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Wolfman Jack St. Patrick's Day 1977 at Studio 4 (not Studio 54) We were doing a charity fund raiser. The expression was the result of a fun game of name that song - I lost. Photography by Bob Orsillo
Smith was born in Brooklyn on January 21, 1938, the younger of two children of Anson Weston Smith, an Episcopal Sunday school teacher, writer, editor, and executive vice president of the Financial World, and Rosamond Small. His parents divorced while he was young. To help keep him out of trouble, his father bought him a large transoceanic radio, and Smith became an avid fan of R&B music and the disc jockeys who played it, such as "Jocko" Henderson of Philadelphia, New York's "Dr. Jive" (Tommy Smalls), the "Moon Dog" Alan Freed, and Nashville's "John R." Richbourg, who later became his mentor. After selling encyclopedias and Fuller brushes door-to-door, Smith attended the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, DC. Upon graduation (1960), he began working as "Daddy Jules" at WYOU-AM in Newport News, Virginia. When the station format changed to "beautiful music," Smith became known as "Roger Gordon and Music in Good Taste." In 1962, he moved to country music station KCIJ/1050 in Shreveport, Louisiana to be the station manager as well as the morning disc jockey, "Big Smith with the Records." He married Lucy "Lou" Lamb in 1961, and they had two children.
Disc jockey Alan Freed had played a role in the transformation of black rhythm and blues into rock and roll music, and originally called himself the "Moon Dog" after New York City street musician Moondog. Freed both adopted this name and used a recorded howl to give his early broadcasts a unique character. Smith's adaptation of the Moondog theme was to call himself Wolfman Jack and add his own sound effects. The character was based in part on the manner and style of bluesman Howlin' Wolf. It was at KCIJ that he first began to develop his famous alter ego Wolfman Jack. According to author Philip A. Lieberman, Smith's "Wolfman" persona "derived from Smith's love of horror flicks and his shenanigans as a 'wolfman' with his two young nephews. The 'Jack' was added as a part of the 'hipster' lingo of the 1950s, as in 'take a page from my book, Jack,' or the more popular, hit the road, Jack.
In 1963, Smith took his act to the border when the Inter-American Radio Advertising's Ramon Bosquez hired him and sent him to the studio and transmitter site of XERF-AM at Ciudad Acu�a in Mexico, a station whose high-powered border blaster signal could be picked up across much of the United States. In an interview with writer Tom Miller, Smith described the reach of the XERF signal: "We had the most powerful signal in North America. Birds dropped dead when they flew too close to the tower. A car driving from New York to L.A. would never lose the station. Most of the border stations broadcast at 250,000 watts, five times the U.S. limit, meaning that their signals were picked up all over North America, and at night as far away as Europe and the Soviet Union. It was at XERF that Smith developed his signature style (with phrases like "Who's this on the Wolfman telephone?") and widespread fame. The border stations made money by renting time to Pentecostal preachers and psychics, and by taking 50 percent of the profit from anything sold by mail order. The Wolfman did pitches for dog food, weight-loss pills, weight-gain pills, rose bushes, and baby chicks. There was even a pill called Florex, which was supposed to enhance one's sex drive. "Some zing for your ling nuts," the Wolfman would say.
XERB was the original call sign for the border blaster station in Rosarito Beach Mexico, which was branded as The Mighty 1090 in Hollywood, California. The station boasted "50,000 watts of Boss Soul Power." That station continues to broadcast today with the call sign XERB. XERB also had an office in the rear of a small strip mall on Third Avenue in Chula Vista, California. It was not unlike the small broadcast studio depicted in the film, American Graffiti. It was located only 10 minutes from the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing. It was rumored that The Wolfman actually broadcast from this location during the early to mid-sixties. Smith left Mexico after eight months and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota to run station KUXL. Missing the excitement, however, he returned to border radio to run XERB, and opened an office on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles area in January 1966. The Wolfman would record his shows in Los Angeles and ship his tapes across the border into Mexico, where they would then be beamed across the U.S. It was during his time broadcasting on XERB that Smith met Don Kelley who would become his personal manager and business partner over a period of over twenty years. It was Kelley who saw the potential for Wolfman Jack to become more than a radio personality. Kelley started to work on a strategy to transform Smith from a cult figure to a mainstream entertainer in film, recordings, and television. He promoted Smith to the major media and formed enduring relationships with key journalists.
In 1971, the Mexican government decided that its overwhelmingly Catholic citizens should not be subjected to proselytizing and banned the Pentecostal preachers from the radio, taking away 80 percent of XERB's revenue. He then moved to station KDAY/1580 in Los Angeles, which could only pay him a fraction of his former XERB income. However, Smith capitalized on his fame by editing his old XERB tapes and selling them to radio stations everywhere, inventing rock and roll radio syndication. He also appeared on Armed Forces Radio from 1970-1986. At his peak, Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in fifty-three countries. In a deal promoted by Don Kelley, The Wolfman was paid handsomely to join WNBC in New York in August 1973, and the station did a huge advertising campaign in local newspapers that the Wolfman would propel their ratings over that of their main competitor, WABC, which had "Cousin Brucie" (Bruce Morrow). The ads would proclaim, "Cousin Brucie's Days Are Numbered," and they issued thousands of small tombstone-shaped paperweights which said, "Cousin Brucie is going to be buried by Wolfman Jack." After less than a year, WNBC hired Cousin Brucie, and Wolfman Jack went back to California to concentrate on his syndicated radio show. He moved to Belvidere, North Carolina, in 1989, to be closer to his extended family.
February 25th, 2011
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