Before he went on the air, Akron radio star Jack Clifton did his homework.
He conducted weekly surveys of record shops, jukebox operators, music distributors, orchestra leaders and sheet music salesmen to determine the hottest songs. He woke up early to listen to the latest singles that flooded his studio.
“The right selection of records is all important in this game,” Clifton once told the Beacon Journal. “You can talk all you want to about how popular a disc jockey is. It’s really his records that are popular. If you don’t have the right programming, you’re dead.”
The suave, deep-voiced Clifton was young, talented and ambitious. For nearly a decade, he worked as a disc jockey and emcee on radio and television in Northeast Ohio, cultivating a devoted following with his “bright chatter and peppy records.”
Clifton was only 20 in December 1947 when he arrived in Akron to be the morning host for WAKR radio. Clifton, whose real name was Louis K. Salsburg, had served as an emcee during World War II for the Army Ground Forces Band.
He landed his first radio job at age 15 in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., getting paid $5 a week to deliver sandwiches to announcers, and adopted the stage name Jack Clifton while working in summer theater.
As the wake-up man at WAKR, Clifton played records, produced sound effects and supplied friendly banter. He later filled in for other disc jockeys, including his friend Alan Freed, the star of the nightly “Request Review” show.
In late 1948, Clifton became a freelance disc jockey, traveling 825 miles per week on a grueling, hectic schedule.
He took the 8 a.m. bus to Cleveland for his 11:05 a.m. show “Clifton Comes Calling” at WJMO, then caught a 1 p.m. bus to Youngstown for WBBW’s “The 300 Club” and “Buzzin’ Cousin.” At 6:15 p.m., he took a bus to Akron, arriving home by 8:15 p.m.
At 6 p.m. Saturdays, he appeared on WHK’s “The Big Broadcast” in Cleveland.
“You’d be surprised at the people who still remember him,” said Clifton’s widow, Betty L. Salsburg, 92, of Fairlawn. “That’s been a lot of years that passed.”
She met him in the late 1940s when he was living at Akron’s Mayflower Hotel and she was working as head cashier. They got married and soon welcomed two sons: Danny in 1949 and Teddy in 1950.
Working from home
Tired of traveling across Ohio, Clifton built a radio studio in the basement of the family’s home at 1641 High Bridge Road in Cuyahoga Falls.
“When we were married, he did most of his shows from our house,” Salsburg said.
By 1951, Clifton appeared on 18 radio programs a week, including “Buzzin’ Cousin,” “Tops in Pops,” “Starlight Special,” “Jamboree” and “Five Star Show,” all on Akron’s WADC, and “Clifton’s House Party” on WJW. He also served as emcee on two TV programs on Cleveland's WEWS: “The Linn Sheldon Show” and “Old Dutch Polka Revue.”
In 1952, Clifton became program manager at Akron’s WCUE and took over the 7-9 a.m. morning show, which he named “The Sunshine Club.”
“He’s the fellow who gets you up in the morning and lets the sunshine in, he’s the man who plays the best of the records on Akron’s favorite station,” WCUE advertised.
Clifton dubbed his home “Sunshine Cottage” and allowed his older son to deliver the introduction: “My name is Danny Clifton and here is my daddy, Jack.”
“I don’t know how many thousands of records he owned,” Salsburg recalled. “He had shelves built all around our basement.”
She said her husband had a good ear for music. “If Jack liked a record, that meant that record was going to be a big hit,” she said.
As part of the job, Clifton met many rising stars. He often invited them home for supper and called his wife to let her know there would be guests.
“Pat Boone was at our house for dinner, the Four Aces were at our house,” Salsburg said. “He had all of them at our house. ... Tony Bennett was at the house.”
Salsburg said she would serve “whatever I’d come up with” for the musicians, and she was happy to do it.
“They loved home cooking because they traveled all the time,” she said.
Meanwhile, Clifton continued to emcee programs all over town, including the Rubber Bowl, Akron Armory, Loew’s Theater, Palace Theater, Trianon Ballroom, Mayflower Hotel and Derby Downs. He helped start youth recreation centers at Firestone Park and North Hill, and established Jack Clifton Enterprises to operate record departments in 10 stores.
But “The Sunshine Club,” which had more than 8,000 club members, was Clifton’s pride and joy.
“One rule we have at WCUE is that two out of every three records we play must be selected from the 100 top tunes of the week,” Clifton told the Beacon Journal in the mid-1950s. "That way, we feel that we are giving our listeners what they want to hear."
WCUE’s owner wondered if Clifton would be interested in moving to the East Coast to take over a new station in Connecticut.
“He could have been Dick Clark, and maybe bigger,” Salsburg said.
But health concerns prevented Clifton from going national.
“He’d been having pains,” Salsburg recalled.
Clifton was diagnosed with cancer in early 1956. He had an operation and spent months at the Cleveland Clinic with his wife at his bedside.
Only days away from his 30th birthday, he died Sept. 8, 1956, and was buried at Rose Hill in Fairlawn.
“It seems like yesterday, but it’s been a long time,” Salsburg said.
WCUE sponsored the Jack Clifton Memorial Benefit Show on Dec. 14, 1956, at the Akron Armory with concerts at 7 and 10 p.m.
Pat Boone, who credited Clifton with being one of the first Ohio disc jockeys to play his records, agreed to headline. The star-studded bill also featured Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Clyde McPhatter, the Diamonds, the Dream Weavers, the Ernie Freeman Trio, the Wonders, Jaycee Hill, Bobby Nichols and Akron’s own Dolores Parker.
“I thought it was great,” Salsburg said.
More than 5,000 people packed the shows, raising $7,188 for the American Cancer Society (more than $66,000 today).
Nearly 30 years later, Jack Clifton was inducted into the Akron Radio Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1983.
“He did so much in such little time,” Salsburg said.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.