Wolfman Jack (1938-1995)

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Wolfman Jack (1938-1995)

With his trademark gravelly voice and howl, disc jockey Wolfman Jack became a cultural icon over the airwaves during the 1960s and was integral in popularizing rock music. The first radio personality to introduce rhythm-and-blues music to a mainstream audience, he opened the doors for African American artists to reach widespread success in the music world. The Wolfman did more than announce songs over the radio; his unique personality lent a context to the sound of a new generation and made him the undisputed voice of rock and roll.

Wolfman Jack was born Robert Weston Smith in Brooklyn, New York, on January 21, 1938 and grew up in a middle-class environment. Always fond of music, as a teenager he would pretend he was a disc jockey using his own stereo equipment. After some odd jobs selling encyclopedias and Fuller brushes, Wolfman Jack attended the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. He got his professional start in 1960 at WYOU in Newport News, Virginia, a station that catered to a mostly black audience. There, the Wolfman began experimenting with on-air characters, and off the air, hosted dance parties. In 1962, he crossed the border to begin airing a show on Mexican radio's XERF, which held an extremely powerful 250,000-watt signal that reached across much of the continent. At this job, Bob Smith developed his Wolfman Jack persona.

Wolfman Jack's raspy voice and on-air howls and commands to "get nekkid" caught the attention of young music fans across the country. Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission was interested in his advertisements for an array of products over his show, including drug paraphernalia and sugar pills that supposedly helped with sexual arousal, which led to the demise of the station's profits. Meanwhile, however, the Wolfman became known for playing a range of black artists such as Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, and more, leading to the crossover of African American artists into white culture. Though record company executives were pleased to see their markets broadening, not everyone was thrilled with the development, since integration was still a new concept. Later, when Wolfman Jack moved back to Louisiana and hosted racially mixed dances, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on his lawn. Subsequently, Bob Smith kept Wolfman Jack within the confines of the studio to avoid hostility.

Later, Wolfman Jack moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he ran a small local station and sent taped shows down to XERF. Wishing to resume live on-air performances, in 1966 he and a partner opened their own station on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, which flourished until 1971. After that folded, Wolfman Jack accepted a humble salary at KDAY and also began hosting the television show Midnight Special on NBC, airing from 1972 to 1981. He appeared in most of the episodes. He also had a part as himself in the hit George Lucas film American Graffiti, a nostalgia movie about a group of teenagers in the early 1960s. The appearance finally put a face to the name for fans, who were reassured to discover that the Wolfman looked every bit the part, with bulging eyes and a bushy beard, sideburns, and hairstyle. Wolfman Jack used this publicity to land jobs on commercials and appearing at concerts and conventions. He was also a guest on Hollywood Squares, and began working on WNBC in New York City hosting a radio show. In addition, he lent his voice to the rock song "Clap for the Wolfman" by the Guess Who.

In the early 1990s, Wolfman Jack flew from his home in North Carolina to Washington, D.C. each Friday to host the syndicated radio oldies program Live from Planet Hollywood on WXTR-FM. In 1995, he published his autobiography, which related the ups and downs of his career, from hobnobbing with other celebrities to his battle with a cocaine addiction. Shortly after completing a 20-day tour to promote the book, he died of a heart attack at his home in Belvidere, North Carolina, on July 1, 1995. He was survived by his wife of 34 years, Elizabeth "Lou" Lamb Smith, and his two children, Todd Weston Smith and Joy Renee Smith.

—Geri Speace

Further Reading:

Stark, Phyllis. "Wolfman Dies on Cusp of Greatness." Billboard. July 15, 1995, 4.

Wolfman Jack with Byron Lauren. Have Mercy! Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal. New York, Warner Books, 1995.