A voice from the darkness

By on July 15, 2015

I’m checking here to see if the reading public can go back in time to their growing up years. I had previously written about entertainment we kids had in the good old days. I realize that today’s kids will not understand anything I’m about to say. I’m talking about the era of outdoor movies, phone booths, Lionel trains, Mr. Potato Head, high heels, high hair, and pegged pants.

As I recall, there weren’t many books around our house for reading entertainment. The only books I had were those that I brought home from school for study purposes. We had no book shelf. My Dad got the “National Geographic” magazine and “Life” magazine and that was about it for reading entertainment. In junior high school I learned what a library was and soon was exploring the Encyclopedia Britannica and all sorts of interesting stuff. Much later, I made sure my children had the encyclopedia at home. (There was no Internet.)

In the evening I would do my homework at the kitchen table. Dad would read the newspaper, sitting in his big chair in the living room while simultaneously listening to Lowell Thomas on the radio. We all liked the Jack Benny program on Sunday evenings. Dad had one of those huge floor-model Philco radios that had several dials, knobs, and listening bands. It was packed inside with vacuum tubes that gave off a yellow glow. Sometimes I was allowed to tune in to “The Lone Ranger” or “The Green Hornet” after the news programs were over.

For some reason, Dad came home one day with a brand new radio. It was small and sat on a little table beside his chair. He gave me his old radio for my very own and dragged it up the steps to my bedroom. Now I could tune in to anything at any time. I was soon experimenting with the knobs and side-bands and listening to foreign languages and music from countries all over the world. I could even pick up telegraphy. It was a whole new world. There were channels from London, Singapore, and Africa. During clear nights I could pick up Ham operators with their “CQ” call letters. (No, we didn’t have television).

Then one night as I turned the tuning knob, this voice nearly blew my ears out. The station was so strong nothing could compare to it, not even the local Lancaster and Lebanon stations. (You have to remember, back in the day: this was AM radio). There was no static on this station. I had to turn the volume down. This broadcast was a disc jockey and he was screaming with an unusual accent: “This is XERB 1090 bringing you the latest hits.” I soon learned it was Wolfman Jack.

As it turned out, everyone who had a radio, either at home or cruising Main Street with a car radio, discovered The Wolfman. He became the world’s most famous disc jockey for the rock’n’roll generation, much to our parents loathing. By the 1970s, Wolfman was heard on 2,200 radio stations in over 40 countries — and Manheim.

What we kids didn’t know at the time was that Wolfman was actually Robert Weston Smith, who was taping his radio shows in California and sending them out from border radio stations in Mexico. He was, in reality, working out of a tiny office in the rear of a strip mall in Chula Vista, Calif., about 10 minutes from Tijuana. The Mexican border blaster stations broadcasted at 250,000 watts, five times the legal U.S. limit. Hence, his signals were picked up all over North America, and at night as far away as Alaska, Europe and the Soviet Union.

Wolfman Jack created a shadowy, wild man alter ego that demanded attention from all young rock’n’rollers. We loved his yelling and screaming record introductions and his comical sales pitches for anything from dog food to weight loss pills. Radio listeners from coast to coast had no idea how to recognize the face behind the gravelly voice that said things like “Wolfman plays the best records in the business, and then eats ‘em!” Wolfman later carried his tradition into television. He died in 1995 of a heart attack.

R.I.P., Wolfman Jack. You brought hours of howling, prowling, entertainment to us all.

Wolfman Jack on WNBC AM Radio In New York City, August, 1973. (Photo by John Sapiro)

Wolfman Jack on WNBC AM Radio In New York City, August, 1973. (Photo by John Sapiro)

Richard Martin is a published historical author, historical researcher and genealogist. He has been a resident of Penryn for more than 50 years. He welcomes your comments and questions at jiberish@windstream.net.

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