Dennis Wilen Reflects on His Career in Rock ‘n’ Roll

2

Jon Takiff swears this story about Dennis Wilen is true.

Takiff had just started as a writer for the Daily News in 1972, but Wilen, his friend since they met at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, was still at 93.3 WMMR, where the two had briefly worked together. Wilen had been arranging radio concerts as a freelancer, $300 a pop.

Dennis Wilen
Dennis Wilen helped bring Billy Joel to the mainstream. (Photo by Dennis Wilen)

Wilen was in New York and found himself sitting in a conference room at the Gulf and Western Building, smoking a joint with record company executives and listening to an album, released the year before, that hadn’t gotten a lot of play. Wilen still isn’t entirely sure whether it was the weed, the speakers or the music itself, but something about the album really landed for him. He decided then that he would just go ahead and invite the guy, Billy Joel, to perform a radio concert for WMMR.


Much has changed since then.

The Gulf and Western Building is now the Trump International Hotel and Tower on Columbus Circle, named after Wilen’s famous one-time classmate at the University of Pennsylvania. And the radio concert that Wilen produced with Joel is often credited as one of the key moments in the singer’s propulsion to superstardom.

But for Wilen, much has still stayed the same. He still loves music, and he still finds himself crossing paths with famously interesting people.

Wilen, 72, was born at Temple University Hospital and attended Haverford High School before he went off to Penn. His mother’s family owned a grocery store in West Philadelphia, and his father’s family still owns Wilensky Lock & Hardware on Passyunk Avenue.

Amy Wilen Buckman, his sister, was a reporter for 6abc for decades, and their mother was a frequent public speaker; clearly, she believes, he had a “performance gene in his DNA.” Though he’d end up behind the boards instead of onstage, he performed a little bit back in those days. You’d have had to catch him playing folk music on the guitar with Takiff around Penn’s campus.

Wilen studied political science at Penn, working as the managing editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian, and once really thought he would become a lawyer. But at Penn Law, writing briefs and doing research, he just couldn’t see himself doing something he found so … boring.

He was a guy who took part in the March on Washington and, in his words, “thought that rock ’n’ roll was going to change the world.”

“It was not for me,” he said.

a stage with a drum set, microphones and lights
aetb / iStock / Getty Images Plus

So he ditched law school and started freelance writing; he’d previously worked as a stringer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and, using some contacts he kept there, he started up again, supplementing that with work for the Daily News. Leveraging that, he even got to write a bit for Rolling Stone.

It was around this time that Wilen found himself at a party at Larry Magid’s house, listening to Elton John talk about radio concerts. It hit him right there.

“I said, ‘Holy sh–, I can do this,’” Wilen said.

Wilen pitched WMMR on producing radio concerts, to which they quickly agreed. First on the list was Paul Fishkin, a “nice Jewish boy,” Wilen said, who was also Upper Darby native Todd Rundgren’s manager.

Billy Joel’s “Cold Spring Harbor” came out in 1971 to little fanfare, and was barely
getting played on WMMR. But Wilen had his fateful conference room smoke and, a few conversations later, Joel was sitting at the piano at Sigma Sound Studios on April 15, 1972, for a live radio concert produced by Wilen.

What followed was a masterful live show, punctuated by Joel’s rendition of a then-unreleased song: “Captain Jack.” It would go on to be the most requested song of the next two years by WMMR listeners. Stations all over the East Coast started to play it, too, and by the time it became the final track on Joel’s next album, “Piano Man,” buzz had already reached a fever pitch.

But don’t just take Wilen’s word for it.

“It had a tremendous ripple effect,” Joel told Philadelphia Magazine a few years back. “The song just took on a life of its own.”

It’s a feather that Wilen has never stopped enjoying having in his cap. His mother didn’t care for the song, but that didn’t bother him.

“I knew if my mother hates it, there must be something to it,” he said.

Over the next five years, Wilen kept working for WMMR, with some work at WCAU-FM as well. In 1977, Wilen moved out to Los Angeles for some sun and some palm trees. He didn’t realize then, but he would end up staying there permanently.

Wilen worked as the national director for Far Out Productions, which most famously counted War among its clientele. After a few years, he was on to Mushroom Records, working with Heart, until Mushroom went bankrupt. He was back to freelancing, doing a bit of writing and producing. It was then, Wilen jokes, that he came to a realization.

“Eventually, I decided that I was going to have to go straight,” he said.

He became a loan officer, and became a bank vice president somewhere along the way. Career #2 in LA was a fun one, but a short economic downturn in the mid-90s had him looking for career #3. He ran into an old friend from Far Out, who asked him if he knew anything about building websites. Yes, he said. Great, she answered. Harry Shearer needs someone to build one for him.

And so Wilen became a web developer, designing sites for Shearer, the fictional band Spinal Tap and the Milken family, among others. This work also led him back to journalism, landing him briefly at the Jewish Journal and Patch Brentwood, where a spat with new owner Arianna Huffington (partially involving a flap over a controversial cartoon) had him back out on his own.

Today, Wilen still does web development and oversees a few blogs. He’s writing regularly, and maintains an active Twitter presence.

“I’m still politically active and liberal, I’m still a Zionist,” he said. “I’m still a tikkun olam kind of guy.”

[email protected]; 215-832-0740

2 COMMENTS

  1. So good to read about Dennis as I grew up with him. Norma Greenspan Sax. Wish there was a local Jewish news paper in New York city.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here