Tommy Edwards: Familiar voice of Bulls games

After 25 seasons as the public address announcer for the Chicago Bulls, Tommy Edwards will retire Saturday against the Rockets.
Tommy Edwards for the Chicago Bulls
by Sam Smith

Body

So there was the time Carly Simon stopped by WOR in New York and asked DJ Tommy Edwards which of the songs on her new album she should release as a single.

"That's the Way I Always Heard it Should Be," the bony Kansan with the mop of dirty blond straw-like hair told the soulful singer and her pals that day.

"Then," Edwards recalled the other day, "she went with ‘Anticipation.' That worked out."

Just another day in the remarkable and memorable life story of Edwards, who also happened to spend 25 years in three stints between 1976 and this week as the Bulls public address announcer. Saturday's game against the Houston Rockets with special tributes planned will be Edwards' final game with the Bulls. He'll finally decamp to California where his three children and four grandchildren reside.

It's been an amazing ride.

Tommy Edwards

Edwards' voice became epochal in the NBA even though he had left for Boston radio during the 1990s Bulls championships. But perhaps even more so, Edwards' radio and music background were instrumental in helping the Bulls become something of the soundtrack of the NBA. With Edwards' guidance and innovations, the Bulls began the practice of darkening the arena for player introductions. He was the one who recommended to the Bulls the ‘Eye in the Sky' Alan Parsons Project music that became synonymous with the famous Bulls introductions. Hey! He brought Rock and Roll Part 2 to the game.

But his true love and inspiration was Rock and Roll Part 1, the music of so many lifetimes that Tommy brought to so many from its roots in the 1950s and 1960.

"It's the greatest music ever and all I ever wanted to do was be on the radio and play it," said Edwards.

Edwards did starting in Topeka, where he grew up, and on to stations in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Chicago in a seminal career in the often shambolic wild world of radio. Where, among other achievements, his partnership with famed disc jockey Larry Lujack and the Animal Stories segments on which the 6-3 Edwards was known as Li'l Tommy, became one of the most influential in American radio.

David Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks was a decendent. Polar opposites Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh have credited Lujack—and by extension Edwards—with being an influence over their careers.

"Thirty seconds before we went on the air one day, Larry said, ‘I'll call myself Uncle Lar and I'll call you like you're a little kid, ‘Little Tommy,'" Edwards recalled with the infectious laugh that supported those bits. "I said, ‘Make it ‘Little snot nosed Tommy,' and we were on the way.''

It was a decade and even five albums that raised a quarter of a million dollars for charities

"We just clicked," said Edwards.

Tommy Edwards wearing a United hat at a Chicago Bulls game

Just like Tommy did with the Bulls and with rock and roll, and with the Bulls family he worked with for those 25 years. They're the anonymous but oh-so-very-important men and women at that long table in the United Center between the benches for NBA games. Tommy as p.a. announcer is in the middle astride the game events coordinators who keep those dancers and tumblers and singers and quick changers and half court shooters synchronized. There are the clock operators, statisticians and scorekeepers, men and women who are there much more for the love of the game than the love of money.

Of course, it's also a pretty good seat from where to watch NBA basketball.

Hip hop singers and rappers, like Master P who tried to make the NBA, want to be basketball players. And basketball players, like Shaq and lately Damian Lillard, want to be in the music business. Edwards came up with a ring side seat to both, alternatively greeting in his office Simon and Garfunkel, Tina Turner and Olivia Newton-John and then Darryl Dawkins and Michael Jordan.

"It's been an amazing ride," he acknowledged.

But hardly lacking in expertise.

Tommy became part of my pregame routine for home games. And he's never been wrong.

Tommy Edwards in 1985, Michael Jordan at the sidelines

First I stop in the media dining room to see Neil, Bill and Chuck and we figure out how if they'd listened to us the team would be undefeated. Then before ambling by to listen to the pregame grandiloquence of the two coaches, I'll stop at midcourt to see Tommy. He's usually at his station two hours before the game preparing all those wires and devices that generally require me to signal for an electrician. Then we talk 50s and 60s songs.

"When I was a kid I just listened to the radio so much," Edwards recalled. "Jim Lowe with Green Door, the old Elvis Hound Dog, everything. I was hooked. I'd go to my basement and pretended to be on the radio. I had a 45 rpm record player and would get a newspaper to roll up as a microphone and I'd play the songs and read news stories. It was before transistors. I'd listen to the notes when the song started and I could identify the song and artist before the disc jockey. I knew that music so well."

That music also happens to be my era, so as I add songs to my phone to listen in the car—really, how do they do that?—I'll test Tommy. I thought I had him the other day with a one hit wonder, A Wonderful Dream. He knew it was The Majors. We discussed Hank Ballard and the Midnighters version of The Twist, which Chubby Checker stole word for word and made a career of it twisting again and again. Recently we compared our favorite versions of Ain't No Mountain High Enough, and then I tried to slip White Silver Sands past him. No way, Don Rondo. We both refrained from a Doo Wop segment after I told him I was adding Church Bells May Ring and Whispering Bells. They did like their bells back then.

Tommy Edwards announcing for the Bulls

Like the jingle and tinkle and clanging that went on in his head when he really was little Tommy.

Tommy tried out for a play when he was a junior in high school. One of the seniors had a job at the local radio station, so Tommy asked to tag along. He got to be an unpaid errand boy and then local radio being what it was in 1960 in Topeka, they asked the kid to monitor the police radio. If he heard anything interesting to tell the newsman. So one night he's listening and there's a prominent death. No one is around. No answering machines yet, either. So the boss says to Tommy he should announce it.

"I said, ‘Me!'" Edwards recalled. "So I called everybody I knew, my mom and dad, sisters and aunts. I told them to turn on the radio and I read the bulletin. The boss said he liked it and to do newscasts on the FM station. Of course, no one listened to FM then. There even were separate AM and FM radios. Then one of the DJs got sick and I volunteered. I'm still in high school and I had my own weekly show. They weren't oldies then, but that was when it all started. I just loved that music."

And off Edwards went on a fabulous journey that even had Steve Perry of Journey often standing outside the WLS studios in Chicago with a sign begging Edwards and Lujack to "Play More Journey."

Tommy went to WOR-FM in New York to play the oldies. With the FM format becoming popular because of stereo (amazing!), WOR began to shove the legendary WABC Good Guys, including the indomitable Bruce Morrow who still is playing oldies on Sirius, down in the ratings. Edwards then was off to Chicago and WLS, where he also was doing program director work and hired legendary Chicago figures like Yvonne Daniels, Bob Sirott and Steve King.

Tommy Edwards announcing for the Bulls in 2007

Edwards was DJ for the midday show and Lujack was in the mornings. Tommy would be preparing for his show and Larry would open his microphone and so it began. The iconoclastic Lujack, who also was said to be the inspiration for the Johnny Fever character on the WKRP in Cincinnati TV sitcom, had begun reading agricultural reports as an old FCC requirement. Lujack was a westerner with the ten gallon hat, jeans, plaid shirts and boots. He began to search out the old farm reports for oddball stories on animals eating farmers and other oddities. But his Johnny Carson needed an Ed McMahon, his Gracie needed a George.

"He was such a genius, but he needed someone to play off of," said Edwards. "I'd be sitting there figuring out what music to play and Larry would read a commercial and turn on my mic and ask me something and I'd say something stupid. He'd do his shtick and I'd start laughing. And then came Animal Stories." It became arguably the most famous feature in Chicago radio history. Edwards needed a change about 1985 and moved over to WJMK and then in 1990 onto Boston, when he had to give up the Bulls. There was a family to support and an executive position in Boston. Eventually he came back to Chicago in 2003 and worked with Lujack on oldies 1690, Lujack remaining in his New Mexico home. Their synergy blended effortlessly. Lujack died of cancer in 2013.

And now…., the man in the middle of so many wonderful days and nights of music and basketball, Tommmmmmmy Edwards.

He's not All Shook Up and he doesn't want you to be too Misty. Heck it's LA. You might have Heard it Through the Grapevine. He could be Standing on the Corner with a Bad Moon Rising In the Still of the Night.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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