Thursday, October 31, 2013

REFLECTIONS OF WOLFMAN JACK: A CONVERSATION WITH LONNIE NAPIER



HAPPY HOWL-O-WEEN!! Welcome back once again to Kip's American Graffiti Blog. Last time you and I met I had posted my conversation with Wolman's long-time writer, Frank "Mars" Cotolo. You can read that fascinating (and extremely popular) interview here: THE WORD FROM MARS Pt. 1.  Tonight we celebrate this holiday with another Wolfman-related post.  This time I'm sharing an exclusive unabridged, comprehensive, conversation with Wolfman Jack's longtime Engineer/Producer and good friend, Lonnie Napier.  Lonnie began working for Wolfman Jack in 1970 and remained with him, working in various capacities until the time of his death in 1995.  In my interview with Lonnie, I focused mainly on the most fascinating aspect of Wolfman's history, which was when Wolfman was in a transitional stage in his career and beginning to take the leap from mysterious cult figure who broadcast from someplace in Mexico to an International superstar with a syndicated radio show and the host of TV's, The Midnight Special.  These days Lonnie produces the radio program, American Country Countdown (ACC) hosted by Kix Brooks  Related links can be found at the bottom of this post.
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Wolfman Jack USAF Halloween Show circa 1975


KIP: I know that Wolfman Jack only had a few close friends and you and his long-time writer, Frank “Mars” Cotolo were two of them. The three of you used to work hard and hang out and were really close from what I understand. How did you first become involved in working with the world’s greatest DJ?

NAPIER: I grew up in San Diego, California (CA) and I had always wanted to work in radio. When I was in high school I had a friend, Rich whose dad worked at XERB.  Wolfman broadcast his show on XERB, 1090 AM and manged the station [1965-71.] He helped me get a job for a company called Turfcraft that announced horseracing results over the air on XERB. 

Trick-or-Treat bag
KIP: How did that work?

NAPIER:  They were located in a small apartment in San Ysidro, CA [a border town between CA and Mexico] They’d buy racing results from around the country and then announce them over the air on XERB.  It was a funny thing. We recorded our voice over a telephone line down to the station in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. The engineers would run a special effects tape of a horse race behind us while Leo McFadden would read from a sheet saying, “They’re rounding the first turn,” and telling the locations of the horses on the track. This was probably illegal by Mexican standards. They made money on the sly buy having a guy sell the names of a couple of supposed winners to people and Wolfman got a cut. There was no real science to it. Just handicapping.

KIP: I presume the guy selling "guaranteed winners" knew the outcome of the race because Turfcraft had already gotten the results??

NAPIER: It was kind of a scam. They said they guaranteed a winner and probably 75% of the time they were right. You got a free tip for another race if they were wrong. The big deal was that they'd pick horses that were a lot better than the other horses.

KIP: At the time the actual XERB recording studio was located over 130 miles north in Los Angles.  At what point did you transition from working at the tiny apartment in San Ysidro to the actual Los Angles XERB studio and meet Bob Smith aka Wolfman Jack?

NAPIER:  Well, I worked for Turfcraft for about 3-4months before they told me they could no longer afford to pay the $50per week they had been paying me. Someone suggest calling Bob Smith to see if he needed anyone to work for him in Los Angeles. A call was made and he said, “Send ‘em up,” so on Monday I drove up to Los Angeles to meet him. This was around the year 1970.  The studio was at 4007 West 6th Street near Western Ave.  I remember there was a billiard parlor next door. 

KIP: Do you remember what the, now legendary, XERB studio looked like?

NAPIER: Yes, I do. The upstairs office where I first met the secretary, looked like a Mexican brothel [laughs]. Actually, the whole place had dark wood paneling on the walls and had these fancy red candelabras on them. All the furniture was dark wood with red velvet seat covers.  So it, by all definitions looked like a Mexican brothel.   

 

KIP: That must've made quite an impression on you as a young 18yr-old kid.  Did that intimidate you?

NAPIER: Yes. Absolutely, I was shocked.  Well, I waited, what seemed like 2 hours before the secretary at the time, Renee Pinsky finally told me he was there.  I knew he was in the building long before she told me that he had arrived because I could smell his pungent cologne in the place.

KIP:  So, his scent preceded him.

NAPIER: Yeah.  Exactly.  So, Renee eventually said, you can go downstairs and talk to him now, so I did. He shook my hand and was very casual and seemed slightly more concerned with the studio equipment that was being installed, rather then learning about my qualifications.  At the time he was installing the first 16-track studio ever built.  That was a big deal.  Ya gotta understand that this was a guy who came from nothing.  Ya know, he was a poor New York kid who had nothing and then all of a sudden he was making thirty-five or forty thousand dollars a month living in Beverly Hills.  In his mind he was a hero.

KIP:  He’d come a long way.

NAPIER:  Yeah.  Absolutely.  It had nothing to do with the fact that the house he had in Beverly Hills had snakes all over the place. And, it wasn’t really Beverly Hills, it was Los Angleles, but you had to go through Beverley Hills to get there. It seemed like he used to like to display his wealth.  He was the first person I knew who had a car phone.  He used to let me drive his huge convertible Lincoln Town Car and it had a phone in it. [Laughs].

KIP: It was all about appearances.  Speaking of which, there are very few pictures of him from that time period. He was refusing interviews and wouldn’t allow any photographs taken of him.  So tell me, what did he look like when you first met him in 1970?  Did he resemble a typical businessman?

NAPIER:  He looked like a really hip celebrity. He had a puffy pompadour, with a goatee. He was wearing wild clothes including a big shirt with puffy sleeves, tight black pants, Italian boots, and had on gold bracelets and sunglasses.

KIP: Cool.  Was he still going by his birth name, Bob Smith at the time?

NAPIER:  Yes he was.  In fact, for the longest time I called him Bob.  I had a hard time with his new manager, Don Kelley who said from now on we’re going to call him, “Wolfman.”  I had a hard time switching over and just calling him Wolfman.  It was uncomfortable for me ‘cause I always knew him as Bob.  So, anyway, at the interview he asked me if I knew anything about editing tape, which I did and then after a few other questions he said, “You’re hired.”  

Performing live circa late-1960s

KIP:  What did he hire you to do?

NAPIER: The first thing he had me do was editing the 100s of recorded phone call requests he received everyday.  He had two rather large AT&T phone answering machines-they were like recorders.  Anytime somebody would call they had his voice on there saying, “Hey, this is Wolfman tell me what you wanna hear, what your name is, where you’re calling from, blah, blah, blah.” He also asked the caller to leave their name and number and Wolfman might call them back and record the conversation to be aired at a later date.  So there were two of them and we’d take them off put them onto the tape machine and edit them down. 

KIP:  So you’d take the recorded messages on the phone machine and transfer them on to the large reel-to-reel tapes?

NAPIER: We had a way of going from the phone machine to our reel-to-reel tape recorder. They were all transferred on to 10” reels with ¼” tape. It was mind blowing the number of stacks of recordings- we had. 

KIP:  Wasn’t this back in the day where you would hand edit the tape by marking the ends of the tape you wanted to cut out with a grease pencil and then use a razor blade to cut the tape and then use editing tape to tie the two ends back together?

NAPIER. Yes. It was time consuming but Bob showed me a quick way to edit them by using the distance between your elbow and hand as a measuring device.

1960s Bumper Sticker

KIP:  Many of these phone calls you edited were not to be aired locally on XERB but were used for the syndicated shows that Wolfman was just starting to market.  So you wouldn’t want to have someone listening to his show in Nebraska with a phone call from someone stating she was from San Diego or someplace in California. His syndicated shows were supposed to create the illusion that wherever the show was aired-it was live, is that correct?

NAPIER: Absolutely.  The whole idea was I was setting them up for syndication for a company they started called AUDIO STIMULATION. I was editing the calls so that they could be played at any part of the country and sound local to that area.  I would edit out all the information that said where the caller was from as well as edit out any time elements or temperature indications.  It had to be very generic. And, then I had to put leader tape between all the phone calls.  I also edited phone calls to be  broadcast on XERB. 
Trade ad for his syndicated show
KIP: So he initially hired you to help him move into the syndicated market.

NAPIER: Well, yeah for very little money. And, he knew I had a passion for radio. He loved that fact, because, he was a guy who, as a kid, had a passion for radio.

KIP: He saw some of himself in you?

NAPIER: Yeah, that’s what he saw.  I mean, the first time I came to work, I worked for four day straight without a break.

KIP: That’s dedication. That’s passion.

NAPIER: Yeah, he walked in and I was asleep on the tape machine, ya know.  So, he knew he had a guy with a work ethic as opposed to some guy [who might be thinking] “How the hell do I get out of here?” It’s what I wanted to do.

KIP: Do you recall the first stations to pick up his syndicated show?

NAPIER:  The first two stations to pick up the Wolfman show in syndication were KPOI in Honolulu, HI, and KQEO in Albuquerque, NM. 

Lonnie & Wolfman at WNBC.
KIP: A couple of years later you edited some of the tapes of XERB phone calls that were included in George Lucas’ nostalgic classic 1973 film, American Graffiti. There are many cool phone calls with occasional references to certain California towns. For example, one caller refers to being from Little Rock, California, “Way down in the Valley.” Some of them were even included in the double soundtrack album. 

NAPIER: Right. Yes, which of course was intentional.  The film takes place in Modesto, CA.

KIP: In American Graffiti the XERB studio is a little barnburner just outside of the kid's small town near some walnut orchards but the kids speculate that he is actually broadcasting from Mexico or from a plane. The writers obviously, took artistic license with this.  To many it implied that he was broadcasting live with a direct signal into Mexico where it would take the weak signal, boost it, and shoot it back up into the Valley.  What’s the real story? For those who don't know, how did that work?
   
NAPIER: In reality, the shows for XERB were recorded in the Los Angeles (LA), California studio a day in advance.  Each show was on three separate reel-to-reel tapes.  One had the music with Wolfman introducing the songs, another had phone calls, and a third had commercials. Someone would take the tapes to the local LA Greyhound bus station, I think it was on 6th Street, and the tapes would be transported down to San Ysidro.  Someone, like Mario, would pick up the tapes at the bus station and walk them across the border into Mexico. American authorities made a big deal about transporting tapes for broadcast into the country and it took so much time, so rather than deal with that everyday we covertly just walked them across. Once across the border, they were driven down to the XERB transmitter sight in Rosarito Beach where Mario or one of the other 3 or 4 other engineers would arrange the tapes and broadcast them there live.  It had a 50,000 watt signal which, at night  reportedly reached most American states west of the Rockies [mountain range] and as far up north as Canada & Alaska. That’s how that worked.
Publicity still for American Graffiti

KIP: You eventually began engineering and producing his shows and wore many hats.

NAPIER: Oh, yeah, I became Vice-President of the company, I started booking the talent, I started going on the road with him, I booked all his airline flights, his hotels, all the gigs…We were a one trick pony. I mean we did it all from that one spot.  And, then we started using agents and ya know, trying to progress his career as an artist and as a performer.

KIP: You mentioned his manger, Don Kelly earlier. Wasn't he someone who really helped refine the Wolfman Jack character and image?

NAPIER: Before Don Kelly, he had a guy who was leading him into a Red Fox kind of  thing. Do you know who Red Fox is?

KIP: Of course. Fox was on the 1970’s TV sitcom, Sanford and Son, which was pretty tame, compared to his stand-up stage act. He was notorious for using a lot of foul language.

NAPIER: That's right. In the early days Bob saw the Wolfman character as Red Fox.  He was really crass on stage.  He’d come out on stage, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “How all you mother fuckers, doin’ out there?” I mean, he was just looking for shock.  Whereas, Don Kelly wanted him to be wholesome, family entertainment.  So by becoming more refined, more classy he was able to get more work. He eventually booked him into the family amusement park, Knott’s Berry Farm, and then with the band, Guess Who…and the concert TV series, The Midnight Special… that was all Don Kelly.

Performing live circa late-1960s
He evolved. Before I’d met him the Wolfman character had more of a Southern drawl.  You can hear it on some early XERB air checks from1966 back when he first started managing the station. Later he hated listening to his voice on tapes from those early days. But he was literally finding his voice. When I first met him being foul-mouthed was who he was.  I booked gigs for him in the early days with guys who were trying to make it like Tony Orlando and R B. Greaves who sung Take a Letter Maria. Shock was Wolfman’s deal.  I mean, “How you mother fuckers doing?” and “Is that your wife or your girlfriend?” That was his act. It wasn’t a comedy act.  That’s all he had. I think there was one line about,  “One out of three people are ugly and the two people sitting next to you are good looking, so, you’re the one,” Something like that. 

KIP:  How did the crowd respond?

NAPIER: Well, ya know, some women were put out by it, but…it was what it was. We were in Anaheim [CA]. Let’s put it that way.

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He’d come out on stage, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “How all you mother fuckers, doin’ out there?”
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KIP: Some prefer Wolfman Jack before he became a household name.  Do you have any opinions on the transition that Wolfman Jack made?

NAPIER: You mean, am I judgmental?  No, I think he did what he felt was necessary at that time.  He was feeling that’s what he needed to be to progress his career. And, Don Kelly took it to a whole other level, and once he played that part he became a household name.

KIP: Oh, yeah.  He even had that cartoon in the mid-eighties of him, Wolf Rock. At one point, you didn’t even have to have a radio to know who Wolfman Jack was.  

NAPIER: Exactly. As far as having an opinion about that: I mean, that is what he wanted at that time. 
Rehearsing for his musical, I SAW RADIO circa 1975
KIP:  I asked Wolfman’s writer, Mars Cotolo this next question recently but I’ll ask you too.  When we heard a 6-hour syndicated Wolfman Jack show on the radio, did it take you guys a whole six hours to originally produce that show?  He did so many shows I just can’t imagine him sitting there through each song for the full time.

NAPIER:  No.  It took about an hour and a half on average.  We would just enjoy ourselves and have fun and record all the stuff.  He didn’t listen to all the music but there were certain songs that we did live that he wanted to play. For instance, he loved Bill Deal & the Roundels’ “May I,” so he’d want to drum along to the beat on top of the phonebook.

KIP: I loved it when he would do that.   

NAPIER: Sly & the Family Stones’ “Dance to the Music” was another one he loved to play along with so we would add that to the show and mix it live.  It was all mixed live.

KIP:  Did you add things like the trademark wolf howl and snippets of his voice exclaiming, “Have Mercy!” or “Oh my!” over portions of the music to make it sound as though he was actually doing those things live?

NAPIER: Yes. We added all that stuff including the jingles and things, all that.  Radio was not as sophisticated at that time. Now it really is a lot more detailed.

Catch of the day.  Lonnie (center), Wolfman & friend.

KIP: It’s been about 18 years since Wolfman passed.  Is there anything specific about him that enters into your awareness when you hear his name?

NAPIER: First, I still talk to him.  I talk to him and say, “Can you believe what it’s become?”  Umm, because I know he would be totally blown away by what’s going on today in radio. He would still be the person that he was.  There would be no changing that person.  Secondly, I don’t think anybody has done for him what needs to be done for his legend.

At the dentist circa 1977.  Photo: Julian Wasser
KIP: Yes, I concur!

NAPIER: Here’s a guy who all he had to do was howl, and people loved him!  That was his content.  And, now everybody else has to at least say the time temp and weather, or whatever.  All he had to do was howl, and people would like him. They were like, “Oh my God, did you hear what he just said?”  I don’t think there is anybody who has taken his career and done it justice.

KIP: I’m so disappointed when I listen to the re-treads of his show that they broadcast in syndication now.  I’m happy that his memory is being kept alive but the shows have no personal continuity and really don’t have the rhythm of the way he really used to do a show. 

NAPIER:  He did all of those shows with me but some kid came in and re-edited those shows. He doesn’t get it.  He didn’t or doesn’t understand.  I can understand re-recording the music from our shows because the records we used had scratches and pops but what they don’t understand was the magic that was created. So, they can do that all day long but they will never ever craft the magic that was Wolfman. And, that comes from living, breathing, and being Wolfman.  Just listening doesn’t do it. And, Frank “Mars” Cotolo can vouch for that much. We did whatever we wanted to do based on what Wolfman wanted.  I mean, he was the boss.

KIP:  He definitely had the magic and people like you and Mars were able to help Wolfman bring that magic to us.  You brought the party to us.  Even when I listen to old Wolfman air checks from XERB and WNBC these days it puts me in a good mood.

NAPIER:  Nowadays everybody is going, “What kind of age to age do you have?” And uh, "How many breaks per hour?" and “How many songs do you play?”  Ya know, they’re going in to all that.  That’s not what real radio is about. Listening to Wolfman Jack was like having a party with a personal friend.  The experience was very positive, very upbeat.  In fact, that was the whole concept. Wolf and I would get into to the car and we had oodles of cassette tapes of his shows and when we wanted to feel good we would pop in one of those tapes.  When we’d get on our fishing boat we’d put on one of those tapes and we would immediately feel good.  That is what the whole concept was: To make you feel good.  Wolf would say, “Listen to how happy we sound!” And, that’s what it was all about. It’s pretty simple stuff.

✌   FINE   ✌

This page is exclusive content. No unauthorized reprinting, republishing or other use without prior authorization or proper referencing. © 2013 by Mark Groesbeck.

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Currently Lonnie Napier produces the award winning, national syndicated radio program, American Country Countdown (ACC) hosted by Kix Brooks.



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