Tommy Edwards signing off on a legendary career

Tommy Edwards

Tommy Edwards

So long, L’il Tommy.

Tommy Edwards, the iconic Chicago broadcaster who excelled as both an on-air personality and behind-scenes programmer, is signing off after an amazing 54 years in radio.

Edwards, 70, announced Friday he’s retiring as midday host at WJMK FM 104.3, the CBS Radio classic hits station. Following a weeklong on-air celebration of his career, his last show on K-Hits will be September 12.

“Tommy Edwards is synonymous with great radio,” Rod Zimmerman, senior vice president and market manager of CBS Radio Chicago, said in a statement. “Few have enjoyed the depth and longevity of success he has experienced. We’ve been privileged in Chicago to have been entertained by Tommy for as long as we were. All of us at K-Hits and CBS Radio wish him much happiness, and as he knows, the door will always be open.”

Edwards said in an interview that he’d been thinking about retiring from radio “for a couple of years,” but became more serious about it in recent months.

Tommy Edwards, 17, with first program director, Bob Barber, at WTOP in Topeka, Kansas (1961)

Tommy Edwards, 17, with first program director, Bob Barber, at WTOP in Topeka, Kansas (1961)

“I do think it’s time,” he said. “It’s something that I still think I can do well, something that I do enjoy, but there’s just other things that I really want to do. . . . It’s been 54 years of living in radio stations.”

His immediate plans include a driving trip around Lake Michigan and a visit to the Grand Canyon with his wife, Mary Lou. “My fourth grandchild is going to be baptized in two weeks so we’re going to be going to California to be there for that,” he said.

One thing he’s not giving up is his other job as public address announcer for the Chicago Bulls. He’ll mark his 24th season with the team in October.

Starting in 1960 as a 16-year-old high school sophomore at KTOP in his native Topeka, Kansas, Edwards fell in love with radio. “I had my own show on a 250-watt station that could barely be heard over the grain elevators,” he recalled.

While his career would encompass such major markets as New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, D.C., Edwards was best known for his tenure in Chicago, starting as production director at WLS AM 890 in 1972. One year after he was hired, he was named program director of the legendary Top 40 powerhouse.

Larry Lujack and Tommy Edwards

Larry Lujack and Tommy Edwards

It was as midday personality at WLS in the late '70s that Edwards forged a lasting bond with Larry Lujack, teaming up on the daily feature “Animal Stories” as Old Uncle Lar’s perpetually awestruck sidekick Li’l Tommy. Their routine became the most famous comedy bit in Chicago radio history, and the five albums they produced raised more than $250,000 for children's charities.

Edwards and Lujack reunited in 2003 at Real Oldies 1690, where Edwards doubled as morning co-host and program director. Lujack joined him from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “We had a great time,” Edwards recalled of their three years there. “It sounded like he was right there in the studio with me.”

Lujack’s death last December figured into Edwards’ decision to retire. “Quite frankly, after losing a good friend, it makes you think about what’s important in life,” he said. “My family is real important to me.”

Edwards, who previously hosted mornings on WJMK from 1987 to 1989, rejoined the station in 2011 when it took on its classic hits format. While a search for his successor is underway, evening host Jeffrey T. Mason will fill in during middays and weekend host John Calhoun will fill in during evenings, according to program director Todd Cavanah.

“Tommy is an unbelievable talent, and this station deserves the best in the business,” he said. “We want to find somebody that knows the music and can relate to the at-work audience.”

Added Cavanah: “As sad as I am that Tommy is retiring from radio, I am so happy that we had the chance to work together and that he finished his unbelievable career on the air at K-Hits.”