By Benjamin Leatherman
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Before the explosion of music videos and talk radio, deejays were pilots in the long, teenage night, and Wolfman Jack was the hipster deejay par excellence. He was a pure American product, a transistor evangelist who so wanted to be black that he did the next best thing and darkened his skin. Like Black Like Me author John Howard Griffin's experiment, it worked, but not for long.
Wolfman Jack exemplified the handful of white hipsters who have always flitted around the heart of American culture, men like Alan Freed, Jack Kerouac, Jerry Wexler and John Belushi--the ones who, as Kerouac said, "Never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn."
One of the greatest compliments Wolfman Jack pays himself in his autobiography is reminding us that some people who heard him on the radio in his heyday assumed he was black. Coming in on the 250,000-watt signal from XERF's Mexican transmitter across the border from Del Rio, Texas, blanketing the South and West on a clear night, Wolfman Jack sounded hipper-than-thou, howling come-ons for Chuck Berry, orgies, baby chicks, roach clips and Spanish fly. In the late 1950s, few white men were alienated and passionate enough to talk as he did.
Wolfman, whose real name was Robert Smith, had just returned from a promotional tour of Have Mercy!, the autobiography that tells of these days, when he died of a heart attack three weeks ago. And so, at 57, went the last true child of radio.
Despite Wolfman Jack's relative youth, his demise was an epilogue, not an interruption. The careers of even legendary deejays--and he was right up there--are short. Wolfman's days as a tastemaker were over more than a decade ago.
"At first I was just another among the countless legions of white kids who got amazed and irreversibly bopped on the head by the provocative, pulsating and wonderful music that African-American culture has given us all," he writes. "I keyed in to their act, drew pleasure from it, and used it in my attempts to find a cool world to live in--away from the morose hang-ups of 'real life.' Because in my philosophy, nothing is more unreal than being unhappy."
Smith should know. He bolted out of his skin.
From the time he was a little boy in Brooklyn, Smith was captivated by the radio, holing up in his family's coal bin to tune in original wild men Jocko Henderson out of Memphis, John R. from Nashville, Alan Freed in Cleveland and the midnight preachers from Mexico.
His parents went through a messy separation, and the only dependable adult around the house was a black housekeeper Smith called "Tantan." During that time, however, he was molested by a priest and a baby sitter.
Smith attended the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., and, armed with a one-year announcer's degree, got his first radio job at a black station in Newport News, Virginia, sweeping the floor, hustling ads and playing rhythm and blues. A black jock coached him, darkening his patter, and he learned how to walk the walk.
"I always wore slick clothes," he writes. "I'd make deals with the store owners that serviced the black community, a little bit of advertising and a promise to pay on time, and I'd walk out wearing skinny-lapel suits, usually linen or silk, with a selection of narrow ties and some sharp handkerchiefs for the breast pocket. Except for the color of my skin, I could've stepped onstage at any moment with Sam and Dave's Soul Revue."
Gatsby, meet Amos.
When his Virginia station changed hands, Smith was forced to reinvent himself as the ofay Roger Gordon, host of "Music in Good Taste," spinning Mantovani and Sinatra. He had a stint at a 25-watt station in Shreveport, Louisiana, as Big Smith, playing hillbilly and honky-tonk. Meanwhile, he patched together a Wolfman demo tape, concocted of one part bedtime stories, one part horror movies and three parts ersatz jazz. Then, in 1963, he took a trip south, driving through Texas and over the border to Ciudad Acu¤a, home to XERF's transmitter.
Thanks to the short arm of the Federal Communications Commission, Mexican broadcasters could do what they wanted. XERF had seven-foot-tall, water-cooled platinum driver tubes, and a signal so strong it caused the headlights of cars parked nearby to light up. With a little pluck, the Wolf was home. But still unseen. Pilgrims who made it as far as XERF's tower were turned away by a mild-mannered Bob Smith, who told them Wolfman Jack was a Mexico City porn star who mailed in his tapes.
Offers of quick cash for personal appearances, however, put Smith in a quandary. He hired a Hollywood makeup artist to darken his skin several tones, and topped it off with fangs and a wig. ("He was not like other men," Smith said of Wolfman, "in that he had a dream to be other men and not himself.")
It was his first false step.
By 1973, Wolfman was hosting NBC's The Midnight Special, an in-concert forerunner of music videos. Then WNBC brought him to New York to deejay its top-rated nighttime rock show. The catch: He had to play mostly white Top 40. He lasted a year.