BLACK LIKE HEWITH THE DEATH OF WOLFMAN JACK, THE LAST TRUE CHILD OF RADIO IS GONE
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 Acua, 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.
The Midnight Special went off the air in 1981, and the Wolfman Jack show limped on in syndication.
Have Mercy! (Warner Books, $21.95) is a touching memoir because it's a touching story, but it's a lousy, ghostwritten read. It wasn't what the great deejays said that made them memorable, for a lot of it was glorious nonsense like "Hey-baba-boom" and "A wop bop a loo bop, a wop bam boom." Wolfman and his collaborator, Byron Laursen, try to get past the printed page by filling it with as-told-to spoken mannerisms, but it's the worst of both worlds.
Here's what he sounded like when he hit the air on XERF in 1963: "Aaaooooooooo! All right baby! Have mercy! Good golly, Miss Molly! This is the Wolfman Jack show, baby. We gonna par-ty tonight! We down here in Del Rio, Texas, the land of the dun-keys. . . . I gotta tell you baby, the old Wolfman gonna make you feeeeel good. Gonna get down! Gonna make you feel it tonight!
"Here's Elmore James and his funky funky slide guitar. Makes me want to get naked every time I hear it, baby. I'm runnin' around naked in the studio right now, beatin' my chest. And I wantcha ta reach over to that radio, darlin', right now, and grab my knobs. Aaaoooooo!"
Now that's what I call the heart of Saturday night.
Unfortunately, someone drove a stake through it. Underground radio has become the province of amateurs, the college kids at the left end of the dial who aren't afraid of a little dead air and even clear their throats on the mike before going into a set of angst-ridden strummers. Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern have also run off with their pieces of the party's carcass. Theatre of the mind, the soundtrack to adolescent longing, has been supplanted by shock and diatribe.
Anyone attempting Wolfman's memoirs should first load up a CD changer with some sides by Elmore James, Lowell Fulsom and Joe Tex. If those names don't ring a bell, you'll at least have some idea of what became of Wolfman. The funny thing, and the moral here, is that someone who was once a paragon of cool got so dated so fast.
Blame it on the nostalgia binge that began in 1973 with George Lucas' American Graffiti, the movie in which the Wolfman played himself. Blame it on Sha Na Na, on Dick Clark's refusal to age, on digital sampling and the general, accelerated recycling of culture that has left hippies and punks side by side in the mud.
But no matter who you blame, it comes out the same: Wolfman's tastes now seem as quaint as his pompadour and Elvis' jumpsuits. It's fitting that his last gig was deejaying at Planet Hollywood--like the Hard Rock cafes, they're shrines to something that never happened.
But it turns out he didn't fall that far. Wolfman was always a hipster manqu, a sweet square urging his listeners to "get nekkid" while he stayed clothed, unseen in the wings.
When Elvis called and asked him to come hang out in Vegas, Wolfman agonized over it and decided it was too risky; he stayed home in bed with his wife, Lou Lamb. When he got home from the book tour three weeks ago, Wolfman walked up his driveway, hugged Lamb and collapsed. He was all bark.
Once he met Freddie King, and told the blues guitarist how touched he was by the references to "Wolf" in one of King's songs. King didn't tell him he meant Howlin' Wolf.
Oh, Howlin' Wolf.
As Wolfman once said, someday the wicked will be defeated, the ugly will grow new, exciting faces and the stupid will learn to tie their shoes. In the meantime, you'll have to settle for reruns of the way we never were.
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