When I was still a little nubbin figuring out what I wanted to do when I grew up, I became a fan of WKRP in Cincinnati, the CBS sitcom about a bunch of misfits at an AM radio station that played music far cooler than it should have. My favourite character was morning man, Dr. Johnny Fever, played by Howard Hesseman. Fever inspired more wannabe young radio oiks than anyone will ever know.
Hesseman had not been well since he had colon surgery last summer. He died this weekend at age 81.
There are plenty of well-written obituaries about Hesseman (like this one from Variety), so I’m going to devote this space to an obit-like bio of his most famous DJ character.
Dr. Johnny Fever was born in the mind of Hugh Wilson, a one-time ad salesman (an actual Herb Tarlek) at Top 40 station WQXI/Atlanta. Also on staff was a weird DJ from Saskatchewan named “Skinny” Bobby Harper. He, coincidentally, once worked at WSAI in Cincinnati, along with at least ten other stations, including seven different stations in Atlanta alone.
The character of Dr. Fever had his own backstory pieced together by fans of the show. Using that information, I’ve pieced together an obituary for him. Feel free to add more detail in the comments section.
Fever was born John R. Caravella. He grew up in a broken home and went to live with his mom, Carrie, (a former singer who knew Buddy Rich) when his parents split up. It was while living in a mobile home that a tornado struck, leaving Johnny with a lifelong fear of strong wind.
Leaving home at age 17 and turning into a hippie and an aficionado of fine weed, he somehow chanced into the radio business, eventually getting a gig in Los Angeles, where he was on-air as “Johnny Sunshine, Boss Jock.” That “Boss Jock” suffix hints that the job was at KHJ, a station that used the monicker for their on-air personalities.
We know of at least two occasions where he ended up in jail as the result of “minor misunderstanding with 145 Mexican cops” along with an incident involving the alleged theft of a police car in Princeton, New Jersey. He was married at least twice, paying alimony to both. He also had an ex-girlfriend named Buffy who threatened to sue him for a portion of his income.
Fever ended up at sleepy WKRP (originally a boring “beautiful music” station) after being punted his LA job when he dared say “BOOGER” on the air. WKRP was apparently the only place that would hire him after such a heinous incident. His salary was $17,500 (later revealed to be less than the $24,000 being paid to novice copywriter Baily Quarters. However, A few seasons into the show, Johnny received a $24,000 settlement for wrongful dismissal. (Note: Before WKRP, he hosted a gardening show on a station in Amarillo.)
[Sidebar: Hugh Wilson chose the call letters “WKRP” for two reasons. First, since the station was supposedly the worse in the market, the idea of calling it a version of “W-CRAP” seemed funny. And second, Cincinnati had an FM station with the calls WKRQ.]
When new program director Andy Travis flipped the station to a rock format, John R. Caravella, he had to come up with a new on-air name. After rolling through a bunch of names he’d already used (Johnny Sunshine, Johnny Duke, Jonny Cool, Johnny Midnight, and Heavy Early), he quickly came up with “Johnny Fever.” (Hint: All of Dr. Fever’s previous names can be spotted on the coffee cup he carried around.)
At first, the newly-minted Dr. Fever wasn’t sure he was right for the job. After all, he was burned out, a terrible insomniac (not a great quality for a morning man), and just generally unreliable. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Travis to convince him otherwise.
Johnny was entrusted with making the format change from beautiful music to rock on the air right that second.
Fever also had a daughter named Laurie who briefly moved in with him. He later gave her a big chunk of the settlement he got from that LA station.
Johnny lived like he was still 21. Not the tidiest person, he once needed to have his apartment “fumigated for lizards.” There was a period of time when he and Quarters were romantically involved in an off-and-on way. He also became good friends with evening DJ, Venus Flytrap, who had come to WKRP just so he could work in the same place as Johnny.
One of Dr. Fever’s most interesting characteristics was his physical reaction to alcohol.
After several successful ratings books in Cincinnati, Johnny was offered a job with a competitor of the LA station that fired him. He took the job but was quickly fired for using the term “jive-ass” on the air. He returned to Cincinnati where he was welcomed back with open arms.
Despite a pathological hatred of disco, Fever worked for a time as the host of Gotta Dance, using the name “Rip Tide,” a character with a personality that was the polar opposite to Dr. Fever. That lasted a short time before he made the choice to be Johnny Fever full time.
Fever would eventually leave WKRP for good after moving through a couple of other stations. After a period of time, he ends up back in LA.
While details of the rest of his career are sparse (okay, non-existent) we might be able to extrapolate that Dr. Fever had a good run in LA working the late evening shift at a couple of AOR stations. Then in the late 80s, beset by the restructuring in the running through the industry at the time, he signed off for the final time. Reverting to John Caravella again, he got his real estate license and made millions selling homes in and around Venice Beach.
Caravella peacefully passed away poolside at the Sunset Marquis at age 81 with a joint in his hand and the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'” playing on the stereo.