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"Skinny" Bobby Harper

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Remember, Bobby, God loves you
'Skinny' DJ Harper dies: Longtime Atlanta radio star a model for WKRP's 'Johnny Fever'.

By RODNEY HO
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta radio personality "Skinny" Bobby Harper, whose outrageous antics in the 1960s and '70s became the model for a "WKRP in Cincinnati" character, died Tuesday of lung cancer.

Mr. Harper, 64, of Smyrna was hospitalized at Emory University Hospital on June 30, said his wife, Karen Harper of Stone Mountain. The body will be cremated. The memorial service is noon Monday at Dave & Buster's in Marietta. Wages & Sons Funeral Home, Stone Mountain, is in charge of arrangements.

Mr. Harper – nicknamed "Skinny" for his lithe frame – was the inspiration for WKRP's scruffy, spacey Johnny Fever, said Hugh Wilson of Charlottesville, Va., who created and produced the sitcom that ran on CBS from 1978 to 1982. "Bobby was more energetic than Fever," Mr. Wilson said, "but he was a great starting off point for me."

Over a nomadic 31 years, Mr. Harper presided over the mike at about 15 radio stations from Peoria, Ill., to Detroit. In 1968, he landed in Atlanta, where he worked for seven stations including WQXI-AM/790 ("Quixie in Dixie") and WSB-AM. He was fired several times, sometimes for unseemly comments on the air.

"He was just too hip for radio," said Atlanta comedian Jerry Farber.

He was the dominant radio personality in Atlanta when what's now called classic rock – the Beatles, Rolling Stones, et al. – was what most people listened to.

He rode a wild bull, ran in an ostrich race and belly-flopped into an immense ice cream sundae. He posed nude for a local magazine with a vinyl record as a fig leaf. He got drunk on the air with 80-proof vodka to prove that drinking and driving is bad.

"He was a star in his day, a wild and crazy guy," said Bob Neal of Atlanta, who worked with him in Detroit and at WQXI in the 1960s. "He'd speak first and think later. He was always getting in and out of trouble. Some people said he had a dark cloud. I say he had an angel on his shoulders."

In those early days, Mr. Harper was a heavy smoker, competitive poker player and big beer drinker, though he was not the laid-back pot smoker Johnny Fever's character was on WKRP. "He was like Walter Matthau in 'The Odd Couple,' " Mr. Neal said. In the early 1970s, Mr. Harper played liar's poker with Mr. Neal and a not-yet-mogul Ted Turner at a bar called Trees. "Bobby would always win," Mr. Neal added.

Booze and boos

In 1969, Mr. Neal and Mr. Harper sat behind home plate at a Braves-Mets championship game. Mr. Harper spied a man with a Mets banner. Spontaneously, he threw his cup of beer at the man, who ducked. The beer instead hit a well-dressed businessman across the aisle. Mr. Harper didn't apologize. "Get over it!" Mr. Neal recalled Mr. Harper saying. The beer-soaked man got security, who escorted Mr. Harper out. "People booed," Mr. Neal said.

On the radio, Mr. Harper would spout strong left-wing political commentary and racy-for-the-time humor. He mocked Richard Nixon and once left a phone message for the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, played on the air: "Tell J. Edgar I think he's senile." In 1970, WQXI dropped him for making this joke: "A booby hatch. What is the question?" Pause. "What is Twiggy's manager waiting for?" QXI later rehired him.

"I used to be an angry young man," Mr. Harper told The Atlanta Journal in 1977.

Born in Saskatchewan, hockey-crazed Mr. Harper would walk home from school pretending to hold a mike in one hand, and say, "This is Bobby Harper, voice of the Montreal Canadiens." Mr. Harper majored in speech at William Jewell College, in Liberty, Mo., where his first on-air job was doing news for the student public address system.

He started at a radio station in Shenandoah, Iowa, but quickly moved up the ranks, landing at a station in Cincinnati in time to bring the Beatles to town on their first U.S. tour. "I was arrogant, cocky," Mr. Harper said years later. After he was being stopped by the police for speeding one too many times and placed on prison detail, his driver's license was suspended and he lost his job.

He eventually found his home in Atlanta and, except for brief stints in Louisville and Kansas City, stayed in radio here from 1968 to 1991.

"He was a Georgia boy the minute he moved here," said Kathy Fischman, who worked with him on WSB-AM in the mornings from 1985 to 1991, his last on-air job. "And he developed the most amazing black book. Andy Young, Sam Nunn, Lester Maddox, you name it. He could get anyone on the phone at any time, even 6 a.m. in the morning."

For his shows, Mr. Harper created a host of character voices, including Rex the Wonder Dog and Officer Bruce, who was gay and lisped. His most famous was Laverne, an old lady with a pinched voice. "In my mind, she looks a lot like Granny on 'The Beverly Hillbillies' show – she's got blue hair and she wears high-topped sneakers," Mr. Harper said in 1983.

By the early 1980s, he had mellowed. At 96rock, he ended his broadcasts, "Remember, God loves you." Kim "The Kimmer" Peterson, who worked with Mr. Harper at his last job said Mr. Harper "never wanted to offend anybody. He always did these sweet, fuzzy interviews. I'd make him cringe with my outrageous sense of humor."

Punched out

In 1990, Mr. Harper defended his co-host's honor when another jockey insulted Ms. Fischman on the air.

"Bobby slugged the guy," Mr. Peterson said, "which is funny because he weighed like 115 pounds."

After WSB-AM dropped Mr. Harper, he left radio for good, landing a job in the corporate communications office of Delta Air Lines, then working for MARTA and Underground Atlanta before retiring.

Mr. Harper was a magnet for female fans, despite his signature bottle-bottom glasses that made his eyes look unusually big, said Ms. Fischman, now living in New Orleans. "He was charming to women whether they were 18 or 83," she said.

Mr. Harper spent Wednesday nights with a group of graybeard friends, drinking beer at local taverns, most recently Padriac's in Vinings. "It's a hard-body haven, and we're the geriatrics," said Norm Cates, one of the members and a trade newspaper publisher. "When we talked politics, Bobby was always the token bleeding-heart liberal. No matter how hard we gave it back to him, he was always resilient with the banter."

Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 23, 2003
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