On October 3, Britain’s IT1 network aired a documentary, Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, in which 10 women claim that Savile, who died late in 2011—an enormously popular TV-music host, Savile’s Top of the Pops was pretty much “British Bandstand ”—had sexually abused and raped them as teens and girls during his BBC tenure in the 1960s and ’70s. A police investigation began the next day, and the island’s tabloids began reporting on other reports of sexual misconduct throughout Savile’s career, including decades of alleged conspiracy and cover-ups involving numerous celebrity presenters and DJs at the BBC. Suddenly Britain’s stalwart public network had something frightfully in common with the Catholic Church.
Within days, the expanding Savile scandal began to overtake the legacy of yet another icon in British pop music and the BBC: disc jockey John Peel. If Savile was Britain’s Dick Clark, Peel was its Wolfman Jack.
A DJ for 30-plus years on Radio 1, the BBC’s flagship pop music station, Peel was the last hold-out of a bygone “WKRP in Cincinnati” radio ethic, a jock who programmed much of his own music because he had a compulsion to share with the world what he heard and liked. While Savile’s TV program showcased performers strictly from the popular charts, Peel’s radio program championed alternative artists and creative subgenres—increasingly important as the scope of pop music became more and more limited by narrow commercial interests. Peel even invited the bands to perform during his show in the BBC studio, and these sought-after recordings often were released as popular “Peel Sessions” EPs and compilations.
On his first BBC program, Top Gear, in 1967, Peel introduced a new British band called Pink Floyd. Before the White Stripes became popular in 2001, Peel was proselytizing them on the air, comparing their importance to Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols. When Peel died in 2004, Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order, Damon Albarn of Blur, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, and dozens of other significant rock artists eulogized him as a man of conviction without whom their careers might have been over before they began.
But an October 12 story in London’s Daily Mail newspaper highlighted another twist to Peel’s public image. A woman named Jane Nevin claimed she’d met Peel backstage at a Black Sabbath concert in London in 1969, and they began an affair. She was 15 at the time, Peel 30. Nevin said she later became pregnant by Peel and had an abortion.
Peel spoke and wrote openly about his rock-star-by-association lifestyle in the ’60s and the easy pickings he enjoyed among excited young (often legally underage) women. Some of the earliest stories stem from his first full-time radio job—in Oklahoma City.
Indeed, the dean of British indie-rock honed his chops abroad. In the spring of 1960, after completing British military service, Peel—freshly 20 and still operating under his given name, John Robert Parker Ravenscroft—came to America. In 1998, as something of a warm-up for his eventual memoir, Peel recalled setting sail for the States (literally, aboard a freighter, the S.S. Eugene Lykes). “I had no long-term plans at all,” he wrote. “I was at home on leave towards the end of my National Service and my father was asking me what I planned to do when I was demobbed. I told him I was quite happy to hang around for a while and watch the world go by. He said: ‘I’ll send you to America if you’ll go,’ and in the way that you do when you’re 18 or 19, I said, ‘Yes, go ahead and send me, Dad, see if I care.’ And he did.”
Dad was a cotton broker in Liverpool, so John Ravenscroft stepped off the boat in Houston with a few business contacts in Dallas and Memphis. For years he sold crop insurance in the Texas metropolis. On November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was shot, Ravenscroft was downtown and went to the scene, clearing a police barricade by claiming to be a reporter for The Liverpool Echo. Days later, the same stunt gained him and a friend entrance to the press conference where police presented Lee Harvey Oswald as the suspect in the assassination. Black-and-white film footage from the event pans the room from the far left, where Jack Ruby is seen lurking, to the far right where, as Peel said in a 1996 interview, “In the last few frames you can see me and my friend Bob standing there looking like tourists.”
This wasn’t the first time Ravenscroft would bedazzle Americans with his British accent for gains both personal and professional.
“It wasn’t until the Beatles came along that I had the opportunity to get a proper radio job,” he wrote. “I knew nothing about the Beatles, but the Americans assumed, rather sweetly, that because I came from approximately the same part of the world I must be a blood relative—and so I was a Beatle expert on a station … in Dallas.”
Two stations, in fact—first at WRR, co-hosting (with Jim Lowe) a two-hour Monday night show called “Kat’s Karavan.” “I thought they’d probably put me on there because of my extraordinary knowledge of the music,” Peel recalled in that ’96 interview, “but in fact, I think they probably put me on because they found my accent entertaining. In those days I used to talk like Prince Charles.”
The WRR gig ended quickly (“I made the mistake of asking to be paid,” Peel later said), but Ravenscroft stepped up to powerhouse station KLIF (though he later also described this position as“unpaid”). Ken Dowe, his Saturday-afternoon co-host at KLIF, recalled in 2004: “John and I made myriad appearances around Dallas and Fort Worth during the British Invasion, signing autographs and hyping KLIF’s association with the world’s hottest new music.”
By 1964, as Beatlemania went manic, a DJ with a British accent indeed commanded considerable mic cred. Ravenscroft was born and raised just southeast of Liverpool, so his short vowels were spot-on fab. On the air, he pretended to interview George Harrison, providing the voice of George himself.
In another column he penned, this one for London’s Times in 1995, Peel admitted, “I rather capitalised, I’m ashamed to say, on this charming naivety when the Beatles first hit the States. Coming, as I did, from what is now Merseyside, any American who had heard of Liverpool—and in 1965, in Texas, there were not many of those—assumed that if I wasn’t related by blood to one of the Beatles, then I must be a good pal of theirs at least. I never told them I was, but then I never told them I wasn’t either.”
But the scouse  was also a scoundrel. In Dallas, which wasn’t exactly overexposed to British Invasion stars, the Liverpudlian accent scored Ravenscroft all kinds of jobs. “There were groupies everywhere,” he told the Sunday Mirror in ’99. “It was mostly heavy petting, but it was unbelievable. Every American girl at the time wanted to go with someone English.”
An oft-recycled quotation—once again in heavy rotation now—also has Peel boasting, “I was suddenly confronted by this succession of teenage girls who didn’t want to know anything about me at all. All they wanted me to do was to abuse them, sexually, which of course I was only too happy to do.” It’s not because Peel was ever a looker. “I look like a cab driver,” he said in 1999.
Around this time, Ravenscroft, 26, took it a step further and married Shirley Anne Milburn, 15. Peel always maintained he didn’t know Milburn was underage before they wed.
“She lied about her age and so did her family,” Peel told the Mirror. “Her parents had died not long before, her dad in a car crash, her mother from a series of heart attacks. I was the way out for her. If she hadn’t married me, she would have had to go and live with uncles.
“The ceremony itself was pretty depressing. We had to get a couple of kids off the street to act as witnesses. Shirley was a typical American teenager. A nice girl at heart. She married me because she wanted a more interesting life, but it was doomed from the start.”
Doomed, perhaps, but Milburn stuck with Ravenscroft through his next three moves (Oklahoma, California, England). The trek to Oklahoma City is where the historical record on Peel’s past gets particularly cloudy.
Conflicting accounts have the pair marrying in Dallas and in Oklahoma City, though the former seems likelier. Marrying a 15-year-old would have been illegal in Texas, which may account for the unelaborated, offhand description of the move in Peel’s autobiography, Margrave of the Marshes (completed by his second wife, Sheila Ravenscroft, after his death), which mentions that the pair left Texas “just ahead of police—to Oklahoma City and [my] first full-time radio job.” Michael Heatley’s biography John Peel: A Life in Music supports the discovery of Milburn’s true age and its illegality. It seems Ravenscroft was running from more than he was running to.
Either way, his professional fortunes improved in Oklahoma City, landing — some say head-hunted, some say another lucky break—at KOMA in mid-1965. Not only was this his first full-time radio gig, it was a daily drive-time show and his name was in the title: “The Paul and John Show.”
Co-host Paul Miller (real name Paul Menard) told The Radio Journal in 2005 that Ravenscroft “didn’t know how to do it … I taught him … he sat right next to me, watched everything I did,” but added that Ravenscroft learned fast and was a natural with a great radio voice. Ravenscroft’s accent may have opened the door, but he was a music obsessive with a wealth of knowledge about British music, which the KOMA gig really allowed him to exploit on air. Brian Lord, a programming director over Ravenscroft later in California, said, “The only thing, he’d sometimes get pretty long winded on air, which was against format, but he knew so much about the music it was hard to rein him in. John was not only hip to the British bands, he was up on all the music.”
Peel writes in Margrave of the Marshes that while in Oklahoma City he also dabbled in management, booking gigs for two groups, Dann Yankee & the Carpetbaggers and Jay Walker & the Pedestrians.
But his credentials at KOMA were still based on that accent. On the air, he promoted KOMA as “the only station with its finger firmly on the pulse of the English scene”; the station promoted him as “our man from Liverpool.” In August 1965, the station even sent him to a Beatles press conference in Minneapolis. Ravenscroft promoted the trip on-air, offering himself as a courier of listeners’ fan letters straight to the Fab Four.
“Can you imagine your own letter or message personally delivered to Paul, Ringo, George, or John?” he announced, according to a transcript. “This is John Ravencroft,  the newest member of the KOMA good guys, and I will be able to deliver your messages to the Beatles in Minneapolis on Saturday, when I attend their press conference and show. I will report directly to you from Minneapolis on KOMA. On Monday night I will be with Bobby Davis and K to tell you all about my recent month-long holiday in my hometown of Liverpool and play you many exclusive records from the English hit parade. If you have a message for the Beatles, please send it to me, John Ravencroft, c/o KOMA, Box 1520, Oklahoma City, and stay tuned to hear the Beatles’ reactions to your letters. Cheerio until Monday.”
It wasn’t cheery. The trip was a bust, and no letters were delivered.
“I flew there with a fellow founder member of the Dallas County Cricket Club,” Peel wrote in the Times, “a man whose brother drummed with the Escorts. The Escorts’ version of ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ is marginally better than the Beatles’ version. Together, we reckoned, we could muster enough Merseybeat credentials to get to meet a Beatle. We were wrong. At the press conference, my companion got off to a poor start by asking whether the Beatles ever yearned for a pan of scouse as they toured. This rather clumsy inquiry was brusquely turned aside by Lennon and neither of us dared speak again.”
It got worse that night at the show. Sheila Ravenscroft adds in Margrave: “John was THEN thrown down a flight of stairs by a friendly policeman at the Beatles concert.”
On the nonprofit news website Signs of the Times (sott.net), posted at the end of another article about the Savile scandal roping Peel into the picture, is a lengthy, heartfelt defense by a reader identified only as Rabelais: “I met John Peel when I was in a band in Oklahoma in the 1960s. … We became good friends by way of our mutual love of music. He was in no way a pervert. … He was a healthy 20-something young man who had young women literally throwing themselves at him, but he rejected them from his sense of loyalty to his young wife at that time.” The poster goes on to describe Ravenscroft as “modest and shy,” “the antithesis of an aggressive sexual predator” and “one of the few true gentlemen that I have known.” (Attempts to reach the writer of this comment were unsuccessful.)
The KOMA gig lasted about 18 months before Ravencroft was downsized. “Since I was the last guy they’d taken on, I was the first they got rid of when the going got rough,” Peel says in his official BBC biography online. “So I went off to work in California where I started taking drugs and leading a generally depraved kind of life.”
His final stop on his American tour was San Bernardino, California, in 1966, where he had a solo show at KMEN. Milburn went with him, and they lived there for another 18 months before another hasty exit often ascribed to “legal difficulties.” Ravencroft’s marital fidelity hadn’t lasted.
Brian Lord’s account in The Radio Journal has it that “groupies were boasting about both John and I and their ‘exploits’ and word got to their parents … [who] went to the police who called the manager of the radio station,” who swiftly called both men into his office, “gave us no chance to explain, presented us with our final paychecks and a plane ticket out of town.” Lord, a Canadian native, had a ticket to Vancouver; Ravencroft’s was back home to Liverpool. Lord later returned to face the matter and was booked for statutory rape, but the charges were dropped days later.
Ravencroft and, somehow, Milburn went to England. In 1967, John Ravencroft was a DJ on pirate radio before landing his first BBC radio show and went on to become an influential celebrity as John Peel. His marriage to Milburn disintegrated that same year, and so did she. After serving prison time in London for bank fraud, she attempted suicide in 1987. “She failed,” Peel told the Mirror, “but in trying to revive her they punched a hole in her throat and she choked to death.”
1.When you hear a Beatle speak or sing, you’re hearing “scouse,” the dialect particular to the Merseyside county around Liverpool. The term stretches before and beyond that usage, though. Originally, scouse was a meat stew enjoyed by sailor and longshoremen. Nowadays, a scouse is also a person who broadcasts the accent, applied both with pride and as a pejorative.
2. He wasn’t John Peel yet, but in Oklahoma City he had made one small alteration to his surname: Ravenscroft became Ravencroft, dropping the “s.” (One KOMA promotion- al ad from 1965 bills him with a hyphen: Ra- ven-Croft.) “Radio then was very different, and you would often inherit a name,” Peel told the Independent. “My real name is Ravenscroft, and I was allowed to be Ravencroft.”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 1. Jan. 1, 2013.