Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wolfman Jack: EN EL AIRE, Parte I


 

WOLFMAN IS BORN ON XERF 

Brooklyn-born Robert W. Smith aka Wolfman Jack first introduced his gravely voiced character in 1964 from super-powered border radio station, XERF 1570-AM. The station broadcast at 250,000 watts, five times the U.S. limit, which meant that their signal could be picked up all over North America and at night as far away as Europe and the Soviet Union.  The "Border Blaster" located in Ciudad, Acuña, Mexico (across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas) propelled Wolfman Jack half way around the world from midnight to 4AM every night.  The mysterious Wolfman enthralled young listeners with his howling, ghetto talk and hip play list that featured black artists rarely heard on West Coast radio. The first time Bob Smith introduced Wolfman Jack he had tremendous success.  Smith once told an interviewer, "The first night I went on the air I know we ran mail order record spots and stuff and, I think two days later I collected like, 4,000 or 5,000 pieces of mail. And, that was the first night on the air.  No promotion no nothing, ya know. The station had such a phenomenal signal it covered all those people," he said.

XERF Baby Chicks commercial.


Bob had moved from Shreveport, Louisiana to Del Rio, Texas to be radio personality Wolfman Jack in 1964 but, after eight months of living in the border town with it's hot semi-arid steppe climate he and his family moved back to Louisiana. The Wolfman Jack Show continued on XERF through taped broadcasts.  He would record his shows in the Shreveport studios and mail them down to XERF in Ciudad, Acuña where they were broadcast at Wolfman's regular time: Midnight to 4 A.M.

Soon after, Smith and his family moved to  Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he managed a 1,000 watt, daytime-only station, KUXL 1540-AM for owner, Marvin Kosofsky.  The morning hours at KUXL were filled with pre-paid religious and ethnic programming but during the afternoons it had the distinction of being the only local radio station that catered to the black community with R & B music.  Ironically, of all the employees at KUXL, the most famous voice belonged to someone whose voice did not air locally.  Kosofsky once explained, "Robert W. Smith, A.K.A. 'Wolfman Jack' was the manager and the rhythm and blues program was conducted by a disc jockey called 'Preacher Paul.' [Ralph Hull]"

Early Publicity pic circa 1964
Incidentally, for some reason in Wolfman's biography, station owner  and business partner, Marvin Kosofsky is referred to as "Mo Burton."  If you ever have the chance to read Wolfman's 1995 biography, "Have Mercy! Confessions of the Original Rock 'N' Roll Animal," be aware there are embellishments, name changes and proven historical inaccuracies in the book. It's unfortunate, because in the process of telling his story,  he and the co-author have made it difficult to put his life events in the correct historical perspective. After realizing that some of his biography is fabricated it makes one wonder about the truthfulness of the other parts. It can be difficult to know which statements are fabrications and which are fact. Luckily, there are other sources for fact-checking, so in addition to his own memoirs, I have used many other sources to put together the incredible legendary DJ's fascinating history.  For a comprehensive list of these sources please see the bibliography listed at the end of Part 2 of my Wolfman post. Remember, you've come to this blog for the truth, and I'm gonna do my best to give it to you, baby!


XERF: Wolfman reads letters & laments stupidity.


1965 live recording sold over the air on XERF
The fascinating book, Border Radio gives a glimpse of what it was like back in Wolfman's early days on XERF, "Between the white-hot rhythm and blues of James Brown and Johnny Otis and the jazz of Count Basie, the Wolfman grunted, groaned, and howled an endless stream of exotic exhortations, such as, “Wherever ya are, and whatever ya doin', I wancha ta lay ya hands on da raydeeooo, lay back wid me, and squeeze ma knobs.  We gonna feeel it ta-night!"  Nobody contributed more to the Wolfman legend than Smith himself.  In his biography, Smith says he took over station XERF from armed banditos. The story is now known as the "Border Radio Shoot-out Saga."  The semi-mythical tale involves lawsuits, shootouts, and armed takeovers. How much is true we may never know.  However, the anecdote is so intriguing that it makes Wolfman's memoirs worth reading just for the chapter where he recounts the story.

LOOKING GOOD

In the early days (1964-72) Wolfman Jack worked hard to keep his true identity a mystery and Mexico helped provide cover for his valuable mystique. He did not grant interviews or allow pictures to be taken of him. A long-time Wolfman friend and fan, Jeff Dunas, told Creem Magazine, "You were always wondering who he really was, what where...I would call the station and ask about Wolfman and they would tell me he was eight feet tall and they kept him in a special room, or that no one has ever seen him, or he was all differnt colors... When I wanted to talk to him, Dunas recalled,  "I would always have to wait two hours to get through... Every kid has his own Wolfman Jack in his head, no two are alike..."
The wizard behind the curtain
However, Bob Smith initially did make sporadic public appearances, as Wolfman Jack usually in the role of an MC.  As the MC he would present performers, (such as Bo Diddley, Harmonica Fats, and other rock and rhythm and blues acts), tell dirty jokes or anecdotes, yell along with a few tunes and generally keep the event moving. At each appearance he looked a little different because Smith hadn't decided on what "The Wolfman" should look like. Some rare early pictures on this page show him without a mustache but with a short chin beard, straight hair combed forward and dark makeup added to obscure his Anglo/Saxon ethnicity. Other pictures show him with a big afro wig and large sunglasses. Another image of Wolfman was presented on the sweatshirts he used to sell.  The garments had a hip looking wolf standing on his hind legs and sporting a vest, beret, and sunglasses.  The uncertainty of his identity lead some people to believe, at the time, that he was Black or Hispanic which added to his appeal for some and repulsion by others.  By the early 1970s Smith had established a look for the Wolfman that remained fairly consistent for the rest of his career with the exception of a black broad-brimmed hat with a silver band which he became increasingly fond of wearing towards the last few years of his life.


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 XERB 1090

While working at KUXL Wolfman approached the US representative for Mexican station,  XERB and sold him on the idea of a R&B format to replace its then, music staple of Country & Western.  Two of the radio personalities at KUXL; Art Hoehn a.k.a. "Fat Daddy Washington," (1/23/1939 - 3/12/2011) and Ralph Hull a.k.a. "Preacher Paul Anthony" helped Wolfman take over station XERB 1090, located across the California border on Mexico's Baja peninsula, at Rosarito Beach, near Tijuana.  They operated the "Big X" from Minneapolis initially, then relocated to Southern California in 1966.  A bartender turned DJ named Ray Moss from KUXL made the journey to XERB, too.  

The first XERB office was a pink stucco building at 8228 Sunset Blvd. They soon found a better location and moved everything to a building he and Marvin Kosofsky bought located at 4007 West 6th Street near Western Ave. Wolfman converted the downstairs into a 16-track recording studio. He'd record his shows a day ahead of time on several reel-to-reel tapes.  One tape had commercials on it, another had music with Wolfman introductions, while another tape had recordings of phone calls. The tapes were transported by bus, across the border to Rosarito, Mexico with directions on how to put the show together.  Mexican engineers/operators such as Gabriel Esquivel, Adolfo Tejeda, & Ernesto Madueno would blend the tapes of music, commercials, phone calls, etc. and broadcast the assembled show from the XERB, 50,000-watt transmitter, giving listeners the impression that they were hearing a live show.


In 1966 XERB was initially advertised as exclusively an R & B station but eventually the station's format became more inclusive of mainstream rock. Regardless, Wolfman's show was always an awesome roller-coaster ride as he snarled, cackled, and blasted Soul, R&B, Oldies, and whatever he felt like playing on the spur of the moment.  Part of the fun of the Wolfman Jack Show on XERB included his interactions with listeners who would call in.  Usually before they could make a record request the Wolfman would tease them.  Often times he'd interrupt them by growling, or by making kissing or farting noises. Other times he'd speak in romantic tones:

WOLFMAN: Hello?

CALLER: Is this Wolfman?

WOLFMAN: This is the Wolfman.  This is yer one and only baby.  This is the Wolfman, ya understand?

CALLER: Yeah, man.

WOLFMAN: I love you.  Who is this?

CALLER: This is Nancy.

WOLFMAN: I love you Nancy with the passion of my heart.  I know that I can walk through the green fields and see the little sunlight breakin' through the trees. And, love will be all around us.  Ya understand?

Original handbill for music event at California State University, Chico.


BOOGALOO, XERB Phone call from Ginger
PAYOLA, PILLS, & PREACHERS 

One of many mega-oldies record packages sold over the air
One of the benefits of broadcasting across the border is that the station did not have to abide by US laws. For example, Payola, is illegal in the US but was an acceptable practice in Mexico. Payola is the practice of playing a specific song in exchange for money and not disclosing on the air that it is sponsored airtime. Bypassing US laws meant XERB could take money for playing specific records.  In a 1967 Billboard Magazine article program manager, Ralph Hull (aka The Nazz) admitted DJs on XERB were permitted under Mexican law to accept money for playing records.  There was no sponsorship identity required.  Plainly stated, record promoters payed money to XERB to have the DJs play specific songs on the air. What's more deceptive, is that these songs would be included in the Soul Monster record survey with other hit singles which helped to promote and influence music fans to buy these records. Below is a copy of said record survey from 1967.



Although the station did accept payola it was not a large source of income. Big money was generated in other ways.  Bob Smith was thriving as a salesman. In addition to selling commercial spots to LA-based night clubs and retail shops, he made 50 percent commission on every mail order item he sold over the radio including cosmetics, potency drugs, diet pills, and Wolfman Jack t-shirts, roach clip, and calendars.  With a hoarse-voiced dialect that sounded like a mixture of a hippie, beat-nick and Pentecostal preacher, Wolfman Jack would say,

 "They made up one of these here, one of these crazy calendars, for me, baby.  One of these psychedelic calendars.  Got a picture of da Wolfman on it right smack in the middle of a big LSD capsule, baby.  One of these psychedelic jobs.  You gonna blow yer mind when you see this here calendar, baby.  You gonna looove it ta death!  Have mercy! If you ain't got yer calendar yet, you better get cha' one in the mail right now, tonight while its fresh on yer mind...This is what the calendar look like, baby it's red and green and blue and yella...  Got all the important birthdays on it.  Got the drinkin' days, and the sleepin' days, and this that and the other thing.  You won't believe it when you see the calendar, baby.  It's all yours for just a dollar.  Send one dollar cash, check, or money order to: Wolfman Jack Calendar, X-E-R-B, Hollywood, California!"


 Although he got an enormous response for these items, it was selling airtime to preachers that made the most money for XERB.  Smith, (who from here on out will be referred to as his alias, Wolfman Jack), sold programming to the radio proselytizers in 15-30 minute blocks.
Some preachers like Brother Henderson paid for a regular spot that was thinly disguised as a gospel music show. His program called "Glory Bound Train" was typically on Monday thru Saturday from 6:00 am to 10:00 am and again for another two hours before Wolfman's show at 9:00 pm. Brother Henderson and other radio proselytizers like Reverend A.A. Allen were real hustlers making enormous amounts of money selling salvation through bibles and anything from "The Lord's Last Supper" tablecloths to "Lord's Prayer Coins" with the likeness of Jesus on them.  Wolfman once joked that the radio preachers were selling Jesus all day while he was selling sin at night.  "Hallelujah!"  Because they had such a large following and made so much money, the radio evangelists were never too hesitant about paying huge fees for airtime.  Some eccentric preachers like Reverend Ike would pay for their spots a year in advance.  He would drive up to the XERB office in his Cadillac and walk in with a brown paper bag filled with one hundred dollar bills to pay for his airtime.

A map of the border between California & Mexico

XERB PROGRAM SCHEDULE

Early XERB program schedules show that there were only three other radio shows besides Wolfman's 9:00 pm to 3:00 am show that broadcast from the station.  They were:  Fat "Daddy" Washington from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm, The Nazz from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and  Ol' Joe Soul who took over after Wolfman's show, in the early morning hours of 3:00 am to 6:00 am.  The fate of these DJs at XERB was not good.  After a year or so, they either left or were let-go. For example, program director, Ralph Hull (The Nazz) was fired in 1967 over programming conflicts with Wolfman. Around the same time  Art Hoehn a.k.a. Fat Daddy Washington returned to Minnesota to work for MPR. Lonnie Napier recalls that by the time he had begun to work for Wolfman in 1970, the only real radio show at the station was Wolfman's show. "He was on during the day from 3:00 to 6:00, and then again at night from around 10:00 pm to 1:00 am.  The rest of it was all sold block programming," he said.  The time was sold to a lot of preachers and a company called Turffcraft who would buy [horse] racing results from across the country and then a radio personality such as, Leo Herbert or Polo Hawkez would announce them by recreating certain races.













Above: Both sides of a book of matches advertising the station's frequent broadcasting of racing results.

ANYWHERE, ANYTIME


 As if being on one border blaster wasn't enough, Wolfman began broadcasting pre-recorded shows on three different Mexican stations at different times of the day, XERB, XERF, & XEG (1050 in Monterrey, Mexico). Wolfman created different programming for each station with frequent mention of the station's call letters in the middle of his wild patter.  With powerful clear-channel (not the company) stations, broadcasting his show, Wolfman could be heard almost anytime, anywhere in the world.  He was the undisputed king of night time border radio. with no consultants, no rating books, no focus groups, no audience research, no tests, he re-invented night time radio. Former XERB station manager and disc jockey, Ralph Hull, "The Nazz" remembers almost the entire continent being covered by the Wolfman. "We were just slightly ahead of Ted Turner, " he said.  "With XERB we covered from the Rockies-west.  XERF covered from the Rockies to the Appalachians, and all of Central America, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. all on one station.  And then, XEG beamed to the East.  So, with those three Mexican stations we had the entire North American continent covered.  Anybody could listen to us. [Laughs] And, they did."

With 3 towers blasting the 50,000 watt signal at night, listeners as far North as Canada and Alaska could hear XERB, 1090 in Rosarito, Baja CA. (Mexico).
SUPER SOUL 21 SURVEY circa April 1970.
XERB's weekly SOUL survey eventually included both R & B and Rock & Roll records.
       
 ALL GOOD THINGS 
GOT TO COME TO AN END
XERB studio & transmitter site in Rosarito, B.C., (Mexico).
  
Wolfman Jack was making loads of money at XERB.  According to his biography, by 1971 he was making a profit of almost $50,000 a month. The Mexican company executives that had been leasing XERB for a monthly fee noticed this and got greedy. They wanted to throw him out and make all the money themselves. So, the owners bribed Mexican officials into politically squeezing Wolfman off the air. The Mexican government did this by passing a law that stated there could be no more Pentecostal or religious programming on Mexican airwaves. Without the profits from selling airtime to the preachers, the station could make very little money.  The majority of profits Wolfman received from selling local advertising was in the form of trade-outs for items such as cars, clothing and furniture rather than actual cash.  So, there was no way he could continue to make monetary payments to the owners each month.  “That was it. In one stroke they cleaned out 80 percent of all the money we were expecting to make,” Wolfman said in his biography.  So, he and business partner, Marvin Kosofsky had to turn control of the station back over to the Mexican owners.

Comic Book drawn by Dan Koffman, 1970
With Wolfman out of the way, the station owners tried to duplicate his successful formula.  They changed the call letters to XEPRS and programmed soul music, calling the station “The Soul Express.” Wolfy still broadcast for a little while under the new ownership, but left soon afterwards.  April 14, 1972 was the last day Wolfman ever held sway over the Mexican border airwaves. [Please see post from May 2012 to hear Wolfman say goodbye on his last day on the border blaster] Soon the government repealed their own law and put the preachers back on the air.  But, without the Wolfman howling over the airwaves, the station never even remotely saw the success that Wolfman Jack had achieved.

Thus, the door of success for the mysterious man who broadcast from Mexico was closed like a coffin lid.  But, as the saying goes- when one door closes, another one opens.  And, the doors of International super stardom were about to swing wide open for Wolman Jack. Click below to continue on to Part 2 of  the thrilling, Wolfman Jack story  "Wolfman Jack : En El Aire."

The sign on the XEPRS entrance as it looks today.

END OF WOLFMAN JACK: EN EL AIRE, Parte I


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After reading this you're probably all pumped up and wanna hear some of The Wolfman in his prime.  Since I first wrote this article, I've gotten a lot of e-mail from people asking where they can hear Wolfman from back in the day.  Below are some links where you can find FREE vintage Wolfman air-checks.
Southern California Giant XERB 1090

If you do a Search for "Wolfman Jack"  on Archive.org you'll find some fantastic air-checks: Comment: There used to be many air-checks of Wolfman here but now there are only a couple last time I checked.  However, most of the ones previously available for free can be found at the XERB radio web page listed on the LINK above. 

Doug Allen who painstakingly mixes all the "new" Wolfman shows for syndication has a nice site called Wolfman Jack.Org. Comment: Last time I checked the site it was "Under Construction" but keep checking back because there's some excellent content on the site) :


A $15.00 donation will give you unlimited access to tons of airchecks featuring celebrity DJs including Wolfman Jack:


3 comments:

  1. I'm looking for a song that Brother Henderson used in his "Glory Bound Train" radio program as his theme song, I think it was called "This Train", which he played whenever his program aired. I would like to know the name of that gospel group, & what recording was used.
    "Thanks" for any assistance you can provide.
    Charles Webb
    wspiderace@sbcglobal.net

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. @Charles Webb. Excellent, excellent, excellent question. My answer is I dunno. But perhaps one of our readers knows. Where did u hear Bro Henderson's "Glory Bound Train?" Name & date of air check?

      Delete
  2. does anyone know the name of the song at the end of the letters and stupidity aircheck?

    ReplyDelete