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.



Thursday, October 17, 2013

THE WORD FROM MARS: WRITER FOR WOLFMAN JACK SPEAKS OUT, PT. 2

Wolfman live @ the KRLA studios in Burbank, CA  circa 5/27/1985

Welcome back to Kip Pullman's American Graffiti Blog.  We're in full swing of October, the month of HOWL-O-WEEN!  What could be more festive than celebrating with Wolfman?  Wolfman Jack-to be exact!  So, in this invaluable installment we carry on with Part 2 of my exclusive unabridged interview with Wolfman Jack's long-time writer, Frank "Mars" Cotolo.  You can read the first part here: PART 1.  You can also read my comprehensive Wolfman Jack history here:  EN EL AIRE, PT. I  & EN EL AIRE , PT II.   I've put up several links to Mars on the web at the bottom of thIs post.  Now, to recap: During his full-time, 11-year tenure (1978-89) with the hairy one, Mars wrote and particpated in every 6-hour Wolfman Jack Graffiti Gold Show and 1-hr. daily show for the AFRTN (Armed Forces Radio & Televison Network.) In addition, he also wrote for a Japanese version of The Wolfman Jack Radio Show and produced a syndicated 3-hr Wolfman Jack Disco Show. Mars went on the road making 100s of personal appearances with Wolfman too. So if anyone knows the man known as Wolfman Jack-it's Mars!  Prepare yourselve(s) now, by cracking open a brew or brewing a cup of tea, then sit your happy Halloweend-ass down and dig into this rama jama as we continue with Mars Cotolo speaking on Wolfman (as opposed to Wolfman speaking from Mars):
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Rare SHERLOCK HOLMES PARODY by Wolfman Jack & Mars Cotolo

KIP:  Earlier you mentioned that you guys got away with a lot of risqué stuff over the radio but I was wondering, did he ever feel restricted by what he could or couldn’t say?  After he’d left XERB he told Creem Magazine that he couldn’t use phrases like “How’s your Boogaloo?” or ask a female caller if her little peaches are sweet? 

Wolfman & Frank "Mars" Cotolo hard at work
FRANK:  Yeah, I mean how timid is that?  Like I said, I gave him stuff to do and a lot of it we got away with doing.  But, he was always willing to go as far as he possibly could. And, like I said, we did lose a couple of stations because of the things we did.  It was really, ya know, it wasn’t just junky throw out stuff.  We did things like movie Coming Attractions parodies that were produced well. Lonnie Napier [Engineer & Producer] was really great.  He did so much especially the movie things that we did.  Because we would do movie trailers, ya know, Wolfman Jack was James Bond, or Wolfman Jack was in the Pink Panther.  We would even mock or make fun of things that would really happen because he was a good actor.  When he was playing the Inspector in the Pink Panther parody, we would go “Ah, c’mon Wolfman!”  So, we would make fun of Wolfman but some of that stuff we really pushed it.  I can tell you lines and things he did that got us in lots of trouble in doing a bunch of stuff.  He wanted to be right on the edge.  He never said “Man, it would be so great if I could just say, “Fuck You!” No, that wasn’t him.  He liked flirting with the disaster of it.  It was disaster, you couldn’t do certain things, and we’d get thrown off the air and censored in market syndication because we did whatever it was we did. He, Bob liked being on the edge.  He was an on the edge guy.  He always liked being on the edge. He liked pushing everything he possibly could.  We did shows together, I was in a band with him.  We toured Southern California, I mean we did so much together creatively.  It was terrific.  And, of course we went to Europe together, blah, blah, blah…a whole bunch of stuff.

KIP:  When Wolfman was taping a 4-hour or 6-hour daily show for syndication did he only record the intros for songs and then skip or fast forward over the music and then record the outros?  Would a 6-hour show take 6 hours to make or produce?
A fan captured pic of Wolfman in the early-1970s.

FRANK:  No. But, he would also do stuff; if you listen to those Graffiti Gold things, you can hear him in the background; he’s really there as the songs are playing.  He used to back up the beat by drumming on a telephone book.  I started helping him ‘cause he didn’t want to do it anymore.  We had two telephone books, I used to beat the telephone book and he sang over it and we did all sorts of stuff.  So, it was quite a mixture.  He did voice tracks and stuff too.  And, then of course we did a live gig - we were on KRLA.  Five nights a week we did it live unless he was out of town, then they played tapes.  And, then I ran the show for him when we went to Nashville.  I moved to Tennessee to run the show for him.  I wrote and produced Wolfman’s country music show over the TNN radio network [circa 1989]. There was a live show from the Grand Ole Opry Hotel and then when he wasn’t there I would run the show at night as if he was really there.  You see, he created this… [long pause] process of being able to make people think he was live even when he wasn’t live. Only a certain amount of people knew how to run the show. Lonnie knew how to run the show; I knew how to run the show. We could do everything and people would never have a clue that he wasn’t there.
 
KIP:   When he wasn’t there did you insert wolf howls over the music or insert recordings of his voice shouting exclamations such as, “Aw, right baby!”  Things like that?  

FRANK:  Yeah, sometimes, yeah when he wasn’t there.  But, it’s very hard for anybody to pick out which ones when he was there, and when he wasn’t there.  Because, we had it down to a science.  Because we would even take phone calls when he wasn’t there.

KIP:   How did you do that?

FRANK: Well, we had any number of statements by him pre-recorded.  When you’re on the phone with somebody we could just run ‘em, [imitating Wolfman] “Hey, where you callin’ from?”  [Imitating caller]  “I’m down in Fresno.”  Ya know, we’d just stick it in there and they’d answer.  You learn how to do it.  And then when it was time to go you’d just play, [imitating Wolfman] “Bye!”  [Laughs]  And, they’d think they’d talked to the Wolfman.

KIP:  Oh my God.  That’s amazing.

FRANK:  We had it down.  The character.  The Wolfman.  He was everything, he was real, he was flesh and, in one day he could be in five different places, and he didn’t have a double like Sadaam Hussein.  He really had the character…a whole cottage industry.

KIP:   People who weren’t around in the 1970s or ‘80s might have a hard time grasping just how famous Wolfman Jack really was.  As he says in the film, American Graffiti, “The Wolfman was everywhere!”  He was on radio, TV, movies, magazine covers, etc.  A survey at the time listed him as the third most popular celebrity in the United States or maybe the world.  I think boxer, Mohammad Ali and The Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson were number one and two, respectively.

FRANK:  Yeah, that particular survey was used to measure the recognizable popularity of celebrities around the world. Yeah, I think that was the exact order.  It got him so much work.

Wolfman &  Blues legend, B.B. King enjoy a moment on The Midnight Special.
KIP:   I think I’d heard you once say in another interview that surveys like that helped him but also hurt him.

FRANK:  Well, yeah everything helped him make a living being Wolfman Jack. When he did The Midnight Special [late-night TV concert series that ran from 1973-81] everyone knew, Wolfman Jack.  He had more radio stations because he was on the TV.  He would generate more business because of all the stuff. Of course, it was so much business that’s why he had to create certain ways of being in five places at once.  Nobody could do that.  There was no other Wolfman Jack. So, we had to do that.  No, everything helped him. Once he came out… I mean he never wanted to come out. Did you read his book?

KIP:   Oh, yeah. I have a signed autograph copy of his biography.

FRANK:  I mean, he did not want to come out.  He wanted to be that guy down there [in Mexico].  When he started coming out he had all sorts of fake make-up and he acted rude and everything ‘cause he just wanted to be that character.  He never wanted to come out; he just came out and became publicly, Wolfman Jack.  I mean, I never called him by his birth name, Bob Smith or anything.  He hated that name.  Unless you were a really, really close friend.  People would try and be cool, “Hey, Bob, how ya doin’!” [Imitating the voice of a fan.]  He wouldn’t even look at them. It was like invading his privacy.  To me he was, “Woof.”  Not even, “Wolf,” but just, “Woof.”  But, ah, once the Wolfman character came out, that was it.  He couldn’t be anything else. It was hard to be whatever was left of Bob Smith. Ya know, at XERF he sold all the airtime.  During the day he was like a regular businessman and then he went and did his thing over the radio.  In fact, the thing about American Graffiti that’s really weird is that he probably didn’t really look like that, in the year 1962 that was supposed to be happening [laughs].  Ya know, he put Wolfman Jack in there.  But, he probably did not have that look that he had in the movie with a goatee and slicked back hair.  He was thinner, he didn’t have the beard - he was different.

KIP:   I know he didn’t have a beard in 1962, the year the film takes place.

FRANK:  That’s what I mean.  He created this character and the character took him over.  That kind of exposure just helped him.  It never hurt him.  The only way it hurt him is that he wanted to do some serious acting and it prevented him from getting certain parts in movies.  So, of course that hurt him.  He was cursed in a way with being “Wolfman Jack.”

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The thing about American Graffiti that’s really weird is that he didn’t really look like that in the year that was supposed to be happening.
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KIP:  Speaking of movies, I heard he tried out for a part in one of Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary Godfather films?

FRANK: Yeah, he did.  Because remember, Coppola did American Graffiti.

KIP:  Right, Coppola was the Executive Producer for American Graffiti.

At Knott's Berry Farm  circa 1976
FRANK: He auditioned to be one of the bad guys.  He was all set to shave if he got the part, but Coppola didn’t go with him.  There was so much trouble with that movie anyway. I went with him on so many different movie cameos, we did TV shows together, and I’m talking about drama stuff and movies and everything.  I even wrote some stuff for him in movies. He was a really good actor, [but,] he was just branded, “Wolfman Jack” and there was no way to get him out of that. But we used to run lines together; we did a lot of work together in terms of acting and stuff.  I was even with him once in a play we did together, “Shock and Rock Review.”  Every year he used to play at Knott’s Berry Farm [California amusement park.] One year he put me in the show, I was this Dracula guy who flew around.  I co-wrote the show with a guy name Brad who was a writer that hired me in the beginning because he had two writers in the beginning.  Anyways, Wolfman was a really good actor and he could have done a lot more but it was really tough.


KIP:  Wolfman Jack  got stereotyped.

FRANK: Yeah, it happens with so many actors, they get known for one part.  It’s the same thing we hit.  Everyone was just like, “Hey, looks there’s Wolfman Jack!”  That’s the end of it.  So, he had considered shaving and being completely made-up and doing something other than Wolfman Jack.  He did a couple of parts where he wasn’t Wolfman Jack.  He was in ah; you must have seen uh, did you see, “Mortuary Academy?”

KIP:  No, I didn’t see that but I did see him in “Motel Hell,” which is one of those late-night horror TV classics.  I like his part in that.

FRANK: I was there every moment.  I even wrote a scene for him but they took it out, they pulled it from the movie.  He didn’t play himself.

KIP:   Right, he portrayed a kind of a seedy Evangelic Preacher. Probably similar to those that bought air time on his border blaster, XERB, back in the day.

FRANK:  Right, and they cut a lot of stuff out.  He had a lot more stuff, a lot more scenes and everything.  But, like I said, he was really a good actor and just did not get a shot to do anything else.  It’s kind of sad.

Wolfman as Rev. Billy in the1980, B-horror flick, Motel Hell.
 
KIP:  Wolfman is often thought of as a party animal.  Did he like to party excessively?  He was kind of plump and chain-smoked cigarettes, did you ever think that behavior might be putting his health in jeopardy?  Did you ever think, "He needs to slow down?"

By the mid-'80s, Wolfman had his own cartoon show!
FRANK:  Well, yes!  I mean, we were all in jeopardy.  We pushed.  When he went out on the road it wasn’t like a tour.  The Rolling Stones do a tour.  They travel a certain way from place to place in a line.  Wolfman, on the other hand, would have five gigs out of town and they would all be in different places.  They were just jobs that came in and we took them.  For instance we’d get on a plane in Los Angeles and have to go to Seattle, WA.  We’d go to Seattle and then the next gig we would fly clear across the country  to Philadelphia, PA.  Then, we’d have to come back to Montana and then go down to Florida.  Ya know, you’d change planes, we’d get into these little planes, and he called them “puddle jumpers.”  We used to have to take little planes, big planes, big jets, little jets…he hated it.  The point I’m trying to make here is that you change time, time zones change, planes change, and it’s not a healthy way to make a living.  We all smoked.  Ya know, we smoked our heads off.  We smoked our heads off, here and there.  We’d do a lot of things.  And, then…sleep!  [Laughs.]  It’s tough.  None of it is healthy.  And, you don’t eat right when you’re on the road.  And, God knows, we didn’t eat right.  I mean, you saw his weight.  He just ate.  We just ate.  What’re you going to do?  You go into a little butt-fuck town…”Oh, we gotta have pork rinds!”  So, it’s tough.

KIP:   Yea, I can relate somewhat.  I used to tour around a bit with a band and I know it’s just not a very healthy life style.

FRANK:  Right, guys like The Rolling Stones always get the top food, the best hotels; they can get anything they want.  We were just going from hotel to hotel and we were just traveling… nobody would travel like that.  You wouldn’t say, “Let’s plan a tour of the United States: We’ll start in Miami then we’ll go to Seattle, then we’ll come back and go to Philadelphia, I mean, fuck, it’s just ridiculous!

KIP:   Zigzagging all over the States.

FRANK:  It’s horrible.  You sleep on the plane, you don’t sleep on the plane, you get off, you gotta run for a plane, you go to a hotel, you gotta go to a show, you go back to the hotel, then you have to get back on the plane.  It’s really…           

KIP:   It’s crazy.

FRANK: It’s really a strain.


KIP:  I guess the strain become tiresome because in about 1989 you stopped working full-time with him to pursue other adventures.  But, you kept in touch.

 FRANK:  Oh, absolutely.  I was still writing for him when I moved and he’d come over the house to visit.  We had a working relationship until he died.  About two weeks before he died [of a heart-attack] he called me up and asked me to come to New York because they were getting together a lot of old disc jockeys from WNBC and some other east coast stations  He said, “I’m doing this thing and I don’t want to do it without you.  You have to be there.”  It was very strange.  I just had this funny feeling that I HAVE to go.  We hadn’t seen each other in a long time and it turned out to be the last time we would ever be together.  It’s one of the decisions in my life that I’ll never forget, because I can imagine what it would be like now if I’d said, “Why didn’t I go?”  But, I did go and we had a blast.  We had a great time.  It was so much fun and it was a great way for us to go out.  After he died we went down to North Carolina. The whole gang got together there for his funeral.  We helped do the press and interviews and things.

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 About two weeks before he died he called me up and asked me to come to NY.   I just had this funny feeling that I HAVE to go.
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He made one of his last TV appearances on the sit-com, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, 1995.

 KIP:   It's been 18 years since his passing.  When you look back on your time spent with Wolfman what really sticks with you or is really memorable?

FRANK: Yeah, the laughing.  The amount we did to entertain other people was one thing but the stuff we did personally, and the laughs we had together.  It was so real, it was so fun.  We were really intimate in that respect.  I’d say things to him that I’d never say to anyone else and he’d say things to me and we would just… ya know, as difficult as he could be, doing all the work we did.  No matter how stressed things could get, I could always find a way to lighten it up a bit and make him laugh.  The laughing and stuff we did:  I’ll just never forget that, how much we laughed… at the expense of one another and everything, ya know?  It put us in a mood that made us perform better in a lot of ways.  It’s undocumented, it’s all running in my head all this laughter and it comes up whenever people ask me about him.  The laughing, fun, and real camaraderie stuff.  That just won’t leave me.  You just don’t get that kind of close with many people.


KIP:   Sounds like you had an amazing relationship.  You guys were really close.

FRANK:  Yeah, it was a real special relationship.  It’s like I said earlier, it was real.  I didn’t enter it, and he didn’t enter it with... we didn’t enter it with any bias at all.  It was different.  I mean, people would just want to kiss his ass.  They were just, "Ahhh!"  I mean and here it was real, we were genuine, it was genuine and he liked that because he didn’t get that anywhere else except from maybe Lonnie Napier [engineer & producer.] He knew Lonnie since he was a kid.  He used to travel a lot more with him than I did. And, the three of us, when we were all out together, I mean, oh my God that was so fun!

~ 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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  • The written works of Frank "Mars" Cotolo can be purchased at both Lulu.com and Blurb.com
  • Two hours of Cotolo, uncut. Thursdays on Mediaworks' Canadian station, SRN One



"Say, GOODBYE MARS!"
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NOTES:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

THE WORD FROM MARS: WRITER FOR WOLFMAN JACK SPEAKS OUT, PT. I

On the air at KKJO St. Joseph, Missouri, 105.5 FM.

Hey all you homies, dudes, brahs, big daddies, hepcats, and sistas!  In this post Frank “Mars” Cotolo talks with me about the legendary DJ and American Graffiti star, Wolfman Jack.  Mars was co-host and writer for The Wolfman Jack Show.  You'll enjoy this extensive interview as Mars & I explore the Wolfman and the time they shared together.  Mars was extremely gracious to spend close to an hour over the phone sharing stories about the Wolfman.  In fact, our conversation was so lengthy that I've decided to post it in two parts in order to share it in its entirety.  One thing rang out loud and clear as he spoke in a rapid fire Brooklyn accent, and that was the love and affection he had for the legend and the deep friendship that they shared both on the air and off.

Before we jump into the interview, let me share a little bit of history about "Mar's.” There's more to the man, Frank "Mars" Cotolo than just writing jokes He began composing music almost as soon as he learned to play the guitar. In the 1960's he played in the same band for ten years and in the later part of the decade he teamed up with a lyricist and writer and wrote over 200 songs including an off Broadway play. He had been working as a joke writer for disc jockeys when he left New York for Hollywood in 1978 and answered a generic ad looking for a writer for an anonymous radio personality who turned out to be Wolfman Jack.  This began an 11yr-long, full-time working relationship with the worlds’ greatest DJ.  He was Wolman’s full-time writer for radio, TV, and personal appearances.  Frank wrote Wolman’s daily shows for the Armed Forces Radio & Television Service (AFRTS) as well as the nostalgic oldies, Graffiti Gold show.  Frank also played Wolman’s side-kick, "Mars"  (a nickname given to him by the Wolfman) on the Graffiti Gold radio program.
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Wolfman & Frank "Mars" Cotolo at KRLA, (1110 AM), studios, Pasadena, CA.   circa 5/27/1985

KIP:  I was surprised to learn that you weren’t that familiar with Wolfman when you started working for him.

FRANK: Not at all. Right. [laughs]  That was a good thing. I brought some really fresh things to his show.  I didn’t have that ass-kissing, worship approach like so many others did.  I came fresh.  I began to bring to the table lots of things… forms of stuff that were different and expanded the character with jokes and bits and all sorts of stuff.  Yeah, we really hit it off.  I came from Brooklyn, he grew up in Brooklyn.  So, it was actually good because I wasn’t in awe.  I had heard him on the radio a little bit when he was originally on WNBC (660-AM) in Brooklyn, [1973] and then I was with him when he went back to WNBC in the ‘80s.  WNBC had put together the Dream Team with Howard Stern, Soupy Sales, Don Imus, and Wolfman Jack, [circa 1983]. You might remember that. So, we did that.  Some of it was on tape, some of it live.  But, no, originally I wasn’t that familiar with him and I think it served us both well. I think he liked it too ‘cause I wasn’t an ass-kisser [laughs].

On the air at WNBC  circa 1973
 KIP:  Did you work with another writer?

FRANK: Before I met him, this other guy and I had a joke service out of New York (NY). We used to sell published jokes to shock jocks.  They used to buy our jokes ‘cause you could buy them exclusively in that market.  There were a bunch of joke sheets out there. We used to write for DJs like Gary Owens [Laugh In, Hee-Haw]. We moved out to LA to work.  Eventually, he had to go back to NY, and I stuck around and wound up getting the job.

KIP:    Where did he record his shows when you worked for him?

FRANK: We had half a floor in the famous, Taft building on Hollywood and Vine [Los Angeles, CA] and one of the rooms was a recording studio. We did all the Graffiti Gold shows there.  I think it’s the show that’s been syndicated and broadcasts now. It’s been cut up. They screwed it up - the series when they put it on satellite radio.  They digitalized a lot of ‘em. The people knew the technology but they didn’t know the flow of Wolfman and those shows when first aired on satellite radio sounded terrible. They just didn’t have his uh, brand.  But, yeah we did everything in that little studio.  Ya know the other guy you want to talk to is Lonnie Napier [Wolfman’s producer].

KIP:   Yes, I talked with him recently.  [Look for that conversation in an upcoming post!]

FRANK:  There ya go!  Lonnie and I are still close friends.


With Beach Boys, Brian Wislon & Mike Love. "Hard to tell who was more out of it, Brian or Mike ... da Woof was grounded, believe me," says Cotolo.

KIP:  How much was written and how much was Wolfman improvising over the air?

FRANK:  An awful lot of it was written but, BUT, we never did it word-for-word and we improvised so much. He was so great with me in that he made me, Mars part of the show.  I made up some characters and stuff and he really gave me a lot of microphone time. I think I’m the only person he gave that much mic time. So I became not just his straight man but I became another personality on there.  Eventually we knew each other so well that I’d give him stuff to say and he’d know how to work it and put himself into it.  The material was so good, I’m not just saying that to pat myself in the back, but I really learned his voice, I knew the character and made the character go in all sorts of different directions and we were so close in that creative process, that he added a lot to it. 

As he appeared on a TV episode of Battlestar Galacta  circa 1980
It’s hard to say that I just wrote it, even though I wrote almost everything. Even when we just sat back and just did energy lines, we called ‘em, energy lines, down lines, joke lines, ya know.  It was a tremendous amount that I used to write.  It was an amazing amount of material that I used to write every week, I don’t even know how I did it.   And, so he really got into it, ya know.  He threw out what he didn’t want and took what he did and we gave him some things, which went over, and some things didn’t - just like anything else.  He added so much.  I couldn’t give those jokes to anyone else. They were made for that character.  So he knew how to add and take away.

KIP:  He had a certain rhythm to his patter.  I always loved the colorful phrases and nonsensical words he’d use for instance, Oh my, we just gonna boogie along w/ plenty of zoom tongues & zowie & a whooole lotta zing!”

FRANK:  Yeah, those were the energy lines and we used to make them up all the time.  So many times I’d just take them to absurd proportions.  He used to like that.  The great thing about him and him and the character was he was so into… He WAS the Wolfman, no doubt about it but I came along, he was the Wolfman and he was able to PLAY the Wolfman.  He made fun of himself he started to have fun with the character, a lot more fun than in the past when he was just the Wolfman saying this little naughty stuff and everything. That’s the other thing we got away with murder before shock jock stuff.  But we were thrown off stations for doing things that you can’t imagine would be considered bad today.  Yeah, we REALLY pushed the envelope.  He opened the door - not me, but he allowed me to write stuff, he opened the door for all that shock jock radio stuff. And, a lot of the things I’m talking about, these little fake commercials he did that were very cleverly written, they weren’t done like Stern did, ya know he took it in a whole different direction. But Wolf did that stuff and we got in trouble lots of times. The thing is, that really made all these other jocks feel like they could push the envelope. We just did really absolutely very clever stuff and he pulled it off wonderfully.

Wolfman Jack & Mars: Rare, PERVO THE CLOWN skit.

KIP:  I wish I could hear some of that stuff. [A good example of Mar's work with Wolfman on the Graffiti Gold show can be heard in the extremely rare recording of the PERVO THE CLOWN skit above.  "Pervo" was a featured skit that lasted exactly 3 shows before it was banned by the networks.

FRANK:  If you want to hear some of skits we did on the Graffiti Gold shows you should talk to Doug [Allen].  He's got tons of little digital bits with Wolfman.  He might even have some of the so-called dirty controversial stuff.  I know he has that. He's been archiving and digitalizing a lot of it.   So, yeah if you want to hear some of that stuff, contact him.

 KIP:  Does Doug make the new Wolfman Jack shows for syndication?

FRANK: I don’t know if he’s doing those, I really haven’t heard them.  If they’re just digitalized old Graffiti shows exactly as we programmed the way we had done them back then, then they’re probably pretty good but if they changed them, like they were screwing around with them on Sirius when they did at the beginning then…but I don’t know I’d talk to Doug.  He’s on Facebook too so you could talk to him on there and get his number.  He’s always up for talking about that stuff.  There’s a whole group, a community of people out there who trade snippets of shows and things. So, yeah you could probably get a lot of things from him. 

KIP:  I do have a lot of air checks but most of them are XERB shows, which were recorded before you worked with him.
Trade ad for Wolfman's radio show.  circa 1975
FRANK: Speaking of X stations, when I worked for Wolf we did XTRA-AM (69 XTRA Gold). We did that. That was later on [circa 1987].  The studio was in San Diego, [California] Later he put a studio in his house so he didn’t have to go to San Diego. But, XTRA was a Mexican station [broadcasting from Rosarita Beach]. Today, I think it’s a sports station.  What XTRA would do is they would shoot the signal from San Diego down into Mexico and then Mexico, would shoot it back [into the United States.] So they were technically a Mexican station. 

KIP:   Wasn’t that illegal to do that?

FRANK: Well, [Laughs] I don’t know… it was a regular business.  But, I don’t think it was illegal. You mention, illegal, that reminds me, there’s some great stories, such as when we went to England to reboot this thing called Radio Caroline. There’s this film called Pirate Radio, which goes into the Radio Caroline thing.  Anyway, we went to England and we were supposed to get our ship and go to the North Sea and do radio shows from there.  We had a great old time in England trying to get this thing going.  It was all secret it was clandestine, ya know, set up.  It was pirate radio, it was not allowed.  It had to be broadcast outside, in international waters.  We were suppose to go…It’s a long story its pretty darn good story no one ever really wrote or knows about it.  So, THAT was illegal, though.  But, no the XTRA thing was not illegal at all.    Once in awhile we went down to Mexico and did stuff from there, [we were] just all over the place.

On the air at XTRA, Rosarita Beach, Mexico/San Diego, CA. (l-r) Frank "Mars" Cotolo, Wolfman, Hank Ballard, & producer, Lonnie Napier.   Photo: Nancy Clendaniel

KIP:  What did you do in Mexico?

FRANK:   Well, we went to the XTRA station. We went to his station down there and recorded some live stuff and did an actual show down there.

KIP:   Was that the old XERB transmitter sight?

FRANK: It was. You’re right.  XTRA we did in San Diego. We never went to any studio in Mexico for that station. We went to XERF together onetime. We went down there and did some kind of show from the old studios.  But we didn’t go down there much. 

KIP:  When you were at XERF did they show you the bullet holes that exist from the time Wolfman was shot at when he supposedly tried to take over the station from armed banditos?

FRANK: Oh, yeah, they showed me what were supposed to be bullet holes. I don’t know. I don’t know the story.  I heard it a couple of different ways. There’s an old saying in journalism that goes, “If the legend is more exciting then the truth-print the legend.”  I can’t verify.  I have no idea what was true and what didn’t happen.  I loved his story.  I like to believe that’s what happened, ya know, [laughs]. I think it’s great. I do know that the XERF transmitter was 250,000 watts and was unbelievable.  They would never allow a transmitter like that in the United States. When that thing was on full power there was so much energy that birds would drop dead just flying near it. So, many great stories, but yeah so, that’s XERF.


Did you know Wolfman auditioned for a part in the Godfather film?  Learn more about that and lots more fascinating anecdotes about Wolfman Jack & Frank "Mars" Cotolo in THE WORD FROM MARS: WRITER FOR WOLFMAN JACK SPEAKS OUT, PART 2 coming soon!

✌  END OF PART 1  ✌
Go to PART 2

Related LINKS to Mars:

NOTES:
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·         Clendaniel, Nancy. [Photo of Wolfman & Mars @ KRLA 1985.] Fine Art web site. http://nancy-clendaniel.artistwebsites.com/

·         Photo of Wolfman @ KKJO. Website: http://www.pbase.com/deanej/kkjo

·         Radio Caroline info: http://www.offshoreechos.com/Caroline%2080/accueil80.php?id=1