Don Webster Host of Upbeat

By Harvey Kubernik © 2018

This week the legendary Cleveland, Ohio television personality, Don Webster died at the age of 79. Webster served as host of Upbeat, before embarking on a 35-year career which included a longtime meteorologist spot at News 5 in Cleveland.

Webster was one of the original hosts of the long-running daily talk show The Morning Exchange, a former No. 1 rated program that subsequently influenced the launch of early morning programming like Good Morning America. He later hosted the quiz show Academic Challenge.       

In 1994 the Hamilton, Ontario-born Webster was inducted into the Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame.   

In 1964 Webster became the host of the music variety one hour TV program Upbeat that originated from WEWS-TV 5, an ABC-TV affiliate, in Cleveland that was broadcast on Saturdays 5-6:00 pm during 1964-1971 and syndicated in over 100 US markets. It was a black and white show from 1964-1967, and then shot in color from 1967 until the series demise in 1971.

In 1965 and ’66 I danced for a brief season on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and the Casey Kasem-hosted Shebang! filmed in Hollywood on Fountain Ave. and Vine St.

Local teenagers were occasionally recruited to fill seats and dance to records and performers who lip-synced their hit songs.

By 1966, weekly network music television series Hulabaloo and Shindig! had been cancelled. I was sad. But the saving grace of live televised rock ’n’ roll weekly music shows in the United States was Upbeat.

It was different.

I relished The Ed Sullivan Show weekly Sunday night showcase of musical guests, and American Bandstand always booked a couple of live acts who lip-synced on fast and slow dance numbers for the viewers, but Upbeat featured eight to ten recording artists playing live.   

A weekly ritual every Saturday from Cleveland that was shown in Hollywood.  

Upbeat made an impact on me. I cited the program in my 2004 book Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music In Film and on Your Screen.

In summer of 2017 I was an invited guest lecturer in the author series held at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives in Cleveland, Ohio discussing my just published 1967 A Complete Rock History of The Summer of Love.

I spent 15 minutes just praising the landmark Upbeat to the highly receptive local crowd and acknowledging the efforts of producer Herman Spero.    

I interviewed David Spero, son of Herman, for my 1967 book, and he reflected on the Upbeat  ground-breaking screen achievements with me.

David Spero was a rock-radio pioneer in the 1970s and for many years has been a very active music manager.   

The whole purpose of the show and what my dad was trying to do at the time he watched American Bandstand and Robin Seymour’s show out in Detroit, Ed Sullivan, one artist two songs, and all the rest were dance numbers. And what he wanted to do was take Top 40 radio and put it on TV. And that was the goal with Upbeat.”  

Young Spero held up cue cards for Webster, wrote out questions for the host to answer on-air, and served “as the dancers’ and artists’ best friend” beginning at age 13.

Simon and Garfunkel made their first-time-ever TV appearance on Upbeat.  I could be watching Dizzy Gillespie and Gene Krupa alongside the Box Tops, Aretha Franklin. The Temptations,  Tommy James & the Shondells,  Otis Redding, Terry Knight and the Pack, Bobby Goldsboro, Leslie Gore, Guess Who, Lou Christie, B.B. King, Gene Pitney, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Johnny Nash, The Bar-Kays, Leslie Gore, Paul Revere and the Raiders, ,Sly & The Family Stone and Mitch Ryder. Webster also interviewed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

“There were never any race meetings on Upbeat,” Spero underscored to me. ‘“Oh my God! The show is all black!’ If that’s what it was, that’s what it was. There was never a meeting ‘whose going to be our Motown act this week?’ It was always the opposite.

“We were fortunate in Cleveland to have so much music coming through the town.  Love, Simon and Garfunkel. The Velvet Underground did Upbeat.

“We had a place called Leo’s Casino, and the only white group that ever played there was Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Ridders. It was all Motown and Stax.           

“Otis had been on the show six or seven times,” recalled Spero. “He was like a member of the family. He was the first person I knew who died. Otis performed at Leo’s Casino that night after doing the Upbeat show. He was leaving on Sunday. He had played cards with my dad on Friday or Saturday night. I do know I have a copy of the check; he signed it on the back because he had lost $209 to my dad playing cards and everyone playing cards and endorsed the check to my dad. Which is why it wasn’t in his pocket when he died.

“I literally spent four or five hours with Otis the day before. He was a young guy. He seemed much younger than he was.”

(Harvey Kubernik is an award winning author of 15 books. His literary anthology Inside Cave Hollywood: The Harvey Kubernik Music InnerViews and InterViews Collection Vol. 1, was published in December 2017, by Cave Hollywood. Kubernik’s The Doors Summer’s Gone was published by Other World Cottage Industries in February 2018.

During November 2018, Sterling/Barnes and Noble published Kubernik’s The Story of The Band From Big Pink to the Last Waltz.

During 1977-1978 Kubernik served as host and co-produced the monthly music video and interview TV program 50/50 which aired on Theta Cable, The Z Channel and Manhattan Cable.  Guests included Todd Rundgren, Murray The K, Danny Sugerman and Michael Lloyd. Videos and film clips of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Utopia, Pink Lady and The Doors were broadcast. Cynthia Kirk in Daily Variety praised 50/50 “on a par with The Midnight Special.”