Sunday, March 23, 2008

Filling in for Wolfman Jack

It’s fun to be back on the radio hosting Dodger Talk on KABC. It’s a far cry from my weirdest radio gig.

I once filled in for Wolfman Jack on XERB.

If you’ve seen AMERICAN GRAFFITTI you know who Wolfman Jack is (or, more accurately now – was). He was this Jewish guy, Bob Smith, who had a macabre piercing voice and a yen to be in radio. He got a job at a Mexican station right across the Texas border – XERF. Since Mexico did not have strict laws restricting how much power you could use, XERF beamed four million watts right up into the US at night. You could hear it as far north as Mars. Smith adopted the name Wolfman Jack, played R&B, rock, and blues, sold advertising to fly-by-night concerns, and built a name for himself.

At one point the Mexican government tried to take back the station and there was an actual gun battle as Jack and the staff held down the fort. Picture the Alamo except Davy Crockett wins and they play Screaming Jay Hawkins records.

After a couple of years Jack moved out west and did the same schtick on XERB, out of Tijuana. The entire west coast at night was blanketed by their unrestricted signal. Among the Wolf’s many listeners was George Lucas in Central California and obviously it made an impression. (I wonder if Darth Vader was spinning country hits on the station across town.)

Jack’s following grew. He opened a restaurant on Melrose in East Hollywood that served “Beef Bagaloos” – the greasiest nastiest taquito type abominations you could imagine. GRAFFITTI premiered in 1973 and a few years later he left Mexican radio for more legit stations, syndication, and a TV gig on THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Ironically, his first US station was WNBC, New York. He went from dealing with the Mexican Federales to the more dangerous corporate suits of the National Broadcasting Company.

But back in ’75 he was still on XERB. At the time I was writing spec scripts with my partner, David Isaacs and teaching at a rip-off broadcasting school to pay the rent (“This week I’m going to teach you all how to give weather reports. Take notes because this is really tricky stuff.”) Out of the blue I get a call from the program director of XERB. He needed someone to fill in for the Wolfman for two weeks and was a fan of my questionable act. I was using the airname “Beaver Cleaver” during that period of my failing career, which he thought was perfect. I asked if I had to go down to Tijuana to do the show and would I be paid in dollars, pesos, or hookers? He said they had studios in Hollywood and would pay me US dollars but not enough to get a decent hooker. I was in.

Their studios were two rooms over the Hollywood bowling alley, not too far from the Pussycat adult theatre, and lounge that featured nude female mud wrestling. (Jack left THIS for 30 Rockefeller Plaza??) I would go in at 6 in the morning and record my six hour show on equipment that had been built when the Kaiser ruled Germany. My sponsors were “Mr. Satisfy” (sugar pills designed to maintain an erection -- they didn’t work), and mail order oldies record packages (“For the cost of just one carton of cigarettes you get these 100 great hits like Papa Ooo Mow Mow by the Rivingtons!”).

When I finished taping my show I would pack the reels into a metal box, drive it over to the Hollywood Greyhound bus station, slip the clerk a fiver, and he would put it on the bus to San Diego. An hombre from the station would meet the bus, hide the box in his car, drive back over the border, and at 9 p.m. I was on the air.

It was a wacky but really fun experience. Anytime I see AMERICAN GRAFFITTI I think about it. Also when I watch TRAFFIC.

Have mercy, baby!

Sad postscript:

Another radio legend has passed. Jackson Armstrong, only 62. In an era of high energy personality radio, no one sounded better, had more fun, or talked faster than "Big Jack, your leeeeeeeeaderrrr!" He bounced around the country with stops in Charlotte, Cleveland, Hartford, Denver, Buffalo, Boston, Toronto, Fresno, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Greensboro, and Los Angeles where I worked with him at TenQ. As great as he was on the air he was even greater as a person. And his passion was infectious.

He is survived by his loving family and "the gorilla".

41 comments:

jbryant said...

Cool story, Ken. Seems like the Wolfman was ubiquitous during my high school years. "American Graffiti" was just about my favorite movie back then - saw it several times and had the soundtrack LP, which included the Wolfman's intros. The Guess Who had a hit in '74 with "Clap for the Wolfman" (with guest appearance by, um, guess who?). I saw them perform that in '75 (sans Wolfie) at the first concert I ever attended (opening act: T. Rex!)

Many moons later, my first produced credit was an episode of "So Weird" starring "Graffiti's" Mackenzie Phillips, and just a couple of years ago I got to meet a bunch of the cast at one of those celeb conventions at the Burbank Hilton. And I think I saw Paul Le Mat this weekend at the Arclight - just a quick glimpse, but the hair seemed right.

I also still get a kick out of imitating the Wolfman, but I suspect I suck at it.

Mike Bell said...

I have a friend that used to do the same thing at X-ROCK 80 out of El Paso/Juarez back in the seventies. He did his show a day in advance and some kid would drive the tapes across the border. He told me the transmitter site was like an armed encampment.

It's funny, you can now experience radio from all over the world via the internet, but it doesn't have the same impact as hearing those "X" stations late at night on a transistor radio.

Jake said...

I agree with Mike, how many times I would fall asleep only to wake up in the morning with the radio on - all becsaue I thought the next song was going to be good.

Mary Stella said...

Back in the early 80s when I worked as a copywriter for radio stations, we carried Wolfman Jack's syndicated Top Hits countdown show. Our boss thought Wolfman was the coolest guy. (Much cooler than Casey Kasem.) I had to write one liner station IDs for Jack to record. Me, trying to get inside the head and voice of the Wolfman. Scary!

Anonymous said...

Was just starting out in radio when I got an internship at 1580 KDAY. On my first night, I wandered back to the engineering room to introduce myself. The engineer on duty had the back door propped open, even though it was chilly outside. He explained that the second hand pot smoke from Wolfman's studio gave him a contact high. He wanted to remain alert to take meter readings. That sold me on getting into radio.

Anonymous said...

Was that rip-off broadcasting school on Hollywood and Vine, next to the Merv Griffin studio??? I moonlighted there, too. Are you suggesting that we ripped off students just because they had speech impediments or reading problems?

KEN LEVINE said...

Nope. Different rip off broadcast school on Sunset Blvd.

girard31 said...

I worked on Mexican radio in the 80's at an R & B station in Tijuana. Every year they would station a Mexican soldier with a M-16 outside the door for the state of the union address, just in case someone started a "revolucion". One day a guy committed suicide by jumping off the tower onto the studio roof. It was fun for about a year, then I had to get out of there.

FYI -- It's "federales".

Greg Mitchell said...

Hey Beav, anonymous 2 was correct....The Wolfman worked at KDAY in about '72-'73 doing nights..your research assistant must have missed that one...

Did you use any Wolfman material when you filled in? Are ya naked? Who's on the Beaver telephone?

KEN LEVINE said...

Wolf might've been on tape at XERB at the time.

Kid Shay said...

Thanks for this story about the Wolfman! My parents used to put me to bed with Wolfman Jack on the radio. Other than that, I had a completely normal childhood. The first time I saw 'Graffiti' I didn't think anything of him being in it; I just took it for granted that, when you listened to the radio, the Wolfman was there.

What a cool guy.

AlaskaRay said...

>>following grew. He opened a restaurant on Melrose in East Hollywood that served “Beef Bagaloos” – the greasiest nastiest taquito type abominations you could imagine.<<

Ken. I recall going to Jack's with you sometime in the 70's. We had delicious Beef Bugaloos. I'm sure they took 10 years off our lives. I saved the wrapper and it's around here somewhere. All the grease it had absorbed from the Bogaloo at he time, finally completely evaporated about 2 weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

Do a Google search on the Wolfman and you'll find a few first person accounts of some of the assaults and shootouts.

I can't imagine cracking a mic with four million watts pouring out of the finals.

angel said...

Mr. Levine,

May I humbly point out that your show was represented at the White House Easter Egg decorating exhibit. Click on Massachusetts, to see it. Apologies, if you knew this already.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/easter/2008/eggsbystate/

--

In regard to The Wolfman, he totally MADE American Grafitti. My lifelong love of the song Green Onions, came from his patter. :-)

John Pearley Huffman said...

How exactly did you determine that the "Mr. Satisfy" pills didn't work? Please include all details in your answer.

D. McEwan said...

"My parents used to put me to bed with Wolfman"

Aaaaahhhhh!!!!!!

But seriously folks...

That same year, 1975, Wolfman Jack replaced my boss and me! In 1973 the "Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt" was created as "Seymour's Halloween Haunt," for Los Angeles TV horror host, the late Larry "Seymour" Vincent's 3 night stint at Knott's Berry Farm's then-called "John Wayne Theater" Halloween weekend. It was a success vastly greater than anticipated.

By the second year, I was writing Larry's TV show, and Larry had me produce and write his stage show at Knott's. It was an even bigger success. We never had an empty seat, and the park itself was sold out. But it was also the last show Larry ever did, and he died of cancer a few months later, only 50 years old. I picked him up at the hospital in Burbank (The same one that killed John Ritter and Walt Disney.) and drove him to Knott's myself.

The event was so huge, it had to continue even without Seymour, so for Halloween 1975, Wolfman Jack got the John Wayne Theater gig, solely because he called himself "Wolfman". I was not involved. Wolfman did the shows for a few years, until Elvira came along. Now the event itself is so huge, all month long rather than a single weekend, it no longer needs a star attraction.

So in 1975 Wolfman subbed for us and Ken subbed for him.

So, Jbryant, yuo're a hibitue of those has-been conventions also? I hit at least one each year.

Doug Thompson said...

Re: Jack Armstrong - What an amazing jock. As unique and original as 'Da Wolfman'. Both of them worked here in Toronto at CHUM
Radio (separate decades of course).

We had board ops for all shifts at CHUM except the all-night show up until the late 70's. When Jack Armstrong arrived at CHUM in the summer of 1968, he insisted he had to do it himself. And he was right. No op could have kept up with him. I'll never forget his first night on the air. My production studio was right next door to the control room. I peeked in several times and watched in amazement as he did his shift and worked his magic on the radio listeners. When he was finished, he was drenched in sweat. What an incredible communicator he was.

I spent the day with him a year ago December at his home in North Carolina. We hadn't seen each other in nearly 40 years. We talked about his CHUM days and while discussing the state of radio today at lunch, he was opiniated and passionate. Everything a true radio pro should be. No wonder he's in the radio section of the Rock'N'Roll Hall of Fame.

Love ya Jack. You were one of a kind. And you left us wayyyy too soon.

Ken, the last line in your paragraph about Jack was pricelss. I'd like to quote it (with attribution of course) in a national canadian radio trade magazine tribute I'm writing about Jack.

KEN LEVINE said...

Be my guest Doug.

jbryant said...

d. mcewan: "habitue" is too strong a word. The convention I mentioned is the only one I've ever been to (unless you count the 3 or 4 times I attended those Shrine Auditorium comic conventions with my writing partner -- those usually had a few celebs hawking autographs, too). But I just had to see those "American Graffiti" folks and, especially Dwayne "Dobie Gillis" Hickman, the only attendee who got any of my hard-earned green (he autographed a pic of Dobie with "The Thinker" and posed with me). It was all strangely fascinating -- where else could you be in a large room with Traci Lords, Peter Lupus, Kevin Sorbo, Gary Lewis, the "little person" from Twin Peaks and the surviving Tarleton Twin from Gone with the Wind (besides Tallulah Morehead's rec room on a typical Saturday night, of course)?

I came very close to attending the most recent one in Burbank, to see Mackenzie Phillips (who didn't make the Graffiti reunion) and such aging icons as Peter Falk and Ernest Borgnine. Borgnine is 90, so I hated to pass up what will probably be my last chance to see him above room temperature, but I couldn't make it.

Ray Randolph said...

Re Jack Armstrong: There's a nice little video of him at KKHR on YouTube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyHgKZsg-kQ

A great look at a real pro in action. He will certainly be missed.

LouOCNY said...

On the literally other end of the spectrum from the million watt Mexican stations, are whats left of all the low watt community radios stations - one of which I appear on!

The station is WTBQ, which is located in Orange County, NY. It is a little 500 watt station which used to be a daylight-only AM station, but since the FCC has loosened someof the old FM content rules, recently aquired an FM frequency so it could go 24/7. Everybody doubles in spades - the owner also is the chief engineer and does the morning drive, the other licensed engineer also does PM drive! There is of course, the usual syndicated garbage, but the guy really tries to put out community programming. Basically, if you can find a sponsor, he'll put you on the air! So it goes with the show I appear on!

Its called 'Prime Time with Uncle Buck' - Uncle Buck's real name being Frank Peleggi - hes a cousin of crime writer Nick Pileggi. Along with Buck re Dr Tom , a dentist who sponsors, a guy with the nickname of Benzee, who is the biggest NY cop you have ever seen, and moi. The guy Benzee had me on a few times, I whenever one of the others was out, I would be their Joey Bishop, and be a 'guest host', and I finally wormed my wy into this 'cohost' position.

We do a lot of plugs for community events, some charity drives like Cellphones for Soldiers, plus an occasional 'guest' like the one and only Mr Spoons! It all is very loose, and we have a good time. And for someone whose older sisters best gf was going out with a 'radio guy', sticking that little bug in me, its sort of a dream come true!
Its sort if like college radio with an FCC commercial license....

If you want to hear what can be described as 'ordinary weirdness', its on Fridays 12:30- 2 pm ET (live), and later on Friday at 9 - 10 pm (taped) at www.wtbq.com don't say you were not warned!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm…rip off broadcasting school on Sunset? Had to be the KIIS broadcasting workshop! I remember the big lips in the window. Got my "free" cassette recorder and was ready to go. Alas it was ten years later before landing my first minimum wage radio gig in Thousand Oaks.

Jack Armstrong was a great guy and he lived up to the stereotypical shenanigans of a radio guy. I watched as his wife yanked him out of a nightclub appearance downtown as she dressed him down from A to Z.

Jack would converse with anyone and provided this upstart with friendly advice. He couldn't be more delightful.

B

Anonymous said...

I read once that barbed wire fences near those megawatt transmitters would pick up the signal loud and clear. You could listen to the Wolfman while fixing the fence!

ted said...

It was 1966, near San Rafael, a little north of San Francisco. Just got my drivers license, staying up late on weekends. Da Wolfman loved playing "Oith Angel by Da Penguins" that summer. I remember it well ... I think

D. McEwan said...

"where else could you be in a large room with Traci Lords, Peter Lupus, Kevin Sorbo, Gary Lewis, the "little person" from Twin Peaks and the surviving Tarleton Twin from Gone with the Wind?"

My feelings exactly. There's nothing quite like the experience of hollering at a deaf Gene Barry how my mother had the hots for him for 40 years, while he picks at a salad, and his son counts my cash.

Tallulah, in her (my) book describes one she attended in the early 90s as including "the girls from Petticoat Junction, Woody Strode, Gary Lockwood, My own dear Steve Reeves, the annoyingly shrill woman who was the voice of Snow White, half a dozen ex-Munchkins, Alan Young, Jackie Joseph, Tommy Kirk, the surviving cast of Bewitched, three former Tarzans and Ronald Reagan." Of course, Reagan never really attended one.

But I have had treasured experiences at them: telling Steve Reeves what his movies meant to me going through puberty, while enjoying how he hid his discomfort at my basically categorizing his whole career as soft-core gay porn. (Which, believe me, it was!) Showing that passage from Tallualh's book to Jackie Joesph at the last one I attended, and her LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS co-star Jonathon Haze leaning over to her to say, "It's a terrific book. I really enjoyed reading it." That was priceless. What greater pleasure can an aging boomer like myself have than meeting Spin & Marty and the Hardy Boys (DISNEY's Hardy Boys, so Tim Considine was in both sets.) all together at once?

My brother is, this very day, working on a movie set on a job he shmoozed his way into at the last one we went to.

I too met Dwayne Hickman in that same hotel banquet room, got his book signed, and posed for a picture with him, though at an event honoring I LOVE LUCY in 1998. Since Lucy, and almost everyone else connected to the show, are dead, they had folks like Hickman, whose Lucy connections were tenuous at best: Peggy Rea, David Stollery (Who at least did do a ILL episode.), I don't remember who all else.

It's interesting to see who is friendly and will chat the day away with you (Gary Owens for instance, Marc Singer, and Earl Hamner Jr.), and who is all business. Debbie Reynolds would not speak to anyone until they plunked down cash. I think if she'd asked you where the ladies room was, she'd still charge you $20 to answer her. (In her defense, she was signing for a charity.) Tony Curtis was just sign picture, slide picture, NEXT! If you had something you wanted to say to him, you'd better be able to say it in the time it took him to sign his name.

Of course, seeing Theodore Bikel sitting alone and unbothered, or watching other fine artists reduced to hawking autographs for cash can be depressing after a while.

The next is at the end of April. Noel Niell will be there!

John said...

Wolfman must have been doing some sort of bi-costal thing just after "American Graffiti" came out, since he was on WNBC by the end of 1973, usually following Marv Albert doing a Knicks or Rangers game (Here's a link to a 90 second low-quality soundbyte in RealAudio of Wolfman Jack and Don Imus on WNBC's 1973 New Year's Eve Show from the WNBC tribute page:)
http://www.imonthe.net/66wnbc/newyrs73.ram

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TCinLA said...

Actually Ken, it was 50,000 watts, which was mighty big back in The Day. I can well remember planning transcontinental runs in those day by what you could get on the radio across the continent at night.

Pull out of Lohz Ahngeleeez at dusk heading east on what existed of I-10, then up what would be I-15 to Barstow, running along on old Route 66... You would hit Phoenix around dawn, then Amarillo - where if you had long hair it was a good idea to have your girlfriend do the driving through there, they loved to pick up "hippies", give them a hair cut (tighter and shorter than a USMC boot camp cut) and then release them in the morning, secure in the knowledge that the closest civil liberties lawyer was in Austin, 8 hours away at 75mph (did I mention Texass is really big????).

So you would get The Wolfman until you were in around Flagstaff, at which point you would pick up this station on Oklahoma city (whose name my swiss cheese memory forgets) that broadcast from the Rockies to the Appalachians (all at night, when you got good reflectivity from the atmosphere) and you could listen to boys in Kentucky sending "I luv Us" to their girlfriend in South Dakota.

Every time I have thought about "America After Dark" circa 1968, I've always thought there was a good "road movie" in it, but not with the current halfwits in the studios you'd have to pitch it to.

I will definitely never ever forget getting the hell out of Killeen TX after running a GI antiwar coffeehouse there for 2 years, with two guys who'd "served their sentences" at Ft. Hood, heading for LA, fueled with US Army sniper-quality amphetamine (kept soldier awake in VN for 3 days at a time with one pill). Got outside Flagstaff at 0300 and girlfriend comes to a stop in the middle of the freeway. Why? "There's a train crossing the highway!" Indeed there was, about a mile ahead (and the freeway went under it). At that point, it was my turn to drive wide-eyed on into El Lay.

You kids don't know how much you missed. :-)

Greg Mitchell said...

Like many of his radio gigs, Wolfman on WNBC was on tape most or all of the time...KRLA and XTRA (69 Xtra Gold)were on tape with the exception of some breaks that the Wolf would do live from his home each hour..

Jack Armstrong (even on WWKB/Buffalo which was done tracked 4 or 5 years ago) was killer on the air always...Now that was personality radio....

Jon J said...

"...at which point you would pick up this station on Oklahoma city (whose name my swiss cheese memory forgets) that broadcast from the Rockies to the Appalachians..."

Could have been KOMA...Big signal in those days. ID line was "KOMA in Oklahoma".

Tom Berg said...

I remember the Wolfman and his specially produced radio shows for the Armed Forces Radio Network.

"When you hear the thunder, and the name said under. You KNOW that it's time for that radio wonder....WOLFMAN JACK!!!"

He used a whistling theme for his filler music at the end of his shows. I wonder what it was??

TE said...

There's a great oldies station in Ventura ("The Boomer", 1450 AM) that uses liners by a fake (I assume) Wolfman to this day.

Lousy signal, but terrific music. Stuff I've never heard, and I thought I'd heard it all -- the anti-K-EARTH in that respect.

I very briefly ghost-wrote for Wolfman. It wasn't as hard ("I want you to get your eyes real close to the page, Bay-bee...") as writing for Casey. And there was no Don Bustany involved.

Anonymous said...

Weird Memory ...

When I was an adolescent, the Wolfman was on WNBC in NY. At the time I listened to competitor WABC.
When the song "Clap for the Wolfman" played on Dan Ingrams program he would frequently make snide remarks about how the Wolfman knows about "The Clap".

Anonymous said...

Come on Ken, do just one "are ya naked" for us for old times sake....

Ralph said...

The Mexicans at the border didn't give a rat's *ss if you were bringing tapes across the border going south..It was the US Customs that cared. You were supposed to make a U-turn into US Secondary Inspection on the way down & have them sign off some stupid customs form before taking the tapes into Mexico. On the way back, you were supposed to declare to the goofballs at the booths that you were bringing up reels of tape from Mexico & show them the form from the way down..

When 91X was on a tape-delay when it signed on (6 hour delay), evrything was on 10 inch reels (1 hour per reel, end of last song toned to fire the next reel off)and we had to go through the same process at the border. Most of the time, the curriers taking the tapes down didn't want to stop at US Customs so they just skipped it. So it was then a problem getting the reels back into the US. One night I had to make the tape run & they had dozens of reels down at the transmitter waiting to come back. So I loaded a dozen behind the seat in the station truck & drove to the border and said I had nothing to declare. They found the reels of tape in the truck & went ballistic. The Customs guy actually pulled out his gun & pointed it at me over reels of tape. They detained me for an hour & finally let me go (don't recall if they let me keep the tapes)...

That's your US Customs Service & Border Patrol in action, folks..

Ellis said...

Hmmm...a Jewish entertainer, influenced by another Jewish entertainer (Alan Freed), who builds a career based on the fallacy that he is actually of African American heritage? What a surprise. Even George Lucas helped to propegate this fallacy, allowing actress McKenzie Phillips to quip in "American Graffiti", "My parents won't let me listen to the Wolfman since he's colored". It's interesting that Lucas has managed to do so well in Hollywood since that time.

Mark aka Kip Pullman said...

Great story, however, you must have got your years mixed up because XERB changed its call letters to XERPS in 1971. And the last time Wolfman broadcast from the station on a nightly basis was April 4, 1972.

Rick Ward said...

Hey Ken, Why don't you tell the story of how you & Billy Peral tore up my studio of XPRS on El centro st, in Hollywood. Ah, Maybe you don't remember but I do.
Rick Ward

Ken Heath said...

Uncle Bob wasn't Jewish!

Absolutely nothing wrong with the Jewish faith, but if he was, he'd be the only one in his Christian family!

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/user/Thewolfmanjack

B Kelly said...

As mentioned by Kip Pullman, XERB changed call-letters to XEPRS in 1971 (The Soul Express)so XERB wasn't around in 1975 (nor was the Wolfman - he had left in 1972 for KDAY and then went to WNBC after that)