Wolfman Jack

The Wolfman Jack story began in 1949 when radio reached out to a troubled youngster named Bob Smith. As the 1950s arrived and Rock 'n' Roll music found its way into suburban America, Smith imagined himself behind the mic, spinning the turntables, and taming that jive DJ talk. His over-the-air heroes, Black and Black-influenced announcers like Dr. Jive, Jocky Jack, Professor Bob, Sugar Daddy and others, spoke to him, taking him to a secret place away from the pain of still growing up, off into a world of music unlike anything his family could understand. At age 16, Bob found himself struggling to survive on the streets and stay out of the gangs. Once again, his refuge was the radio. DJ Alan Freed, the legendary king of New York Rock 'n' Roll radio, was the first to promote big shows at venues like the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn and while many of his friends were hanging out on the neighborhood streets, Bob was waiting at the stage door of the Paramount, hoping to meet Freed, or one of the many popular recording stars appearing on his show. His persistence paid off when he was allowed to work the backstage area as an errand boy. It was there he met the great talents of the day, like Jackie Wilson and other revue stars.

Across the river, in New Jersey, Bob hung out at WNJR-AM, a Black-programmed radio station, and it was here his primary education in radio began. Still, the road to becoming the world's most famous DJ was a very long one with many stops in between. Not yet 21 years old, Bob loaded up his car, determined to reach Hollywood and find his fortune, but he got only as far as Alexandria, Virginia, making a stop that lasted two years. Living with his sister and brother-in-law in Alexandria, Bob worked at various jobs while studying for his FCC license at the National Academy of Broadcasting. Supporting himself by selling door-to-door everything from encyclopaedias to Fuller brushes, he spent his nights studying complicated mathematics needed to obtain his radio engineering license. It seems he had found his calling, as the high school dropout easily rose to the head of his class with a straight-A average.

His first professional radio job was at WYOU-AM, Newport News, Virginia, where Bob took his first air name, Daddy Jules, paying homage to the strong influence Black DJs had on his early years. His natural style and energy led to a large following of listeners and soon, Daddy Jules was a popular attraction at local teen dances. Remembering the success of Alan Freed's shows in New York, Bob thought he could create a venue for Rhythm & Blues in the Newport News area, so he 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 cross burning 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. Still, the potential of a local radio station couldn't begin to fulfill his dream of becoming a nationally-known DJ. Yet, it was here that The Wolfman Jack character actually first came to mind while Bob was playing records on KCIJ. A short distance from Shreveport was the home base of XERF-AM, a superpowerful radio station in Mexico, just over the border at Del Rio, Texas. Filling its air time with U.S. based preachers selling all sorts of religion, XERF was reaching millions of listeners across North America, and by all accounts was making millions for the preachers who bought time on the station. 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 to a new base of operations, 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 eighty 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, one of the nation's most recognizable personalities, died of a heart attack at the age of 57. He was survived by his wife, Lou Smith, a daughter, Joy Rene Smith, and a son, Tod Weston Smith.

Wolfman Jack was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1996 and into the National Association of Broadcasters Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1999. On October 31st, 2005, the XM Satellite Radio station The 60s on 6 began airing a regular program utilizing air checks from Wolfman Jack's older syndicated shows.

For more, be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Wolfman Jack.