Remembering Progressive Rock Pioneer, Pete Fornatale Dead at 66

Pete Fornatale, the man at the forefront of the progressive radio movement on FM in the late 1960s died yesterday after complications from a stroke at Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center. He was 66.

Fornatale was an institution in New York radio, and at Fordham University’s WFUV. The Bronx native graduated in 1967 with a B.A. in Communication Arts. Fornatale remained on the school’s station until 1969. His future would soon be tied to WNEW-FM, with two decades at the station that long billed itself as the place “where rock lives!”

Another legendary air personality, Dennis Elsas worked with Fornatale at both stations. He was at the microphone yesterday informing listeners of Fornatale’s passing. Their friendship started 45 years ago. Still a student at Queens College, and working for the school’s radio station, Elsas found Fornatale by mistake on his alarm clock.

“I really enjoyed the show,” Elsas tells FishbowlNY. “…That accidentally hearing of his show, and liking what I heard, was the formation of a relationship, and we quickly saw that we had a lot in common.”

Fornatale had a misstep when he attempted to join WNEW in 1967, as he recalled to me in 2009.

“I just blew it,” Fornatale remembered. “They put me in a studio next to Ted Brown, who was on the air at the AM station (1130). I played records at the wrong speed and I spoke an octave higher, when I already have a higher voice than was normal for radio at the time.

“I got a lovely letter from the program director saying, ‘You’re a fine young man. Keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll be in touch,'” Fornatale recalled.

It took a couple more years, but Fornatale finally got another chance. This time he rocked the audition. Fittingly, his WNEW-FM debut was just weeks before the Woodstock Festival. He would read live promos for the “Three Days of Peace and Music” event in Bethel, New York. That early seed would blossom in the form of a book years later, Back to the Garden, the Story of Woodstock, one of several rock music books he penned. Fornatale recently completed his latest book, 50 Licks, celebrating 50 years of Rolling Stones music.

Fornatale would also appear on numerous PBS specials throughout his career.

Carol Miller, a Q 104/WAXQ nighttime air personality, first met Fornatale in 1972 at the ‘NEW Christmas concert. She worked briefly at the station a year later, and more extensively in the 1980s.

She shares a memory related to one of the groups he championed for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inclusion.

“His second favorite group had to be Poco; he played them all the time. I would greet him  as ‘Mr. Poco.'”

Fast forwarding to a few years ago, no longer working together, Miller spotted Fornatale on West 49th Street walking with a couple of guys.

“As I got closer, I recognized one of them as Richie Furay and began to smile.  By the time I got up to Pete, he was already laughing,” Miller recalls. “I didn’t have to say it. ‘Well, here I am with Poco!’ he said, and introduced me.”

As Fornatale told me in a 2010 interview, “I think that even though the Eagles became the most successful commercial group doing … country rock music that emerged in the early ‘70s … without Poco there’s no Eagles.”

Fans of Rock didn’t just get their favorite tracks, they got a who’s who of New York radio. In what could be called an on-air Dream Team, Fornatale had the midday shift, which he held for more than a decade. There was Dave Herman in the mornings,  Scott Muni, the Professor, in afternoon drive, and Alison “Nightbird” Steele was the overnight jock. Rosko, Jonathan Schwartz and Zacherle, the Halloween fixture, and, ultimately, Elsas on nights, rounded out the lineup.

“It was just an amazing time to be on the radio in New York,” Fornatale reflected.

After playing Poco, his favorite the Beach Boys, and the regular rotation of music, Fornatale had enough of the sameness. Listening to Fornatale for five minutes you’d know that wasn’t part of his vernacular. With Disco 92/WKTU rising to number one in 1979, WNEW, a freeform frontrunner, opted to make changes.

“After 10 years of being the pilot of the ship whenever you were in that studio, suddenly now you were [following a color-coded format],” Fornatale said. “I was almost physically sick that year.”

Using his radio cache, in 1982 Fornatale walked away from the daily grind for a weekly specialty show. It was the birth of Mixed Bag, his alter-ego program that he would host for much of the next thirty years. An early version of Mixed Bag, called Campus Caravan, started when Fornatale was still a Fordham student at WFUV in the early 1960s.

“The real strangeness is that 40 years later going full circle, I’m back there doing my once-a-week live radio show ‘Mixed Bag,’” Fornatale said.

Fornatale returned to Fordham in 2001, six months after Elsas joined WFUV as the afternoon jock.

“It was ironic that I was the one that actually came to WFUV [first],” Elsas recalls. “He wasn’t so sure that was something he wanted to do again.”

“It’s the completion of a circle, and since Harry Chapin was one of my friends and favorite artists, I think it’s only appropriate that ‘Circle’—which is sort of one of his most famous songs—describes the career path that I took,” Fornatale said.

In 1971, it was reversed. With Fornatale already establishing himself at ‘NEW-FM, Elsas got his big break at the Rock station.

“It was helpful in the sense that [Pete] knew the players, and he knew the territory,” Elsas says.

Fornatale, who also spent time at WXRK/K Rock in the 1990s, hosted a separate one-hour Mixed Bag Radio show on Sirius XM Satellite Radio as well.

Because of its throwback nature, and familiarity of Fornatale, Mixed Bag was popular with fans, using eclectic themes and songs each week to form a radio program that no one had ever heard before. Perhaps his biggest thrill was when Fornatale could include live studio performances in his four-hour Saturday shows. His final regularly scheduled Mixed Bag on Saturday, April 14, featured an homage to the 100th anniversary of the Titanic.

“He was an original. He was an innovator,” Elsas says. “He had a very specific way of how radio should be done … No one really had done it quite like he was doing it.

“The version or the vision that he brought, he somehow took the Campus Caravan, and he came to a professional radio station, which turned out to be the premiere Rock station in New York, and he presented the music in a different fashion.”

“I think to myself if someone had walked in off the street with that idea …they’d have been turned down,” Fornatale admitted. “But because I had 10 years under my belt there…they gave me the green light to do it.”