For those of us fortunate to be living in the New York City metro area in the 1970s on into the two decades that followed, and listening to rock music as it flourished on the legendary album rock station WNEW/102.7 FM, Dennis Elsas was like a trusted friend, a voice on the airwaves that shared our deep passion for the music. And one who had impeccable taste in the songs he would play along with keen insights into why those tracks and the artists that created them were so significant. Since leaving WNEW in 1998, Elsas has continued to spotlight the music and acts he loves as well as host rock music’s greatest artists for delightful and consistently revelatory talks as afternoon drive host on New York’s WFUV/90.7 FM.
The New York native joined WNEW in 1971, quickly rising to become the station’s music director and hosting weekends and assorted weekday shifts for some five years before moving to the key 6-10 p.m. evening shift, where he became an integral part of the classic rock’n’roll experience for millions of listeners over the years to follow. By then he’d also shown his considerable chops as not simply an interviewer but gifted conversationalist who was able to elicit fascinating thoughts, observations and remembrances from rock music’s biggest stars, speaking with them in warm, friendly and open-ended talks that we fellow fans dreamed we might ourselves be able to have with our musical heroes.
Elsas also shares his classic rock knowledge and memories with a worldwide audience every Saturday and Sunday on Sirius/XM’s Classic Vinyl channel. Dennis is also a leading voiceover artist and is heard widely in commercials, documentaries and promos. In addition he’s hosted a wide range of special event musical broadcasts and more.
Best Classic Bands is honored to be publishing excerpts of some of his winning heart-to-hearts with rock music legends as a regular feature: The Dennis Elsas Conversation. In its debut edition, Elsas speaks with Graham Nash about how Crosby, Stills & Nash came together, compiling the CSNY 1974 live collection, how Crosby saved his life, and more for WFUV (listen to it in full here).
ELSAS: What was wonderful for me as I was reading the book [Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life] is that I thought, y’know, I’m such a smart guy, I know everything there is to know about The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash and the individual careers. After all, either I was listening as a kid or playing all the music on the radio or meeting you in various situations. But there is all of this history. Sometimes I almost feel…. You know that movie Zelig?
NASH: Sure. Love that movie.
ELSAS: And you’re Zelig at some point. Somehow you are there for everything.
NASH: A great Woody Allen movie… about an incredible life. And I realize that, and I realize just how lucky I’ve been in my life. I’m this kid from the north of England, and I still feel like that kid. You know, I am 72 years old now, but I still feel like I’m 25 inside. I have no idea who that person looking at me from the mirror is. But inside I still feel young and passionate and creative, and I’m very grateful for that.
ELSAS: When the book starts you’re flying into Los Angeles, and you’re Graham Nash of The Hollies, about to, as you tell us in the opening of the book, go through an amazing life change. And about to meet with your new girlfriend at the time, Joni Mitchell, who will be visited that afternoon by [David] Crosby and Stephen [Stills], and the life begins to change.
Sometimes when I am playing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” I try to explain to the audience and remind myself of how totally unlike anything it was that I had ever heard before.
NASH: How about when I first heard it from Stephen? I thought the guy was from Mars. I had never heard a song like this: four distinct movements, four distinct grooves – unbelievable! I still remember the moment he first played it for me. It was astounding to me. I was used to writing songs with The Hollies that were moon, June, two-and-a-half minutes right before the news kind of songs. This was something completely different.
We recorded the “Suite.” It took us maybe about 16 hours to record it. We got to the end of it. We thought it was a great take. Stephen said… “I think we can do it better.” So we spent the next 11 hours – because obviously in the 16 hours we had rehearsed it a great deal – re-cutting the “Suite.” And we got to the end of that, and Stephen said, “Naw. We got it the first time.”
ELSAS: It’s interesting that there was the one document of a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young live album, and that was 4 Way Street. And in your book you even write how disappointed you all were at the time about the record. And you are obviously the group archivist, you are the chief cheerleader. Whenever I see you onstage it is very clear that Graham has brought everyone together and Graham will make sure that we all – that is the musicians and the audience – will have a good time. At what point did you say, you know, I’ve got to get a document of this band at some point when they really sounded great?
NASH: We knew, because we recorded every single show of the 31 shows [on CSNY’s 1974 tour] on two-track. But we did multi-track on nine shows. So we knew that we were going to try to put together a record of this music. What happened is after the last show at Wembley Stadium in London, when we returned to the United States, we watched that show and none of us liked it. We were playing too fast, we were too high, we were too excited, we didn’t like it. So the idea of making an album from that tour got put on the back burner.
But I always knew there was an incredible record to be made because we had played some great music and I knew it. And then one day about four-and-a-half years ago, somebody showed me the bootleg of the Wembley show. And I was talking to Neil about it, and I said, “You know, that’s not us. That may have been us that night. But that’s not who we were. Why is this the only available thing that people can get and watch and listen to CSNY live? I need to make the record of this tour.” And I put together a demo with [acclaimed photographer] Joel Bernstein. We drove to Neil’s ranch and played it for him, and he said, “Go right ahead.”
And my partners trust me. They know I want the best from them. They know that I will be democratic enough to have as much as an equal amount of songs as possible so that nobody overwhelms anyone else. They know that about me. They trust me. And they also trust my sense of production and sonic quality. And so once I got Neil’s okay to do it, they all kind of left me alone to do it.
I’m a fan of David, Stephen and Neil on this box set. When I spent the last four-and-a-half years putting this box set together, I fell back in love with who those people were. I became a fan again of the music of this strange quartet.
ELSAS: As I was reading your book. I thought, well, this is very telling. You talk about one of your first experiences meeting David Crosby with The Byrds, and you say, “Crosby wasn’t happy with The Byrds. They were refusing to put his songs on the albums, and in return, David was behaving badly. He was refusing to show for rehearsals, staging hissy fits, and acting out. Little did I know David had a PhD in acting out.”
NASH: And still does to this day.
ELSAS: And I thought, well there it is. That explains why we as fans watch you onstage, know the history, know of all the difficulties that… well you’ve been through your own, but certainly David’s have been more public and well-known….
NASH: And deeper….
ELSAS: And there he is, still your partner. You say much later in the book that David is still the one you’re most comfortable with, that you have the bond with David. Which I guess would explain the large catalog of Crosby & Nash albums and the touring over the years. I find that interesting in that you knew early on, or no, you say, “Little did I know that David had a PhD in acting out,” you had no idea about the trip you were about to take, choosing to sign up with David.
NASH: No, that’s true. But you see, David saved my life. One of the worst things you can do to an artist is to give them self doubt, is having them lose confidence in what they’re doing. By the time I was coming to the end of my career with The Hollies, [they] didn’t want to record any of my stuff. They didn’t want to record “Marrakesh Express,” I’d begun “Teach Your Children,” and I knew there was an interesting song there. I’d written some other songs they didn’t want to record. And so I began to doubt myself as a musician. And that’s the worst thing you can do to an artist. But Crosby comes along and he says, “Wait a second. I love ‘Marrakesh Express.’ You’re not crazy. It’s them that’s crazy. And David gave me back my self confidence as an artist. And I’ll be forever grateful that he did that.
Listen to the full interview to hear Nash also speak about being inspired by, meeting and later recording with The Everly Brothers, Neil Young’s unique musical path, how Stills took a razor blade to one of Nash’s master tapes, the stories behind the songs he wrote about in Wild Tales – including how a $100 vase Joni Mitchell bought on a whim led to the writing of “Our House” – and how CSN&Y wrote, recorded and released the single of “Ohio” and its B-side “Find The Cost of Freedom” in less than two weeks after the 1970 killings of four protesting Kent State students by National Guardsmen.
Dennis was hired at WNEW-FM by the station’s program director, Scott Muni, one of the legendary DJs he had grown up listening to. He quickly ascended to the position of Music Director, and received the rock ‘n’ roll music industry education of a lifetime. The station was emerging as one of the premiere rock radio stations and Dennis was integral to creating its sound. He was also meeting and interviewing a stream of rock ‘n’ roll heroes, including Elton John, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Lennon was his in-studio guest on Saturday afternoon, September 28, 1974. They had met previously at the Record Plant Recording Studio as Lennon was finishing his latest album Walls and Bridges. During the conversation, Elsas casually invited him to visit WNEW-FM. When Lennon actually showed up, Dennis was more than a little surprised. What began as a discussion of the new album quickly turned into two hours of rare Beatles memories, speculation on a reunion, and candor about his immigration fight. Lennon even took over as DJ, playing some favorite, obscure 45s he’d brought with him, reading live commercials, and giving the weather reports.
Years later, excerpts of that historic afternoon were used in the Beatles Anthology, numerous books, and various documentaries. The entire show has become part of the permanent collection of the Paley Center For Media (formally the Museum of Television and Radio). It is also a pivotal part of the recent award winning PBS American Masters film “LENNONNYC”.
The interview also inspired Elsas to produce, co-write and host the radio documentary, It Was Forty Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America which won a number of prestigious awards (e.g. New York State Broadcasters Association Best Documentary, New York Festivals World Medal.) It aired on WFUV in February, 2004. Revised for the fiftieth anniversary in 2014, it is now featured in the Grammy Museum’s traveling exhibit Ladies and Gentleman…The Beatles!
In May 1976, Dennis took over the prime 6-10 PM slot on WNEW-FM, bringing his creative programming of the station’s vast rock ‘n’ roll record library to the nighttime audience. Rock ‘n’ roll history was being made at 102.7, and whether he was in the studio with Meatloaf, backstage with Bob Seger or onstage with John Mellencamp, Dennis was sharing the experience with his listeners. In the 1980’s he created the popular Beach Party program. The station became known as the place “Where Rock Lives” and Elsas remained there through 1998.
While still at WNEW-FM, Dennis expanded his broadcasting activities to include two years as the music correspondent for television’s PM Magazine, and to host such syndicated radio shows as Rock Today, Rock ‘n Roll Never Forgets and Billboard Entertainment News.
Dennis’ voiceover career also grew with numerous projects for HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and The Movie Channel. Corporate and commercial clients included American Express, Time, Lancôme, Procter and Gamble, and Kraft Foods. He is now featured as the “Voice of Rock History” at the Museum at Bethel Woods – the story of the Sixties and Woodstock – and has been the announcer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcasts and VH1’s Concert of the Century at the White House. Dennis was the narrator of Discovery Magazine on the Discover Network and the “voice” of the Smithsonian Channel.
But his abiding passion is to be on the air, programming music that blends old favorites with new discoveries, interviewing artists and interacting with his listeners. Today he’s happily doing that seven days a week.
Since the summer of 2000 he’s been hosting weekday afternoons (2-6 PM) on New York’s WFUV (90.7 FM, and streaming at WFUV.org). With an eclectic mix of rock, folk, jazz and blues and, guests in the studio that have included Elvis Costello, Ben Folds, Patti Smith, Edie Brickell and Ringo Starr, Dennis continues the tradition of progressive radio he helped to create.
In May 2004 he joined Sirius/XM’s Classic Vinyl (26) and can be heard every Saturday and Sunday sharing his Classic Rock knowledge and memories with a worldwide audience.
In 2010 Dennis created Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets – a live multimedia show featuring highlights from his history making interviews with John Lennon, Elton John, Jerry Garcia and more. As one of the pioneers of the progressive FM radio revolution at WNEW-FM and continuing today with new opportunities at WFUV and Sirius/XM, Dennis shares his favorite stories and unique perspective on rock and radio in person with enthusiastic audiences.