Fred Napoli (1936-2018)
Napoli, Fred (1936- )
Over more than fifty years, Fred Napoli's rich baritone voice work in radio and television made him nationally recognizable, yet outside of the areas where he did live broadcasts he remained for so many an anonymous but unforgettable voice.
Fred was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1936. While not regarded by his teachers as a highly promising scholar, Fred took an early interest in music and art, and despite a lack of enthusiasm for practice he became a quite proficient pianist. He would later return to art and water-colour painting as major hobbies.
In late May of 1953, at the age of 16, he ran away from home, with hopes of being able to study at the New York Juillard School of Music, but the attempt was abortive. After working a rent-paying job as a bus-boy, Fred had proved to himself that he could survive alone if he had to, and he returned to Hamilton to begin a new search for his future.
A career counsellor, impressed with the quality of his voice, suggested that Fred might think of trying to get into radio. In this he was encouraged by Bud Wilson, the owner of Wilson's shoe store where he was working; Wilson knew several broadcasters, including Syd Bibby of CHCH-TV, CKOC radio manager Bill Cranston and CHML's Tom Darling, and gave Fred personal letters of recommendation to all three.
Tom Darling told Fred to come back in six months when he'd got some experience. It was Don Leblanc at CJOY radio who, on September 20th 1960, gave Fred his first broadcasting job as an on-air news reporter, covering various beats, including police, city council and board of education reporting, and in the process set him on the road to what would prove to be a stellar career.
Almost exactly six months later, Tom Darling was true to his word when he called to invite Fred to move over to CHML, where he learned to announce/operate their weekend overnight program. Fred stayed at CHML for three years, apart from a brief three-month move to CHOW Welland that proved to be something other than what had been promised.
While at CHML he hosted their Nightcap program, on which his early experiments with stories and music backgrounds in a series called "Journey to the Unexplained" would be the precursors of his major short story features on CKFM.
By late 1963 Fred had gained a great deal more experience, and his work and his voice had come to the attention of Standard Radio's CKFM-FM in Toronto, who hired him on December 3rd to fill a daytime vacancy left by Wayne van Exan, who was moving over to CFRB.
In 1965, Fred moved on yet again, this time to CHFI and then to CKEY-AM Toronto, where he did their overnight show until 1967, when Don Hartford at Standard asked Fred to go back to CKFM. There, after starting out doing an afternoon shift, he was switched to do the overnight show, Music Till Dawn, and it was during those nights that Fred started including his own poems and short stories, that would in time become the hallmark of his broadcasting career. He also made a point of including as much Canadian music and as many Canadian performers as possible.
As an aside, in 1977 Fred Napoli made his own contribution to Canadian content recordings, when the CBC included him singing Breaking Up is Hard to Do on a CBC LP, backed by a star-studded orchestra conducted by Bobby Edwards and including such jazz luminaries as Rob McConnell, Guido Basso and Ed Bickert, as well as a string section led by Sam Hersenhoren. Fred also recorded several other songs, which were still available in 2018 on YouTube.
Fred stayed at CKFM from 1967 until 1976, when he left the station after a difference of opinion with management. After a brief time as a contract announcer with the CBC, Fred returned to CKFM in 1979 to host a late-night Johnny Carson-type 90-minute show, Toronto Tonight, but when this was not renewed he returned to the CBC early in 1981, again as a contract announcer.
Another major move for Fred Napoli came in 1986. As Fred himself recalled: "I came to CFRB in 1986 thanks to Ralph Lucas, who came from Montreal to be the new radio boss and who happened to be my best friend. He gave me overnight relief shifts to cover for Wayne Van Exan and I brought stories and my old CKFM format to AM radio - (and) for the first time with the kind of creative freedom I very much prized."
For seven years Fred built a strong late-night following for his stories, his poems and his music, and it was not until 1993, as CFRB-AM was rebranding itself as Newstalk 1010, with all-talk radio, that he did his final broadcast. He was reported as having said that what he had given Toronto with his broadcasts was "philosophy in a hot-dog bun".
Along the way, since his first radio job with CJOY in 1960, Fred's voice had become nationally known way beyond the reaches of the radio stations for which he worked. Over the years his was the voice of more than 400 documentaries, many for TV Ontario and the National Film Board.
He voiced hundreds and hundreds of commercials (who could forget "A little warmth for your miserable cold"?), written his autobiography (titled Reinventing Myself), and written scores of original stories, narrative essays and poems to share with his listeners. He was also a talented singer and piano player, and his skills as a broadcaster of words were well matched by the facility and vision of his writings. For many more years, Fred's talents continued to be in demand for him to voice documentaries and commercials. Indeed, he cheerfully admitted that retirement was never a concept for him.
Fred Napoli died on November 9th 2018.