Tom Ingram may be the bossman who gets the Viva Las Vegas train on the tracks and moving, but one of the main guys that helps keep it on the tracks once the event starts is the man with the clipboard, DJ Del Villareal of Motorbilly Radio. If you've hung around enough bands and musicians then you know they can't be trusted with policing their own stage times. That's where Del comes in. All weekend long you'll catch a glimpse of him frantically moving between the stages, bringing the bands on and off, calling for encores, etc. One minute he's in the ballroom, and you decide to go check what's happening in the pub, and before you even finish your beer you arrive in the pub to find him on that stage too! How he does it, we're not sure. But his nickname is the Aztec Werewolf so maybe there's some supernatural powers involved! We're so glad that Del was able to set aside some of his very busy pre-VLV time and talk with us. Enjoy!
Zack: When and how did you get your start as a DJ?
Del: I first started DJing at “clubs” in Detroit venues back in the mid 1990’s. I remember doing many early rockabilly shows with a half-assed DJ rig consisting of an old Radio Shack home turntable, a SONY shelf CD player (with dual cassette!) and a gigantic mixing board that I purchased used, all connected with cheap “Realistic” brand cables and electrical tape! My CD’s were carted around inside a huge light blue American Tourister suitcase! Before I had my first weekly radio show, I would “volunteer” to DJ (and sometimes emcee) bar shows where local rockin’ bands & touring acts would appear. I remember driving my parents old Chevy Caprice to Hamtramck where I’d show up early (and stay very late) DJing shows for Detroit rockabilly bands such as Rumble, Dangerville, The Twistin’ Tarantulas and Nobody’s Business, national acts like Ronnie Dawson, The Planet Rockers, The Go Getters, Hi-Fi & The Roadrunners, The Belmont Playboys and The Frantic Flattops plus so many others that my brain strains to remember! By DJing I was able to get into the shows for free and often acquire new recordings to play and sometimes review for local fanzines. I eventually was hired to DJ every Friday night in the Garden Bowl, a part of the legendary Magic Stick/Majestic Theatre entertainment building in Detroit. I hosted ‘Bowl Kat, BOWL!’ for a little over 5 years!
I first became a radio DJ through the fault of friend Craig Maki who was the host of WCBN FM’s long running “Rockabilly Show,” while we both were enrolled at the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor. I was probably his most annoying fan/listener because I remember calling him EVERY week to make a request or suggestion! One time he had to miss the program because of a commitment, so he asked me to guest-DJ for him. I was incredibly excited and nervous, but I remember planning for it pretty enthusiastically (I think the very first song I ever spun on the radio was Elvis’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight”). Well, I believe that Craig was finally about to graduate from U of M, so he asked me if I would like to take over as host for the show as he was going to do his rockabilly program on a “real” Detroit radio station that spring. Of course I said “YES” and started radio DJing straight off without having to train or go through a long apprenticeship. I’ve been hosting my “Go Kat, GO! The Rock-A-Billy Show" every week since, both on 88.3 WCBN FM and more recently on MOTORBILLY RADIO.
Z: How did the idea for Motorbilly Radio come about?
D: I think sometime back in my early college days (mid-to late 1990’s) I came up with the name “Motorbilly” as a neat sounding hybrid of “Motor City” and “rock-a-billy.” Since I've always been a big fan of classic radio programming and vintage music (especially 1950’s era rock & roll styles), I wanted to create my own station which would program traditional and authentic styled “rockin” music 24/7. When a Grand Rapids friend (whose wedding reception I was hired to DJ) told me about Live365 and how easily you could stream any music you wanted for listeners all over the world AND that you could DJ “live" though your computer, I was intrigued and immediately investigated it. There really weren’t many good quality rockabilly radio channels available, so I jumped in. It was a bit expensive at first, but I eventually found a comfortable package that allowed my friends & fans to listen in easily. Motorbilly has been Live365’s number one “rockabilly” station ever since (12 years and running!) and we’re continually in the top 150 most popular stations hosted by Live365.
Z: I've always imagined that getting into DJing must be difficult due to the large amounts of music you have to own. Was this a challenge for you in the beginning?
D: Yes and no. I've never been a rabid “record hound,” but I've always been a collector of some sort. I read and collected comics since I was a kid and when I started acquiring 45s and LPs, it was right around the same time when CDs were first introduced. My ingrained "collector habit" prevents me from throwing stuff away, so I just find, buy and save the music I love! Since I’ve been a radio show host almost as long as I've been a club DJ, I've been fortunate in that many bands have “donated” their music to my collection. I've always championed the new and better modern rockabilly acts, both in my weekender and club DJ sets, so I've always had access to the latest and greatest rockin’ recordings. Since my wife and I waited a while before we had children, I was also able to indulge and purchase/accumulate MANY box sets and various artist compilation CDs from the best reissue labels. My obsessions all feed into one another! LPs, CDs, box sets, 45s (and to some extent, even MP3 files!) fall into my personal orbit and so I try to utilize a bit of every type of musical vehicle in all of my radio shows.
Z: How did you become one of the emcees for Viva Las Vegas?
D: It’s a good story! My wife Shannon and I attended the very first Viva Las Vegas Weekender together back in 1996 at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino and I believe that I was one of the featured DJs. I remember that the original emcee (or “compere” as they are referred to in the UK) was a very funny and fast talking British bloke with a shaved head. Tom had hired him because he was comfortable on stage and also very gregarious! He had an extremely heavy English accent. As he drank a bit more throughout each night, it became harder and harder to understand exactly what he was saying. I distinctly remember Tom asking me near the end of the event (maybe Sunday night?) if I would come back next year to be a co-emcee for Viva Las Vegas #2. At the time I had already performed emcee duties for JoAnne and Greg Van Vranken’s “We Wanna Boogie Weekender" in New Jersey and also at David Loehr’s “Rockabilly Rebel Weekender" in Indiana. I’m not sure if Tom saw me at one of these events or if he decided to hire me because of my radio work, but either way, I’ve been a featured emcee every year since! The prestige and popularity of the Viva Las Vegas event (and the rockabilly subculture that it represents) has boosted me tremendously in my professional life and I owe Tom a big “thank you” for the continued opportunity.
Z: As someone who works closely with VLV, how do you respond to complaints about the event? i.e. "It's not about the music." or "It's only a fashion show.”
D: I say to these complainers, “Yes, you’re right.” The festival’s main purpose will always be about celebrating rockabilly music, both vintage and modern, but because of the event’s incredible popularity and success, it has become THE focal point and the default representative of the USA’s (and possibly the entire world’s) ROCKABILLY SCENE. For good or bad (mostly good in my opinion!), Viva Las Vegas encompasses all aspects of our “rockabilly” or “rockin” scene’s culture. In addition to the music, which is experiencing more quality neo, psycho & revival styled bands, VLV inculcates retro and vintage fashion (of which I’m a HUGE fan!), hot rod, tattoo, pin-up, burlesque, tiki and Americana into it’s entire rockabilly repertoire and it does this well. There’s a good reason why the rooms & tickets sell out every year! For me, how you look has always been extremely important in the “rockabilly scene,” even in the genre's mid 1950’s era. The clothing can never be separated from rockabilly and therefore, it will always be an important aspect of Viva Las Vegas.
Z: What do you think of VLV compared with some of the other weekenders you work at?
D: Bigger. Harder to get around. More exhausting! Extreme. More detailed. Basically, still the best at doing what it does and that is provide COMPLETE entertainment. The backdrop of the city of Las Vegas (and all that that encompasses) can never be underestimated. Better.
Z: Record hops and rock 'n' roll shows are often full of intoxicated people by the end of the night, what's the most bizarre or funniest thing you've seen from behind the booth?
D: In my old Detroit DJing days at The Magic Stick, I remember rushing out to protect my turntables and CD decks from being crushed by some drunken fighters. I didn’t hesitate to throw myself into the mix, grabbing them both and putting myself between them to prevent any damage to my equipment. I seem to remember effectively scaring them both semi-sober with the threat of physical harm! Later on, I realized that it was probably kind of stupid, because they might’ve shot or stabbed me! Thankfully it all ended well.
Z: What's a song you play that never seems to fail at packing the dance floor?
D: Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys' “Chalk It Up To The Blues” is a perfect jive set starter as well as Go Cat Go’s “Who Was That Cat.” Johnny Burnette’s version of “Honey Hush” seems to get the bopper’s attention very well!
Z: What are some of your most requested songs? And are there any songs you're so sick of that you really don't like playing anymore?
D: JD McPherson’s music, The Sirocco Brothers 45s and many of the Rhythm Shakers popular numbers get requested regularly. No, I usually never get tired of song requests. Since I’m always trying to introduce hot “new” music into my sets, I tend not to get burned out on any one song in particular. I may get bored playing the same Wanda Jackson or Jerry Lee Lewis tune, but it’s never for very long and if the listener/dancer truly enjoys it, then I tend to enjoy it as well.
Z: Boppers, strollers or Jivers? Rockabilly or R&B? What's your preferred?
D: Jivers for certain! They always move me! Rockabilly forever! But I have to have a healthy diet of ALL the essential rockin’ genres & sub-genres each and every day or else I get scurvy.
Z: How has what people want to hear changed over the years, or has it?
D: Just the fact that there’s always a bit more music than there was the year before means that there’s a deeper well to draw from. I might admit that many people’s definition of “rockabilly music” has widened over the years to include more rockin’ electric blues and some harder edged “psychobilly” or “teddy boy” styled music. What dancers will want to hear will always be paramount to me.
Z: Any advice for VLV first timers?
D: Get into the ballrooms a half set early in order to see favorite bands. Drink water between rounds of alcohol. Comfortable yet fashionable shoes. Buy your favorite DJ and MC beers often. Get out to see the strip at least once. Visit the Hoover Dam if you have the time. Check out Bonito Michuacan on Decatur & Twain for fantastic Mexican food. Squeeze in a visit to Frankie’s Tiki Room. Come to my LIVE radio show broadcast on Wednesday afternoon in Brendan’s Irish Pub!
Big thanks again to Del for talking with us! Be sure to stop by Brendan's Pub on Wednesday, April 1st at 4pm (before the pre-party) to catch his live at Viva Las Vegas radio broadcast of Motorbilly Radio. Or listen online at Live365. VLV is only days away and we look forward to saying "hey!" to Del and all our friends, as well as meeting plenty of new ones.
The Rockabilly Gentleman