March 13, 2021

FTV: Robert Weston Smith

    Robert Weston Smith.  Does the name ring any bells?  No?  How about Big Smith and the Records?  Daddy Jules?  I will give you a couple of hints:  If you have seen the movie American Graffiti or reruns of the TV show The Midnight Special or heard Bob Smith’s, “Have Mercy!” catch phrase, then you might know where this is leading.  Okay, I will let you off the hook because prior to reading his autobiography, I had no idea that all of the above can be attributed to the one and only Wolfman Jack.  Robert Weston Smith (1938-1995) was a nationally recognized radio personality forty plus years into his career when he collaborated on his book (Have Mercy!  Confessions of the Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal – Wolfman Jack with Byron Laursen – 1995 – Warner Books).  The Wolfman’s story began in New York, took him to Newport News, Virginia, Shreveport, Louisiana, Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, back to Shreveport, on to Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, and back to L.A.  He rose from local DJ to national treasure before landing back east in North Carolina for good.  We might remember the bug-eyed, behatted, howling Wolfman Jack from his TV gigs, but there was a lot more to Bob Smith’s story than one could imagine.  The Right Reverend Bishop Wolfman Jack who presided over one of Beach Boy Mike Love’s multiple marriages?  Yep, that is another part of the story we won’t even have time to get to in our limited space.  Let us go back and start where all good stories should, at the beginning.

     Born in New York City in 1938, young Bobby’s family was struggling financially.  His father had been doing quite well until the stock market crash of 1929 revoked his membership in the ‘almost a millionaire’ club.  Eventually, he was able to claw his way back financially, but the family would come unhinged as his mother and father grew apart.  Their long time housekeeper Frances (called Tantan because his sister Joan could not pronounce her name) provided stability at home when things went south.  Tantan was also Bobby’s introduction into Black culture and music.   Joan, ten years older than Bobby when their mother and father took up with new spouses, would be his other anchor.  When they lived on Long Island, father Weston had rigged up their garage with a classic 78 RPM Wurlitzer jukebox for Joan and her friends, the kind with bubbles rising through multicolored tubes on each side.  Ten year old Bobby was charged with punching in the numbers and it was there that he got his first glimpse of how to pick songs that would set a mood for the dancers.  It was at these homegrown dance parties that the seeds of his future DJ identity were sown.  Wolf recalls, “Those times are always in the back of my mind whenever I do a live show.  If people have as much fun at the gigs I emcee nowadays as we all had in those jukebox dances in the family garage, then I am satisfied.”  The seeds may have been sown, but there would be troubling times ahead before any harvest would come from the crop.

     Bobby’s mother and father got to know another couple socially and about the time he was five, his parents separated.  Ma and Pa Smith swapped spouses with this other couple.  Bobby and Joan would end up spending summers with their father and the school year with their mother.  Bobby’s sister grew to be an attractive young woman who did some modeling before settling down to raise her own family.  Weston Smith and his new wife added son Stewart to the family.  Wolfman later said his step mother’s stifling ways turned Stewart into a creepy kid who rebelled when he got older.  In this case, ‘rebelling’ meant signing up to a military prep school against his mother’s wishes and straightening out his life.  Bobby’s mother also added another son, Gary, who shadowed him and provided the future Wolf with a purpose (protecting his little brother).  Landing in a tough technical high school in the pre-Blackboard Jungle era in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West neighborhood, teenage Bobby began running with a gang called The Tigers.  If this brings to mind the Sharks and Jets from Westside Story, that isn’t far off from the early 1950’s environment Bobby lived in.  If he couldn’t get attention on the home front, the future Wolfman would find it on the street.  In the end, he avoided a hardcord gang life when another path called his name.  

     Bobby and a couple of his closer friends in The Tigers began listening to music in the old coal bin in the basement of the Brownstone building where he lived with his father.  When his step brother Stewart got a new record player, Bobby hauled the old one down to the bin.  The 45 RPMs came courtesy of his pal Klepto who made an art form out of leaving the record shop listening room with more records in his coat pockets than he returned to the shelves.  When Bobby’s father got him a Transoceanic model radio for Christmas, they guys in the listening bin bergan absorbing cool DJ patter from all over the place.  For example, John R. from WLAC in Nashville would kick off his program with, “Yeah, It’s big John R., the blues man!  Whoa.  Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.  John R., way down south in the middle of Dixie.”  The coal bin crew assumed many things about John R. because of  his warm-toned black accent.  The boys could pick him up in Brooklyn because WLAC had gotten permission from the FCC to broadcast a signal strong enough to reach rural areas around the south providing programming rural Blacks wanted to hear.  The sounds may have come from what Bobby called ‘the heartland of hillbilly’ and John R. was  as caucasian as the future Wolfman, but the music was just as cool as what they heard coming from Harlem, Bed-Stuy and Hell’s Kitchen.  

     George Carlin grew up on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge from Bobby and the coal bin boys, but he later put into words what Bobby’s crew were picking up on:  “The black people, even though they’d been denied their freedoms in the worst possible way, had more freedom in them than the people who had enslaved them.  They had freedom with their bodies, freedom to speak and move beautifully.  They had an ease with each other that white guy didn’t have.”  It was in this environment that young Bobby Smith began to absorb elements of black culture that led many who heard (but had not yet seen) Wolfman Jack to assume that he too was of African-American heritage.

     Bobby and his step mother clashed enough that  when he dropped out of school, she finally gave his father the ‘he goes or I go’ ultimatum.  With $300 in seed money from his dad, he and a buddy bought a used car and set off to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune as actors.  They made it as far as his sister’s home in Alexandria, Virginia where they became part of a household that included his sister, her husband and four young boys.  A relative of his brother-in-law came down with a serious illness which added two more youngsters to the mix.   Bobby’s friend went back north and ‘Uncle Bob’ settled into a happy family life he had never really had before.   He did his share of the chores and worked as an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman and later as a Fuller Brush Man.  While writing his biography, Bob remembered first becoming ‘the Wolfman’ while chasing his nephews around the house growling and howling to keep them entertained.  He also set up his playroom digs with homemade studio equipment so he could practice reproducing what he heard other DJs doing on the radio.

     A fatherly talk with his brother-in-law made Bob think about what he really wanted to do.  It was suggested that surely there was a school of some type that would teach what he needed to know to have a career in radio.  There was:  The National Academy of Broadcasting.  He finally summoned the courage to call his father and ask if there was any way for his dad to float him the $3000 tuition.  Assured by the brother-in-law that this is something that would be good for Bobby, Weston Smith sent him a check.  Bob Smith may have failed at his previous attempts in school, but the one year course  at NAB soon produced ‘Daddy Jules’.  After graduation, he recorded a promotional show of R&B music and was preparing to send it to stations across the country.  Wolf was the only student at NAB who was into that type of music so it was only natural that the school introduced him to Richard Eaton, the president of the United Broadcasting Company.  Eaton needed to double the staff at his small Newport News, Virginia station.  WYOU was conceived as the first station to broadcast specifically for black listeners.  Back in New York, Bobby had spent time volunteering around a radio studio (ditching school to do so led to his last blowout with his step mother).  He knew the territory and already knew what it took to run all the aspects of a station.  Bobby also loved the music so he never did mail out his audition tapes.  He signed on to what was then considered a low rent station:  One that had a weak signal, crummy facilities, or both.  In this case, Eaton had turned this low revenue (and later his whole network of stations) into a radio success story.  It didn’t pay much and there were only two guys running the whole WYOU operation, but it gave Bobby Smith, aka Daddy Jules, a purpose and profession in his life.  It was called radio. 

    Ironically, his first partner, a 350 pound African American named Tex Gathings.  Tex sounded like the Harvard grad he was when he spoke and Bobby was hired because he sounded like a black DJ.  Tex became his mentor and father figure guiding Daddy Jules through a graduate course in radio, sales, and Black diction.  Knowing Bobby had a great fondness toward Black culture (and a record collection leaning heavily on those influences thanks to Klepto), Tex made sure that his partner did not come off as some white guy mangling the lingo.  Wolf later said it was like his graduation from a Master’s program when Tex let him take over his Sunday jazz show.  Mr. Eaton came down from Washington, D.C. once a month to collect from the ad accounts that were in arrears.  He would also slip Tex and Daddy Jules a C-note each, which was great as Bobby’s salary was only sixty dollars a week.  He was light on cash, but heavy on experience by the time he moved on from WYOU.  

     Mo Burton started working at the business end of WYOU and then bought up another poorly performing station in Shreveport, Louisiana.  Mo convinced Bob to go there to work for him.  It was a country station, so Bobby became ‘Big Smith and the Records’ in honor of the favored Big Smith brand overalls worn by the local farmers.  During his time in Shreveport, he and Mo decided to take a pilgrimage to visit the 250,000 watt ‘border blaster’ station across the US/Mexico line near Del Rio, Texas.  Bobby had been able to hear XERF at 1570 AM back in Brooklyn and it had inspired him.  The transmitter was so powerful, the headlight filaments in the cars parked outside the studio would vibrate and glow.  The whole ‘X-radio’ thing (as in ZZ Tops iconic song Heard it on the X) is a story for another day.  It was on XERF that the real ‘Wolfman’ began his storied radio career, only no one ever saw him.  Bob Smith the radio guy pulled the strings, but ‘Wolfman Jack’ was only heard and not seen.

     Having more or less taken over the station in what can only be described as a ‘coup’ (and not a ‘bloodless coup’ at that).  Bob found himself in what can only be described as a ‘range war’ with real bullets flying when the old ownership took umbrage at being pushed out by Mo and Bob.  When he ended up facing not one, but two flaming crosses (one at the studio, one at home) back in Shreveport (the KKK was unhappy with the racial mix that Big Smith would attract to some of his live events), it was time to move on.  Bob’s wife, Lou, and their two children landed in cold and snowy Minneapolis, Minnesota.  His successful stint there led to an offer to try his hand at running another border blaster (XERB located in Tijuana, Mexico, adjacent to San Diego).  The difference was the location:  The XERB home office was set up on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and all of the Wolfman’s programs were sent to the station on tape via Greyhound bus.  Eventually, the money that XERB was pulling down caught the attention of the Mexican authorities who strong armed Bob and Mo aside, leaving the Wolfman (and radio businessman Bob Smith) deep in debt.

     Bob had a nice home in Beverly Hills, a wonderful little family, and not enough income to continue living the life.  When he hit rock bottom, a couple of new opportunities dropped into his lap.  One was the chance to play himself as the connecting plot device in a cheap little movie being made by a young, unknown director.  Universal Studios were not sold on George Lucas’s little coming of age story called American Graffiti, but in the end, it became a huge hit and put Bob Smith back in the black.  Universal was so unsure of the film, they passed on the second outing Lucas was trying to get them to fund –  a little saga called Star Wars.  The scene in American Graffiti where Bob Smith’s DJ character offers Richard Dreyfus’ ‘Chris Henderson’ a melting popsicle is a snapshot reflecting Smith’s radio career at the time.

     The second opportunity was an offer to become the permanent host of a series of live concert performances called The Midnight Special.  By the time he was recommended for the job by the host of the first episodes, Johnny Rivers, Bob Smith had decided that his path to stardom was to fully embrace his alter ego ‘Wolfman Jack’.  Bob Smith was a solid radio business guy, but it would be the Wolfman Jack character that would be hired to face off against the biggest DJ in New York City, Cousin Brucie.  The Wolfman’s wild and crazy persona rubbed some of the brass at WNBC’s home base in the Rockefeller Center the wrong way.  Regardless, he brought the goods and gave NBC the number one radio program they were seeking when they pried Bob Smith out of Los Angeles by waving big money at him.  Being in what he called ‘the happiness business’, Wolf found the party life afforded him by being the number one radio jock in New York City a full time job.  The excesses he indulged in were not healthy for his person or his marriage.  When his wife left him for a time and moved back to her native North Carolina, the Wolfman had some tough choices to make.  In the end, he gave up his New York gig (he got NBC to hire Cousin Brucie away from WABC as his replacement) to go on tour with The Guess Who.

     There have been many songs that include references to Wolfman Jack.  The Guess Who’s Clap for the Wolfman (their first hit in over four years) led the band to offer Wolf $10,000 per show to come along on a 37 date tour to perform his part in that one song live.  The six week gig paid more than he earned in a year at WNBC but there was the small problem of his contract with NBC.  When he offered the Wolf for Brucie swap, it was fine with the suits at NBC who were just as happy to see him go as Bob was to get out of NYC.  It also cemented the idea that Bob Smith could run his Wolfman Jack enterprise from home while continuing to tape The Midnight Special and do other live gigs.  He and Mo were the first to come up with the concept of syndication, allowing him to record shows, be heard in markets all across the country, and still have time to be Bob Smith, family guy.  The one constant throughout Bob Smith’s life in career was his native Brooklyn penchant for being a hustler.  He had ups and downs, but he was always on the lookout for the next opportunity.

     Things were going along great for Bob/Wolfman Jack until July, 1995.  Living in North Carolina, he had just finished recording one of his syndicated shows when he collapsed and died from a heart attack.  He is buried in a family cemetery in Belvidere and is survived by his wife Lu Lamb and children Tod Weston Smith and Joy Rene Smith.  Twenty six years in the grave and his name still brings a smile to anyone who had the pleasure of hearing him do his Wolfman Jack thing.  If you are not familiar with his work, find a couple of episodes of The Midnight Special on line or watch American Graffiti.  The Wolfman is a cultural time capsule all by himself. 


Top Piece Video –  The Guess Who sing the Wolfman Jack song!