Steve Cannon: A man of many voices signs off

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2009 - 10:14 AM

The legendary WCCO radio host died of cancer at age 81.

Steve Cannon, one of the most unforgettable voices in the history of Twin Cities radio and for years the highest-rated afternoon drive host in the country, died late Monday after a short, fierce battle with cancer.

Cannon's booming baritone voice steered WCCO's drive-time show, "The Cannon Mess," for 26 years -- a national record -- aided only by sportscaster Morgan Mundane, sexpot Ma Linger and the effeminate Backlash LaRue, all voiced by Cannon himself.

Those characters were so beloved that Cannon became the only inductee in the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame with two plaques: one for himself and one for his make-believe trio.

Cannon died just after 10 p.m. Monday at his home near Minneapolis' Lake of the Isles, surrounded by family members. He was 81.

In the 1970s and '80s, when WCCO dominated the airwaves, Cannon held court as the gruffest, most gregarious of the "Good Neighbors," making his voice as recognizable to many Midwesterners as everyone's cantankerous but lovable uncle who never skips the cocktail hour.

"It's awfully tough comparing the 125 people in our hall of fame, but in terms of sheer talent, does anyone stand out above Cannon?" said Steve Raymer, managing director of the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis Park, which honored the legend in 2002.

Cannon actually attended that ceremony, which was somewhat of a surprise since he was well-known for his insistence on privacy. Dark Star, who has worked at WCCO for decades, recalled the time Cannon was temporarily run out of his intimate studio because of fire damage and was forced to broadcast from the main studio. He refused to go on the air unless staffers covered the windows with newspapers so no one could see him slip in and out of his characters. Dark Star also remembered that the station had prepared a big party for his final show in early October 1997, but Cannon sabotaged the celebration by signing off one day early and slipping outthe door.

"He did it his way," Dark Star said. "He taught me that you have to be self-sufficient, that you have to do your own show and be your own person."

Cannon's work habit and determination were rooted in the Iron Range, the area that raised other fiercely independent Rangers in the first half of the century, including politician Rudy Perpich, hockey legend John Mariucci and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

"I didn't want to work the mines," Cannon told the Star Tribune in 1997 while explaining his doggedness. "This was a great impetus for me."

Not that Cannon shot to success overnight. After moving out of his hometown of Eveleth, he tried his hand at stations in Mason City, Iowa, Stillwater, Bemidji and Duluth with only smidgeons of encouragement along the way. He finally got his big break in the late 1950s when he landed at KSTP and worked on the morning show for 13 years.

Fans protested when he was fired and, three weeks later, WCCO picked him up, launching one of the most successful relationships in radio history. It wasn't always easy. Several attempts to set up Cannon with partners were treated by the station's star as shotgun marriages. None of them lasted. Cannon worked alone. No callers, no music, no guests. He usually turned down requests to promote the station and scoffed at having his picture taken.

Cannon stepped even further away from the spotlight after his retirement.

"He used to call himself Mr. Yesterday, because he was very aware that his time had come and gone," said T.D. Mischke, a fellow radio renegade who befriended Cannon in 2003. "I could count on half of one hand the number of people in the industry he stayed in contact with."

But Cannon could be extremely social among those he felt comfortable with. Mischke, currently streaming an online show for City Pages, recalls long hours on the phone or sitting in the corner of Cannon's kitchen in his Lake of the Isles mansion, as his mentor spun one tale after another.

It was during one long-distance call that Mischke got the news: Cannon had cancer. Doctors in Naples, Fla., where Cannon would spend chunks of the winter, told him in November that tumors had spread throughout his body. Twin Cities doctors confirmed the diagnosis and told him he wouldn't last through spring.

"He was kind of ticked off about it," Mischke said. "There was so much he still wanted to do. ... But when it became clear that it was ending, he was very matter of fact about it."

Still, Cannon wasn't going quietly. Mischke visited him a week ago and, fairly convinced that it would be last time his friend would be in condition to sustain a conversation, he kissed him on the forehead and told him he loved him.

"Hey," Cannon replied. "I'm not out of here yet!"

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431

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