Wolfman Jack in 1979
||Robert Weston Smith
(1938-01-21)January 21, 1938
Brooklyn, New York, US
||July 1, 1995(1995-07-01) (aged 57)
Belvidere, North Carolina, US
|Cause of death
||Lucy “Lou” Lamb Smith
||Joy Rene Smith (deceased)
Tod Weston Smith
||Anson Weston Smith and Rosamund Small
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 the Financial World, and his wife Rosamond Small. 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 “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 black 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 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. It was at KCIJ in Shreveport, Louisiana that 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 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,” the Wolfman would say.
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!”
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. It was rumored that the Wolfman 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. 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 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. 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 that the Wolfman would propel their ratings over that of their main competitor, WABC, which had “Cousin Brucie” (Bruce Morrow). The ads would proclaim, “Cousin Brucie’s Days Are Numbered”, and they issued thousands of small tombstone-shaped paperweights which 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 1984-1987. 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.
Film, television, and music career
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.
Wolfman Jack released two albums on the Wooden Nickel label: Wolfman Jack (1972) and Through the Ages (1973). His 1972 single “I Ain’t Never Seen a White Man” hit #106 on the Billboard Singles Charts.
In 1973, he appeared in director 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. He also appeared in the film’s 1979 sequel, More American Graffiti, though only through voice-overs.
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 US.
He promoted Clearasil and Olympia beer in radio and TV commercials in the 1970s. In the 1980s he promoted the “Rebel” Honda motorcycle in television commercials.
Listening to Wolfman Jack’s broadcasting influenced Jim Morrison‘s lyrics for The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat) song. He is also mentioned in the Grateful Dead song, “Ramble On Rose”: “Just like Crazy Otto/Just like Wolfman Jack/Sittin’ plush with a royal flush/Aces back to back.”
He also furnished his voice in The Guess Who‘s 1974 tribute, the top 40 hit single, “Clap for the Wolfman“. A few years earlier, Todd Rundgren recorded a similar tribute, “Wolfman Jack”, on the album Something/Anything?; the single version of the track includes a shouted talk-over intro 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; the storyline of the song involved a man named “Cornelius” calling Jack on the phone, telling him the story of how his girlfriend had thrown him out of the house, and trying to persuade Jack to let him come and stay with him (at this point, Jack ended the call). His voice is also featured in the song “Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)” by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids (Billboard HOT 100 peak #29 in October 1976) and an imitation of him is featured as a cameo in “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” by Sugarloaf (Billboard HOT 100 peak #9 in March 1975). In September 1975, Wolfman Jack appeared on stage with the Stampeders (singing “Hit the Road Jack”) as a warm-up act for the Beach Boys at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Canada and that same year he also performed “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” with Sugarloaf on The Midnight Special.
A clip of a 1970s radio advertisement featuring Wolfman Jack urging registration with the United States Selective Service (aka “the draft”) is incorporated into the Depeche Mode cover of the song “Route 66“. Those radio advertisements were extracted from half-hour radio programs that were distributed to radio stations across the country. His syndicated music radio series was sponsored by the United States Air Force, designed as a weekly program-length public service infomercial to promote the benefits of joining the Air Force. The series ran from 1971 until 1977.
In July 1974, Wolfman Jack was the MC for the Ozark Music Festival at the Missouri State Fair grounds, a huge three-day rock festival with an estimated attendance of 350,000 people, making it one of the largest music events in history.
In 1975-80, Wolfman Jack hosted Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Berry Farm, which transforms itself into Knott’s Scary Farm each year for Halloween. It is the most successful special event of any theme park in the country, and has often sold out.
In 1980, he took the small role of Reverend Billy in the cult horror comedy film Motel Hell. From 1980 to 1982, Wolfman Jack voiced the intro to the cartoon The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang airing Saturday mornings on ABC. In 1984, Wolfman Jack voiced a cartoon version of himself for the short-lived DIC Entertainment cartoon Wolf Rock TV (aka Wolf Rock Power Hour) airing Saturday mornings on ABC. In 1985, Wolfman Jack’s voice is heard several times in the ABC made for TV Halloween movie, The Midnight Hour. Jack recorded several bits for the movie and is seen at the beginning of the movie as an extra. The song “Clap for the Wolfman” is heard during the movie as well. In 1986, Wolfman Jack appeared as the “High Rama Lama” in the CBS animated special Garfield in Paradise In 1987, Wolfman Jack appeared as himself in the music video for Joe Walsh‘s hit single, “The Radio Song“, which was featured on his eighth studio solo album, Got Any Gum?.
In 1988, he was the host “Little Darlin’s Rock and Roll Palace”, a rock and roll show on The Nashville Network, 2 seasons recorded in Kissimee, Florida at little Darlin’s Rock and Roll Palace. Third season recorded in Nashville and Baltimore. The shows featured house band Rockin Robin backing the greatest artists of the ’50s and ’60s including The Coasters, Shirelles, Lou Christie Tommy Roe, Del Shannon, and Roger McGuinn.
In 1989, he provided the narration for the US version of the arcade game DJ Boy. His voice was not used in the home version of the game due to memory limitations. In 1991, “Little Darlin’s Rock and Roll Palace” in Kissimmee, Florida renamed the club as “Wolfman Jack’s Rock and Roll Palace”. The New Year’s Eve grand opening featured, Joe Walsh, Melaine, Lester Chambers, The Impressions and Rockin Robin. Wolfman Jack played himself in an episode of Married… with Children (“Ship Happens: Part 1”) that first aired in February 1995.
Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Wolfman’s autobiography, was published in 1995 to stellar reviews in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Kirkus Reviews, which said it “Reads like a collaboration between Mark Twain and Sergio Leone…” His co-author was Byron Laursen.
When the one surviving ship in what had originally been a pirate radio network of Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South sank in 1980, a search began to find a replacement. Because of the laws passed in the UK in 1967, it became necessary for the sales operation to be situated in the US. For a time, Don Kelley, Wolfman Jack’s business partner and personal manager, acted as the West Coast agent for the planned new Radio Caroline, but the deal eventually fell apart.
As a part of this process, Wolfman Jack was set to deliver the morning shows on the new station. To that end, Wolfman Jack recorded a number of programs that never aired, because the station didn’t come on air according to schedule. (It eventually returned from a new ship in 1983 which remained at sea until 1990.) Today those tapes are traded among collectors of his work.
Robert Smith died of a heart attack in Belvidere, North Carolina, on July 1, 1995.
Smith 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.