Friday, January 21, 2011

Remembering Wolfman Jack

"get yo'self nekkid."

It must have been in 1965 that I first heard the Wolfman's voice over this GE transister radio. The signal came I think, from a pirate station in Mexico and would fade in and out but every saturday night I would be glued to the tiny speaker.

Robert Weston Smith, the man who would become Wolfman Jack, had his first professional radio job at a station at Newport News, Virginia. When he first took to the air he took the 'air name' -- Daddy Jules -- as a way of paying his respect to the strong influence black DJs had on his early years.

In an effort to copy the sucess of Alan Freed's shows in New York, Bob opened a dance club. The integrated club -- not especially popular in 1961 -- got the attention of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and threats were made, ending in a crossburning on the lawn of his house.

In 1962, Bob moved on to Shreveport, Louisiana where he quickly became a ratings success on KCIJ-AM as "Big Smith with the Records."

Bob soon moved a short distance from Shreveport to XERF-AM, a superpowerful radio station in Mexico, just over the border at Del Rio, Texas. It was here that the legend began to make news. With his mix of verbal antics, and raw rhythm & blues, Wolfman Jack developed a radio personality that seemed to send energy and attract attention across North America.

By 1965, Wolfman Jack had moved again to XERB-AM, another power-pumping clear channel radio station located across the border on Mexico's Baja peninsula, at Rosarita Beach, near Tijuana. Beaming his now-trademark "gravel voice", Wolfman quickly found a new legion of fans from Southern California, up through the Great Northwest, into the remote regions of Alaska and Canada. His howls and yips, and the blues and hillbilly records he spun blanketed much of the United States all night long. In between cuts, he would hawk plastic figurines of Jesus, coffins, and inspirational literature, and exhort his listeners to "get yo'self nekkid."

Soon, the national press was beginning to take notice, and stories began to surface in Time, Newsweek, Life and major newspapers around the world. Leading recording artists like Todd Rundgren, Leon Russell and Freddie King wrote chart-making songs about The Wolfman, and his popularity spiralled upward. Still, questions persisted: Who is Wolfman Jack? Where does he come from? What does he look like? Only Bob Smith knew all the answers, and he was keeping them closely guarded.

One of the teens touched by Wolfman's radio programs was budding filmmaker, George Lucas, who remembered The Wolfman when he wrote a simple screenplay, a tale of four friends in a small northern California town -- graduates of the Class of '62 -- preparing to go their separate ways. When it was released in 1973, Lucas' "American Graffiti" earned four Academy Award nominations and $55 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful films of the year. The movie also, once and for all, removed the mystery behind Bob Smith's character, and Wolfman Jack was about to make a transition from a cult figure to a full-fledged media megastar. He credited his voice for his success. "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."
After "American Graffiti", The Wolfman began an eight-and-a-half-year run as host of NBC-TV's "The Midnight Special," and had more than 80 network television appearances on other networks and in syndication, as well as more than 2,800 personal appearances. He was immortalized in 1974 by The Guess Who's "Clap For The Wolfman", on which his voice is heard in the background.

In the mid 1980s, the Wolfman became host of "Rock 'n' Roll Palace" on The Nashville Network, featuring performers such as the Shirelles, the Coasters, Del Shannon, Martha Reeves and the Crickets. From there, Wolf did a series called "Classic Rock with Wolfman Jack". The show featured live performances of sixties and early seventies rock music by the original artists and was shot in Nashville and Baltimore.

By the 1990s, the Wolfman was doing a weekly syndicated radio show for Liberty broadcasting from a Planet Hollywood restaurant in Washington, D.C.

On July 1st, 1995, he had just completed a 20-day trip to promote his new book "Have Mercy, The Confession of the Original Party Animal", about his early career and parties with celebrities. "He walked up the driveway, went in to hug his wife and then just fell over", said Lonnie Napier, vice president of Wolfman Jack Entertainment.

Wolfman Jack died of a heart attack at the age of 57. He is survived by his wife, Lou Smith; a daughter, Joy Rene Smith and a son, Tod Weston Smith.