Saturday, 2:15 PM
By Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff
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 the highest-paid radio personality in Boston.
Cain, who started out as an actor and kept returning to the stage during and after his radio career, died in his Beacon Hill home this morning. At 81, he had been battling cancer for several years.
"What you're trying to do," he told the Boston Herald American in 1974, "is jolly people into facing the day."
His trademark was drawing humor from sources likely and unlikely. In Cain's hands, Frank Sinatra's hit song "Fly Me to the Moon" became the parody "Fly Me to Methuen." He could do dead-on impressions and draw chuckles by asking guests in his studios or on the phone seemingly innocuous questions.
"What I liked about radio is that you had to rely on your own imagination and compliment your audience by attributing to them a vivid imagination," he told the Boston Herald in 1991.
When the Red Sox soared through the Impossible Dream year in 1967, Cain recorded a tribute to Carl Yastrzemski. Three years ago, "The Yaz Song" became popular with a new generation as part of the soundtrack to "Fever Pitch," a movie about an obsessive Red Sox fan.
"I think Jess was a New England treasure," said Peter Casey, who was the producer during Cain's last two years on the air and now is director of news and programming for WBZ.
From 1957 until he signed off for good in 1991, Cain was a towering figure in radio and the lives of his listeners in the years before talk radio, the Internet, and an explosion of television channels splintered the listening audience. Even more in demand once he left his studio each day, he was the master of ceremonies at every event whose organizers booked him quickly enough.
Rising before 4 a.m., Cain prepared for work in the predawn silence of his Hingham home for many years until his four children had grown and he moved with his wife, Jean, to Beacon Hill.
"There are times when I feel like a yo-yo on an 18-mile string stretching from the WHDH studios to my home in Hingham," he told one interviewer in 1965.
Family interactions became fodder for Cain's radio shows as his wife and children shared him with his vast audience.
"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 any more."
Although Cain was known principally in Boston for his radio work, and to a lesser extent for his acting at the North Shore Music Theater and other in other venues, he had carved out a full life resume before setting 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 a summer job made him decide to seek his fortunes elsewhere. He began acting at Northeast Catholic High School for boys, then was drafted right after graduating.
Audie Murphy, the most decorated US soldier in World War II, was Cain's company commander when their unit was trapped by machine-gun fire during the Battle of the Bulge. The only soldier in his unit who wasn't shot, Cain crawled and ran, dodging bullets and losing his helmet as he escaped to find reinforcements.
Returning, they saved most of his comrades -- including Murphy -- and Cain was awarded the Silver Star, though he was modest and 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,' " Cain told Boston Magazine.
By his account, he "tried" a few colleges after the war and was less than a month from graduating when he left to act in New York City.
"Like most kids who grew up with movies, I didn't want to be an actor so much as I wanted to be the guy in the movie," he told Boston Magazine.
Instead, he was the guy on stage and on live television, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Rod Steiger.
During his acting years, he met Jean Sunstrom, a fashion designer and artist. They married in 1954.
Cain took a job teaching communications at the University of Notre Dame, where he met Jack Hynes, whose father was a former Boston mayor. The two moved to Boston and to WHDH, where Cain landed the job that would make him a household name in New England.
In addition to his son Michael and his wife, Jean, Cain leaves two other sons, Jessie of New Boston, N.H., and Kevin of Tisdale; a daughter, Amy of Somerville; two sisters, Delores Adams of Philadelphia and Eileen Haber of Philadelphia; three grandsons; and a great-grandson.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Feb. 23 in the Glastonbury Monastery in Hingham.
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