Remembering Al Davidson

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Remembering Al Davidson

Postby Glen Livingstone » Sat Aug 09, 2014 7:39 am

Remembering Al Davidson

By Glen Livingstone, - August 08, 2014

"It was Bill Hughes' idea to have Al as sports director. Did we have any qualms? Well, we figured: Sports. What could possibly go wrong?" - CKNW program director Hal Davis

What could possibly go wrong? Well how about everything?

It was August 9th, 1991, twenty-three years ago tomorrow when former CKNW sportscaster 'Big Al' aka 'Tiger' Davidson passed away at age 66.

Four days later on August 13th, a large gathering of friends and colleagues packed the 650-seat All Saints Parish church in Coquitlam to say goodbye to one of the legends of Vancouver broadcasting, and every one of them it seems, had a story to tell.

Here's mine.

For 30 years, Al had been a mainstay at New Westminster radio station CKNW but in October of 1987 it all came crashing down when he was unceremoniously given the boot "for cause."

In response he filed a wrongful dismissal suit against the station.

Supreme Court Justice Ian Donald described Davidson as "short-tempered, irascibile, hypercritical and abrasive," and then ruled in his favour and awarded him $262,384 in damages. Al didn't live long enough to collect the scratch.

The vertically-challenged, intransigent, chain-smoking sportscaster had a 'hair-trigger temper' I was told when I began what passed for my so-called career in broadcasting at CKNW in 1972, but for all the years I knew Al I never saw that side of him.

For some reason known only to Al, shortly after we'd met he started calling me 'Shadow.' "How's it going Shadow?" he'd say to me whenever we'd pass each other in the hallway, probably on his way to kick another hole through the program director's door.

"Great Al," I'd reply while bracing myself against the wall to wait for the toxic cloud of smoke that he was perpetually engulfed in to clear, "You?"

"Couldn't be better Shadow, couldn't be better."

In the announcers' lounge next door to the newsroom there was a decrepit old couch that looked like it may have at one time become acquainted with the business end of a runaway forklift at some long forgotten Harry Hammer Scratch & Dent sale.

It wasn't unusual to walk in there at any time of the day or night and see Al passed out on it, catching a few zees while his half-smoked cigarette smouldered seductively in a nearby ashtray.

A long running battle between Al and his colleagues in the newsroom reached a tipping point one day when an enraged female reporter - fed up with the acrid smoke - picked up an ashtray and threw it at him. "Al used to smoke Gitane cigarettes," said station manager Ron Bremner. "They resembled in odor burning old athletic socks.

I can remember him literally shaking and turning red, repeating over and over, 'keep her away from me.' I was trying to calm him down and I've got this lady over here, bawling.

It was another day at 'NW."

The blowback was fast and effective; station engineers built a $3000 Plexiglas booth around Davidson's desk to shield him from his co-workers and ventilate his noxious cigarette smoke. Al jazzed the joint up with a chipped coffee mug, some arcane sports-themed bric-a-brac, and a few tattered back issues of TV Week magazine. The first time I walked into the hazy sanctum I couldn't help remarking. "Al, I love what you've done with the place."

on another occasion when one of the 'deskers' was complaining to no one in particular that the heat in the newsroom was unbearable, Al stopped typing for a second and yelled out from behind his bunker, "Quit your bitching you idiot, if it's too hot for you just toss another log onto the air conditioner!"

Controversy followed Al wherever he went.

In 1985, he was charged with arson after a suspicious fire aboard his boat "The Seawatch," or as I immediately renamed it - much to Al's chagrin - "The S.S. Firebucket."

The blaze caused extensive damage to two other boats as well. Al was later acquitted, but by that time his recently acquired sobriquet "Sparky," hung on him by the newsroom wags - was too firmly entrenched to ever really disappear.

Then there was the time that he made some disparaging remarks on the air about Jack Diamond and Exhibition Park. Diamond sued him, but when they met on the stairs going into the courthouse, Al managed to not only sweet talk Diamond out of continuing with the lawsuit, but inexplicably walked away with a side of beef, a gift from the horse racing tycoon.

Al understood the ephemeral quality of celebrity and seemed genuinely bewildered when people complained about the things he said both on and off the air; it was all showbiz to him, there was never any malice behind his bluster.

In a column he wrote shortly after Al's death, Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd said, "I remember his self-deprecating sense of humour. He said on the air one morning that 42,000 tickets had been sold for a Supertramp performance and wasn't that a hell of a reaction for a Charlie Chaplin film revival."

Another typical Al story, recounted by former CKNW station manager Ted Smith: Al had a car from a sponsor, took it on a fishing trip up to Pender Harbour. It was June, and he caught some spring salmon. He threw 'em in the trunk of the car, and forgot about 'em. A month later he goes back to the car dealer. This car's no good, he tells them, it stinks to high heaven. He threw them the keys and left. Then they opened the trunk.

One day Al asked me if I could record some music for him to play on his new Jeep's 8-track player. He left the choice of songs up to me but specifically requested that I include an edited version of Gordon Lightfoot's then current hit "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (6:28) because he liked the idea of the doomed tub winding up on the bottom of Lake Superior three minutes quicker.

Twenty years after his death, Al was finally inducted into the B.C Football Hall of Fame in 2011. Here's what they had to say at the time:

"One of Vacouver's most colourful and beloved sportscasters for more than three decades, Davidson had the unique ability to entertain fans of every sport. Whether it was his daily sports updates or hard-hitting editorials on professional sports in Vancouver, Davidson enjoyed his role as one of the city's best voices as well as one of its more controversial commentators all in the name of entertaining listeners.

Beginning his career in Port Arthur, Ontario, Davidson eventually made stops in Regina, Winnipeg and Toronto before coming home to CKNW where he anchored the sports department from 1958 to 1987. His daily "Spotlight on Sport" often featured perspectives on the BC Lions and he was the key figure on Lions radio broadcasts. He was a well-respected member of the Football Reporters of Canada as well as a member of the Schenley Award selection committee recognizing the CFL's outstanding players until 1988."

As for the BC Sports Hall of Fame, well despite the nominating committee's "extensive review and selection process," Al Davidson as of 2014 has yet to make the cut.

No matter.

We've got thirty years of memories to remind us how much fun radio used to be when Al was around, duking it out on the airwaves of CKNW every morning with his friend and co-conspirator Brian "Frosty" Forst who always instinctively knew exactly which buttons to push to get Al going off on one of his insanely entertaining off-the-wall rants, 'NW management and potential lawsuits be damned.

It's showbiz baby, don't ever forget that.

Al never did.

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Re: Remembering Al Davidson

Postby radiofan » Sat Aug 09, 2014 10:04 am

Great memories of a great guy.

Al was one of the many characters that made NW what it was.
Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
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Re: Remembering Al Davidson

Postby hagopian » Sat Aug 09, 2014 11:19 am


Great piece, Glen.
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Re: Remembering Al Davidson

Postby Jack Bennest » Sat Aug 09, 2014 1:44 pm

I remember one Saturday Al walked into the police station at 312 Main and said " Jack lets go for coffee " can't remember what it was
about - but Big Al was the great canook. :canuck1:
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Re: Remembering Al Davidson

Postby Eldon-Mr.CFAY » Sun Aug 10, 2014 4:03 am

Yes Al Davidson was quite a guy. Heard him on NW a lot in the 70s etc.... I went to high school with one of his sons. He talked about Al and sports a lot!
Great article Glen, thanks for sharing it on Radio West!

73s All the best from Eldon
Bye . . Mr. CFAY "Frequently On The Frequency"
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Re: Remembering Al Davidson

Postby cart_machine » Sun Aug 10, 2014 2:06 pm

Does anyone have a dub of Al on CJOR the last morning the station was on the air, ripping apart the place?

One day he and Pat Burns were in the hall talking about the vices to be found in post-war Montreal. The conversation was more entertaining than what the station was putting on the air.

He was especially kind to me at 'OR. Al was the best. Thanks, Glen, for the post.

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Re: Remembering Al Davidson

Postby Jim Walters » Sat Aug 08, 2015 10:28 pm

Another year has passed and still no sign of Big Al being recognized by the BC Sports Hall Of Fame.

Shame on you Dickheads.

R.I.P. Big Al
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Re: Remembering Al Davidson

Postby Tom Jeffries » Sun Aug 09, 2015 9:56 pm

This is kind of like Ringo Starr FINALLY getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (*hello?).....but we are still waiting for Big Al to get his due.

For those among us who didn't have the chance to hear Al, you missed a larger than life character. The guy knew his stuff - but it was his gruff persona and incredible way of reaching the listener, that made him special. In reality, I understand he was a very nice guy.

My wife worked with him and knew him very well. She loved him.

I hope the powers that be, include Al - he deserves it.
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Re: Remembering Al Davidson

Postby Jack Bennest » Tue Aug 11, 2015 5:22 pm

Hey droopy eye - I think I scanned that picture at NW when Shirley let me into the vault at the Black Tower

Al was a nice man I could tell my story but I probably already did.

Al and Pat - I think they both lived by this adage while on the air - love me or hate me - but please listen. They both had voices that were scratchy
and they knew how to use them. Al was a master at his commercials.

Davidson and a few argued but I know he and Jim had a great relationship. I wish the old curmudgeon was still around. :worthybow:
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