DOWNTOWN — The most surprising thing about Chicago radio legend Terri Hemmert: The world’s biggest Beatles fan — “actually, world’s tallest,” she joked — who still hosts “Breakfast with the Beatles” every Sunday morning at 93.1 FM WXRT, wasn’t always a fan of the Fab Four.
The longtime music historian, who’s just marked 50 years at the iconic local rock station, was a devout follower of soul and blues from way back, and as a young music fan she abhorred white performers who would swoop in and cover Black artists.
“I didn’t think I was gonna like the Beatles. I was a big soul music fan. I thought it was going to be like Pat Boone,” who started out his career by covering songs by Black artists like Fats Domino, Hemmert said. “Because Pat Boone to me was Satan. … So when I heard about the Beatles, when I heard they’re covering the Isley Brothers and Motown and stuff like that, I thought, ‘Oh, crap, you know, four Pat Boones with British accents and funny hair cuts? I don’t need this.'”
Hemmert’s opinion about The Beatles changed forever after she saw them on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, kicking off not just a lifetime devotion but a decades-long career path.
“It changed my life. And I watched it as a skeptic. And I thought, ‘Wow, those guys aren’t phony,'” Hemmert said. “Looking at the camera with a snarky little smile, like, ‘Hey, I’m a rock star.’ It was real. They were like real guys. And when John Lennon sang ‘Twist and Shout,’ I just lost it.”
Hemmert said she went into radio because she saw DJs being able to talk to rock stars like The Beatles and she wanted to do the same.
Hemmert began at a station in Rochester, New York, before starting at WXRT on Nov. 3, 1973. In honor of that 50th anniversary, this week has been an extended celebration of Hemmert’s career.
The City Council proclaimed Nov. 3 official Terri Hemmert Day in Chicago. WXRT’s broadcast and production studios were renamed the Terri Hemmert Studios. Many stories about Hemmert sent in by listeners were read on air on XRT, and she hosted the station’s Saturday Morning Flashback the next day, set to 1973.
“It’s been a very emotional week,” Hemmert said. “Anybody who knows me will tell you I really don’t like getting up and having everybody go, ‘Oh, aren’t you so wonderful?’ OK, that’s enough!”
Although Hemmert now describes herself as “semi-retired,” still hosting “Breakfast with The Beatles” every Sunday and working the occasional fill-in shift, fans know Hemmert has been an XRT staple for decades. Although now housed in Prudential Plaza, 130 E. Randolph St., the rock station once resided at 4949 W. Belmont Ave. Hemmert remembers working late shifts, spinning the station’s vinyl.
“Like at about 4 a.m. you’d think, ‘Oh, “Stairway to Heaven” sounds really good right now.’ Sometimes I’d take a nap, and I’d say, ‘Wake me up when it’s two minutes from the end,'” Hemmert said. “Because I was out, going to a concert a few hours before and didn’t get much sleep. But yeah, we were out there in the middle of nowhere. It was kind of a weird place.”
Hemmert would park behind the building and “a few times, I got out of the car. People were waiting for me.” Ostensibly just to say hi, but she remembered, “They were pretty loaded, too. There was a lot of drugs back in the ’70s.”
Back then, “We used to have interns help us file records. And the big test was, we would give them Jethro Tull to see if they put it under J or T. And if they put it under T for ‘Tull,’ they’d flunk the audition.”
Eventually, Hemmert moved to mornings on XRT for several years, becoming the first female drive-time host for a rock music station in the Chicago radio market, until Lin Brehmer took over and she moved to middays.
“I said, ‘When do I get to go back to middays?’ They said, ‘No, keep doing it,'” Hemmert said. “So 11 years later, they hired Lin and I got to go back to middays. And everybody was mad because they thought I was getting screwed around. I said, ‘No, I never wanted to do mornings!’”
Most of the jocks and other staff at XRT have a long history with the station, which bills itself as “Chicago’s Finest Rock” and has become famous for its eclectic programming; Hemmert also used to host a jazz show on the station, she said.
“We say we’re like family,” Hemmert said. “And people think, ‘Oh, that’s a bunch of jive.’ And it’s not; we really love each other. And we’ve been through a lot. … We lost Lin Brehmer this year; that tore us apart. It wasn’t like a co-worker dying, which is bad enough. It’s like my brother died.”
Hemmert hosted the tribute to Brehmer that took place at Metro this summer.
Whatever hour of the day Hemmert was on the air, she always resonated and connected strongly with her audience. She said she even took psychology classes to help her connect with lonely listeners who’d call her in the middle of the night.
“I understand when people come up, say, ‘I feel like I know you.’ I get that because that’s how I felt about radio before I got into it,” Hemmert said. “There’s an intimacy in radio you just can’t reproduce anywhere else.”
Hemmert’s radio career alone would probably be enough for most people, but her on-air work at XRT is just the tip of the iceberg for all she does. She said she’s also the public service director at the station, “and I love that because I turn people on to volunteer opportunities and stuff.”
Hemmert’s taught at Columbia College for 48 years, focusing on “Rock and Soul on the Radio: Roots.” She hosts a series called “Classic Encounter” at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She’s served on the boards of various local nonprofits, volunteered at the AIDS Pastoral Care Network and is very involved in her parish, St. Clement, 642 W Deming Place.
Hemmert’s also dealt with various health issues over the years, including knee replacement and cancer surgery.
“I was told my life expectancy was going to be 60. So I thought, ‘Well, I better get busy.’ And now here I am, 75. But I’m still alive,” Hemmert said. “And it gives me great joy to do that stuff. Yeah, there’s a theological base under all this volunteer work, but it’s kept me healthy all these years mentally and physically.
“I love the work, and I love what the work enabled me to do outside the studio: to teach and to do volunteer stuff, because that’s what feeds me. That’s what makes me happy.”
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