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Wolfman Jack

Robert Weston Smith, known as Wolfman Jack (January 21, 1938 – July 1, 1995), was an American disc jockey. Famous for his gravelly voice, he credited it for his success, saying, "It's kept meat and potatoes on the table for years for Wolfman and Wolfwoman. A couple of shots of whiskey helps it. I've got that nice raspy sound."

Early career

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 Financial World, and his wife Rosamond Small. He lived on 12th Street and 4th Avenue and went to Manual Training High School in the Park Slope section. His parents divorced while he was a child. To help keep him out of trouble, his father bought him a large Trans-Oceanic radio, and Smith became an avid fan of R&B music and the disc jockeys who played it, including Douglass "Jocko" Henderson of Philadelphia, New York's "Dr. Jive" (Tommy Smalls), the "Moon Dog" from Cleveland, 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, D.C. After he graduated in 1960, he began working as "Daddy Jules" at WYOU 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, as the station manager and 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 in Shreveport, Louisiana 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 films 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 Acuña 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.

That sales pitch was typical of Wolfman Jack's growling, exuberant on-air style. In the spirit of his character name, he would punctuate his banter with howls, while urging his listeners to "get naked" or "lay your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs". Part of the persona was his nocturnal anonymity; listeners from coast to coast had no idea how to recognize the face behind the voice that said things like "Wolfman plays the best records in the business, and then he eats 'em!"

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 XEPRS-AM. 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 (which was filmed at KRE in Berkeley). It was located only ten minutes from the TijuanaSan Diego border crossing. It was rumored that the Wolfman actually broadcast from this location during the early-to-mid-1960s. Smith left Mexico after eight months and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to run station KUXL. Even though Smith was managing a Minneapolis radio station, he was still broadcasting as Wolfman Jack on XERF via taped shows that he sent to the station. Missing the excitement, however, he returned to border radio to run XERB, and opened an office on Sunset Boulevard in the Los Angeles area in January 1966. The Wolfman recorded his shows in Los Angeles and shipped 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 became his personal manager and business partner for more than 20 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 Roman Catholic citizens should not be subjected to proselytizing and banned the Pentecostal preachers from the radio, taking away 80 percent of XERB's revenue. Smith 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, becoming one of the first rock and roll syndicated programs (as the tapes began to age, they were eventually also marketed to oldies stations). He also appeared on Armed Forces Radio from 1970 to 1986. At his peak, Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in 53 countries. He was heard as far off as the Wild Coast, Transkei, on a station based there, Capital Radio 604. In a deal promoted by Don Kelley, The Wolfman was paid handsomely to join WNBC in New York in August 1973, the same month that American Graffiti premiered, and the station did a huge advertising campaign in local newspapers stating that the Wolfman would propel their ratings over those of their main competitor, WABC, which had "Cousin Brucie" (Bruce Morrow). The ads proclaimed, "Cousin Brucie's Days Are Numbered", and thousands of small tombstone-shaped paperweights were distributed that 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, which was carried on KRLA-Pasadena (Los Angeles) from 1984-1987. He moved to Belvidere, North Carolina, in 1989, to be closer to his extended family. In the 80s, he did a brief stint at XEROK 80, another border blaster station that was leased by Dallas investors Robert Hanna, Grady Sanders, and John Ryman. Ryman then moved Smith to Scott Ginsburg-owned Y95 in Dallas, Texas.

Recordings of Wolfman Jack's old shows were reintroduced to syndication a decade after his death and remain available to local stations, currently through Envision Networks as of 2020.

Film, television, and music career

In the early days, Wolfman Jack made sporadic public appearances, usually as a Master of Ceremonies for rock bands at Los Angeles clubs. At each appearance, he looked a little different because he had not decided what the Wolfman should look like. Early pictures show him with a goatee; however, sometimes he combed his straight hair forward and added dark makeup to look somewhat "ethnic". Other times he had a big afro wig and large sunglasses. The ambiguity of his race contributed to the controversy of his program. His audience finally got a good look at him when he appeared in the 1969 film A Session with the Committee, a montage of skits by the comedy troupe The Committee.

Wolfman Jack started his recording career in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while working at KUXL Radio in 1965 with George Garrett. Garrett helped record the album Boogie With The Wolfman by Wolfman Jack & the Wolfpack on the Bread Label. He was also responsible for engineering, producing, and assembling the band. Wolfman Jack also released Wolfman Jack (1972) and Through the Ages (1973) on the Wooden Nickel label.

In 1973, he appeared as himself in George Lucas's second feature film American Graffiti. Lucas gave him a fraction of a "point", the division of the profits from a film, and the extreme financial success of American Graffiti provided him with a regular income for life. He also appeared in the film's 1979 sequel More American Graffiti, though only through voice-overs. In 1978, he appeared as Bob "The Jackal" Smith in a made-for-TV movie Deadman's Curve based on the musical careers of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean. Smith appeared in several television shows as Wolfman Jack, including The Odd Couple, What's Happening!!, Vega$, Wonder Woman, Hollywood Squares, Married... with Children, Emergency! S5Ep5, and Galactica 1980. He was the regular announcer and occasional host for The Midnight Special on NBC from 1973 to 1981. He was also the host of his variety series The Wolfman Jack Show, which was produced in Canada by CBC Television in 1976 and syndicated to stations in the US. He also voiced the Chief of the Rama Lama tribe on the TV Special "Garfield in Paradise" in 1986.

Jim Morrison's lyrics for "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" were influenced by Wolfman Jack's broadcasting. He is also mentioned in the Grateful Dead song "Ramble On Rose". He furnished his voice in The Guess Who's the top 40 hit single "Clap for the Wolfman". Wolfman Jack was regularly parodied on The Hilarious House of Frightenstein as "The Wolfman," an actual werewolf disc jockey with a look inspired by the original The Wolf Man movies. A few years earlier, Todd Rundgren recorded the tribute "Wolfman Jack" on the album Something/Anything?; the single version of the track includes a shouted talk-over intro by the Wolfman but on the album version Rundgren performs that part himself. Canadian band The Stampeders also released a cover of "Hit the Road Jack" in 1975 featuring Wolfman Jack. From 1975 to 1980, Wolfman Jack hosted Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm, which transforms itself into Knott's Scary Farm each year for Halloween. It was the most successful special event of any theme park in the country, and often sold out.

In 2012, the Estate of Wolfman Jack released a hip hop single featuring Wolfman Jack clips as the vocals. In 2016, clips from the Wolfman Jack Radio Program were used in the Rob Zombie film 31.

Radio Caroline

When the one surviving ship in what had originally been a pirate radio network of Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South sank in 1980, a search began to find a replacement. Because of the laws passed in the UK in 1967, it became necessary for the sales operation to be situated in the US. For a time, Don Kelley, Wolfman Jack's business partner and personal manager, acted as the West Coast agent for the planned new Radio Caroline, but the deal eventually fell apart.

As a part of this process, Wolfman Jack was set to deliver the morning shows on the new station. To that end, Wolfman Jack recorded a number of programs that never aired, because the station didn't come on air according to schedule. (It eventually returned from a new ship in 1983 which remained at sea until 1990.) Today those tapes are traded among collectors of his work.

Death

On July 1, 1995, Smith died from a heart attack at his house in Belvidere, North Carolina, shortly after finishing a weekly broadcast. He is buried at a family cemetery in Belvidere.

Filmography