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Ken Nordine dies at 98; radio announcer & influential “Word Jazz” artist

Ken Nordine had a recording studio in his Edgewater home. | Sun-Times photo, Robert A. Davis

Ken Nordine had a voice that launched 1,000 radio shows, commercials, movie trailers and spoken-word records.

The Edgewater resident, who died Saturday, was 98.

Mr. Nordine’s voice was a dulcet earworm that burrowed into the subconscious during more than 40 years of performing “Word Jazz,’’ a midnight show on WBEZ that showcased his hep-cat persona, stream-of-consciousness wordplay and psychedelic sound effects, such as a slowed-down clock or dripping water.

On Twitter, musician Dale Henry Geist said his delivery “was like a panther stalking your mind.” Actor Harry Shearer, the voice of many “Simpsons” characters, tweeted he was “a great radio wordsmith.”

Ken Nordine. | Facebook photo
Ken Nordine. | Facebook photo

The Grammy-nominated Mr. Nordine worked with musicians David Bowie, Jerry Garcia and Tom Waits; “Muppets” creator Jim Henson; and avant-garde multimedia artist Laurie Anderson.

He recorded four “Word Jazz” albums, his son said. One spoken-word production, “Credit Card Blues,” combined a beatnik feel with the blues.

In 1959, he appeared on NBC-TV with Fred Astaire, who danced to a “Word Jazz” piece by Mr. Nordine.

He was the voice of the Chicago International Film Festival and “Cold Steel on Ice” ads for the Chicago Blackhawks.

“There is no voice, except maybe Orson Welles, like him,” said film festival founder Michael Kutza. People likened Mr. Nordine to “the voice of God,” he said.

He could be heard on commercials for Amana Appliances, the American Dairy Association, Baker’s Square, Champion Spark Plugs, First Chicago Bank, Gallo Wine, Harvey’s Bristol Dry Sherry, Magnavox and Taster’s Choice. He also did announcing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In the 1970s, he created a Levi’s commercial that asked how human beings would wear jeans if they’d evolved differently: “Would he put Levi’s herringbone on his fins, Levi’s stripes on his wings?”

“Word Jazz” artist Ken Nordine won a “Chicago Heroes” award in 2001 from the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. | Photo By Bob Black/Sun-Times
“Word Jazz” artist Ken Nordine won a “Chicago Heroes” award in 2001 from the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. | Photo By Bob Black/Sun-Times

Anderson said he’d been an “absolutely huge influence” since she first heard him when she was about 15. He was recounting a tale “that had a bass line in the background and jazz drums,” she said. “I just thought … that is the greatest way to tell stories.”

“It changed my life,” said Anderson, who was in Chicago over the weekend to appear at the Pitchfork Midwinter fest.

As an adult, she said she thought, “I’m just going to call him up and see if I can meet him.” It turned out, “He was like a Swedish uncle,” said Anderson, who is of Swedish heritage. “It was eerie. He was so familiar. He had a nose like my uncles.”

She and her husband, musician Lou Reed, enjoyed dining out with Mr. Nordine and his wife Beryl Vaughan Nordine, who did voices on the “Lone Ranger” radio show and played Penny on radio’s “Sky King.” “Ken and Beryl loved food, and so did Lou,” she said, “and we would have these wonderful meals.” One of his favorite restaurants was La Scarola, Kutza said.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Nordine and Anderson appeared together in a “Word Jazz” program in London. And about two years ago, they worked together on a “Mr. and Mrs. God” show at the San Francisco Jazz Center. He connected via Skype, and “Ken’s face appeared huge on the screen, and he just fielded all these amazing questions. People wanted to ask him about the meaning of life.”

His intonation and tones were so unique that “companies would come to him to create [their] commercial, based on his style with ‘Word Jazz,'” his son said.

Ken Nordine voiced “spine-tinglers for the thriller lovers” on “Faces in the Window,” a 1950s-era WNBC radio show.
Ken Nordine voiced “spine-tinglers for the thriller lovers” on “Faces in the Window,” a 1950s-era WNBC radio show.

In 2007, David Bowie invited him to appear at the “High Line” festival the rock legend organized in New York. “He worked with David; David’s been over to the house,” said Mr. Nordine’s son.

In the 1990s, he performed with the Grateful Dead. In 1992, he collaborated with Garcia and Chicago harmonica maestro Howard Levy on the recording “Devout Catalyst.”

In 1979, he received a settlement for work on the movie “The Exorcist.” Mr. Nordine had filed a lawsuit, saying he wasn’t properly compensated for his sound effects.

Ken Nordine | Sun-Times archive
Ken Nordine | Sun-Times archive

Born in Cherokee, Iowa, he grew up near Wrigley Field, where he used to park cars for a nickel during games, his son said. He attended Lane Tech High School and the University of Chicago. His mother Theresia Danielson Nordine was a sculptor.

Mr. Nordine, who had a stroke about 18 months ago, died at his home near Kenmore and Glenlake, where he had a third-floor recording studio. A stretch of street outside was renamed “Ken Nordine Way.”

He was an innovator and early adopter of new technology, Kutza said. In his film festival spots, “He was a one-man band,” Kutza said. “He did the visuals on his computer. He did the music. He did the voice. The man was magic.”

His wife Beryl died in 2016. Mr. Nordine is also survived by his sons Kevin and Kris; sister Karen Bothwell; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His family is considering a gathering to honor him in the future, his son said.