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Sam Riddle, DJ and ‘Star Search’ producer who shaped the L.A. music scene, dies

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Sam Riddle, a mainstay of the L.A. airwaves during an era when disc jockeys were near rock stars themselves who could vault emerging musicians to fame simply by spinning their records, has died at his home in Palm Desert.

Riddle was a top-of-the-lineup DJ at KHJ-93 radio when the station unveiled its “Boss Radio” format, a departure from the rapid-fire chatter of most Top 40 stations in the mid-1960s. It was an era when musical tastes were rapidly shifting with the emergence of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the funk of James Brown.

In declining health in recent years, Riddle died Monday after a long fight with Lewy body dementia, said Willard Tressel, a longtime friend and former KHJ colleague. Riddle was 83.

Riddle used his fame as a Los Angeles disc jockey to launch a long television career as the host of youth-driven variety shows such as “9th Street West” and “Hollywood A-Go-Go” and later produced “Star Search,” a long-running talent contest that was a precursor to “American Idol” and other musical competition series.

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Along with “Humble Harve” Miller, Robert W. Morgan, the Real Don Steele, Charlie Tuna, Bobby Tripp and Johnny Mitchell, Riddle dominated pop radio; they often functioned as the palace guards who could decide which musicians and rock groups would reach stardom. KHJ’s emphasis on more music, less chatter and a tighter playlist changed Top 40 radio stations across the country.

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So ubiquitous was KHJ and its stable of DJs that Quentin Tarantino sampled the station’s old soundchecks in his most recent film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”

“When the music was hot, so were we,” Miller told The Times in 2003. “We were right in the midst of the hottest place in the world, musically. This was the center of everything — all the recording studios were going 24 hours a day. We were right in the center of all that energy.”

Riddle and the other DJs broke from the tradition of playing only three-minute singles by adding to their rotation longer songs, such as Richard Harris’ long-winded “MacArthur Park” or full-playing classics such as the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Groups such as the Byrds and the Monkees would show up at the station begging the DJs to play their records.

Born Dec. 12, 1937, Riddle grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and got his start as a DJ at age 16 when his stepfather leaned on a local radio station where he spent large sums of cash on advertising for his dairy farm. Riddle moved on to stations in Arizona, San Diego and then Los Angeles. He worked at KRLA and then KFWB before arriving at KHJ.

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In addition to producing “Star Search,” Riddle was behind the camera for a long list of variety shows, including “The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars” and “The Songwriters Hall of Fame Special.” His fame was such that he was enlisted to play the role of a race announcer in the 1967 Elvis Presley film “Clambake.”

Before retiring to the desert, he produced the first syndicated poker television series, “The Ultimate Poker Challenge,” and, later, “The Vegas Open,” taped at Caesars Palace.

Riddle is survived by his wife of 54 years, Adrienne; children Scott and Courtney; and two grandchildren, Miracle and Garin.

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