After battling cancer, the groundbreaking radio DJ who pushed WLAV into national prominence in the 1970s died in February at age 73. Tributes poured in, making it one of the top stories of the year.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Another sad story made its way into the Top 10 stories of the year at Local Spins. Longtime radio DJ and West Michigan music champion Aris Hampers passed away in February, sparking an outpouring of tributes and in-memoriam comments from fans and friends — the No. 9 story of 2023. Revisit those tributes here.
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As one fan so aptly put it on Facebook, it’s “a sad day for the West Michigan music scene.”
Much-admired DJ and radio personality Aris Peters Hampers — who literally helped change the landscape of Grand Rapids radio at WLAV-FM in the 1970s — passed away on Feb. 5 at age 73 following a long battle with cancer.
Longtime colleague and DJ Stephen Aldrich called the Hampers era at WLAV “the most amazing rock radio ever.”
Considered a radio institution and well-known on-air veteran who worked for several area stations, including WLAV, WCUZ, WFFX, WKLQ, WBFX, WVIC and WMAX, Hampers also owned and operated his own record shop for years and boasted a massive record collection.
Through his “Hometown Rock Search” and ear for noteworthy music, the Western Michigan University and Ottawa Hills High School alum gave numerous bands — local and national — a crucial platform for their music.
Of course, he was also an immensely talented keyboardist himself and part of the band Phlegethon.
Anyone who knew him well relished his colorful anecdotes and tales of yore about the glory days of progressive radio, so many were saddened by his public revelation in December 2019 that he had, ironically, lost his ability to speak after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his windpipe.
He shared that story at the time with Local Spins — just a year after losing his much-beloved dog Asia to cancer — and you can read it here.
In his last email to Local Spins publisher John Sinkevics several weeks ago, Hampers noted that his chemo and radiation treatments were “minimally effective and the immunotherapy infusions I’m now getting are really making me feel sick. I guess that’s part of the deal.”
A longtime smoker, Hampers also noted that the “only positive aspect” to come out of his illness “is knowing that seven people have told me that my disclosure of my health issues three years ago finally prompted them to quit smoking.”
He added poignantly: “I really treasure all the kind things you have to say about me. Here’s hoping for better times.”
Hampers is survived by his brother, Dean, two nieces, five great-nephews and great-nieces and many loving cousins and friends. (His visitation drew hundreds upon hundreds of people at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 330 Lakeside Drive NE in Grand Rapids.)
Memorials and tributes to Hampers flooded Facebook and social media, and Local Spins also asked some of his colleagues to share their memories of Hampers and his impact. Here are their comments:
STEPHEN ALDRICH – “It’s weird, last night I was going to contact him regarding a YouTube vid of the Elvis Velvet show we did in the ’80s. Backing up a bit, there was a record store on Division that was associated with a distribution company, meaning that they would literally have everything. I was buying Captain Beefheart and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and this guy who looked like Rasputin asked me if this is what kids my age were listening to now (answer, at my high school, yes!). And that was my introduction. When Ed Buchanan began doing underground album rock on WLAV, he was next joined by that guy from the record store, and the most amazing rock radio ever was emerging. Songs were segued without positioners in between, these guys would go so far as to note the keys the songs were in to make the perfect transitions. True radio artistry was being made there, something you cannot hear anywhere now. Because he was an Anglophile, he brought bands to the radio you never would have heard from otherwise in this country, PFM, Renaissance, Genesis (a very short list here), his ear as a musician himself being key here. When I got picked to be a part of that radio world, and we would end up doing shows together, it was never intimidating, he made it as inviting as possible, and respected what I had to contribute. He had a wicked sense of humor, and fell in with our much younger gang, to which he was “The King,” and would be routinely be addressed simply as “hey King…” As we know, he was also a brilliant musician, something I wish we could have gotten more out of him in later years. While we winced at some of his 1980s musical choices, we also respected his support of local music, something he had been a big part of himself as an artist, and later with his Rock Search. Even in recent years, still supportive of local shows, until it wasn’t possible for him to do so any longer. There are a billion funny stories I could think of later. One, where he interviewed Veruca Salt, and they kept insisting he was really Richard Belzer. Getting old gracefully was never on his agenda, sorry that radio was cut a bit short for him. A true artist, on the air, in music and life, he would want you to know his love for dogs as well. Getting into stupid, trivial arguments was always a mutual joy, along with buying him another Stoli & Cranberry. His musical masterpiece, “Last Voyage Home,’ real now…”
KEVIN MATTHEWS – “I’m crushed. Aris was my big brother who showed me the radio ropes. His first bit of advice to me before I did my first radio show was, ‘Cover your ass, always.’ This man broke every artist we now take for granted. Yes, we have the pioneers in Grand Rapids, but Aris is now joined by Ed (Buchanan), and the first underground radio station is on the air in heaven. I promise, a tribute to Aris, a concert is coming!”
TONY GATES – “Long before ‘consultants’ homogenized radio, Aris Hampers elevated musical tastes to new heights for all of GR and West Michigan, especially me. He took me under his wing in the mid-’70s and early ’80s and truly taught me how to listen to music. His passion for new music sent him on a lifetime journey of searching for ‘imports’ albums that hadn’t been released in the states. You couldn’t buy them in GR so I’d ride with him to Milwaukee or Chicago to buy records from bands like Genesis, Camel or King Crimson. We’d get back to GR, listen to them at his house with his amazing sound system until I had to leave to host the morning show. He mastered the art of the segue way, blending one song’s end with another’s beginning seamlessly. He would call me the on the hotline if I tried to do it and the songs were in a different key. Not cool he’d say. Aris found artists way before anyone ever heard of them. Aris played Bruce Hornsby’s ‘The Way It Is’ so much RCA called us and thanked him because Believe in Music sold more copies than anywhere in the country. We put together a free concert at the Calder with Bruce, and Aris played the piano on that song with the band. Later in my career working for RCA, Bruce Hornsby told me he vividly remembered that night at that was the biggest crowd he had played to at that time. He impacted many. Aris was the first to play U2, Genesis and countless others. Outside the station, he kept to himself and was a true friend. When he was asked to introduce Ambrosia because he played them first in the country I was there and it was one of his proudest moments. I am truly numb with the news of his passing, but my love for music was so heightened by that flame, it will burn bright with his memory for all my days. Like Phlegethon, he’s taken his “Last Voyage Home. Thank you, Aris. You made us better.”
RALSTON BOWLES – “It would be hard to fully describe the impact on the music scene and bands in West Michigan that he had over the course of his career.”
PHIL TOWER – “This man touched so many lives, and brought smiles to so many faces every day on the radio, on stage, backstage, at his music store, and everywhere in the West Michigan ccommunity. I’m not sure that Aris ever had a chance to have a real ‘final show’ on the radio, but I do know that he left a legacy that will never be forgotten. For ￼those of us who were fortunate enough to get to work with Aris, he was mutually loved by everyone on the on-air staff, and at the station. For those who knew him well, he had a heart for people, even though he probably would never admit it. Best of all, his passion for music and his love for radio made him a friend to many. And to those who he called friend, you never forgot him.”
JOHN SERBA – “Anyone who knew Aris even a little bit knows he loved his dogs. LOVED them. Doted on them. Sometimes wouldn’t shut up about them. You also knew Aris was a night owl who stayed up til sunrise and slept til noon. And this is one of my favorite Aris stories – stories he’d tell me over a steak dinner (he loved his steak dinners), or while we leaned on the counter at Aris’ Disc Shop, or at The Orbit Room between bands at his Hometown Rock Search: One early, early morning a skunk sprayed his poor pup (I believe it was Kayleigh, named after a Marillion song, of course, or maybe it was his subsequent sweetheart, Asia). He heard that one remedy for the smell was to wash the dog with a vinegar-based feminine hygiene product, so he ran out to Meijer at god knows what hour, rumpled and smelling like dog and skunk, and there he is, checking out with one item, a disposable douche, and the cashier says to him, “Hey, aren’t you Aris Hampers?” The ONE TIME he’d hoped to sneak in and out of the store as anonymously as possible, and he got recognized. That’s because everyone knew Aris. I’m willing to bet that cashier recognized him from his voice, that deep, deep voice that was on Grand Rapids radio for 37 years. That was the thing about radio, back in the days when it was an art form of musical curation and a place to cultivate a true media personality – a great DJ’s voice was in your home or car or workplace alongside you, every day, endearing itself to you and being a consistent, comforting presence. In that way, Aris was friends with everyone who had the good taste to listen to him on LAV and KLQ and the Fox over the decades. When I was an intern at the GR Press in 1997, I drew the plum assignment of writing a profile of Aris, commemorating his 25th anniversary on the radio – my marching orders were, of course, to hang out with him in the broadcast studio and make sure the photographer got shots of him with Kayleigh and his jaw-droppingly massive record collection. After the piece published, he blew me away with compliments, and let my editors know how happy he was with my work. It was a key moment in my career as a writer and journalist, for my self-esteem and longevity. The Press used to send people hard-copy feedback forms to fill out, and I still have that piece of paper with his handwriting on it. I well up with tears just thinking about it. More importantly, it marked the beginning of a long friendship with Aris. He’d email me: “Let’s go get a steak.” And he’d pick me up and we’d get a bloomin’ onion and a couple of giant ribeyes and he’d regale an audience of one with his countless funny and fascinating drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll radio-biz stories, and we’d talk about and music and movies – he was a big movie buff with a state-of-the-art home theater in his basement – and our dogs and our media jobs, and also about some serious real life stuff, because he was a big brother figure, to me and a lot of other people younger than him. That’s because he was young at heart, even as he aged into a winking curmudgeonly type, you know, the kind with a soft and gooey heart. He was keyed in to those of us who were passionate about music, whether we listened to it or played it. He was a huge presence in many people’s lives, and his affection was genuine. Some called him the Jedi Knight of Grand Rapids radio, or The King, or The Voice. But for those of us who could call him a friend, well, we’re damn fortunate. Rest easy, Aris.”
TODD ERNST (DJ) “I always felt like I was sitting with an encyclopedia of abstract musical knowledge. He always treated me better than I deserved and in his own way, was a tremendous influence in my journey.”
MARK WEBSTER – “RIP Aris Peter Hampers. Play the music up there!”
CHRIS ANDRUS – “You were a friend to all and will be sorely missed.”
RANDY SCOTT MARSH (Drummer) – “In January 1970 after an informal jam / audition at Farrow’s Music, the younger Aris Hampers in the photo below invited me to join Phlegethon, replacing former drummer Tom Davis who had left the band for Western Michigan University and LC Davis joined replacing Joe Sarnicola on bass. I had been a fan of the Phlegethon and the Soulbenders before that and was familiar with Aris’s music. Two months later in March, we played Fountain Street Church opening for the Byrds. 1970 was a new decade and a new Phlegethon heading in a prog rock direction, check out the gnarly sound of the Hammond B3 on the b side of “Last Voyage Home.” Aris and Jeff were writing most of the music and put together a killin’ album’s worth of originals, and in the summer of 1971 we released a hit single with “Last Voyage Home”, that became a number one hit locally on all the GR radio stations for many weeks, but sadly never got radio airplay nationally. Later that summer after playing the WLAV Raft Race, a very frustrated Aris, discouraged and disillusioned with the music biz and being turned down by commercial leaning record labels, decided to quit playing and broke the band up to pursue a career in radio and record sales, and went on to become a much loved “rock radio legend” and “mentor” to generations of young musicians and bands. I am forever grateful to Aris Hampers. Phlegethon was actually the beginning of my professional career as a musician and was an exciting one. Before that it was just aimless meandering with amateur garage bands playing mostly rock covers for weekend beer parties. I learned a lot about playing creatively and was my first experience playing odd time meters, and Aris and Jeff had amazing record collections and turned me onto a lot of amazing music, and I have many many fond memories of those early days, and man, those parties! One of the photos here was taken as a promo for a reunion concert that had been planned for 2001 and sadly never happened after I got busted up in a car accident when rehearsals were supposed to begin, guitarist Jeff Boughner passed away, and then our bass player LC Davis passed away not long afterwards. RIP Aris Peter Hampers, long time friend and former bandmate. Give my warmest regards to our other deceased band mates LC Davis and Jeff Boughner if you happen to run into them out there somewhere in the cosmos.”
JACKIE SIRIANI – “Aris was my friend. For 50 years. We went to the same High School, although I was constantly reminded that he graduated from “The cool class”, not with the dorks a year younger. We worked together for many years at WLAV and also WKLQ. We had dinners together, played with his pups and had great conversations. He could be a grumpy MF’r, but underneath was a gentle, almost shy man. He disliked being in the spotlight and would rather give others credit for his accomplishments (sometimes!). When WLAV was in the Waters Building, Aris and I would sneak down to the Pearl Street Bar for “one” Stoli. Perhaps it was two Stoli’s. And then he would start telling his crazy stories. What a treasure Aris was. I am so fortunate to have these memories. He loved steak, pizza and Stoli and both of his dogs. And I loved you, my friend. You will never be forgotten. Rock on, Jackie Blue”
BRANT SATALA – “See you on the other side, my friend, and we’ll stay up and tell stories all night till the dawn.”
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