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!
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".