Obituaries: Wolfman Jack

Mick Brown
Monday 03 July 1995 00:02
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Wolfman Jack, in his day the most famous rock and roll disc-jockey in America, has howled for the last time. The disc- jockey, who achieved fleeting international fame for his part in George Lucas's 1973 teenage rites-of-passage film American Graffiti, died on Saturday night from a heart attack. He was 56.

Wolfman Jack belonged to a more innocent era of rock and roll, when disc- jockeys - not marketing, video, or movie tie-ins - made hits, and when an exotic moniker and a gravel-voice gimmick could make a dj almost as big a star as those whose records he played.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1939 as plain Robert Smith - not a name to fire the imagination of a nation's teenagers in a field inhabited by myriad "Howlin's"; "Screamin's", "Moondogs" and "Hound Dogs". A horror- movie fan, Smith adopted the name "Wolfman" and came to prominence broadcasting for XERF-AM, a radio station situated just inside the Mexican border, and therefore outside Federal broadcasting regulations.

XERF's 250,000 watts was five times the power allowed on American radio stations at the time, giving the Wolfman a rapt teenage audience almost all the way across America.

Wolfman Jack's howls, yelps and fast-talking patter - a mixture of hip black argot, teenage slang and gobbledegook - made him a figure whose cult appeal was all the more potent for his never being seen. Most of his audience assumed he was black, and his most conspicuous service was as one of a small band of white disc-jockeys - "Poppa Stoppa" in New Orleans, Dewey Philips at WDIA Memphis and John Richbourg at WLAC Nashville were others - who broke the racial barrier which had traditionally surrounded black music.

"It's real American music - what rock 'n' roll originally was before people turned it around and sideways and upside down," he said in an interview in 1988. "From 1958 to 1964, that's real rock 'n' roll. Then the Beatles hit and everyone sounded like them. They didn't give our boys long enough."

The pop star P.J. Proby remembers jiving with Wolfman on the radio, when Proby released a record under the pseudonym Orville Woods. "They changed my name because I sounded like a black man singing the song. Everybody thought he was black too. But that was the power of radio.

"Everybody in America has a clear memory of that voice. He was an enormously influential figure for all the jocks. He could do with an R&B record what Dick Clarke could do with a Bobby Rydell record - make it a hit."

Realising the value of his own mystique, for a long time Wolfman shied away from the disc-jockey's stock-in-trade of personal appearances by demanding an extortionate $15,000 fee. Eventually a group of Kansas City students called his bluff. The Wolfman insisted the money should be delivered in $20 bills in a Brinks truck to his home. He invested in a troupe of midgets and a make-up artist, appearing on stage in a red Afro fright- wig, flowing cape, shades and 12-inch finger-nails.

"I looked real Neanderthal," he would later recall. "I could have been Mexican, I could have been black; I could have been anything. But I still didn't know what to do on stage. So I stood there and growled a little bit and threw around some profanities and left. They loved it."

In 1967, XERF closed down, and Wolfman crossed the border to Los Angeles to work on KDAY. It was there that he was heard by the film director George Lucas who, remembering the part which the Wolfman had played in his own teenage years, growing up in the small Californian town of Modesto, cast the disc-jockey in American Graffiti.

The film made the Wolfman the most famous disc-jockey in America, celebrated in songs by Todd Rundgren and Leon Russell and an American hit for the Guess Who, "Clap for the Wolfman".

In 1974, he moved to New York to host Midnight Special on television and work for WNBC radio. He appeared in advertising campaigns and had his own syndicated television Wolfman Jack Show.

Wolfman credited his success to his voice, sustained by a regular intake of Camels and the judicious lubrication of whisky. "It's kept meat and potatoes on the table for years for Wolfman and Wolfwoman. I've got that nice raspy sound."

Although his influence as a disc-jockey waned, he continued to broadcast, and had recently completed a 20-day trip to promote his new book, Have Mercy: the confession of the original party animal, about his early career and parties with celebrities. He made his last radio appearance on Friday night from the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Washington.

"He had just done one of his best shows. He was feeling really good," said Lonnie Napier, vice-president of Wolfman Jack Enterprises. "He walked up the driveway, went in to hug his wife and then just fell over."

Mick Brown

Robert Smith (Wolfman Jack), disc-jockey: born Brooklyn, New York 1939; married (one son, one daughter); died Belvidere, North Carolina 1 July 1995.

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