21 March 2008
By Sarah Cuddon
The pirate radio stations of the 1960s are part of British pop
folklore, but America had its equivalents broadcasting from the
border with Mexico. And its most celebrated star DJ was the
near-mythical Wolfman Jack.
Every DJ has their "radio persona" - a larger than life personality
created to reach across the ether and plant itself in the imagination
of the listening faithful.
The most outrageous - from America's Howard Stern to Britain's Chris
Moyles - have come to be known as shock jocks.
The daddy of them all is Wolfman Jack, the most outlandish, most
thrilling and most elliptical disc jockey of the American 1960s.
Immortalised in George Lucas' breakthrough movie American Graffiti,
the Wolfman derived from an era when radio's disembodied voice could
be almost mesmeric.
His influence on radio today can still be heard... you just need to
know what to listen for.
THE DJ PERSONA
Of course, Wolfman Jack wasn't born with that name. He was born Bob
Smith and he grew up in the tough New York neighbourhood of Brooklyn.
Neglected by his parents he sought succour and inspiration from the
voices he heard on the radio at night beaming up from the Mexican border.
In his 20s he landed a number of DJ jobs on local radio stations
where he experimented with a variety of bizarre and eccentric DJ personas.
Finally in the late 1950s, determined to take on border radio - the
American-equivalent of Britain's off-shore pirate radio stations - he
made his way down to Mexico to the great "border station" XERF and
bought himself a show.
Amongst Bob Smith's heros were disc jockey Alan Freed, aka Moondog,
and blues singer Howlin' Wolf, whose names formed the inspiration for
his own alias, Wolfman, a name which debuted as early as the first show.
"There was nothing as exotic, as mysterious and as forbidden as when
I first stumbled across Wolfman Jack broadcasting from the border,"
says Nic Patowski, a teenager when he first tuned into station XERF.
"He was unlike anything I'd ever heard before.
"You had no idea who he was or what he was but you knew whatever he
was doing it was probably wrong. When you heard him you knew you'd
unlocked the door to a really secret world."
Canadian-born DJ David Jensen, an early fan, compares Wolfman's
character to something out of a Stephen King film.
"When I first heard him... I was thinking of old recordings of the
blues singer Howlin' Wolf. He had this incredible confidence."
Much of Wolfman Jack's power and enigma lay in his voice. In the
early 1960s most DJs both in America and in the UK presented their
programmes in a straight, deadpan style.
But Wolfman Jack's rich, gravelly baritone was indefinable and
otherworldly. He was hell-fire preacher, animal, beat poet,
philosopher. He purred, he growled and he howled.
"The voice was almost scary," says Bill Crawford, author of Border
Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing
Broadcasters of the American Airwaves.
"It was really scratchy and nasty and dirty and it was delicious. If
you ran into someone on the street who spoke like that you'd assume
they were a hobo or some kind of derelict. "He was more forbidden
than listening to African-American DJs on the rhythm and blues stations."
Wolfman was the precursor to the "shock jock" phenomenon, those
irreverent, taboo-breaking DJs of the 1970s like Howard Stern and Steve Dahl.
But while Wolfman was edgy and his shtick was often kinky and
provocative, he drew a strict line at being wilfully offensive. He
believed passionately in preaching "more soul" to the world and he
maintained a code of decency.
Broadcasting from the strange world of the Mexican border offered
Wolfman Jack enormous power.
"The border is the part of America where the lines are blurred. Right
and wrong, Mexico and the US, Spanish and English," says Crawford.
This blurring of boundaries enabled Wolfman Jack to expose his
audience to the sounds of African-American music which was not widely
broadcast on US stations at that time.
His manager for over 20 years, Lonnie Napier, says: "Wolf loved
rhythm and blues".
"Aretha Franklin, James Brown... They weren't getting much airplay in
the US at that time but over on the border Wolf was allowed to play
what he wanted."
Ray Bensen, lead singer of Asleep at the Wheel, recalled being on
tour, getting into a car at 2am and turning on XERF. "You'd hear
Louis Armstrong followed by the Robbins followed by Jimmy McGriff.
He'd play it."
In an era free of the DJ mug shots we are so familiar with now,
Wolfman Jack's listeners had no idea of the face behind the
microphone. Many, like David Jensen, believed he was black.
"He could talk the soul language of a black man with the dialect,"
says Border Radio historian, Durell Roth. "I thought he was black for
many years and that's the beautiful thing about radio, it's totally
THE MAGIC OF NIGHT
As the name suggests, Wolfman was a creature of the night. He loved
the midnight hour, "the bewitching time" as he called it and the time
when a hungering young audience could feed on his titbits.
Young people hanging out late in their cars would tune into his
broadcasts and feed off his reckless, free spirit. And as his young
fan base grew, Wolfman became the leader of a generational movement.
"The idea of teenagers having power was a new concept... and I think
radio and Wolfman Jack had the power to bring us all together because
we were all listening," says Nic Patowski.
Napier recalls the subtle spread of Wolfman's reputation while at a
diner one night
"I saw this group of guys and they all had these T-shirts on and it
had what looked like a huge target circle on it and this
weird-looking character in the middle that kinda looked like a wolf
and it said 'Have mercy baby'."
Among those teenagers hanging out at late-night diners and listening
to the Wolfman's broadcasts was a young George Lucas, who went on to
direct Star Wars.
Lucas responded to his call with one of the great American movies,
the coming of age film American Graffiti, in which Wolfman Jack is a
constant but mystical character.
THE 'X' FACTOR
Wolfman Jack's genius was his determination to maintain the enigma
for so long. Invitations to appear in public flooded in soon after
his unique sound hit the airwaves in the late 1960s, but Wolfman
would invariably refuse. He insisted on keeping the magic of the
radio persona he'd created. He didn't want to give people a concrete
image of who he was.
Lonnie Napier recalls the thrill of seeing Wolfman for the first
time, having only ever known his voice.
"I knew he'd come in because I could smell his cologne all the way up
the stairs. And then when I saw him I was just blown away. He was
just bigger than life with his Beatle boots and his jet black hair
and the goatee. He was better looking than Elvis."
Following his appearance in American Graffiti, however, Wolfman did
start to let the mask slip. His credibility amongst teenagers led him
to be the face for Clearasil acne medication advertising and he
started to host television programmes like The Wolfman Jack Show and
The Midnight Special.
But where he had been in control of his own destiny, on the border,
he was now bowing to increasing pressure from the media to appear in
public. For many of his fans, Wolfman's "outing" from the hidden
world of the radio meant he had lost his edge. His own belief in
maintaining the mystery and enigma of the voice in the radio-ether
had been proven correct.
"Somehow it was a disappointment to see the man in the flesh," says
David Jensen, "I wanted to carry on believing that he was a kind of
half-human, half-animal creature. But I like to think that those
radio waves he inhabited are still transmitting out there somewhere
still today. He was a true icon."
Border Blaster: In Search of the Wolf is on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday
22 March at 1030 GMT, concluding the following week.