Robert Weston Smith, known as Wolfman Jack (January 21, 1938 – July 1, 1995), was an American disc jockey. Famous for his gravelly voice, he credited it for his success, saying, “It’s kept meat and potatoes on the table for years for Wolfman and Wolfwoman. A couple of shots of whiskey helps it. I’ve got that nice raspy sound.”
Smith was born in Brooklyn on January 21, 1938, the younger of two children of Anson Weston Smith, an Episcopal Sunday school teacher, writer, editor, and executive vice president of Financial World, and his wife Rosamond Small. He lived on 12th Street and 4th Avenue and went to Manual Training High School in the Park Slope section. His parents divorced while he was a child. To help keep him out of trouble, his father bought him a large Trans-Oceanic radio, and Smith became an avid fan of R&B music and the disc jockeys who played it, including Douglas “Jocko” Henderson of Philadelphia, New York’s “Dr. Jive” (Tommy Smalls), the “Moon Dog” from Cleveland, Alan Freed, and Nashville’s “John R.” Richbourg, who later became his mentor. After selling encyclopedias and Fuller brushes door-to-door, Smith attended the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. After he graduated in 1960, he began working as “Daddy Jules” at WYOU in Newport News, Virginia. When the station format changed to “beautiful music”, Smith became known as “Roger Gordon and Music in Good Taste”. In 1962, he moved to country music station KCIJ/1050 in Shreveport, Louisiana, as the station manager and morning disc jockey, “Big Smith with the Records”. He married Lucy “Lou” Lamb in 1961, and they had two children.
In 1963, Smith took his act to the border when the Inter-American Radio Advertising’s Ramon Bosquez hired him and sent him to the studio and transmitter site of XERF-AM at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico, a station across the U.S.-Mexico border from Del Rio, Texas, whose high-powered border blaster signal could be picked up across much of the United States. In an interview with writer Tom Miller, Smith described the reach of the XERF signal: “We had the most powerful signal in North America. Birds dropped dead when they flew too close to the tower. A car driving from New York to L.A. would never lose the station.” Most of the border stations broadcast at 250,000 watts, five times the U.S. limit, meaning that their signals were picked up all over North America, and at night as far away as Europe and the Soviet Union. At XERF, Smith developed his signature style (with phrases such as, “Who’s this on the Wolfman telephone?”) and widespread fame. The border stations made money by renting time to Pentecostal preachers and psychics, and by taking 50% of the profit from anything sold by mail order. The Wolfman did pitches for dog food, weight-loss pills, weight-gain pills, rose bushes, and baby chicks. Even a pill called Florex, which was supposed to enhance one’s sex drive, was sold. “Some zing for your ling nuts“, the Wolfman would say.[
Freed had originally called himself the “Moon Dog” after New York City street musician Moondog. Freed both adopted this name and used a recorded howl to give his early broadcasts a unique character. Smith’s adaptation of the Moondog theme was to call himself Wolfman Jack and add his own sound effects. The character was based in part on the manner and style of bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. At KCIJ,at he first began to develop his famous alter ego Wolfman Jack. According to author Philip A. Lieberman, Smith’s “Wolfman” persona “derived from Smith’s love of horror films and his shenanigans as a ‘wolfman’ with his two young nephews. The ‘Jack’ was added as a part of the ‘hipster’ lingo of the 1950s, as in ‘Take a page from my book, Jack,’ or the more popular, ‘Hit the road, Jack.’
XERB was the original call sign for the border blaster station in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, which was branded as The Mighty 1090 in Hollywood, California. The station boasted “50,000 watts of Boss Soul Power”. That station continues to broadcast today with the call sign XEPRS-AM. XERB also had an office in the rear of a small strip mall on Third Avenue in Chula Vista, California. It was not unlike the small broadcast studio depicted in the film American Graffiti (which was filmed at KRE in Berkeley). It was located only 10 minutes from the Tijuana–San Diego border crossing. The Wolfman was rumored to actually broadcast from this location during the early to mid-1960s. Smith left Mexico after eight months and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to run station KUXL. Though Smith was managing a Minneapolis radio station, he was still broadcasting as Wolfman Jack on XERF via taped shows that he sent to the station. Missing the excitement, however, he returned to border radio to run XERB, and opened an office on Sunset Boulevard in the Los Angeles area in January 1966. The Wolfman recorded his shows in Los Angeles and shipped his tapes across the border into Mexico, where they would then be beamed across the U.S. During his time broadcasting on XERB, Smith met Don Kelley, who became his personal manager and business partner for more than 20 years. Kelley saw the potential for Wolfman Jack to become more than a radio personality. Kelley started to work on a strategy to transform Smith from a cult figure to a mainstream entertainer in film, recordings, and television. He promoted Smith to the major media and formed enduring relationships with key journalists.
In 1971, the Mexican government decided that its overwhelmingly Roman Catholic citizens should not be subjected to proselytizing and banned the Pentecostal preachers from the radio, taking away 80% of XERB’s revenue. Smith then moved to station KDAY 1580 in Los Angeles, which could only pay him a fraction of his former XERB income. Smith capitalized on his fame, though, by editing his old XERB tapes and selling them to radio stations everywhere, becoming one of the first rock-and-roll syndicated programs (as the tapes began to age, they were eventually also marketed to oldies stations). He also appeared on Armed Forces Radio from 1970 to 1986. At his peak, Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in 53 countries. He was heard as far off as the Wild Coast, Transkei, on a station based there, Capital Radio 604. In a deal promoted by Don Kelley, the Wolfman was paid handsomely to join WNBC in New York in August 1973, the same month that American Graffiti premiered, and the station did a huge advertising campaign in local newspapers stating that the Wolfman would propel their ratings over those of their main competitor, WABC, which had “Cousin Brucie” (Bruce Morrow). The advertisements proclaimed, “Cousin Brucie’s Days Are Numbered”, and thousands of small, tombstone-shaped paperweights were distributed that said, “Cousin Brucie is going to be buried by Wolfman Jack”. After less than a year, WNBC hired Cousin Brucie, and Wolfman Jack went back to California to concentrate on his syndicated radio show, which was carried on KRLA-Pasadena (Los Angeles) from 1984 to 1987. He moved to Belvidere, North Carolina, in 1989, to be closer to his extended family. In the 1980s, he did a brief stint at XEROK 80, another border-blaster station that was leased by Dallas investors Robert Hanna, Grady Sanders, and John Ryman. He also hosted a TV show at Little Darlin’s Rock n’ Roll Palace, which was eventually renamed Wolfman Jack’s Rock’n’Roll Palace. Ryman then moved Smith to Scott Ginsburg-owned Y95 in Dallas, Texas.
Recordings of Wolfman Jack’s old shows were reintroduced to syndication a decade after his death and remain available to local stations, through Envision Networks as of 2020. In his early days, Wolfman Jack made sporadic public appearances, usually as a master of ceremonies for rock bands at Los Angeles clubs. At each appearance, he looked a little different because he had not decided what the Wolfman should look like. Early pictures show him with a goatee, but sometimes he combed his straight hair forward and added dark makeup to look somewhat “ethnic”. Other times he had a big afro wig and large sunglasses. The ambiguity of his race contributed to the controversy of his program. His audience finally got a good look at him when he appeared in the 1969 film A Session with the Committee, a montage of skits by the comedy troupe The Committee.
Wolfman Jack started his recording career in Minneapolis while working at KUXL Radio in 1965 with George Garrett, who helped record the album Boogie with the Wolfman by Wolfman Jack and the Wolfpack on the Bread Label. He was also responsible for engineering, producing, and assembling the band. Wolfman Jack also released Wolfman Jack (1972) and Through the Ages (1973) on the Wooden Nickel label.
..VJim Morrison‘s lyrics for “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” were influenced by Wolfman Jack’s broadcasting. He is also mentioned in the Grateful Dead song “Ramble On Rose”. He furnished his voice in The Guess Who‘s top-10 hit single “Clap for the Wolfman“. Wolfman Jack was regularly parodied on The Hilarious House of Frightenstein as “The Wolfman”, an actual werewolf disc jockey with a look inspired by the original The Wolf Man movies. A few years earlier, Todd Rundgren recorded the tribute “Wolfman Jack” on the album Something/Anything?; the single version of the track includes a shouted talk-over introduction by the Wolfman, but on the album version, Rundgren performs that part himself. Canadian band The Stampeders also released a cover of “Hit the Road Jack” in 1975 featuring Wolfman Jack. From 1975 to 1980, Wolfman Jack hosted Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Berry Farm, which transforms itself into Knott’s Scary Farm each year for Halloween. It was the most successful special event of any theme park in the country, and often sold out.
In 2012, the estate of Wolfman Jack released a hip-hop single featuring Wolfman Jack clips as the vocals. In 2016, clips from the Wolfman Jack Radio Program were used in the Rob Zombie film.
On July 1, 1995, Smith died from a heart attack at his house in Belvidere, North Carolina, shortly after finishing a weekly broadcast. He is buried at a family cemetery in Belvidere.
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