Have Mercy! It's Wolfman Jack
I started out as an opportunistic renegade. By now, I've lasted long enough to become sort of an American Original Respectable Renegade.
— Wolfman Jack (Toronto Sun, 1995)
These days, the word 'Legend' has been co-opted to describe just about anything with a cultural impact, but it really refers to something more mythological; a story that has been passed on through generations, embellished and romanticized along the way. By either definition, Wolfman Jack is a legend. In the 1960s, he was just a voice crying out from the wilderness, punctuating the darkness with throaty howls and the best music not featured on the US Top 40. Like a renegade Dick Clark, he manned the unregulated airwaves that transmitted from a border blaster station in Mexico (across from Del Rio, Texas) where there were no rules and no one to answer to — except for all those fans with their ears to the radio out there in the dark. Many of those fans grew up to be musicians and recalled those late nights listening to the ethereal voice of the Wolfman.
Thanks to songs from bands like The Doors, border radio has become the stuff of legend, and Wolfman Jack was its king.
|I wanna tell you 'bout Texas Radio and the Big Beat |
Comes out of the Virginia swamps
Cool and slow with plenty of precision
With a back beat narrow and hard to master
"WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" — The Doors (1971)
The Wolfman wasn't always the half-man/half-animal that prowled the airwaves after dark. Born with the infinitely less exciting name of Robert Weston Smith in Brooklyn in 1938, the future DJ grew up listening to rock 'n roll and rhythm and blues spun by influential jocks like Dr. Jive and "Moondog" Alan Freed.
"I was just another one among the countless legions of white kids who got amazed and irreversibly bopped on the head by the provocative, pulsating, and wonderful music that African-American culture has given us all," he recalled in his autobiography Have Mercy!
With a fractured home life beset by money troubles, divorces and even more dysfunctional remarriages, young Bobby Smith found an escape in music. He had his first gig as a disc jockey when he was just 10 years old... sort of. While his older sister and her friends danced in the family garage every day after school, he was in charge of punching the numbers on the jukebox and, he quickly realized, setting the tone for the party.
"I loved having a role to play in all this social activity, being somebody who could boost the party atmosphere," he wrote.
It was something he knew he wanted to do forever.
|Then, Wolfman Jack came a howlin' |
From across the Rio Grande
Layin' down the sounds that all the kids could understand
"Radio Land" — Michael Martin Murphey (1983)
After toying with a number of airnames like "Big Daddy Jules" and "Big Smith and the Records" — broadcasting from stations in Virginia and Louisiana — he began creating a new identity, one that melded his fun-loving personality with his love of rhythm and blues. He drew influences from legendary radio personalities like Moondog - who was an early proponent of rock 'n roll and promoter of African-American artists - and blues singer Howlin' Wolf. The latter also inspired Leon Russell's "Living on the Highway," which is often mistakenly called a tribute to Wolfman Jack.
Wolfman Jack first howled over the air in 1964 from a border blaster station in Cuidada, Acuna, Mexico (across from Del Rio, Texas). XERF 1570-AM propelled the Wolfman's gravely voice throughout North America and even parts of Europe with the power of 250,000 watts, five times the legal US limit. His unconventional methods matched his taste in music, for his playlist wasn't populated with the polished pop of daytime fare. In his own words, he introduced "lots of dark-skinned artists to millions of pale-skinned listeners via some of the most powerful radio stations that ever sent signals around Planet Earth."
|The white kid and a little transistor, tuned into Wolfman Jack |
I picked up a guitar, the sirens whisper
And I'll never look back with longing
And I'll never look back
"The Beauty Way" — Lucy Kaplansky (2012)
Wolfman also had a hand in promoting one of rock's most legendary acts: The Rolling Stones. He was the first DJ to play the entire Exile on Main Street
album over the airwaves. He dug the Stones, because their music was unifying.
He explained to Rolling Stone
in 1972, "The Stones can get away with whatever they want. They're universals. They're gods, they ain't even immortals anymore. They're whites makin' black music. Everybody black digs the Stones. Everybody white. And they even got the Chinese and the Mexicans, too. Do ya understan' what I'm talkin' about?"
|Clap for the Wolfman |
He gonna rate your record high
Clap for the Wolfman
You gonna dig him 'til the day you die
"Clap For The Wolfman" — The Guess Who (1974)
To get a seal — or howl — of approval from the Wolfman meant instant coolness for up-and-coming bands. If he told you to listen, then you'd better listen good or the "Wolfman's gonna come and getcha. Do ya understan'?" No one was questioning the records he was spinning, though, because he had a knack for picking songs that simply made his listeners feel good. And they couldn't get enough of his on-air hijinks: he was famous for making prank calls, peddling crazy products (like the libido-boosting pills Florex) and telling everyone to get naked.
|Anywhere, y'all |
I heard it, I heard it
I heard it on the X
"Heard It On The X" — ZZ Top (1975)
You can't speak of the Wolfman's time in Mexico without mentioning the notorious "Border Shoot-Out Saga." Legend has it, our hero led a posse into a hailstorm of bullets to defend the station from a group of Mexican bandits. Who better to recount the story than the Wolfman himself? He's quoted in the book Border Radio
"So I jumped in my Starfire Oldsmobile convertible and boogied across the border, spreadin' hundred-dollar bills all over the place. I got the sheriff and guys in garbage trucks and ridin' scooters and on horseback, maybe about forty people, to go out to the station to save those boys out there that was protectin' it. Just as we started comin' over the hill, the sun was comin' up and these guys were circlin' the station like Indians would circle a wagon train fortress or somethin'. You could see the dust around the station from horses ridin' around. So we come over the hill, over the horizon, whoopin' and hollerin', and they saw us comin' and took off. Luckily, there was no one got seriously hurt on our side. There was one person got killed on their side, shot right between the eyes. But they attacked us, you know, so nobody went to jail. It cost me about five hundred dollars to have it forgotten about. Anyway, they never came back, and I was in control of XERF."
The Wolfman was really only at the XERF station for eight months. Even the most reclusive wolf gets lonely out in the wilderness by himself, so he packed up his family and moved back to Shreveport, Louisiana. He continued recording the Wolfman Jack Show
at a local station and sending tapes to Mexico where they would be broadcast through the border blaster. (As Richard Dreyfuss would later scoff in American Graffiti
: "the man is on tape?")
His pre-recorded material aired on two other Mexican stations: XERB and XEG. (He would later take over XERB and relocate to Los Angeles.)
|'Cause the moon shines bright|
And everything's all right
When the Wolfman, he creeps into town
"Wolfman Jack" — Todd Rundgren (1974)
When the Wolfman crept back into Shreveport, one of his favorite haunts was the Peppermint Lounge, a popular club frequented by both whites and blacks — a thorn in the side of the local Ku Klux Klan members. He drove that thorn a little deeper when he began performing there for mixed audiences (he even recorded a rare live album: Wolfman Jack - Live at the Peppermint Lounge!
). One night after a show, the crowd emerged to find a flaming nine-foot-tall cross waiting for them; the Wolfman caught the Klan setting another one ablaze on his lawn. Later, he found out they had been making constant death threats against him and the owner of the Peppermint Lounge.
"I didn't know there were so many ways that being a disc jockey could get hazardous to your health," he wrote.
The Wolfman not only wouldn't back down, but he was about to become bigger than ever.
|And spinnin' on the turntables back to back |
Is no other than my main man Wolfman Jack
"The Haunted House of Rock" — Whodini (1983)
Wolfman was understandably nervous about stepping into the limelight — his whole image was built on the unseen and the unknown.
"Nobody knew if I was white or black or whatever," he told Time
magazine in 1973, "and I kept the mystique. No pictures, no interviews."
When he did have to appear in public, he tried out different disguises to confound his audience. Sometimes it was an afro and sunglasses. In his autobiography, he recalls chopping up a Beatles' mop-top wig, pasting on a false goatee and smearing his face with dark makeup. Finishing touches were a cape and a set of vampirish teeth. A little Eddie Munster, a little Erik Estrada.
In 1969, he made his first onscreen appearance in the sketch comedy film A Session with the Committee
. Still, nobody saw Bob Smith, the man behind the Wolfman.
Until American Graffiti
, that is.
A young director named George Lucas was creating a nostalgic homage to the early 1960s when small-town California teens cruised the strip in candy-colored cars and listened to the Wolfman howling through rock'n roll hits and hawking crazy merchandise on the radio. Wolfman made a business of helping up-and-comers, and American Graffiti
was chock full of them. Aside from a pre-Star Wars
Lucas at the helm, the film was populated with barely known actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Mackenzie Phillips and Ron Howard (who, to that point, was only known as "Opie" — that kid from The Andy Griffith Show
), to name a few.
Wolfman's guttural voice was a constant thread throughout the film and tied together the fates of all the characters, but it was the face behind the voice that shocked the audience. Unlike his previous appearances, he wasn't decked out in the character. This was Bob Smith without the Wolfman trimmings. People imagined the Wolfman to be a lot of things, but a husky white guy in a Hawaiian shirt wasn't one of them. The unmasking, however, only added to his popularity.
"It took the Wolfman from a cult figure to the rank of American flag and apple pie," he said of American Graffiti
The Cunningham gang (including Ron Howard as Richie) first appeared in 1972 on the TV show Love American Style
, which had different stories and a different cast every week. Their segment was called "Love and the Happy Days." Later that year, a pilot was shot for Happy Days
, but it sat on the shelf until 1974, after American Graffiti
revived interest in '50s nostalgia. For more, check out our interview with Charles Fox
, who wrote the theme song.
The movie, released in 1973, became a smash hit and spawned a revival of the late-50s/early-60s culture, green-lighting the TV series Happy Days
. The residuals from the movie also provided the DJ with a regular income for decades.
|Like Crazy Otto, just like Wolfman Jack |
Sittin' plush with a royal flush, aces back to back
"Ramble on Rose" — Grateful Dead (1971)
Now that the cat — or wolf, as it were — was out of the bag, Wolfman Jack went on to add his voice to several songs. Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids was a band featured in American Graffiti
and the Wolfman crooned along with them in "Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)." He howled through The Guess Who's "Clap for the Wolfman," and even joined the Canadian band on tour for a couple of performances. In 1975, the Stampeders took Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack
" up a notch by bringing in Wolfman Jack on the vocals and portraying Ronnie King as Cornelis, a desperate caller who wants the DJ to take him in after his girlfriend throws him out. The song became a #6 hit on their homeland charts in Canada and a #40 hit in the US. That same year, Wolfman croaked out the call sign "stereo ninety-two" in Sugarloaf's "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You."
He even recorded two of his own albums: Wolfman Jack
(1972) and Through the Ages
(1973). (The former was recorded before American Graffiti
). His single "I Ain't Never Seen a White Man" peaked at #106 on the Billboard Singles Charts.
At first glance, the polished Dick Clark - dubbed "America's Oldest Teenager" for his perpetually youthful appearance — may seem like the antithesis of the rough and bawdy Wolfman Jack. But for 67 years, Clark was a powerful force in the entertainment industry and brought rock 'n roll ("the devil's music!") to the teenage masses. A bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Before that, he was born Richard Augustus Wagstaff Clark Jr. on November 30, 1929. That's a lot of name to live up to. Like the Wolfman, Clark knew at the ripe old age of ten that he wanted to work in the music industry. By the time he was a teenager, he was working in the mailroom of his family's AM radio station in New York and before long, he was on the air. He introduced station breaks, filled in for weathermen, broadcast the news and even did a stint on a country music station under the (unintentionally) hilarious moniker "Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders."
His biggest break came in 1957 with American Bandstand
, an ABC TV series that featured teenagers dancing to the chart-topping hits that typically made adults' blood boil. Michael Uslan, co-author of Dick Clark's The First 25 Years of Rock & Roll
"Dick Clark was a primary force in legitimizing rock 'n' roll," Uslan said. "He was able to use his unparalleled communication skills to present it in a way that it was palatable to parents and the establishment. Dick's philosophy was that it was like introducing someone to hot, spicy Mexican food. He would say, 'Start them out with the mild stuff first, and once they get a taste for it they'll jump in for the really hot stuff, the authentic stuff.'"
Under Clark's influence, the show also broke down the barriers between black and white performers who, up until that point, weren't allowed to share the same stage. In fact, the show had formerly had an all-white policy. While the Wolfman spun forbidden music by African-American artists late into the night, Clark set his stage for future stars like Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker and James Brown, who all had their national television debuts on Bandstand. He also received a visit from Wolfman Jack in 1976 ("The man is a legend!" Clark would later proclaim in the intro to Wolfman's autobiography Have Mercy!
During and after Bandstand's thirty-plus year run, Clark also introduced performers on The Dick Clark Show
, became a game show host on the $10,000 Pyramid
and faithfully rang in each new year with Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve
until his death from a heart attack in 2012.
|Get up out your seat, the grand groove is back|
With a beat to sink your teeth in like Wolfman Jack
"Funk is Back" — Biz Markie (1993)
From 1973 to 1981, Wolfman Jack was an announcer and frequent guest host on the NBC variety series The Midnight Special
, which featured live musical acts and vintage footage of classic performances by rock 'n rollers. (Incidentally, the show also captured David Bowie's last performance as Ziggy Stardust in 1973). He also appeared on every kind of sitcom and TV program known to man — over 80 appearances in all. He was even a poster boy for Clearasil. With his increasing presence on mainstream radio, his syndicated radio programs and his TV gigs, however, fans began to miss the old Wolfman, the one who hid in the shadows and didn't answer to studio bosses; the one who handpicked each record. They feared he'd lost his bark and his bite.
|Who died and left you the Wolfman, Jack?|
"Same Ol' Thing" — Del Tha Funkee Homosapien (1991)
In the years leading up to his death, Wolfman fever was still going strong. The 1980s brought cartoons like Wolf Rock TV
and Wolf Rock Power Hour
and an appearance in the TV special Garfield in Paradise
. He continued to pop up on sitcoms and game shows like Hollywood Squares
. Depeche Mode incorporated one of his PSAs for the United States Air Force into their cover of "Route 66
," and Don Williams name-dropped him in "Good Ole Boys Like Me." He left no cultural touchstone unturned; just to be sure he covered all his bases, he even became an ordained minister! Known as "Reverend Jack" in the Universal Life Church, he also played a reverend in the campy horror film Motel Hell
By the mid-90s, he was guest-starring on Married...with Children
and doing a live weekly show broadcast from WXTR-FM in Washington, DC. He had just finished promoting his life story when he suddenly died of a heart attack on July 1, 1995 at just 57 years old. He left behind his beloved wife Lou (whom he affectionately called "The Wolfwoman") and two children, Joy and Tod. He also left behind a piece of himself. Thanks to Lou and dedicated fans like Doug Allen (creator of the Wolfman Jack Online Museum
), you can still catch him howling on syndicated radio. Kip Pullman's American Graffiti blog
also offers extensive insight into the Wolfman's life and career.
And if you listen closely, like his fans who tried to catch him on an airwaves floating out of Mexico, you'll still hear references to Wolfman Jack. In 2011, Tom Waits crooned, "Roll down all the windows, turn up Wolfman Jack" in his song "Get Lost." He's also mentioned in songs like Jay Electronica's "A Million in the Morning," John Anderson's "Mississippi Moon" and Taj Mahal's "Nobody's Business but my Own."
Get your bugaloos out baby! The Wolfman is everywhere.
— Wolfman Jack
February 14, 2013