Steinberg, Martha Jean “The Queen” c. 1930
Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg c. 1930–2000
Disc jockey, community leader
Radio at the beginning of the 21st century is largely defined by personalities, and has been for many years. Yet that emphasis has not always been present, and in fact it ranks high among the unheralded contributions African Americans have made to American culture in general. Radio broadcasts in which the host was consistently as important as the material being presented originated in a specific time and place: at station WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee, in the early 1950s. One of the first radio stations in the country to feature African Americans on the air, and the first to do so on an ongoing basis, WDIA featured the talents of Martha Jean Steinberg, dubbed “The Queen.” A true pioneer of radio in the modern era, Steinberg influenced both that medium and the consciousness of African Americans in general.
After moving to Detroit in 1963, Steinberg gradually emerged as a one-woman institution in the community. Later in life she became more and more involved with gospel music and identified with a religious message. After founding a church and community center, she helped establish, managed, and finally bought a radio station of her own, continuing to take to the airwaves and to dispense music and messages of inspiration and moral instruction. Upon hearing of her death in the year 2000, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer told theDetroit News, “I do not know a soul who did not love her.”
Always reticent about her age, Steinberg was born Martha Jean Jones in Memphis in the 1930s. Married to Luther Steinberg (tie couple later divorced), she was working as a nurse and trying to support three small children as station WDIA made its unprecedented transition to an all-black format in the early 1950s. In 1954 WDIA’s on-air staff featured only one woman, as the host of a program called the “Tan Town Home-maker’s Show,” and the station held a contest to locate talent for a second female shift. Steinberg entered and came in second, but program director David James (who, like the rest of the station’s managers, was white) hired her for a weekend slot.
At first she was intimidated. Several of the other newly hired DJs at the station had been schoolteachers, and she was quoted as saying by Memphis radio historian and former WDIA engineer Louis Cantor in his book, Wheelin’ on Beale, that she felt that her own diction suffered by comparison. “I said: Oh Lord, I’ll never make it…I couldn’t talli, and I was always worried about my grammar.” With James as taskmaster, she hung on and overcame the obstacles that came with being female as well as African American. “Being a black radio pioneer and being a woman, it was hard,” she told theDetroit News.” I always used to say, to be a woman in radio, you have to think like a man, act like
At a Glance…
Born Martha Jean Jones ca. 1930, in Memphis, Tennessee; died January 29, 2000; daughter of Florence Jones; married Luther Steinberg (later divorced); children: Sandra, Diane, and Trina.
Career: Worked as a nurse in Memphis, early 1950s; joined staff of radio station WDIA, 1954; WDIA, “Nite Spot” host, mid-1950s; WCHB, Inkster, Michigan, disc jockey, 1963-66; WJLB, Detroit, disc jockey, 1966-82; self-ordained minister; established church, the Home of Love, 1975; WQBH, program host, co-founder, general manager, 1982-2000; purchased WQBH, 1997.
Awards: Inducted into Black Radio Hall of Fame, 1993; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1998; numerous civic awards.
a lady and work like a dog. “Steinberg received the nickname” The Queen “from fellow DJ Robert” Honeymoon” Garner.
Soon Steinberg became the host of WDIA’s evening prime-time rhythm-and-blues program, “Nite Spot.”“Sultry voiced is the only way to describe Martha Jean Steinberg!” Cantor wrote. “She exuded pure sensual excitement on the air and in person. Her introduction on stage at DIA’s annual Goodwill Revue was always guaranteed to bring howls and wolf whistles from the young males in the audience….Martha Jean always played ‘the latest and the greatest’ in the [R]-&-[B] field, leaning toward the hot crossover groups.Jike the Platters and the Drifters. If she really wanted to sound tantalizing, she’d put on a torrid torch song by Ruth Brown or La Ver n Baker and speak softly into the mike, letting the male fantasy take it wherever it wanted to go.” She also hosted another program called “Premium Stuff” for a time.
WDIA’s powerful signal covered parts of five states, and all this had a considerable and still not fully appreciated effect upon the self-image of a Southern black population that until then had no alternatives to white-dominated radio, with its announcers who strove to project as little personality as possible. As rock and roll radio took shape over the next several years, it was not only the music of southern rhythm-and-blues that fostered white imitations. Disc jockeys across the country followed the example of Steinberg, her fellow WDIA DJs, and similar figures at other black-oriented stations that sprang up across the South, and the era of the on-air personality had begun. Steinberg’s role in the rock-and-roll musical revolution was recognized when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Steinberg moved to Detroit to take a job at the suburban AM radio station WCHB, and within a few years had graduated to one of the city’s first FM powerhouses, WJLB. At first she did the same kind of program she had done in Memphis, but her on-air persona gradually changed and became more serious. Partly this seriousness was a response to the momentous events in the midst of which Steinberg found herself in the 1960s; during the riots that swept Detroit in the summer of 1967, destroying large swaths of the city, Steinberg stayed on the air at WJLB for 48 consecutive hours urging calm. Later, as animosity flared between Detroit’s increasingly African American population and its still predominantly white police force, she hosted a call-in program with police representatives aimed at defusing tensions.
In 1972 Steinberg felt the call of faith, ordained herself a minister, and opened a church called the Home of Love on the city’s west side. By the century’s end it had grown to over 1, 000 members. Her radio programs began to mix gospel music with her own homespun brand of inspiration and self-help. Steinberg became an icon in Detroit, with such a huge following that city politicians courted her favor. An important part of her message was aimed at improving the situation of African American women, whom she exhorted to strive for both economic independence and respect from their male partners. Known for her astonishingly elaborate hats, she cut a regal figure in Detroit’s social scene, moving into a home in the exclusive suburban enclave of Grosse Pointe Farms.
Marginalized to early morning in WJLB’s increasingly music-heavy schedule in the early 1980s, Steinberg joined with several partners to create a new gospel-and talk-oriented station, WQBH; she said that the station’s call letters stood for “Bringing the Queen Back Home.” In the 1990s Steinberg became an investor in the MGM Grand Casino opening in downtown Detroit; she saw casinos as a way to bring economic opportunity to Detroiters, and her support for the project helped to overcome opposition that arose among the city’s powerful contingent of black ministers. She continued to host her noontime “Inspirations with the Queen” broadcasts on WQBH until two weeks before her death on January 29, 2000. Her favorite word, noted the Detroit Free Press in her obituary, was love.
Cantor, Louis, Wheelin’ on Beale: How WDIA-Memphis Became the Nation’s First All-Black Radio Station and Created the Sound That Changed America, Pharos Books, 1992.
Associated Press, January 29, 2000, AM cycle.
Billboard, February 12, 2000, p. 4.
Detroit Free Press, January 30, 2000, web edition (http://www.freep.com); January 31, 2000, p. 1A; February 1, 2000, p. 8A; February 4, 2000, p. 1B.
Detroit News, April 2, 1998; January 30, 2000, p.
Cl; February 1, 2000, p. D1.
Michigan Chronicle, February 8, 2000, p. 1; February 15, 2000, p. 1.
—James M. Manheim
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