Had his beloved grandmother not dumped the canned beans into her own homemade dish each week, Davis insists he never would have wowed them at his first television audition in 1958.
As it turned out, that audition was the break he needed to begin what is now a half-century career in broadcasting, a career that has been marked by charm, controversy, conservative politics and charity work by the curly-haired celebrity who will be feted at a fundraising roast Saturday.
"I'm serious, I didn't know what I wanted to do professionally back then," he insists, settling in to tell, once again, the tale of his humble professional beginnings. "I was a DJ in Chicopee when I got a call from Leo Kaufman (father of Bob, of Bob's Furniture Store fame) to audition for this new show Channel 3 was planning," explains Davis, the former television celebrity-turned WDRC-AM morning show icon.
"I couldn't read the teleprompter, and the lights were in my eyes, and they wanted me to do an ad for Friend's Baked Beans," he recounts, holding a snifter of vodka on ice while waiting for dinner at Carmen Anthony's, his favorite Avon haunt. "Finally, I just told them about having hot dogs and my grandmother's baked beans for dinner on Saturdays, and that she always added a can of Friend's to her own. And if Friend's is good enough for my grandmother, they must be good." It was that last, heartfelt, spontaneous line that cinched the deal.
"Len Patricelli [then the station manager at Channel 3] was listening to the audition and said, 'Hire him,'" Davis continues, turning his attention to the plate of clams (a dish named for him at the restaurant owned by close friend and restaurateur Carmen Vacalebre). "All I can say is that it was a good thing the audition wasn't about Windex, because my grandmother didn't use it."
It was that combination of his gee-whiz down-home personality, his curiosity, his work ethic and his ability to rile up people by speaking his mind that friends and foes agree has contributed to a remarkable career in local television and radio.
"He is an old fart who is set in his ways," said WFSB, Channel 3 personality Scot Haney, who is another close friend, but is critical of Davis' conservative stand against gay marriage. "Despite everything changing around him, he remains a constant, and for some people, I think that is part of his appeal."
Haney, who often co-hosts with Davis at Greater Hartford fundraisers, sees Davis' many facets. "Despite his prejudices and his horrible descent into the Republican Party, he is so proud of his country and is a great American," Haney added. "He takes a hard stance on issues, and people either love him or hate him, but even those who hate him still want to listen to him."
And listen to him they do. The six-day-a-week show is the AM station's most popular morning show, attracting an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 listeners at any given time, considered a large audience share for a news talk show on a station of its size.
Among those listeners are some of the 400 people expected at Saturday's party at the downtown Hartford Marriott, including a who's who of state politicians, community leaders, family members, friends and fans.
"His appeal is that he delves into his subjects for sometimes an hour vs. 60 seconds at a time," said Eric Fahnoe, vice president and general manager of theradio station. "He does have his own opinion, but he listens to others and is not mean about it," Fahnoe continued. "I think Brad, for the most part ... although he challenges today's social norms or what is acceptable, he does not make it a personal attack."
An established pitchman who insists he would never do an advertisement for something he doesn't use, Davis has fervently promoted an array of products ranging from roof gutters to Lasik surgery. He is equally established as an activist, a community leader and an advocate for nonprofit organizations. His bipartisan list of friends included William O'Neill, the late Democratic governor, and more controversial politicos such as former Public Safety Commissioner Arthur Spada, and former Gov. John Rowland. Rowland's wife, Patty, was also a regular on his show.
"There were a few conditions I had when it came to my party, and one of them is that Rowland be the master of ceremonies," said Davis, who has staunchly supported the governor, even after Rowland resigned in 2004 amid a bid-rigging scandal and then pleaded guilty to accepting gifts and services from businessmen who won contracts and tax breaks from his administration.
There are those who have questioned Davis' objectivity and his personal motives as a radio host.
"It became clear to me when I was on his show as a gubernatorial candidate that he wanted to make sure the audience didn't hear anything but what would upset them most," said Bill Curry, the Democrat who lost to Rowland in 2002.
"Brad is a guy with a dual personality. He does a lot of promoting of local causes in a way that is admirable, and then he goes on the airwaves every day and tells people who to hate," said Curry whose on-air showdown with Davis centered on Curry's religion and support of civil unions. "I look at all the good he does and feel sad that it needs to be weighed against all the bad that comes from some of his commentary, which is just short of hate."
Davis counters that he'll listen to all opinions but won't back down from his own.
A farm boy from Stafford Springs who grew up in Enfield, Davis spent a couple of years at college and another couple of years in the U.S. Marines. An advocate for the underdog, he is credited with raising millions of dollars for various charities, rarely, if ever, saying no to a cause that asks him to help. Proud of his military service and the discipline it taught him, the 74-year-old Bloomfield resident says he still does a challenging set of military push-ups and sit-ups in his Bloomfield home each day before heading out the door in the wee hours of the morning to get to his studio.
Married three times, it was his third wife, Rosanna, who was the love of his life. She died of cancer in 2007.
"She was a wonderful woman and I still miss her," said Davis, who married Rosanna in 1969. "I was a very lucky man, and we had a lot of good years."
His fans say his ability to change his persona over the years is what has helped him maintain his popularity in his shift from television to radio. For example, he began his career as the wholesome, milk-guzzling host on his Dick Clarkstyle teen dance show "The Brad Davis Show" and later became a hard-nosed investigative reporter on Channel 3's award-winning public affairs show, "What's Happening."
"I was scared having these two guys with not a lot of reporting talent foisted on me," recalls Richard Ahles, a former station executive about the launch of a show featuring Davis and John Sablon, another young reporter at the time. "But Brad turned out to be a solid journalist, a very curious person who was a great listener. We did some great shows with the two of them."
In 1977, Davis made the move to full-time radio on WDRC. The culture had changed considerably, and so did Brad.
"Back then, he used to always end his shows with 'Keep your jeans tight,' because those were the days when they were," recalled Ron Pell, who was the station's director of sales. "Brad rode around in a jeep and always wore jeans, and one of our sponsors then was a place called The Fly Front, a store that sold jeans. The owner and Brad came up with the show tag line."
Then there was the "Squeaky Clean Club" virtual shower segment, another signature component of Davis' then top-40 music style radio show.
"Women would call in, and everyone would want to get in the shower with Brad," Pell said about the bit. "He'd put taped shower sounds on and play the song 'The Stripper,' and he and whoever was calling in would be washing his back, whatever. He'd create this theater of mind," Pell said. "It probably wouldn't be politically correct today and was probably a little risque, but radio was different then."
As Davis prepares for yet another close-up, this time a comical but heartfelt look at his 50 years in the business, he makes no excuses and has no regrets.
"I think I am fair, I listen, I care about others and that is what I will continue to do [on] the show as long as I can."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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