WEWS was the home of a groundbreaking rock and roll television show, “Upbeat”, from 1964 to 1971, even after turning down Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”…twice.
“American Bandstand”, like “Upbeat”, went on to be part of television history but “Upbeat”, by bringing top 40 radio, was about the music and the artists.
“It was the first show of its kind that really wasn’t a dance party,” said David Spero. “Instead of having, like ‘American Bandstand’, where they’d have Frankie Avalon come on and sing two songs, all the rest was kids dancing to the records, he said ‘Let’s have 10 acts.’”
“Upbeat” was the creation of David’s father, Herman Spero. Herman Spero was already well known as an advertising man and producer of the WEWS program “The Old Dutch Polka Review”, which would later be known as “Polka Varieties”.
“Upbeat” was the forerunner of other music shows.
“Before there was ‘Shindig’, before there was ‘Hullabaloo’, before there was (Don Kirschner’s) ‘Rock Concert’, there was ‘Upbeat’,” David Spero said.
The show was such a pioneer in music television, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presented WEWS with a commemorative plaque honoring the show, the station, Spero and host Don Webster.
The original name of the show when it was only on WEWS-TV 5 was “The Big 5 Show”.
Bob Seeley began on the production crew at WEWS in 1967.
“It was ‘The Big 5 Show’ initially because it only played in Cleveland. It was Big 5 because it was on Channel 5 at 5 o’clock on Saturdays,” Seeley said.
The show was in black and white, and was hosted by local deejays.
But it was going to be shown nationally, so Herman Spero needed a host for his show before it went into syndication. David Spero recalled how his dad found his new host.
“He had seen Don Webster up in Canada on a dance party show and said, ‘That’s our guy, he’s our Dick Clark’.”
Webster joined WEWS in 1964 and hit the ground running. One of his first rock assignments was to interview the Beatles in Cleveland at the WHK auditorium.
In an e-mail earlier this year, Webster told me he didn’t remember much of the Beatles interview other than asking who the chief Beatle was.
Considering how many rock stars came and went through the years on “Upbeat”, it’s understandable how the Beatles interview would be lost in the shuffle.
Before the days of satellites, Channel 5’s Jay Kerekes and Herman Spero came up with “bicycling”, one of the earliest forms syndication. It was a way for “Upbeat” to be seen in 105 TV markets around the country.
“We would tape it on Saturday afternoon, rehearsal started at nine, took a break at noon, came back at 1:30 and shot the show and hopefully it was done by five o’clock when you had to see it,” Spero said.
The videotape of one-hour “Upbeat” episode would be copied nine times, sent to a station in each of the top ten markets, played and then that station would sent to a station in the next lower market size, shipped or “bicycled” from market to market.
Spero said over the course of six weeks or so, a performer or band would gain fame across the country.
“As an artist, like Tommy James and the Shondells, they put out a song like ‘Mony, Mony’, well all of a sudden they’re on in 10 cities. Next week they’re on in 10 more. They could follow the show with live performances and get hit records, which a lot of them really give ‘Upbeat’ credit for.”
Performers were paid to perform by the record company or were paid union scale. To make up for the lack of pay, Herman Spero would “bicycle” them around to high schools in the Cleveland area.
“The deal my dad did was ‘ Hey, we’ll give you the TV show, which puts you in front of how many people, but then I got you five gigs’,” Spero said, noting a band could walk away from Cleveland with five times as much money doing the side gigs.
“The Four Seasons were in here all the time,” recalled Seeley. “They’d do Saturday here (TV 5) but the producer, Herman Spero, would book them a gig in the penthouse of the hotel over there and they’d do a Friday and Saturday show.
The Fifth Dimension were a huge act when they sang “Up, Up and Away” on “Upbeat”, they received $200.
“Forty dollars a dimension,” Seeley chuckled.
At 13 years old, David Spero began hanging around the studio. Don Webster asked him to write and hold cue cards, and David’s rock music career began. He would move from cue card holder, to music co-coordinator to associate producer.
He was considering a filmmaking career, so he combined his love of rock and film by bringing his movie camera to the tapings. He has home movies of the Four Seasons, James Brown and The Temptations rehearsing.
He would write questions for Webster to ask a band because they were questions he, as a teenager, wanted to know the answer to.
As music coordinator, he told his dad to get Aretha Franklin. When his father contacted Clive Davis at Columbia Records to get Aretha, Davis insisted he couldn’t have her without taking a young duo named Simon and Garfunkel.
“My dad says, ‘They sound like a law firm’,” David Spero said.
Simon and Garfunkel made their very first television appearance on “Upbeat” at WEWS.
Alphabetically, the rock world from the Animals to the Zombies appeared on the show.
B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, The Monkees, The Who, Three Dog Night, The Guess Who, John Denver, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Stevie Wonder, Jerry Butler, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Lesley Gore, Gene Pitney, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Yardbirds and many, many more graced the TV screen from the Cleveland studios of WEWS.
Otis Redding’s last appearance, before dying in a plane crash, was on “Upbeat”.
“The end of the show was him (Redding), with the Bar-Kays and Mitch Ryder singing ‘Knock On Wood’,” Spero said.
“Whenever I hear somebody talking about “Upbeat”, it’s really special to me, it’s my dad’s legacy, it’s our family legacy.”
David Spero, now 60, has had a very successful career as a producer, manager and with the Rock Hall. His office is a mini-Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has signed guitars, pictures, hotel room keys from rooms he stayed at while on tour and a bathroom not to be missed.
Rock legends visit or staying at his home, go to the bathroom to sign the walls.
He proudly showed off the statue Joe Walsh gave him after Walsh was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 with the Eagles.
“Joe came off the stage and he handed this to me and he said, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.’,” David Spero said.
Webster wore many hats at WEWS. He did weather, hosted the Ohio Lottery show, Academic Challenge, The Gene Carroll Show, Bowling for Dollars, anchored Live On Five and, for a while, was assistant to the general manager. Don retired in 1999 and lives in South Carolina.
Herman Spero died in 1979 at the age of 55. Just before his death, he proposed to cable networks the idea of a music TV channel. HBO scoffed at the idea.
“You’ve heard of a little thing called MTV?” asked Spero, musing on the genius of his father.
Seeley recalled every time Dick Clark came to WEWS, they’d laugh that then-general manager Jim Hanrahan didn’t think “American Bandstand” was much of an idea. Clark came back to Cleveland a bit later to pitch the idea to Hanrahan once more and was turned down again.
Could Cleveland have produced “Upbeat” AND “American Bandstand”?