During the last four decades thousands of radio deejays have started their careers on American radio. Only few of them became famous in the whole world. One of them was Robert Smith. For radio listeners this name doesn't ring a bell, but as we mention his deejay name, everybody knows about whom we're talking. Hans Knot, who followed the radio life from Robert Smith since the mid-sixties, looks back on the career of Wolfman Jack, who passed away a few years ago.
Sunday, the 2nd of July 1995, at seven in the morning, my radio was set to the news broadcast on the Dutch Radio 1. I was really shocked as I heard the news that, at the age of 57 due to a severe heart attack, Wolfman Jack had passed away in Washington. During June he had visited a large number of cities in the States to promote his autobiography Have Mercy. The confession of the original rock 'n' roll animal that had then recently been published. Wolfman, whose real name was Robert Smith, died in front of his house in Belvedere, North Carolina. The night before he had presented his weekly syndicated show live from the Planet Hollywood in Washington, a program transmitted live in Washington via WXTR FM 104.1 and distributed over dozens of stations simultaneously by satellite since a year.
Audio 1: Wolfman Jack on WXTR (30 october 1994)
It was like during those last weeks Wolfman had some precognition on the nearing end of his career. From the States we received word about him telling more and more about his past, reminiscensing his dearest memories about the beginning of his career, that had started in the sixties with high-powered Mexican stations to be received in the States during the evening hours. He rejuveniled during the last months because of the enormous, renewed interest in his shows. He couldn't resist the temptation to say, in his own unique way, specially to the female listeners: "From Stockton, California, we got Marsha on the telephone. How ya doin', Marsha? Hey, Marsha, don't forget, what feels good with your clothes on feels even better with them off, ya know that, don't ya?"
Two stations, one in Tulsa and another in Missoula, had recently canceled their contracts with Wolfman because his programs would be "too blue", or that he had been too sexually explicit. Mark Lapidus, the director of the syndicate show distributed by Wolfman's company Liberty Radio Network, stated the day after his death how surprised Wolfman had been the previous Friday that two important stations in San Diego and Los Angeles were planning to relay his program from the next week on, something that will never be. "His representative in Hollywood had already received a number of requests for obtaining the movie rights of his book. During the last couple of weeks, since the start of the promotion of his book and the numerous new stations that signed a contract for the weekly show, Wolfman became once again the big Wolfman so immensely popular in the seventies. Everything went fine," said Marilyn Thompson who was his helping hand during the shows.
Wolfman not only became famous for his outrageous roaring, as the American papers liked to call it, but most of all because he put a lot of soul and black rock and roll in his program. Other papers reported, in the days after his death, that it took more than a decade before the man behind Wolfman Jack showed himself to make it clear that he was a white instead of a black DJ. Personally I get the creeps of such reports. I remember very well that I read stories in the American professional journals like Billboard and Cashbox in the mid sixties about the then already very popular Wolfman. These reports were accompanied by the most brilliant pictures, which attracted my full interest. At that time I could only lay my hand on a single short fragment that I got "via via".
It was Ingo Paternoster who, I belief in 1970, really aroused my interest for the Wolfman, who could be heard during weekdays on AFN. It was still the kind of program delivered on vinyl to all the stations of the AFN/AFRTS Network, that is to say for all the militaries of the US, wherever they were stationed all over the world. Ingo send me numerous tapes with Wolfman's programs and I started listening to AFN Bremen more intensively, like we used to do in Groningen in the late fifties and early sixties. We had already in the sixties, with our critical ears, put some DJ's on a dais. It is not true that only a couple of people immediately discovered the talent of Kenny Everett! There is only a small group of people in the Netherlands that kept following him. I dare say, with pleasure, that I belonged to that group. To the category ABSOLUTE OUTSTANDING also The Wolfman belonged.
It was not only the rough shouting and screaming of Wolfman Jack that attracted us, but most of all the short, witty texts that made us realize that here was a presenter who not only talked together the records, but really thought about getting the audience to listen to his texts carefully. He also had more and more the feeling during the last couple of months to be living in a country where life was tougher then before, stating in his shows: "Hey, when you're traveling the mean streets, be kind because the mean streets can't find kindness. I tell ya. Put your hand out on the needy and smile to the enemy. These are the best weapons on a street paved with danger."
Audio 2: Wolfman Jack sings "You've Got Personality"
Wolfman Jack was born in New York's Brooklyn where he became attracted to radio at an early age. No wonder, because this town brought, via its many radio stations, the most different kinds of format and above all rock and roll was upcoming during his youth. At the age of 12 he started imitating some of the greats of those days like Alan Freed (also known as The Moondog on WINS New York) and George Lorenz (calling himself The Hound on WKBW in Buffola). The resemblance between them and Wolfman Jack was not only Rhythm and Blues, but above all the weird sounds they were using, like death bells, wolf crying and space effects. The only difference between Wolfman and the others is that Jack has developed himself deeper then his two models.
In an interview he once said about his youth: "Brooklyn is a rough community so you grow up knowing that you have to fight for your existence. I had a very bad youth so I "fled" into the radio world. Alan Freed was actually the father of rock and roll radio. He was the first to play this kind of music. Under his nickname "Moondog" he had a radio show that started with wolf crying, death bells and all that kind of stuff. I liked that and became a dedicated fan of him, later realizing that I have learned a lot from him." In New York he worked for a short time at WNJR, not in the studio but as a cleaner. Because of his charms he was allowed to voice over a commercial now and then and sell commercial air time. Still the flight into the radio world was not the solution and at the age of 14 he left the skyscrapers and moved to Washington. It was there that he had his first real radio experience on WOOK-AM, a station with the "black format". His DJ-name at that time was Bob King. It were the nightly hours he filled there and at that time stations had a much wider coverage, so he was listened to by many, both from within as outside of Washington. Soon he got an offer to work with WYOU in New Port. That is in West Virginia, just north of the border with Mexico. There, Wolfman Jack presented the lunchtime show under the name of "Big Smith with the records".
Soon Wolfman would cross the Mexican border and the following period brought him fame and wealth by the radio stations there that worked with high-powered transmitters and were above all commercially directed to the listeners in the US. As a 19-year-old he was on the pay roll of XERF, a station on the brink of bankruptcy and even was engaged in a small war with the former, corrupt, owner. It became even so worse that the studio building was transformed into a complete fort, heavily guarded by armed man. Specially thanks to Wolfman Jack the blooming period of the station started. Air time was leased to all kind of organizations, while the most weird things were offered.
From marriage broking and potency increasing remedies to live chickens — baby chickens for just $3.95 cash, check or money order: "Yes friends: your ol' Wolfman's gonna have the postman deliver 100 baby chickens right to your door! Now just think of all the fun you're gonna have with these little baby chickens! And if you order right now, while it's fresh on your mind, your Wolfman's gonna send you a life-size picture of him that glows in the dark ... autographed. Now come on everybody, send $3.95 cash, check or money order now to: Chicken, XERF, Del Rio in Texas." Preachers, quacks, everything seemed to be appropriate ... Wolfman's bank account grew larger and larger.
Audio 3: Wolfman Jack on XERB (april 1967) (with excuses for the bad sound quality)
In the mid sixties Wolfe changed to XERB, the radio station that provided in the early seventies the example for the movie American Graffiti, picturing the life of the baby-boomers. Wolfe himself played an important role in this movie. The movie was not expected to be a financial success. Producer Lucas paid Wolfman only $3000 for his part in the movie, starring newcomers like Harrison Ford, Dreyfuss and Suzanne Somers as well. However, there was a run on the cinemas and Lucas was honest enough to let Wolfman Jack share in part of the profits of "American Graffiti", which caused Wolfman later to say that this had saved him from bankruptcy.
XERB was especially commercially directed to the west coast of the US and had, with Wolfe as programming director, an enormous popularity reaching as far as Los Angeles. With this fact in mind it made it easier for him to change to KDAY in Los Angeles. At the start of the seventies a change of law in Mexico ousted the high-powered transmitters, closing also the doors for American entertainers.
At KDAY Wolfe started to play progressive music and he was also asked regularly to join "The Midnight Special", a television program of the NBC network that could be received in large parts of the US. His popularity took great heights due to the fact that his program was also spread over dozens of other stations in syndicated form. The year 1973 brought an offer from his native town. It was WNBC that saw in him an absolute hit, but Wolfman Jack was not thrilled by going back to his grey native town: "I posed a crazy proposition. For that time I asked a preposterous salary of $250.000 per annum, a limousine available to me at any time, an office of my own, my own producer, my own secretary and above all I wanted to receive my salary weekly in a brown paper bag. I thought to myself that they would never accept such a demand!"
But the management of WNBC accepted Wolfman's proposition and they got him back. At that time WABC, with Cousin Brucie as foremost DJ, was the absolute leader in New York and the competition with Wolfe on board could start. During the first half year he got every programmatic freedom one could think of in the radio scene. After that time pressure was put on him by the program management to include music that didn't fit into his profile and he was also pressed to make offensive phone calls with listeners (a very early form of shock radio). "They tried to lock you up and they give you so much money hoping you'll get hooked to a "money-trip". Next spring they also bought out Cousin Brucie to settle the fight with WABC once and forever in favor of WNBC." For Wolfman Jack the moment to quit. In the mean time he hosted his weekly tv show, in which artists performed live. The Midnight Special was shown coast-to-coast on several television stations.
Of course it didn't stay with that, because Wolfman Jack made the smart move to set up his own company through which his programs could be listened to worldwide, from Hawaii to Vietnam and from Greenland to the Netherlands. On all AFN stations, so also on Soesterberg (the American airbase near Hilversum), he was the absolute top DJ. In the early eighties there was a brief love affaire with the Caroline organization. Wolfe was to record special programs for the sea-based station. A contract was signed in 1981 and was it not for financial problems forcing the ship to be chained up in Spain for a couple of years, the Wolfman would have been heard on the most important offshore station in history. At any case, programs have been recorded, but they have been duplicated only on a very small scale. I am happy to have one of those tapes in my possession and you can hear a piece of it here.
Audio 4: Wolfman Jack on Radio Caroline (1981)
Hundreds of thousands, no millions of listeners tuned in daily to his deep voice, that literally fettered you to the radio. And, like said before, he was busy regaining his somewhat flawing popularity via his weekly show from Washington. The world's best DJ has left us. At the end of his biography Have Mercy. Confession of the original rock 'n' roll animal he leaves all readers, which were of course also his listeners, with a typical Wolfman message: "Life is a great party, going on all around you and you're invited. Hey, you might even be tonight's guest of honor. Jump into that party with everything you've got, smiling until you inspire the folks around you to smile right back. You've got something special to offer the party. Let everyone know that you believe it too. Because time is just too precious to spend any other way." Close your eyes and it is like you hear Wolfman Jack tell it yourself.
I myself in the meantime, I am having this big problem. How, I ask myself, will the heavenly radio station, Radio Heaven, solve its programmatic problems now that Wolfman Jack has joined this elite group? On his arrival artists like John Lennon, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison and Jimi Hendrix were standing in line "clapping for the Wolfman". I think I will be right in assuming that Wolfman himself has taken over the "Drivetime" spot from Alan Freed, who for decades has played his Rock and Roll for the angels between 4 in the afternoon and 8 in the evening. Payola is out of the question up there. Freed is now probably on in the early hours, thinking at first he had been banned, between 6 and 10 o'clock playing swinging music. Thinking somewhat deeper I think the rest of the line-up will be as follows. Between 10 and 12 there is room for Coffee break with Tony Windsor (ex-Atlanta, London, 355 etc.), pouring more often whiskey than sugar in his mug. Of lately Kenny Everett (specially know of Radio London and Capital Radio) has his own show between 12 and 16. In it he left his characters down to earth and brings once again the same swinging shows as he used to on Wonderful Radio London. All he his waiting for at the moment is his former partner Dave Cash.
At 20 hours it is time for Don Allen (ex-Caroline and RNI) who joined the team in 1994. Daffy Don in the meantime has received a heavenly award for his influence on promoting "Country and Western" on the British music market. At 23 hours it is time for "Heaven around midnight" in which Paul Kaye, once again ex-Radio London, lets his listeners float in the middle of the road type of music. After 2 o'clock at night there is room for two other DJ's, namely Herman de Graaf (ex-Caroline) and Paul Kramer (ex-City), who play, each in their own perfect way, the better music for those staying up late. A remarkable backup, during weekends responsible for a couple of hours of LP music, is Samantha Dubois (the loved one of all Caroline people). Of lately there has been, behind the scene of Radio Heaven, a dogfight between several members of the board. More to attract the attention of the press and by that the advertisers. Two winners have emerged. Program director has become Reginald Calvert (ex-Radio City), not in the least for his good nose for local talents. Olivier Smedley (ex-Atlanta/Caroline) has become technical director and can deliver new generators in the near future. As deputies Tommy Shields (ex-Radio Scotland) and George the Caluwé (ex-Radio Antwerpen) have been appointed. George because of his church influence and Shields because of folk music and nationalistic background. The battle for the function of Managing director has been settled in favor of Dirk Verweij (ex-Veronica) on grounds of his absolute talent in the attraction of commercials. Let them fool around up there!
Audio 5: Guess Who: "Clap for the Wolfman"
You as a reader may be astounded by this heavenly reflection, but I am convinced that those who are involved in this story would have read it with pleasure, if they were still amongst us. With Wolfman on board it can be stated that the station will crumble all previous listening figures. The most recent results that reached us show that recently the Jetset jingles of PAMS has been sung in again and the jingles are sounding splendid. Gordon McLendon (ex-KLIF Dallas and inventor of lots of radio formats) has been appointed as advisor and it can be assumed that the station will adopt a broad top 40 format. As far as we know Radio Heaven is based on the MV Guardian Angel and it is Hans Verbaan (Free Radio Campaign Holland) who organizes monthly trips to the ships for all the Anoraks already in heaven, using the tender of skipper Andreh van der Lul (former supplier of MV Mi Amigo). Buster C. Pearson publishes an outstanding magazine, named "New Free Airwaves", like he used to do on earth with Monitor Magazine. Hopefully the progressing technique will bring us the first recordings of Radio Heaven by super satellite.
Some news facts afterwards
In January 8, 1999 the following news came about: "The late Wolfman Jack will be the 1999 radio inductee into the National Association of Broadcasters Broadcasting Hall of Fame. He will be honored at the Radio Luncheon in Las Vegas on Tuesday April 20 at NAB99. Lou Lamb Smith will accept the award for her late husband. The NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame recognizes radio and television personalities or programs that have earned a place in broadcasting history. Wolfman Jack (born Robert Weston Smith) is best known as the howling "Have Mercy" disc jockey that blasted rock 'n' roll from the powerful border radio station XERF in the early 1960's. During his 35-year career, the Wolfman worked at several radio stations in addition to emceeing the TV music show, Midnight Special while working at WNBC, New York and KRTH, Los Angeles. He also appeared as himself in the movie American Graffiti. The Radio Luncheon is sponsored by ASCAP."
Have Mercy is available for around $ 25.00 and can be ordered in your local bookshop. It is a publication of Warner Books New York (ISBN 0-446-51742-9). The sound fragments on this page are copyrighted. They are used here according to the rules of fair use and academic quoting.