(My late-night August 1974 interview with the inimitable Wolfman Jack, who died in 1995 at age 57, includes priceless tales from his early days in radio. We talked backstage after an Eagles concert in Saratoga Springs, New York.)
About a decade and a half ago, a Brooklyn car washer named Bob Smith got his start in radio with a $15-a-week stint at Newark, New Jersey’s WNJR. Today, known as Wolfman Jack, he boasts an annual income well into six figures and a reputation as perhaps the most famous rock disc jockey of all time.
Besides hosting a syndicated radio show heard on AM and FM stations in dozens of major cities nationwide and abroad, he presides over NBC-TV’s weekly Midnight Special. He has played himself in two movies, American Graffiti and The Seven Minutes, recorded albums for RCA, and served as the subject of at least five songs by such artists as Canned Heat, Todd Rundgren, and the Guess Who (whose “Clap for the Wolfman” was a major hit).
In this interview, the Wolfman reminisces about his early days in radio. The primary focus of the conversation is XERF (now XPRS), the Del Rio, Texas station where he had his first big gig. Bypassing FCC regulations by locating its transmitter in Tijuana, Mexico, XERF broadcast at an almost unbelievable 250,000 watts. That power, along with an assortment of bizarre programming, earned the station the vast international audience that initially spread the Wolfman’s name.
When did you begin to become interested in radio?
I’ll tell you, I was always a radio freak. I was always picking up distant stations and listening to different disc jockeys when I was a kid. So I just started when I was young, getting into it really heavy.
I used to listen to…you remember Alan Freed when he first came to New York? Moondog, with all that shit with the wolves howling and bells clanging. And you remember the Hound from Buffalo, New York?
Yeah, WKBW. George Lorenz, remember him? Not too many people remember Dr. John, who used to come on the air from Smalls Paradise in the heart of Harlem. Used to listen to him all the time.
Back in that era, when I was growing up, that was probably the best radio era that ever was. I mean, they were super jocks, man. Really captured the whole thing, you know what I mean? That’s what the art form was all about. Those people. Remember Jocko? And Rosko? Remember guys on the West Coast? The Magnificent Montague and, I mean, really great jocks.
How did you get your start in radio?
Well, I hung around WNJR in Newark, which is a black station. Hung around WOOK in Washington, D.C., another black station. And I went to work in Newport News, Virginia, WYOU for about a year. And then I started at XERF, Del Rio, Texas, in 1959. That’s where I really started; that’s where the Wolfman was born.
You were in some pretty strange company at XERF.
Yeah. You know, they used to run preachers at night from seven to midnight. I mean, Reverend J. Charles Jessup from Gulf Port, Mississippi.
And Reverend Ike.
Right. Reverend Ike was on there, too. And A.A. Allen. A.A. Allen was a mother. Who else was on there? Reverend Bishop Johnson. Great preacher. “Yeeaahh!” Love those singing preachers. You know, they’d say, “Aaahhh!” Love those screaming preachers, man. You ever heard those cats? I’d just sit there, get off on those cats.
I remember there was a Reverend J.C. Bishop. And boy, he talked real slow, like, “Well, friends, I’m bummed out tonight. I got a letter from Aunt Nancy out there in Salada—I can’t spell that, can’t see too good. You know, your old Reverend J.C. is not feeling too good tonight. I ain’t been feeling good for three, four weeks. I know if you send me in the Lord’s magic number, I can get my spunk back again. That’s seven dollars. Put that in an envelope and send it with your prayer request. And I will personally lay my hands on your letters. I mean, I personally go down to the mailbox. And I personally take each and every letter out . . . ” And he’d go on and on. And the son of a bitch was a millionaire, you know!
Then there was another great preacher, Brother Al. He used to cry, man. He’d cry through the whole program. And he had you down on your knees by the end of that program. You were ready to send him thirty dollars! Dig in deep, you know. I remember I used to go out boating with Brother Al. He had like a 60-foot yacht; he lived on it.
Anyway, that’s what the station was all about, right. It was a huckster radio station. And the advertising was mail order, ’cause we were covering God knows how big an area. Some guy’d come on and sell burial insurance and shit like that, you know what I mean?
And I found out from the insurance companies and stuff how much mail they were pulling on that shit. And they really hadn’t found the right thing to do, ’cause they really weren’t getting enough out of the time periods.
So I made a deal with the man to put the Wolfman on down there. You know, the Wolfman was created. He’s a character which I became. I figured I’d just go on the air and tell it like it is.
How exactly did you tell it?
Well, I mean, I was selling roach clips before it was fashionable. I’d do the commercial. “It’s a little clip that goes ‘clip, clip.’ You can squeeze it between your thumb and your forefinger and you chase little roaches with it and you get ’em by the legs.”
And I’d say, “It looks just like the Wolfman. It’s got the Wolfman’s face on it with the shades and everything, man, and a little mouth that opens and closes. You gonna love that roach clip. Only five dollars, ninety-five cents, cash, check, or money order! Send your order in the mail today to Roach Clip, XERF, Del Rio, Texas.
“Now if you get your money in the mail now, while it’s fresh in your mind, I gonna send you the Wolfman special plastic Jesus. You put that right on your dashboard and Him watches you while you drive! You send that in right now! Order Roach Clip, XERF, Del Rio, Texas!”
Those roach clips, we sold, well, it petered out at about 47,000 orders. And it’s a shame, man, those clips are all over, but I ain’t got one original left. I bought one from one of my fans about a month ago. Son of a bitch charged me fifteen dollars for it. It was in real good condition, man. He’d had it re-plated and the whole number. Because the gold plating would peel off.
Getting back to the situation at XERF…
Right. I came in on a union squabble. When I got down there, it seems that one union was messing over another union. And the station was in receivership at the time. In other words, it was being controlled by the Mexican government. Not really controlled, but the honchos in that area were getting a piece of the action, you know what I mean?
So I came in as the U.S. sales representative for the station. And the union was the receiver, working for the Mexican government. They came charging in on the station one night and we had a shootout. This is true. We had barbed wire and sandbags. I had a 16-millimeter machine gun which never worked on the night of the fight.
See, those Mexican cats kept shooting rabbits with it during the daytime. You know, the station’s out in the middle of the sand dunes and there ain’t nothing but cactuses and sand all over the goddamn place. The Mexicans had that gun and you’d see the sand go “choo-choo-choo!” They got off on that. They cheered, clapped. They’d wait all day, man, for a rabbit to pop up so they could shoot at him. So the night the fight happened, the goddamn gun jammed up; they’d been shooting it too much and they busted something.
Once things settled down a bit, what was it like to work at XERF?
Well, here I got 250,000 watts, man, 1570 on the dial. If you know anything about the radio business, you know that the higher up you are on the dial…the sky’s the limit. “Hey, China, you hear the Wolfman?!” A big megaphone, baby, you know what I mean? You could pick it up in the Netherlands. I used to get mail. Man, I’d get mail! I used to get into Russia, come into Russia like a mother! I covered every goddamn place, man. You could drive from New York to L.A.
Lots of power.
Yeah. You know, we watered the [transmission] tower. The water bill was something like $800 a month, man. We kept steady water under that tower. I mean, birds would fly under that tower and die. They’d get about three feet from the tower and you’d see ’em fly in. They’d go “pssshhhh!” You’d drive up to the radio station at night and turn your car headlights off and the damn lights’d still be on.
I worked live at the station for four years. And if you know anything about broadcasting, you know r.f. [radio frequency] drifts out all over the place. It’s almost like a drug, man; everybody gets high. It’s like you took 10 reds, you know. If you stay on the air too long, you really get infected.
So after four years of that shit, I was carrying it with me; I’d radiate it myself. And so I finally had to go on tape. I mean, we had guys falling out sometimes. They would just walk around and fall out. You’d think there was something going on, but no, it was just the r.f. drifting around the building.
Has the Wolfman act changed much since those days at XERF?
No, not really, It’s the same old shit, man. The same rap. You know, “Hey, everybody out there! Hi, all you sweet darlings, we gonna get down! I ain’t gonna charge you a dime! It’s all on the house this evening! They even paying me to be here!”