When illustrator David Helton first sketched “The Buzzard,” the now-iconic cartoon mascot for Cleveland’s famed rock radio station WMMS-FM almost 40 years ago, he never thought the bird would still be hovering over his career. But the character’s marketing star-power continues unabated and has become so ingrained in Cleveland lore, it has become synonymous with the city’s claim as “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Capitol of the World” and continues as a symbol of the station.
“I just thought it would be a one-off deal,” Helton said recently over coffee at Starbucks in Brainerd, where, incidentally, his talented lettering skills adorn the store’s chalkboard menus. “I remember getting paid in concert tickets and albums, which was cool with me.”
Helton, a Chattanooga native and Lakeview High alumnus, found himself in Cleveland after graduating from the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla. An instructor advised him to apply to American Greetings, the Hallmark Cards competitor, and Helton was hired in 1973.
“I was making $125 a week to draw furry bunnies,” Helton recalled with a laugh. “I thought I’d hit the jackpot.”
But Helton’s true jackpot began with a drawing he did for free—and in protest. In the early 1970s, the “National Lampoon Radio Hour”—which featured many future “Saturday Night Live” stars, John Belushi among them—was syndicated on free-form rock stations like WMMS. When the show cut its format from an hour by 30 minutes, Helton figured the station was cheating him out of his favorite program (although it was National Lampoon’s decision) and he protested the only way he knew how—with a cartoon criticizing the move that he sent to WMMS. When program director John Gorman saw the drawing, he called Helton to explain the situation and invited him to the station to discuss creating an cartoon mascot for the station.
“Times were bleak in Cleveland,” Helton said. “People were looking for something to rally around, and Gorman felt WMMS and The Buzzard would, well, create a buzz and fill that void.”
Gorman’s vision was spot on. After convincing management to adopt the cartoon buzzard as its mascot, Helton sketched the first incarnation (shown on Page 3) of The Buzzard chewing up pieces of paper with the call letters of rival radio stations under the headline “The Wrath of The Buzzard.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The Buzzard was an immediate hit and the station developed its entire identity around character. As WMMS skyrocketed in the ratings during its 1970s heyday as the prototypical free-form rock radio station, Helton’s own career took flight, eventually leaving his greeting card job to work almost full time for WMMS. For the next 20 years, he would update The Buzzard for print and television ads promoting the station and some of rock’s biggest names, bands such as Rush, one of many groups the station first introduced to American rock fans.
“I would go out on personal appearances just like the station’s on-air personalities,” Helton said. For as much as $100 an hour, Helton sketched The Buzzard for fans at record stores and malls and met many of his own musical heroes along the way.
But when WMMS was purchased by a corporate chain and homogenized in the 1980s, the gig was up, said Helton. For the past 20 years since moving back to Chattanooga, Helton has carved out a successful career as a children’s book illustrator and a prolific contributor to Highlights, the well-known children’s magazine found in schools and doctor's offices across the country.
But The Buzzard remains a Cleveland icon and continues to perch on Helton’s drawing board. The character can still be seen on the station’s website and starred on the cover of “The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio,” a 2008 memoir by Gorman. That same year, Helton produced a set of commemorative notecards for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit honoring the station’s contributions and influence in the history of FM radio. Helton also sells T-shirts and other merchandise adorned with the character on his own website, davidheltonillustration.com.
“It couldn’t happen again,” Helton said, “but those years were like a dream come true for a young artist and rock ‘n’ roll fan.”
David Helton will teach "Children's Storyboarding," a new class beginning Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Art Creations Hamilton Place. For more information, visit Art Creations' website.