Rock and roll provided fame, happiness and a sanctuary from pain CRY OF THE WOLF


Washington -- Bob Smith had an unhappy childhood, so like many kids growing up in the 1950s, he took to heart Chuck Berry's proclamation in "School Days": "Hail, hail rock and roll/deliver me from the days of old." Rock and roll took this skinny kid from Brooklyn away from a miserable home life, away from a cruel stepmother whom, 40 years later, he still talks about with bitterness in his voice.

But rock and roll did deliver Bob from unhappiness, for the most part. He was a white kid who loved rhythm and blues, and he absorbed black culture -- so soulful, so different from his own. When he took to the microphone as a disc jockey, he adopted the persona of a happy-go-lucky lover of good times, a man who liked nothing more than to play great music. Bob Smith became Wolfman Jack, the most famous DJ in America.

Still, the past has a way of returning, even if, in the case of the Wolfman, you immersed yourself in a new identity decades ago and don't even answer to your Christian name anymore. When Wolfman Jack started working on his autobiography, all those bad old feelings started coming back. For all the exuberance and colorful anecdotes that mark "Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal," just published by Warner Books, there is a distinctly melancholic side to the book.

"That was a bad time for me," the Wolfman says softly in his trademark whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. He is, as a matter of fact, lighting up the first of the unfiltered Camels he chain-smokes. "I love people, but that woman that my father married -- I could never forgive her for what she did to me. Because she did it viciously. It was like pulling wings off a fly, and I don't like people who act like that."

This isn't the side of the Wolfman you usually see -- not the jive-talking, ultra-hip disc jockey who has delivered the news to millions of rock fans since the mid-1960s. It's a Saturday morning, and he is sitting down for breakfast, still feeling the excitement, he says, that has carried over from his Friday night radio show, broadcast live from Planet Hollywood in Washington.

Begun last year, it's now being heard over 50 stations nationwide once a week, and it's a gig he loves. For here the Wolfman is, at age 57, still rocking the house, still spinning the music of Chuck Berry and Jackie Wilson and all the other rock and roll artists whose records he loved and who, in many cases, happened to be friends as well. Though he's been living quietly in North Carolina since the late 1980s, he still looks the part of the aging rock and roll animal: goatee --ed with white, silvery hair tied up in a ponytail. He's big going on huge, a black sports shirt and slacks covering his considerable bulk.

But now he is talking about Marge, his now-dead stepmother, who, he says in his book, routinely did such things as poisoning his dog. She joined the Smith family under bizarre circumstances. She was a married neighbor who got involved with Weston Smith, Bob's father -- and then the aggrieved spouses, Bob's mother and Marge's husband, also fell for each other. The ensuing marriages devastated young Bob, and many years later, the Wolfman would write in "Have Mercy":

"I started thinking that the way to survive was to make sure that people liked me. I taught myself to tune in to another person's wavelength, figure out what they are looking for, and try to project that thing back at them. . . . My salesmanship came out of wanting to prevent rejection. I became a junkie for approval and recognition."

"I went into a depression you wouldn't believe," the Wolfman says reflectively about writing "Have Mercy." "Going back over my childhood -- there were memories I didn't want to bring back. But in doing the book, I started going over things again."

The Wolfman had been talking somberly, but now he grows quiet, his piercing dark eyes staring out at the dining room of the hotel.

"My poor mother [Rosamund], who just passed away two days ago -- she was a victim of circumstances," the Wolfman begins, his voice cracking. "She was just a young girl, married when she was 16. She felt guilty all her life because she left me in the hands of that woman. Finally, before she died, she read the book, and I thank God that she was able to realize that she was a victim of circumstances."

The Wolfman wipes his eyes and doesn't speak for about 30 seconds. "She told me before she died -- this is really hard for me, man -- I talked to her on the telephone for two hours before she died, and she told me: 'You were my beautiful baby boy. I always loved you. I always felt so bad because of what I did to you, but I realize that you were right: I didn't know what to do to change the situation at the time.' "

There's another long pause, and the Wolfman holds his head in his hands. Then he looks up. "Anyway, that was wonderful to me because she had left this young kid hanging in the breeze." He fishes for a cigarette and adds: "I'm sorry, man. I got pretty emotional."


Bob Smith, of course, merely did what millions of others before him and since have done when facing adversity: They have turned pain and suffering into something good. Wallace Stevens once wrote, "Death is the mother of beauty," and the misery that Bob Smith felt as a youngster now drives Wolfman Jack's party-hearty philosophy -- one that also reflects a curious naivete in such a street-wise guy.

"We're here to have a good time!" the Wolfman expect him to add one of his familiar wolf howls in punctuation. "So why do you hold back? Have fun! Why don't you want to have fun? What do you want to kill people for? It's so stupid. You get the point? Maybe some people will read the book and get the point and open their lives up: 'The Wolfman's right! What have I been doing all my life?' "

This is his Preacher of Rock and Roll persona, often expressed with such churchly phrases as "Have mercy!" (thus the title of the book). He's the Man with the Plan, the guy who assures you that good times are just ahead and bad times can be forgotten if only you'll drop what you're doing and listen to a little James Brown. George Lucas was an impressionable teen-ager who grooved to the Wolfman in California's San Fernando Valley in the late 1960s. When he cast his movie "American Graffiti" in 1973, one of the first things he did was sign up the Wolfman to play himself.

"He always was the big guy -- he seemed to be in a league of his own," says Steve Rouse, the morning disc jockey for oldies station WQSR in Baltimore. "He is totally unique. A lot of people have tried to copy him -- there were deejays like Coyote Joe and Bullfrog Pete. But he was the Elvis of radio personalities."

The Wolfman has done this gig in big markets and small -- Newport News, Va.; Shreveport, La.; Minneapolis; New York; and Los Angeles -- and in Mexico and England and France. He's played country music and easy-listening, but his heart was always in blasting out earthy R&B; to the masses.

That's why, he'll tell you, one of his favorite jobs of all time was doing the midnight shift in the mid-'60s on XERF-AM in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. The station was a dump, located "way out in an obscure area in Mexico," the Wolfman says, "No road to the radio station, but 250,000 watts, nondirectional."

Since the biggest American AM stations were limited to 50,000 ** watts, a 250,000-watt station was mind-boggling. "At night, the station is going halfway 'round the world," the Wolfman crows happily. "And I was on at midnight, the best time in the world to be on the air. That's when people are getting loose. . . . You can really get people to listen to you."

After more than 30 years in the business, he tells you, the kick is still there.

"Now I'm so happy I can't think," the Wolfman says of his Friday night show at Planet Hollywood, broadcast over WXTR-FM in Waldorf. "The Planet Hollywood is a coming thing, what with [part-owners] Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and all of them. Friday night for four hours? I could do 12 hours. I would rather do radio than sex. All of those people having a great time -- I get levitated every show."

Rock and roll radio is notoriously tough on disc jockeys. They routinely get fired on a whim or are victim of format changes or, if they happen to hang on long enough, get dumped for being too old. But Wolfman Jack is a survivor of the first order. After his radio jobs started drying up in the late 1970s, a period that he writes was marked by considerable drug use and philanderings, the Wolfman stayed busy with taped syndicated radio shows and also as host of "The Midnight Special" television show for nine years.

Now, he stays busy with his Friday night show and by doing 150 to 200 appearances a year at oldies shows, amusement parks and thelike, says Lonnie Napier, the Wolfman's longtime vice president of production who also functions as his manager in effect, if not in name.

"We're very fortunate -- Wolf is making more money now than he did back in the old days," says Mr. Napier, who met Wolfman Jack in Los Angeles in 1970 and has been associated with him for most of the ensuing time (the two, in fact, live within a few minutes of each other in northeastern North Carolina). The Wolfman's asking price is $7,500 to $10,000 an appearance, he says -- $15,000 to $20,000 in Europe and Japan.

"Wolf just did a commercial for Kraft macaroni and cheese, and he was on 'Married . . . With Children,' " Mr. Napier continues. "Wolf has always worked fairly steadily. He's got a good reputation. He always shows up and does his gig. He is very liked by people."

And, it should be said, Wolfman Jack has always been an astute businessman. When he was working stations in Mexico, he saw to it that the programming was filled with preachers' shows. Not that Wolfman was especially religious -- he just knew the shows were great money-makers. "All those preachers had deep, deep pockets," he cackles.

On the other hand, his naivete pops up at the most unexpected moments. Take the time he went over to a Hollywood studio in the early 1970s to discuss appearing in a film by the then-unknown Mr. Lucas. As he relates in "Have Mercy," Wolfman grew uncomfortable when he realized the script had him speaking on almost every page. Finally, he pulled aside a friend and asked urgently:

"How much money do you think I gotta give them?"

Stunned, his friend paused a moment before explaining patiently: "I don't believe they want your money, Wolf. I believe what they want is for you to play the role of Wolfman Jack."

Wolfman Jack was paid but $3,000 for the role, but more important, the part revived a career that was lagging in Los Angeles. The "Midnight Special" job opened up then, too, and Mr. Napier says it was about then that "Bob Smith went away and never came back."

It was also the time that Wolfman Jack, the people guy, got a little full of himself -- no doubt in part due to the quantities of cocaine and other drugs he was consuming.

"You gotta understand something: the California lifestyle is not conducing to healthy living," Mr. Napier says. "He went through a stretch of social cocaine use. There were people who always wanted to make him happy. It was an enabling situation. Now, in North Carolina, those people aren't around. He likes fishing, he relaxes. He's become something of a country bumpkin."

"Yeah, I did a lot of drugs," the Wolfman concedes. "But I've never been an addictive person. Again, you got to know me. The thing that gets me happy is watching other people be happy. I'm not into getting so obliterated that I don't know what the hell's going on -- you know what I mean? I've never liked that. I love partying. If there's going to be a party and cocaine's there, fine. It's a great partying drug.

"I still will party with anybody. But that's what I do -- I party. I don't do drugs to do drugs. The only thing I'm addicted to is cigarettes."

He holds up his nearly full pack of Camels and stares at it. "God, I'd hate to give them up," he says convincingly. "I really love smoking cigarettes, and to tell you the truth, I smoke real cigarettes. I don't . . . put a filter on them. Smoking makes me feel good, and I like the taste of cigarettes and blowing smoke out of my mouth. I'm sorry. I'm going to die because of this cigarette because I enjoy it too much." He grins and taps one cigarette out of the pack. "And I'm going to smoke one right now."

That's Wolfman Jack at 57 -- working when he wants to, smoking if he feels like it, outlasting almost everybody in one of the toughest businesses going. And Bob Smith?

"I think of myself as the Wolfman," the Man himself says. "The Bob Smith that I knew -- I don't want to be that kind of guy, who doesn't know what to do with his life."

Is that his way of saying goodbye to the unhappy child?

"Yeah. Exactly," he answers quickly. "I don't want people mistreating me. I found out when you're vulnerable and your heart's open, then people step on you. You're really stupid for letting that happen. And the only way to counteract that is to be like Wolfman Jack. Because if you do nice, kind things for people, then how are they going to mess you over? I don't want to be in a vulnerable position. So when I am, I get out of it."

A few minutes later, the interview over, Wolfman Jack gets ready to catch a limo to the airport. He'll be appearing that night for three hours on WCBS-FM, New York's top oldies station.

He had his regular gig in Washington on Friday. A big appearancein his old hometown on Saturday. And, Mr. Napier observes as he loads up the limo, the Wolfman would be burying his mother in Los Angeles on Sunday.

"He could have backed out of those gigs," Mr. Napier acknowledges. "But his mother would have kicked his butt. She'd have told him: 'You go do your shows. I'll still be here when you get back.' She was a person with a lot of heart."

He says Rosamund Smith, in the later years of her life, joined the rest of the world in calling her son "Wolf." Even Mother, it seems, couldn't resist the lure of the Wolfman.


To hear Wolfman Jack reading from his new book, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6131 after you hear the greeting.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad