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Jess Cain, radio host, dead at 81

Dean of Hub airwaves, entertained for 34 years

Email|Print| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / February 15, 2008

In cars and kitchens from Cape Cod to Canada, the first voice hundreds of thousands of people heard each morning belonged to Jess Cain. Sound effects, song parodies, and witty commentary were his stock in trade, and for 34 years of mornings on WHDH-AM he had few rivals, becoming one of the most popular radio personalities in Boston.

"People would swear by him, getting up in the morning. He put a lot of people into their cars and off to work," said John Henning, a former senior correspondent at WBZ-TV who worked at WHDH as a reporter and anchor for part of Mr. Cain's tenure. "He really had a sense of what was going on in Boston, the ebb and flow of the city, and I think that was one of his strengths in the morning."

Mr. Cain, who started out as an actor and kept returning to the stage during and after his radio career, died at his Beacon Hill home yesterday morning. At 81, he had been battling cancer for several years.

Drawing humor from unlikely sources was his trademark. In his hands, Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" became the musical parody "Fly Me to Methuen." Mr. Cain did dead-on impressions and created a stable of characters whose voices he brought to life on the air.

When the Red Sox rolled through the Impossible Dream year in 1967, Mr. Cain recorded a tribute to Carl Yastrzemski. Three years ago, "The Yaz Song" became popular with a new generation as part of the soundtrack of "Fever Pitch," a movie about an obsessed Red Sox fan.

From 1957 until he signed off the last time in 1991, Mr. Cain was a towering figure in broadcasting during the years before talk radio, the Internet, and an explosion of TV channels splintered the audience. Even more in demand once he left his studio, Mr. Cain was the master of ceremonies at every event whose organizers booked him quickly enough.

"I think Jess was a New England treasure," said Peter Casey, who was Mr. Cain's producer for the show's final two years and now is director of news and programming for WBZ.

Rising before 4 a.m., Mr. Cain prepared for work in the predawn silence of his Hingham home until his four children had grown and he moved with his wife, Jean, to Beacon Hill. Sometimes he brought his family to work, figuratively speaking, as life at home became comic fodder for the show.

"It was strange when he'd talk about us on the radio," Michael Cain of Weymouth said of his father. "But we always got a thrill when people realized who our father was - just the look on their face. It was either, 'My parents listened to him,' or, 'I listened to him.' It made us feel good, even though he's been off the air for all of 17 years now. I know people miss him and his type on the radio. It's not the same radio anymore."

In his studio, Mr. Cain paced and puffed, a pipe in the corner of his mouth. His engineer was in the next room on the other side of a window. When inspiration hit, Mr. Cain would snap his fingers while a song was playing and request a sound effect to accompany his next satiric bit.

"It was impromptu, based on the environment around him - what he was hearing, what he was seeing, what he was reading," Casey said. "In a certain way, it was like watching him up on stage. He had his props, and he had his drumsticks because he always liked to tap them on the countertop while the music played."

Best known for his radio work, and to a lesser extent for his acting at the North Shore Music Theater and other venues, Mr. Cain had a full resume before he set foot in the WHDH studio.

Born in Philadelphia, Jess Daniel Dennis Cain III decided not to follow his grandfather and father into the glass-blowing factories after one summer stint prompted him to break with tradition. He began acting at Northeast Catholic High School for Boys, then was drafted after graduating.

Audie Murphy, the most decorated US soldier in World War II, was Mr. Cain's company commander when their unit was trapped by machine-gun fire during the Battle of the Bulge. The only soldier in the unit who wasn't shot, Mr. Cain crawled and ran, dodging bullets and losing his helmet as he went to find reinforcements.

Returning, they saved most of his comrades - including Murphy - and Mr. Cain was awarded the Silver Star, though he was self-deprecating when forced to retell the story.

"I told the kids at Hingham, 'There are no heroes. There are just men who were seen doing what they were doing,' " Mr. Cain told Boston Magazine.

By Mr. Cain's account, after the war he "tried" a few colleges and was less than a month from graduating when he left to act in a play in New York City.

For a while he was on stage and live television, spending two years on Broadway with the show "Stalag 17" and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Rod Steiger.

On a blind date he met Jean Sunstrom, a fashion designer and artist. They married in 1954.

As acting work waned, Mr. Cain took a job teaching at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where he met Jack Hynes, whose father was a former Boston mayor. The two moved to Boston and to WHDH, where Mr. Cain landed the job that made him a household name in New England.

Celebrating 30 years at WHDH in 1987, Mr. Cain was joined on the air by Michael S. Dukakis, who was then the governor, US Senator John Kerry, and Kevin White, the former Boston mayor. Among others who paid tribute in person, by phone, or on tape were Yastrzemski, Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr, sportscaster Curt Gowdy, and chicken entrepreneur Frank Perdue.

"Well, I don't want to sound too pompous, but I think about the other radio guys and shows that have come and gone," Mr. Cain told the Globe four years later when he retired in 1991, a few months shy of his show's 34th anniversary. "I guess the legend is - one station, one time slot, one man."

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Cain leaves two other sons, Jessie of New Boston, N.H. and Kevin of Tisdale; a daughter, Amy of Somerville; two sisters, Delores Adams and Eileen Haber, both of Philadelphia; three grandsons; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service will be held Feb 23 at 10 a.m. in the Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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