Baltimore Sun

Commentary: R&B radio disc jockeys crossed the color divide into wee hours of the night

For those who enjoy listening to R&B, jazz, gospel and other music recorded mainly by African-American musicians, being able to find it in numerous places along the radio dial is something we take for granted these days. Some of my young nieces and nephews find it hard to believe that in the early years of radio, most white station owners banned R&B recordings, or race records as they called them, on the airwaves.

Although the ban had been lifted in some cities by the late 1950s, when I was growing up in The South in the 1960s, we still only heard one or two songs by African-American artists played on my local radio station, WCKM, in Winnsboro, S.C. We went to nearby Columbia several times a week where we could hear R&B on a black-owned station there, but its signal didn't reach my hometown after sundown.


The saving grace for us was WLAC, a Nashville, Tenn., radio station, whose DJs broke the rules in the 1950s by playing R&B from 8 p.m. until the wee hours of the night. The station's clear-channel technology allowed its signal to bounce all over the country and, depending on the weather, abroad as well.

My brothers and sisters, and I would often race to the stereo at 8 p.m. to tune in to WLAC and hope the signal was clear.


It did have static at times, but anyway, we loved hearing the booming, gravelly voices of jive-talkers John R, the Hossman, Herman Grizzard and Gene Nobles. They were WLAC's nighttime quartet of soul music spinners and they could play pretty much what they wanted to after 8 p.m.

Stereos and transistor radios tuned to WLAC nationwide blared the sounds of Otis Redding, Joe Simon, James Brown and other R&B stars. It was music we didn't hear elsewhere at night and in between songs, WLAC's DJs sold everything on air from Royal Crown Hair Dressing and flour to Bibles and baby chickens — for real.

Although some white listeners tried to stop their shows, they were rebels and kept the turntables spinning that sweet soul music, and were instrumental in spreading R&B and gospel to a worldwide audience.

I thought about the WLAC quartet when I went to see "Memphis," Broadway's 2010 Best Musical, at the Kennedy Center last month. "Memphis" revolves around Huey, an illiterate, comical white DJ in the 1950s, who falls in love with an R&B singer and becomes the first DJ to play R&B on the radio in that city.

Throughout the play, I kept thinking back to my memories of WLAC. Like the WLAC DJs, "Memphis" Huey effectively ad-libbed commercial spots with humor and flair, and he had a deep love for soul music. He also took a lot of criticism initially for playing R&B.

But there were differences between the fictional Huey and WLAC's DJs. In the play, listeners knew Huey was white, but my older siblings said for several years, they and most listeners nationwide thought John R, the Hossman and others were African American. They spouted the latest slang with the right cadence and rhythm, and John R often claimed on air that "I got a lot of soul in me."

It wasn't until the mid-1960s that they outed themselves at a gospel concert they hosted. The story goes that a pin could be heard falling when they walked on stage and introduced themselves.

Another difference is that unlike the almost immediate, favorable response white teenagers showed Huey for playing R&B on the air, for WLAC, the acceptance did not come as quickly. Some never accepted the soul music format, and in 1972, WLAC's new management instituted a Top 40 format, ending the DJs freedom to play soul music exclusively after 8 p.m.


I learned of the shows' demise about 9 p.m. one night when I turned the stereo's dial to WLAC and heard a different kind of party going on.

Don't get me wrong, I did like a lot of the Top 40 music, but that format included little to no R&B, which was what I'd come to love hearing at night. I wasn't the biggest television person and spent a lot of time reading at night with WLAC in the background.

To be sure, I was one sad sister that night and many to come because it wasn't until 1976 that Sumter-based WWDM increased its power to 100,000 watts, and reached my hometown. R&B was not only back on after 8 p.m., but 24/7.

Life was good again.