Today is the birthday (1938) of Robert Weston Smith commonly known as Wolfman Jack, a U.S. disc jockey, famous for his gravelly voice and crazily “good time” pitch. The Wolfman represents a U.S. era long gone, of vinyl 45s, R&B, drive-ins, cruisin’, soda fountains, and rock-n-roll. The Wolfman’s favorite musical era was 1958 to 1964 before U.S. music was influenced by British groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. His kind does not exist any more, nor the era that made him.
Smith was born in Brooklyn, the younger of two children of Anson Weston Smith, an Episcopal Sunday school teacher, writer, editor, and executive vice president of the Financial World, and his wife Rosamond Small. His parents divorced while he was a child. 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 “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. Graduating 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.
Disc jockey Alan Freed had played a role in the transformation of African-American rhythm and blues into rock and roll music, and 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 concept 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. It was at KCIJ in Shreveport, Louisiana that he first began to develop his famous alter ego Wolfman Jack. According to Philip A. Lieberman, Smith’s “Wolfman” persona “derived from Smith’s love of horror flicks 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.'”
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 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. It was at XERF that Smith developed his signature style (with phrases like “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 percent 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. There was even a pill called Florex, which was supposed to enhance one’s sex drive. “Some zing for your ling nuts,” was the Wolfman’s tagline.
That sales pitch was typical of Wolfman Jack’s growling, exuberant on-air style. In the spirit of his character name, he would punctuate his banter with howls, while urging his listeners to “get naked” or “lay your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs”. Part of the persona was his nocturnal anonymity; listeners from coast to coast had no idea how to recognize the face behind the voice that said things like “Wolfman plays the best records in the business, and then he eats ’em!”
Smith left Mexico after eight months and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota to run station KUXL. Even 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 would record his shows in Los Angeles and ship his tapes across the border into Mexico, where they would then be beamed across the U.S. It was during his time broadcasting on XERB that Smith met Don Kelley, who would become his personal manager and business partner over a period of over twenty years. It was Kelley who 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 percent of XERB’s revenue. He then moved to station KDAY 1580 in Los Angeles, which could only pay him a fraction of his former XERB income. However, Smith capitalized on his fame by editing his old XERB tapes and selling them to radio stations everywhere, inventing rock and roll radio syndication. 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 fifty-three countries. In a deal promoted by Don Kelley, The Wolfman joined WNBC in New York in August 1973, the same month that American Graffiti premiered, and the station mounted a huge advertising campaign in local newspapers to propel their ratings over that of their main competitor, WABC, which had “Cousin Brucie” (Bruce Morrow). 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 1984-1987. He moved to Belvidere, North Carolina, in 1989, to be closer to his extended family. In the 80s, he did a brief stint at XeROK 80, another border blaster that was leased by Dallas investors Robet Hanna, Grady Sanders, and John Ryman. Ryman then moved Smith to Scott Ginsburg-owned Y95 in Dallas, Texas. Ryman and legendary programmer Buzz Bennet rocketed the station to fame.
In the early days, Wolfman Jack made sporadic public appearances, usually as a Master of Ceremonies (an “MC”) for rock bands at local Los Angeles clubs. At each appearance he looked a little different because Smith hadn’t decided on what the Wolfman should look like. Early pictures show him with a goatee; however, 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. It wasn’t until he appeared in the 1969 film, A Session with the Committee (a montage of skits by the seminal comedy troupe The Committee), that mainstream America got a good look at Wolfman Jack.
In 1973, he appeared in George Lucas’ second feature film, American Graffiti, as himself. His broadcasts tie the film together, and Richard Dreyfuss’s character catches a glimpse of the mysterious Wolfman in a pivotal scene. In gratitude for Wolfman Jack’s participation, Lucas gave him a fraction of a “point” — the division of the profits from a film — and the extreme financial success of American Graffiti provided him with a regular income for life. Here’s the iconic clip:
Subsequently, Smith appeared in several television shows as Wolfman Jack. They included The Odd Couple; What’s Happening!!; Vega$; Wonder Woman; Hollywood Squares; Married… with Children; Emergency!; and Galactica 1980. He was the regular announcer and occasional host for The Midnight Special on NBC from 1973 to 1981. He was also the host of his self-titled variety series, The Wolfman Jack Show, which was produced in Canada by CBC Television in 1976, and syndicated to stations in the U.S.
Smith died of a heart attack in Belvidere, North Carolina, on July 1, 1995. He had finished broadcasting what would be his last Wolfman Jack radio broadcast, a weekly program nationally syndicated from The Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Washington, D.C. originating on XTRA 104.1 FM (WXTR-FM). That night he said, “I can’t wait to get home and give Lou a hug, I haven’t missed her this much in years,” referring to the concluded promotional tour for his new autobiography. “He walked up the driveway, went in to hug his wife and then just fell over,” said Lonnie Napier, vice president of Wolfman Jack Entertainment.
Not surprisingly Wolfman Jack’s tastes were straight-down-the-middle North American. “When you want a good steak, any place in Albuquerque will do. The filets there are the best in the world. Hot dogs are the greatest in Los Angeles. There’s one particular stand on North La Brea that beats anything I’ve ever seen. Kosher corned beef sandwiches are best in Indianapolis; for oysters, it’s Dallas; for veal parmesan, Las Vegas.” Honestly ???? You must be kidding. I mean, these dishes can have their moments, and I’ve mentioned most of them in my recipe sections. But these locales are surely a joke. I sure hope so. I won’t stick my neck out too far when it comes to kosher corned beef, but you really ought not be straying too far from the Lower East Side of New York. And Dallas for oysters?
I can’t say about Las Vegas for veal parm because I’ve never been to Vegas nor eaten veal parm. The dish on which it’s based is southern Italian – parmigiana, also known as parmigiana di melanzane, or melanzane alla parmigiana, that is, eggplant parmesan. Use of veal or chicken is an Italian-American twist. I’ve had a few spectacular failures with eggplant parmesan – including at a cooking demonstration – so the less said about that the better. Although I’ve never made veal parmesan, I know the principle for a sub.
Start with a thin veal cutlet. Dip it in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. Make sure the cutlet is completely coated. Shallow fry on both sides until they are golden. Split a crusty roll and place the cutlet on the bottom half. Cover with a good tomato sauce (warm), and sprinkle with grated cheese. Despite the name, many restaurants use mozzarella, or a mix of mozzarella and parmesan. Put under a broiler for a few minutes to melt the cheese, then serve.