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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

England suits fancy of Dartmouth's 'most famous alumnus'

LONDON -- When Paul Gambaccini '70 first came to England, he was already on a roll.

Having just graduated from Dartmouth, he was already a regular contributor to Rolling Stone magazine, and he had been invited to come across the Atlantic for two years of study at Oxford University.

Most 21-year-olds would be quite happy being in such a position, but Gambaccini, as it turns out, was just getting started.

Now, some 26 years later, Gambaccini is still here -- and he has made a wildly successful career for himself as an author, radio and television broadcaster and music and arts critic.

He is practically a household name in London, and some time ago the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine called Gambaccini "undoubtedly Dartmouth's most famous alumnus" -- not bad for a school that has produced its fair share of well-known politicians, lawyers and business executives.

Despite the constant demands on his time by his many literary projects and appearances on radio and television, Gambaccini was still happy to set aside part of his day to reflect upon his success, his experiences in London and his time at Dartmouth.

Two big breaks

Gambaccini got his first big break when he was a senior at the College.

As a regular disc-jockey on WDCR-AM radio, Gambaccini said he received a phone call early one morning, asking him to fill in as the host of the breakfast show, an offer he gladly accepted.

Unable to fall back asleep, Gambaccini decided to write a review of a music single and send it in to Rolling Stone magazine, since he had always been telling himself he could write a better review than Ed Ward, the magazine's music critic.

Gambaccini said "to his astonishment," he received a reply from Ed Ward himself, saying "anything that makes me laugh as much as your ... review has to go in. Enclosed please find your Rolling Stone due date calendar."

Not too long after, Gambaccini was the main singles reviewer for Rolling Stone magazine.

The next major break that was to have an important impact on Gambaccini's life -- going to Oxford -- was prompted by a friend, who encouraged him to apply for no other reason than it was "a two-year paid vacation."

Gambaccini applied and was accepted, but he gave much credit for his acceptance to Oxford to fellow Dartmouth alumnus Robert Reich '68, who Gambaccini said helped paved the way.

"I figured wherever Bob Reich went, they wanted more of where he came from," Gambaccini said. "I guess I was right."

Reich met Bill Clinton while the two were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford. When Clinton became President, he appointed Reich to be his Secretary of Labor.

Coincidentally, when Gambaccini came to Oxford, he got the room in which Clinton had lived two years earlier, which prompted Gambaccini's now-notorious comment of last year: "I lost my virginity in Bill Clinton's bed."

Climbing the ladder

As a regular writer for Rolling Stone, Gambaccini soon got to meet people from British Broadcasting Corporation radio, and using his vast collegiate radio experience, he began volunteering his services.

By 1973 he had made his first taped contribution on BBC radio, and the next year he did his first solo broadcast. Gambaccini's star was starting to rise.

In his capacities as a Rolling Stone writer and as a well-known personality on British Broadcasting Corporation radio and television, there was practically no interview Gambaccini could not get.

In fact, the collection of pop artists he has interviewed over the years reads like a who's who list of the biggest mega-stars alive -- Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Elton John and all four of The Beatles are just a few.

"With the exception of Dick Clark, I've probably interviewed more pop artists than anyone else," Gambaccini said.

However, Gambaccini has also met people from all across the spectrum of society -- from Richard Nixon to boxer Muhammad Ali to rapper Ice-T.

Gambaccini also branched out into the world of literature. In a major project on which he collaborated with brothers Tim and Jonathan Rice, Gambaccini helped produce the "Guinness Book of British Hit Singles," a wildly successful almanac of the most popular British songs.

Since then, Gambaccini has written or collaborated on several other compilation books, including "The Top 100 Rock 'n Roll Albums of All Time," "British Hit Albums" and "Television's Greatest Hits -- Every Great Program Since 1960."

And Gambaccini does not just interview stars -- indeed he is also good friends with a few, including Elton John and stage-writer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

While Gambaccini said he does not really think twice when hanging around with such famous people, he does occasionally step back and realize, "It's killer when someone you've known forever has a reputation that precedes him."

Radio Boy

Gambaccini has not forgotten his roots, and he still has "a zillion" memories of his years in Hanover.

He particularly recalled the social and political upheaval of the late 1960s -- which he got to witness and comment on at WDCR radio.

"It was such a key time, not only in my life, but in American history," he said. "I thought to myself at the time, 'This is a unique era that won't come again.'"

During his time at the College, Gambaccini recalled, there were major world events -- the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union -- as well as unprecedented campus events, like the seizure of Parkhurst Hall and the student strikes in protest of the Vietnam War.

He also remembered in vivid detail the draft lottery, which he said reduced people to their "primal feelings" -- "desolation" for those with low numbers and "utter joy" for those with high numbers. Gambaccini himself got a high number and did not have to enlist for military service.

"In those days politics was something that entered the lives of most students and student organizations, and DCR was the place to be," he said. "It was a very exciting time."

In fact, Gambaccini wrote his memoirs about his time at Dartmouth, as viewed through a radio DJ's eyes, titled "Radio Boy."

Above all, Gambaccini credits the College and WDCR for helping to get him started on the road to success.

"So much of what has followed got its start when I was a student at Dartmouth," he said. "It's amazing."

While Gambaccini got a lot from the College, he also left his own mark.

History Professor Jere Daniell, who advised Gambaccini on his senior thesis, wrote in an e-mail message that he particularly recalled Gambaccini's "intellectual quickness and conversational liveliness."

A new beginning

After almost 20 years of doing a regular morning radio program on BBC radio, Gambaccini has now moved on to other ventures.

His most recent book, "Love Letters," a collection of seven imaginary letters to people he no longer sees, just hit bookstores last month.

In addition, he still hosts "Kaleidoscope," a weekly arts radio program, where he specializes on newly released films.

His next book is in the works, as is a CD-ROM version of his "British Hit Singles" best-seller.

Despite all he has accomplished, Gambaccini takes his success with a great degree of humility.

"I'm always wary of people who are impressed by their own success," he said.

He added, "I think everyone who has managed to do what they wanted to do knows that there are people that gave them breaks along the way."