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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I Heard Him on the Radio

"Wherever ya are, and whatever ya doin', I wancha ta lay 
ya hands on da raydeeooo, lay back wid me, 
and squeeze ma knobs.  We gonna feeel it ta-night!"

Wolfman Jack, image courtesy of Britannica.com.

I don't know what got me started thinking about him.  Perhaps it's because my husband did a post for his blog on Little Red Riding Hood books, and started singing the song by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs all morning.  Which made me start humming it.  Anyway, I've always thought that Domingo Samudio (Sam the Sham with the gravelly voice) sounded like my favorite all-time dj - Wolfman Jack.

In my younger days, we listened to the radio or lps.  8-track tapes came out, but they were big and cumbersome.  Cassettes became much more popular, but in Southern California there were a lot of radio stations to listen to when it came to rock and roll.  The personalities of the djs were distinctive.  I remember fondly The Emperor Hudson, Charlie Tuna, The Real Don Steele, Robert W. Morgan, Dave Hull the Hullaballooer, and yes, Casey Kasem.  But my favorite dj was the Wolfman, hands down.  Sadly he left us in 1995, but his story is an interesting one...

Born Robert Weston Smith in Brooklyn in 1938, he was a fan of Alan Freed when he grew up.  At the time Freed was going by the name "Moon Dog", and was using a recorded howl.  After several jobs and several identities, Smith hit on his winning persona - Wolfman Jack - an homage to Howlin' Wolf in part.  Smith was said to be fond of horror films, werewolves especially, and chose the name "Jack" as it was a hipster term at the time - think "hit the road, Jack".

Image courtesy rockabillyhall.com

Prior to his rebirth as the Wolfman, he was a dj in Newport News, Virginia and Shreveport, Louisiana.  But his big break came when he was hired by XERF-AM at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico.  This station had the most powerful signal in North America - 250,000 watts.  It was picked up all across the U.S., and at night sometimes by Europe and Russia.  This is where the Wolfman made his mark.

He left Mexico after eight months and moved to Minneapolis but returned to border radio.  He came back to Mexico to manage XERB in Rosarita Beach, another "border blaster station" with 50,000 watts.  Eventually he moved to Los Angeles and opened an office there in 1966.  He recorded his shows in L.A.  He'd make three tapes - one of music, one of commercials, and one with phone calls from listeners.  These were sent to XERB with directions on mixing them. Eventually he was doing shows for three border stations, XERF, XERB, and XEG (which was in Monterey, Mexico).  He created different programming for each, and between the three stations he was heard from Central America to Canada.

The three towers at XERB in Rosarita Beach, Baja California.

He was also making money hand over fist, but it ended with some controversy.  A lot of the money he made came from selling airtime to Pentecostal preachers. Addressing complaints from the stations' owners, who wanted the income for themselves, the Mexican government passed a law stating that there could be no more religious programming on Mexican airwaves.  Little revenue came in, so the law was repealed, but without the Wolfman, who had left, the money just didn't roll in.

Image courtesy KBC Radio.

Wolfman Jack moved to KDAY in Los Angeles, but sought to earn more money. He edited his old XERB tapes and sold them to radio stations, the beginning of radio syndication.  At his peak Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in 53 countries.  He went to other stations, played a part in the film American Graffiti, and for eight years hosted The Midnight Special on NBC, as well as made various guest appearances on television shows.  In 1989 Dick Clark produced a syndicated cartoon called Wolf Rock Power Hour.

The man left us too soon.  On July 1, 1995, after finishing a weekly program from Planet Hollywood in Washington, D.C., he said he couldn't wait to get home and see and hug his wife.  He walked up his driveway, went into his house to hug her, fell over from a heart attack, and died.  He lives forever, though, for me.

Unless otherwise noted, images from kipsamericangraffiti.blogspot.com

Two books that may be of interest on this subject are:
Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford
Have Mercy!  Confessions of the Original Rock 'N' Roll Animal 
by Wolfman Jack and Byron Laursen

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