s, and later 1980s boom boxes and Sony FM Walkmans, became as familiar as the sound of Mom and Dad calling in from the other room to announce dinner’s on the table.
People like popular South Florida DJs such as Rick Shaw. “Crazy” Cramer Haas. Bill Tanner. Don “Cox on the Radio” Cox. Jo “The Rock and Roll Madame” Maeder. 97 GTR’s Patty Murray. These, among others, were Fox’s peers.
Just hearing Fox’s name puts the sound of his distinctive, nasal drawl into our collective heads. And listeners would call in to his studios and tell him just about anything.
“This guy wet his pants in the middle of the Orange Bowl while playing taps during a flotilla,” Fox once said to a little group assembled inside a small, rustic-looking DJ booth during his time at KISS Country in 1999. As he eyed the monitor, Fox, working the console with the dexterity of Stevie Wonder on a keyboard, edited phone calls and quickly decided, “We probably won’t use this call. We get more than we can use.”
And now Fox, who was seldom at a loss for calls and material for his morning shows, is silenced. His wife Janet posted on Facebook that the veteran radio DJ died at their Dunnellon, Florida, home on Friday.
Fox, born James Warren Rowley in Michigan, was 73. Two of his former partners in the DJ booth, Ron Hersey and Joe Johnson, said they were told he had liver failure.
“Today I lost my husband and best friend. Sonny,” Janet Stonger Speziale Fox posted Friday evening. She, too, worked alongside Fox, most recently for Sirius XM Satellite Radio, and on terrestrial radio, too.
“Back in the 90’s, you passed me in the hall at Majic 102.7 every day,” she wrote. “You told me later that you didn’t know my name. I was just ‘the brown haired girl from the Sales Department.’ Ever since then, you always called me ‘your Mousey Brown.’ You slipped away peacefully today, and I know you are now resting comfortably. I thank you for all our wonderful years together, the fun and adventures we shared, and I will miss you until I draw my last breath. You were my sunshine, my only sunshine. I love you, your Mousey Brown.”
DJS RECALL AS FOX AS ‘A CHARACTER’
Reaction from his former co-hosts and fans also populated social media Saturday morning.
“He was quite a character,” said BeatleBrunch host Joe Johnson, who worked alongside Fox for 10 years spinning oldies on Majic 102.7.
Fox was a stickler for preparation. He spent hours at his home pulling topics from the internet for his morning shows. He maintained a topic file. And he tapped his listeners for content. He had DJing down to a science.
“In his last year or so at Majic, he used to record his 9:50 a.m. break and leave the station. He told me his goal was to listen to his last break in the car on the way home,” Johnson said.
Fox, with his shaggy hair and beard looked the quintessential rock jock, as if he stepped off the “FM” film set, a movie set at a fictional album-oriented rock station in 1978. This was about the time he was on South Florida radio making personal appearances and gaining fans.
Fox was “one of my earliest influences when I used to listen to Y-100 and then WSHE. A radio superstar,” said former WSHE rock jock Glenn Richards, who is now operations manager at WUFT Media in Gainesville.
Fox was the new morning host on WSHE, its studios tucked inside a trailer park in Davie, when Boca Raton writer Richard Pachter was the South Florida promotion man for A&M Records in the late 1970s.
“Many a morning, I swung by and picked him up for a post-show breakfast, which usually began with a stop at the drive-through of a local refreshment stand. Sonny was always kind, professional and very promotion-minded. He was a musician as well as a programmer and very open to all kinds of music. With A&M’s diverse roster of artists, from Supertramp to the Go-Go’s, it was a great fit,” Pachter said.
“When I left A&M to start my own promotion firm, Sonny had signed a million-dollar contract with Y-100 as their new morning show host. When I told him of my plans, he generously offered some financial support, a wholly unexpected gesture, which I appreciated and still do. In recent years, when I heard his voice on SiriusXM’s comedy and classic rock channels, it always brought a smile and good memories,” Pachter said.
Fox was so familiar to rock radio listeners from his time on WSHE, when he’d spin hits by Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp and Pink Floyd before they came to be called “classic rock,” some were surprised he shifted so easily to country on WKIS.
FROM ROCK RADIO TO COUNTRY
But Fox, a pro, adapted with ease.
“I was raised on a farm outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the first song I played on a guitar was Johnny Cash,” Fox told the Miami Herald in 1999 from inside his DJ booth at KISS Country.
At KISS Country, Fox was reunited with “Sonny in the Morning” DJ partner Ron Hersey, with whom he worked since 1980 on WSHE, Y-100 and Majic.
“We’ve been together longer than our last marriages,” Hersey told the Herald in 1999, while seated next to his buddy. “It’s a certain confidence level. We can look at each other and know exactly what one of us is going to do and say.”
Fox agreed. “We are almost like brothers after 20 years. When we kid each other we know where it’s going. It’s not like we write this [stuff] down.”
“If one of them was a girl they’d be married for sure,” interjected KISS morning show producer Janet Speziale, who would later become Fox’s wife.
On Saturday, Hersey called those three years at KISS, “the most fun of the whole ride.” Fox and Hersey even traveled to the home of country music — Nashville — as part of their hosting gig.
“We did our show live from Music Row in some of the legendary recording studios and interviewed all the stars. I was in heaven,” Hersey said.
THE RON AND SONNY SHOW
On Friday night, Hersey reacted to the loss of his brother from another mother on Facebook.
Their first day together, he said: Nov. 17, 1980. It was Hersey’s first day on the air for a morning show on WSRF-AM. He was petrified, he said. Then, while standing next to a coffeemaker in the studio that also housed WSHE, where Fox was cranking the latest from the Rolling Stones, Blondie and Bruce Springsteen, Hersey met Fox.
“By the end of that first week we were already doing bits, voices and impressions on each others’ morning shows. I had no idea what an odyssey we were both about to embark on,” Hersey wrote.
That meeting led to more than two decades at four popular Miami radio stations.
“He had an amazing comedic mind,” Hersey wrote. “He could find the humor in the most mundane of circumstances and through the use of funny voices and homemade sound effects make those humorous events come to life on the radio. I had been doing a lot of impressions and characters but needed a straight man and a writing partner. And away we went.”
The two were also musicians and jammed on stages with Three Dog Night, Little Richard, Toby Keith, Chuck Berry, from South Florida to the Bahamas.
“And so I have lost a partner, a fellow musician, a broadcasting colleague and a great friend,” Hersey wrote.
‘SONNY IN THE MORNING’ IN PHILLY
Retired DJ Bob Leonard also remembered his pal via Facebook. The two first met in the mid-1970s when Leonard was working at a “stepping stone” small station in Philadelphia and wanted to get onto a major market station.
Enter Sonny Fox.
Leonard had sent his tape and credentials to two radio stations, including WYSP, an album-oriented FM rock outlet that featured Fox on the air. He was program director, too.
He must have liked what he heard on Leonard’s tape. He called the young jock in for an interview. In a very rock and roll way.
“Now, remember, this was FM radio in the 70s. My interview with Sonny took place in his Corvette,” Leonard recalled on Facebook. “We drove for a while, chatting, and he passed me a joint. When I took it, he asked, ‘When can you start?’”
The two soon birthed a new duo program, “Fox & Leonard.”
“Theater out of the mind,” Leonard called the program. “Our ‘reign’ in Philly didn’t last long but it was the most transformative and important part of my career. And, Sonny Fox always remained one of my closest, most important and dearest friends. We stayed in touch over the years and we even got together for breakfast when he visited South Florida. ... I lost a piece of my soul today.”
In addition to his wife, Fox’s survivors include his children James Rowley and Shannon Levy and grandchildren Rebecca, Mikayla and Blake. There is no information yet on services.