While I am sure there are many reading this who are too young to remember the gravelly voice of Wolfman Jack emanating from their radios at the “Midnight Hour,” there are just as many whose early memories of radio are solidly influenced by this man and his work.
Truly the first of the “Outlaw DJs,” he set a precedent that birthed the careers of numerous DJs that followed him, and arguably cemented his place as the very first of the “Shock Jocks.” The Wolfman, aka Robert Weston Smith, was the quintessential radio voice of the turbulent 1960s and beyond, a voice that remained faceless by choice for many years.
This excerpt from his biography on WolfmanJack.org gives us a glimpse of the freewheeling craziness of early radio:
By 1965 Wolfman Jack had moved to a new base of operations, XERB-AM, another power-pumping clear channel radio station located across the border on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, at Rosarita Beach, near Tijuana. Beaming his now-trademark mix of rowdy rock, raw rhythm and blues, and verbal antics, Wolfman quickly found a new legion of fans from Southern California, up through the Great Northwest, into the remote regions of Alaska and Canada.
At the same time, the national press was beginning to take notice, and stories began to surface in Time, Newsweek, Life and major newspapers around the world. Leading recording artists like Todd Rundgren, Leon Russell, Freddie King and the Guess Who wrote chart-making songs about The Wolfman, and his popularity spiralled upward. Still questions persisted: Who is Wolfman Jack? Where does he come from? What does he look like? Only Bob Smith knew all the answers, and he was keeping them closely guarded.
One of the teens touched by Wolfman’s radio programs was budding filmmaker, George Lucas, who remembered The Wolfman when he wrote a simple screenplay, a tale of four friends in a small northern California town — graduates of the Class of ’62 — preparing to go their separate ways. When it was released in 1973, Lucas’ “American Graffiti” earned four Academy Award nominations and $55 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful films of the year. The movie also, once and for all, removed the mystery behind Bob Smith’s character, and Wolfman Jack was about to make a transition from a cult figure to a full-fledged media megastar.
Wolfman Jack died of a heart attack in Belvidere, North Carolina, on July 1, 1995, age 57. The day before his death, he had finished broadcasting his last live radio program, a weekly program nationally syndicated from Planet Hollywood in downtown Washington, D.C. Wolfman Jack said that night, “I can’t wait to get home and give Lou a hug, I haven’t missed her this much in years.” Wolfman had been on the road, promoting his new autobiography Have Mercy!. When he got home, he entered his house, hugged his wife, said “Oh, it is so good to be home!”, and died in his wife’s arms.
He was one of the first announcers in radio to become a superstar, having created a cult of personality that spanned four decades of airtime and influenced innumerable listeners and DJs. Now BBC Radio 4 is airing a retrospective called Border Blaster: In Search of The Wolf as they examine his life and legend from the European perspective. [Accompanying text article on BBC NEWS.]
Wolfman Jack, one of Clear Channel’s most important contributions to the airwaves, will always be an inspiration to those associated with radio.