Wolfman Jack, Popular Radio Disc Jockey of the 1960s and 1970s
Bob Smith before he became Wolfman Jack
The Transformation from Robert Smith to Wolfman Jack
If you were a teenager during the 1960's, you need no further introduction to the identity of the legendary radio disc jockey, Wolfman Jack. However, younger generations may not have a clue about this cultural icon that presided over the radio airwaves with his gravely voice and ability to howl like a wolf.
His name wasn't Jack at all ... just plain old Robert Smith who was born in 1938 in Brooklyn. He realized early on he needed to create a radio persona and style if he was to capture an audience in the competitive world of 1960s radio. In those days, popular DJs had exciting and memorable nicknames like Hound Dog, Boppin' Bobby, Johnny Rabbitt and Boss Jock to name just a few. The name Bob Smith just had no pizzazz.
Adopting the name of Wolfman Jack wasn't enough to get the airtime and exposure he was seeking. He needed to have a gimmick that young radio listeners of the day would remember and try to emulate. Along came his famous wolf howl.
But his on-air package wasn't quite complete yet. He needed a style that was all his own that had not been heard before during those "all American, Mom and apple pie" days of the 1960's. He needed to be risque but not raunchy. He needed to make you want to listen to his show but be daring enough to make you think you shouldn't listen to his show.
For those reasons, the first of the "shock jocks" was born. Wolfman urged his listeners to get naked! He told his audience to "put your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs". Yes, he developed a provocative style that made you tune in to see what outrageous thing he would say next. His alter ego was now complete! Plain old Bob Smith was now Wolfman Jack!!
Wolfman's First Night on Radio WNBC in New York City, 1973
Take your shoes off, turn off the lights and call the law!— Wolfman Jack during his first show on WNBC
Wolfman Jack Became Famous Around the World
The Wolfman worked at many radio stations during his career which began in the early 60's at WYOU-AM in Newport News, Virginia where he was known as "Daddy Jules". His nationwide notoriety began at XERF-AM in Mexico where the radio stations were not governed as strictly as they were in the United States. That station had a signal that was so strong it could be heard across most of the US. It was said that a car driving from New York to California would never lose the broadcast. Today that is a common occurrence with satellite radio but in the 1960's it was quite a phenomena. At night an AM radio station can be heard for great distances and it was reported that Wolfman Jack could be heard in Europe. The Mexican radio stations became known as "border blasters".
Wolfman on TV and in the Movies
Wolfman syndicated his older radio shows and sold them to stations across the United States. Armed Forces Radio entertained the troops, including soldiers serving in Vietnam, with his programs. At the peak of his radio career, he was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in 53 countries.
Wolfman Jack had become a cult figure but his manager and partner knew he was capable of being more than a mere disc jockey. He helped to transform Wolfman into an entertainer that also performed in television and movies.
In 1973, he portrayed himself in the hit movie American Graffiti. It was directed by George Lucas, who had grown up listening to Wolfman on the radio. More movie and television roles followed, including an appearance on the popular TV show Married with Children in an episode titled Ship Happens.
Clip from the movie American Graffiti with Wolfman Jack and Richard Dreyfuss
The End of a Legend
Sadly, Wolfman Jack passed away at his home in Belvidere, North Carolina in 1995 at the age of 57. Prior to his death, he authored an autobiography, Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock and Roll Animal. In 1996, he was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
Wolfman's daughter, Joy Rene Smith, followed her father's footsteps and became a disc jockey known as "Joy Jack". Just 3 years after her father's death, Joy was killed in a car crash and is buried next to Wolfman at the family estate in Belvidere.
A Typical Sign Off by Wolfman Jack
Grave of Wolfman Jack in Belvidere, North Carolina
Memories of Wolfman Jack
In those days radio was like magic. And Wolfman Jack was part of that magic. You could lie in bed at night listening to him on your transistor radio from the "border blaster" station in Mexico and create an image in your mind of what this strange man with the frightening wolf howl looked like
That anonymity was part of the mystery and appeal of Wolfman Jack. After the movie American Graffiti, he assumed more of a high profile publicly due to fan pressure. Fans weren't disappointed as his appearance fit the persona with his devil-like goatee, dark hair, sideburns and bushy eyebrows.
But for many, listening to Wolfman was somehow different once you could put a face with the voice. He sounded the same but the mystery was gone. You no longer imagined him as part man and part wolf. The wolf howl just didn't give you goose bumps any longer.
Wolfman Jack broke the mold. He changed the stereotype. He was revolutionary in a time when music was revolutionary because it was the beginning of rock and roll. His voice, his howl and the music he played could touch your very soul.
Those carefree days of cruising in your car with Wolfman Jack are just fond memories from a simpler time. You can still enjoy watching the movie American Graffiti for a nostalgia jolt and reminisce when you hear the Wolfman’s raspy voice. It would be nice to go back in time and hear that scary howl, like the words written on his tombstone say, “One More Time”.
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© 2013 Thelma Raker Coffone