Red-hot, beat-me-down, bring-you-up swing tunes’ are just part of Radio Smithsonian’s Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was, the story of radio’s role in transforming the African-American community.
By Michael Kernan
Smithsonian magazine, April 1996
“Dr. King had his offices right under the radio station, and Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young and all of them would come there, and what they would do is take a broomstick and hit on the ceiling. I would announce a ‘pause for a message from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,’ and I’d let the mike out the window to the first floor, and Dr. King would bring the mike in his window and make the speech. . . .”
A landmark 13-part series, Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was, has recently been distributed by Public Radio International to radio stations around the country. Compiling vintage radio broadcasts by the first black disk jockeys, their music, their wonderful stories, their vital role in the civil rights movement, the series documents the struggle to gain influence over how blacks are portrayed on the air and to achieve station ownership. The Smithsonian has, with this monumental project, made a signal contribution to American history. And it’s funny.
Doug (Jocko) Henderson had a “rocketship” show in Philadelphia, featuring rocket whooshes and a rhyming patter that kids all over town picked up. Any black pop artist who wanted to be a star had to make friends with platter spinners like Jocko.
“One night about 4 in the morning,” he recalls, “somebody was kicking on the front door. I was sound asleep. Said to my wife, ‘Who in the world is that?’ I put my bathrobe on, put my gun in my pocket, went down and hollered through the door, ‘What you want?’ He says, ‘Jocko, my name is Sam Cooke and this is Bumps Blackwell, my manager, and we have a record we think is gonna be a big smash, and we wanted you to hear it.’ Well, I heard it, and it was ‘You Send Me,’ and in three weeks it went to Number One in the country.”
In the 1940s during the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the industrial cities of the North, disk jockeys rapidly turned themselves into a combination newspaper, mayor and minister.
They also promoted products to stay on the air. B. B. King tells of writing a jingle for a new tonic called Pepticon. It was amazingly popular with the elderly and especially with church folk. He couldn’t understand the appeal of the stuff. Then he discovered the secret: it was 12 percent alcohol!
Announcers were sharply aware of their importance in the community. “We didn’t know,” says one DJ, “that we would be sent where preachers could not go, shaping the hearts and minds of people. But we did a good job.” Along with the scat songs and ballads, along with Chuck Berry and James Brown and the Platters, the series presents the magnificent voice of Marian Anderson singing “My country, ’tis of thee . . .” and a docudrama about a noted African-American surgeon.
Black Radio was put together by the Smithsonian’s Office of Telecommunications with the help of grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Smithson Society. Jacquie Gales Webb, a veteran producer at Radio Smithsonian and a DJ herself, spent three years gathering tapes of historical broadcasts from audio collectors and DJs around the country. “Thanks to our cutting-edge digital equipment, we were able to edit together the elements we wanted very quickly,” says Webb.
“Black radio was very important,” she explains. “In most cities there was only one black station, and it gave information, inspiration and education, in the sense of what was going on in the community. Some have even said that black radio was comparable in power to the black church. Radio was very big in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati and in the South — Nashville, Memphis and Atlanta.”
Jack Cooper of Chicago is credited with the first black DJ program. He bought time from WSBC, a foreign-language station, got his own sponsors and went on the air, speaking the King’s English. But his colleague Al Benson, the king of black radio in the late ’40s and the ’50s, changed all that. He addressed listeners, many of them Southern migrants, in their own slang, loud and loose. DJs started developing their own unique spiels and used all kinds of street lingo. The style caught on instantly. In fact, many white DJs imitate that hard-charging manner to this day, whether they know it or not.
The whole thing had started, according to Webb, as early as 1931, in the days of live performers, when a radio pianist quit in a union dispute. Cooper simply wound up a phonograph and set it in front of the mike. “And that’s why he’s called the first DJ.” Cooper also pioneered The All-Negro Hour, mirroring the network variety shows with skits, comedy, drama, news and whole choruses of performers.
“There were family programs like The Wings Over Jordan Choir, in the days when families would sit around the radio together. Every Sunday it was broadcast out of Cleveland over CBS. The choir toured Europe, too. All the older people remembered it.”
Perhaps the finest hour of Black Radio came in the ’60s. When the 1968 riots threatened to burst Detroit at the seams, a DJ named Martha Jean (The Queen) Steinberg came on the air, played gospel music, talked and prayed, and calmed people. However, Steinberg and other black DJs also understood the need for humor, to get audiences to listen. She recalls, “We were considered clowns, we were considered ignorant, we were considered jokes. But if we hadn’t been laughing we couldn’t have got our point across. We had to be clowns: we are bright, intelligent people, independent thinkers, philosophers, you know?”
“She developed into a gospel announcer,” Webb told me. “No more R&B. She had a salute to blue-collar workers. She’d get on and tell housewives when their husbands were getting their paychecks so they could go down to the plant and bring them home. Eventually she became an ordained minister. She has her own station now, has people working for the poor and feeding the hungry.”
Black DJs did more than just support the civil rights movement; they embodied it. Their charismatic presence also helped to alert white business leaders that black programming represented tremendous economic power and political influence.
DJs were not merely disembodied voices, abstractions floating on the airwaves; if you lived in their city you could actually see them in nightclubs or in their studios. With his wonderfully raspy, avuncular voice, series host Lou Rawls talks about Al Benson: “I grew up hearing him spinning records in his record store window. We used to go there and watch all the time, especially on weekends: he’d have recording artists come in as guests. We got to see all the stars.”
And the black DJs spawned a sea change in popular music. Without them there wouldn’t have been rock’n’roll. They turned young blacks and hip young whites on to rhythm and blues, an essential precurser of rock’n’roll.
One reason DJ Tommy (Dr. Jive) Smalls was able to introduce Bo Diddley on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955 was that Sullivan had seen newsreels of the crowds attending Smalls’ R&B shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
All through this sparkling series are snippets from old tapes, rarities in themselves, for DJs were a peripatetic lot and didn’t bother to save the thousands of hours’ worth of broadcasts they had logged. A young Memphis DJ and singer named Rufus Thomas does a hilarious commercial for Pink Pussycat wine. Jocko Henderson tells how he introduced the Supremes at the Apollo and had to literally pull Diana Ross, still a shy girl, from behind the curtain.
Art Neville, eldest brother and keyboardist in the Neville Brothers band, tells about Dr. Daddy-O’s breakfast program on WYLD. “One of the sponsors was a bacon company, and I could smell it — it sounded as if he was actually frying bacon in the studio. I got a chance to go there one morning, and there was no bacon. He had the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes and was crumpling it in front of the microphone.”
One episode in the series will concentrate on white DJs like Wolfman Jack (who recorded an interview for the program before his recent death), Hoss Allen in Nashville and Hunter Hancock in Los Angeles. They all learned a lot about style and presentation from black announcers.
Today, Webb says, what used to be called black radio is “urban radio.” “Many stations don’t call themselves ‘black,’ either. Because the advertisers wouldn’t buy black. They want ‘adult,’ ‘contemporary,’ ‘urban.’ They say, ‘Black? What do you mean? I need people from 21 to 45 because they buy the most stuff.'”
Well, you can give it a different name, but like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, it won’t go away. This Smithsonian series is a celebration of the songs, the names, the energy, the sheer unbuttoned joy that radiated from black radio. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” Doctor Hepcat. Poppa Stoppa. “Green Onions” (first heard on WLOK at 7 in the morning, sold out in the stores by 9 a.m.). Booker T. and the MG’s. Dizzy Lizzy. Eddie O’Jay. Dr. Daddy-O (not to be confused with Daddy-O Daylie).
Theo Wade, better known as Bless My Bones, who used to make what he called “goodwill announcements” on the air, such as, “One of our friends has lost his false teeth, like to help him get them back. . . .” It was a world.