Black deejays played an indispensable role in the overall success of Black radio. Their unique on-air styles, engaging personalities, and trend-setting programming made them celebrities within the Black community.
They connected with the community. They shucked and jived with the community. In spite of the microphones, DJs were committed to having a personal conversation with their audiences. Which they did. So, the oral tradition of storytelling, speaking in rhythm and rhyme, speaking in an improvised style, as well as an animated delivery, is a cultural expression that was familiar to the masses. Which is why so many people enjoyed personality radio.
-- Dr. Portia K. Maultsby, ethnomusicologist, Indiana University (1995)
Radio had to be a style. You had to have what we call a “hook,” and my “hook” became when I changed my name - when the word came out that we were known as “disc jockeys.” And since my name was Jack, I said “Disc Jockey Jack.” Hmmm. Let’s take the “Disc” off and just call me “Jockey Jack.” And that’s how I got my trade name of “Jockey Jack.”
And then I felt - one time we were doing a show or something and somebody was crying in the record - and myself, I just flipped a microphone on and wanted to know why she was crying. And she answered in singing, you know. Then I would tell her, “Well I know why you crying. ‘Cause you haven’t been over to my house for a couple of weeks” - or somethin’ like that. And boy, the audience fell out with that. People would go to the store and try to buy the record and they couldn’t find my voice in the record, and they’d want to turn the record back. But that began what we called “personality radio.”
We were very involved in the records. We talked with the records. We sang with the records. We ran trains through the records. We had folks laughing and using all kind of sound effects and everything we could.
But, it made entertainment because each disc jockey that was on the air at that particular time had his own style. So if you listened to four disc jockeys a day, you would hear four different styles. Even if there was the same record, you would hear him introduced four different ways. Different disc jockeys would introduce the record four different ways.
-- Jack Gibson, personality deejay "Jockey Jack"
Pictured at left is "Jockey Jack" Gibson in jockey silks holding a radio transcription disc and crouching on a table before the microphone (1951).
The first one that I remember was with me in Atlanta. She was "Mrs. Swing." Mayme Bondu was her real name, and her husband was Dave Bondu, and he was Mr. Swing. So, their program - I was sort of like, I guess you'd call it I was sort of like the program director - but I guess it wasn't so much the word of being program director as just that everybody had ideas of trying to make programs sound different and better. And I remember listening to programs and I thought a man and woman doing a program together would be very, very hip because then they could counteract with their words and whatnot. And back and forth, and back and forth. It was like a conversational thing.
So, they said they would try. So we named them "Mr. and Mrs. Swing" 'cause you know Swing was big music in those days. So we said - the idea came up was, "Hey play the part of the very domineering wife." That was what we told Mayme. And we told her husband Dave to play the part of Casper Milquetoast. You know, the very meek and mild individual.
And so they'd get on the air, and she would say, "I've told you time after time again don't come into my studio, into my room, with your hair just combed halfway. Comb your hair all the way at home or don't come in here!"
And he'd say, "Yes, dear. The next time. I just didn't have enough time to comb my hair because you was rushin' me out the house."
"Well rush you or not, next time just have your hair combed. Don't you come in here lookin' like an old ragamuffin'."
And he'd say, "Yes, dear. What record are we gonna play now?"
And she'd say, "What record are we gonna play? You mean what record am I gonna play? I'm gonna play Ruth Brown's latest tune, 'Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,' and you better like it!"
And he'd say, "Anything you say, honey-dumplin', I'll like."
So she became a very big figure. In fact, that whole team. That was a very strong team.
-- Jack Gibson, program director and personality deejay at WERD Atlanta
Pictured at left is "Jockey Jack" Gibson standing on tarmac in front of Pan Am plane with "Mr. & Mrs. Swing" in Miami, Florida (1953).
Here I am in Houston, Texas. And a radio station, KCOH, was advertising for a personality. And I auditioned. And I became "Our Gal Sunday" at radio station KCOH in Houston. And from radio station KCOH, a woman on the air at the time - her name was "Dizzy Lizzy." And I thought "Dizzy Lizzy." Wow. I never liked the "Okey Dokey" - I call them "Okey Dokey" names. But "Dizzy Lizzy" left and I think she went to Oklahoma or someplace. And because I had gotten a following, and I was known fairly much, they asked me to audition, which I did. And I became "Dizzy Lizzy" with a Brooklyn Flatbush accent.
And I begged them, "Let me be Novella. Can I be Novella Doe Smith?" At that time - I married a Smith. "Can I be Novella Doe Smith?" And they said no because Stanley Ray owned the names. And if you left, you couldn't take "Dizzy Lizzy" with you. So you would never be famous. The name would be famous, but you would never be. So when Gladys Hill, who was the first "Dizzy Lizzy," left Houston, I took her place as the second "Dizzy Lizzy." But, you never could use your own name.
So what I think I brought to Negro radio was an identification. I said, "Well" - being a maverick - and I've always been a maverick - I said do something for yourself Novella. Identify yourself. Because you're not a "Dizzy Lizzy" material. So, after the news - and we did the news every hour on the half hour - I said, "This is Novella Doe Smith reporting KYOK Instant Jet News." That's what it was called. I always identified myself so every thirty minutes it was, 'Novella Doe Smith for KYOK News.' And then after the news I'd go into the "Jive, Jam, and Gumbo" show, is what it was called. And I went into the same personality, same delivery I'm giving to you today, except probably faster because I was younger. And my accent was thicker. I don't know if it could be any thicker, but I think it was. And that's how I identified myself, and then I decided that we needed an identification, and we didn't need to have those "Okey Doke" names.
And it was me, "Dizzy Lizzy," and "Hotsy Totsy, and "Zing Zang," and "Brother George Nelson." And I guess "Brother George Nelson" was the only one that was able to use his name because he was "Brother" George Nelson. Which is the good, Christian name for your deacon or your person who is very active in the church. But I would say George used his own name. And in the afternoon when he wasn't doing Gospel, he was "Groovy George." So it was his name, and "Groovy" was something he gave himself.
But the names, the stereotype names, I got very tired of, and I would be willing to say that I started the move - or to remove the stereotypeness and use our real names. And there was a guy, who was the General Manager, by the name of Joe Fife, who listened to me when I made a plea to him that the Civil Rights Bill is passed, we are now of our own - we are into a new era for Negros. And that was pre-Black. And we needed to stand up and be counted. And our children needed to know who we were. And those people that we programmed to needed to know that we were not "Dizzy Lizzy" and "Okey Dokeys" and what have you. And he gave me permission to do what I could to ease us into a new era. And I think it started in '62, '63, in that era. I believe. I'm pretty rusty on dates, but right after the Civil Rights Bill was passed, and with the Movement, and Dr. King, and then Blackness, and "Say it loud, I'm Black, and I'm proud" - the "Okey Doke" names went away.
-- Novella Smith, a.k.a. "Dizzy Lizzy"— a disc jockey on KYOK in the 1950s.
Pictured at left are George Nelson and Novella Smith at Houston Intercontinental Airport, returning from a record industry convention in Los Angeles; they worked together at KYOK in 1964 or 1965.
Hattie Leeper discusses the rapport that emcees had with their listening audiences
I was emceein' all of the shows that came to town. But, I got more rounds of applause when they said, "Showtime. Hit it!" And when Chattie Hattie walked out there, in all my fine glad rags I used to wear when I was young, beautiful, and Black. Honey, didn't nobody have nothin' on me. Now that's the truth.
I had standin' ovations because you were a legend in your own time. You were respected. Your fans loved you. Worshipped you.
We had people that would get in trouble with the law and would not go give theirselves up at the police headquarters. They'd come to us, for us to take 'em downtown. That's the kind of rapport we had with our listening audience.
-- Hattie Leeper, a.k.a. "Chattie Hattie"— a deejay in Charlotte, North Carolina
Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about the celebrity status of Black deejays.
In 1948 deejay Lavada Durst, a.k.a. "Dr. Hepcat," introduced "rhyming and signifying" over the airwaves of KVET in Austin, Texas. As the first Black disc jockey in the state, he captured a wide audience, including white students at the University of Texas. His glossary of "jive talk" and favorite rhymes were printed in this booklet from 1953.
Well, the name Jack "The Rapper" came after I had retired from radio, and I came to Florida to live. To relax. And my wife and I was talking about it. She said that I still had so much dealings with the people involved in radio and in records, that I should come up with some kind of a - something to keep up with them even though I had retired. And so that was when I started my newsletter, which turned into a magazine.
And "rapping" is a word that I used when a brother, or say a young Black in my day would talk to a young sister and talk to her smooth to try to, you know pull her in. That was called "rappin'." That was a smooth way of talkin' to a young lady. I'm layin' a rap on you. And then again, that was the hook, see? Jack "The Rapper."
And so, naturally all the people who know of me now all think that I'm the one that started all of this rap. So they call me the grandfather of the rappers. Well, I guess maybe I am the grandfather, but rappin' was done, was smooth talkin'. That's what rappin' is.
-- "Jockey" Jack Gibson, who became known as Jack "The Rapper"
Pictured at left is "Jockey Jack" Gibson in WFEC Miami studio in 1953.
Novella Smith reminisces about Dr. Jive's on-air appeal
And I used to come home, and I had to sneak the radio on because my mother didn't want me to listen to that kind of radio - race radio - or whatever we called it in those days. And I don't remember. But, she felt that it was not complimentary to her family. And she didn't want us to get any kind of slangs. And you heard lots of slang on radio. It's interesting. But, Dr. Jive was different. And I loved him. And I used to sneak and listen to him.
-- Novella Smith, Houston deejay
I began to - I stopped using Doug Henderson and just picked up on the name Jocko because Jocko rhymed with Daddy-O, and the Mommy-O, and the Hottest Show on the Radio. And instead of having just the regular show, we had a rocket ship show. And I borrowed the rocket ship show from "Hot Rod," who was in Baltimore during that time. That's what he called his show. Used the rocket ship. And we began to rhyme up everything.
E tiddly yock
This is the Jock
And I'm back on the scene
With the record machine
Sayin' boo boppa doo
A-how do you do?
All kinds of rhymes.
Hello, hello, hello
Back with the show
This is your engineer, Jocko
Back on the scene
With the record machine
Correct time now, a-six-sixteen
And the kids picked up on this. Wherever I would go, they would say the rhymes. You know?
-- Doug "Jocko" Henderson, deejay
Pictured at left is Jocko Henderson's "Everybody's Uptight (Tryin' To Get Their Money Right)" single, released on Sugar Hill Records in 1983.
See my father was Superintendent of schools in Baltimore. So I've lived with educators all of my life. Right? It's phenomenal what is happening with it. And how fast the kids are learning this way. How motivated they are. And like I told you before, they can't wait to get to school. That has never happened before. And the worst kids are the best students with the rap music. 'Cause they're in the street rapping. Okay? So there you go. How you gonna beat that?
The kids who really disrupt the schools are now very passive. It's unbelievable. Unbelievable. No kidding. And the classes that are rapping together, they're the best of friends now. All the kids are the best of friends. They're in competition. Who can rap history the best. Who can rap the times table the best. You know? It's amazing.
We got thousands of letters from parents begging us for the Get Ready program. And same thing with the educators. And they're buying it like - oh, unbelievable.
-- Doug "Jocko" Henderson
Pictured at left is a 1981 brochure from the Get Ready educational rap program.
To me the Black disc jockey is as responsible for today's record business as any single force that there ever was in it. He was the first opportunity for exposure of the product to an audience that could relate to it that could start it. Okay? Without him, there wouldn't even have been in our view Rock and Roll. Because what he did was expose the R&B music - which was the precursor of Rock and Roll - he exposed it to the young, Black audience and the young, hip, white audience. And it created so much noise that white radio stations began to play the copies of the Black records. Because there were some very smart entrepreneurs in the record industry who understood that this music had universal appeal. But it was only being exposed to the Black community because that's all that the Black radios could reach.
-- Ewart Abner, record company executive affiliated with Vee-Jay, Constellation and Motown Records.
Pictured at left is KYOK deejay Wash Allen (from Cleveland) in his KYOK studio, wearing black velour shirt, preparing to put a Stax 45 rpm record on turntable.
Well, you know, I'm playing the records. I know what's hot. What's not. So, we used to break records. Break 'em wide open. Like a Sam Cooke record. Sam Cooke came by my house one night about four - one morning, really - about four o'clock in the morning. Somebody was kicking on the front door. I'm sound asleep. And I said to my wife, "Who in the world is that banging that door like that?" You know? So, I put my bathrobe on, and I put my gun in my pocket, and I went down and I peeped through a little peephole. And I saw these fellas - I put the light on - and I saw two fellas out there. And they looked like very, very nice guys. You know, I said, "Well, let me see what they want."
I hollered through the door. I said, "What do you want?"
He said, "Jocko?"
I said, "Yeah?"
He said, "My name is Sam Cooke. And this is Bumps Blackwell, my manager. And we have a record we think is gonna be a big smash, and we just wanted to let you hear it. And pardon us for coming out here at four o'clock in the morning."
I opened the door, took 'em downstairs, heard the record, went upstairs, got a contract from the Apollo Theater. Three weeks from that day I had Sam Cooke on the show in the Apollo Theater. And his record went, in three weeks, number one in the country. When I heard it, it just made me feel good, 'cause I knew it was a smash. Okay? So hey, I contracted him right there for the Apollo Theater. Thank goodness for that. And Sam and I were very, very friendly from that day on. Until the tragedy happened, of course.
-- Douglas "Jocko" Henderson, legendary Philadelphia deejay
Pictured at left are B.B. King, KYOK deejay George Nelson, unidentified woman, and Sam Cooke standing together in studio in 1962.
Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about the links between Black radio and independent record labels.
E. Rodney Jones recounts breaking Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally"
A record promoter brought me a record by Little Richard called "Long Tall Sally." And I took this record, and I listened to it, and I said, "This guy's a rocker." You know?
And they said, "Hey. We just want to see what you think about it."
Because the distributor was Roberts distributors, which I have another thing that I want to bring out about that, too. About Roberts. But anyway, Skip Gorman was the guy's name that brought me the record. He said, "Spider Burke's gonna play this with only a half hour, though he had forty-five minutes a day that he would leave his jazz music and play" - he said he would call it "Going down in the alley behind my house," that he'd play all of the blues, and the rock, and all of the rhythm, and all of that. Doing that a few at a time and go back to his jazz. That was his format.
He said, "You're about the only one over here except George - George might play it if he feels like it. Well I think this record is a hit, and I think the boy needs a break."
I said, "Let me hear it." I played it. It was "Long Tall Sally." I said, "Look, I'll take care of it. I'll do what I can."
The next morning I played that record from six o'clock in the morning until seven. One record. "Long Tall Sally." The phones lit up. They stayed lit up. I wouldn't answer the phone. I mean the people went gone crazy. They thought I had lost my mind.
The guy from the distributor called me. When the switchboard opened up at nine o'clock, I must have had fifty calls from people. "What was the record?" "Are you nuts?" "Are you crazy?" Everybody in that market that was listening to that radio station knew about "Long Tall Sally." The distributor ordered ten thousand records. And he called me and said, "Man, I don't believe this. This is phenomenal." Little Richard will tell you this. I started the record right there in St. Louis and it broke out. Okay?
-- E. Rodney Jones, the famous Chicago deejay known as “The Mad Lad” on WVON, recounting his early years in St. Louis.
So we were in the league of the stars. And when I say the league of the stars, Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, James Brown. We used to hang together. We were very good friends. We visited one another when we were in each others' cities. Unlike what radio is today. Most announcers don't even know the artists. The Jerry Butlers. Now I do have lots of pictures. I do that. And the stars in those years. The Dukes of Earl, the Gene Chandlers, and the Ernie K-does, and the Dionne Warwicks. You know? The Maxine Browns. We knew each other. The Berry Gordys.
Berry Gordy and I would sit in restaurants together. As a matter of fact, he still owes me ten dollars. And I love to say that because I lent him ten dollars years, and years, and years, and years ago. And he forgot to pay me back. And I can say well Berry owes me ten dollars. And people say, "Berry Gordy?" Well, we associated with each other on a regular basis. We talked to one another on the telephone because we were connected.
The separation that radio and artists have today I don't understand. Because I think if I made the stars today that I made yesterday - and we were star makers - we were the pace setters. If we didn't play the records, they didn't get the exposure. If they didn't get it on Black radio, White radio could never pick it up.
-- Novella Smith, Houston deejay
Pictured at left is deejay "Jockey Jack" Gibson with the Orioles in the Royal Art Studio, circa 1950/1951. Left to right is Alex Sharp, Ralph Williams, Jack Gibson, and Charlie Harris.
Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about the relationship between rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
LeBaron Taylor explains CBS's crossover promotion strategies
We were known as the crossover company. We were able to take artists and establish them at Black radio, and actually sit down with our pop promotion departments, and strategize as to where we thought that these Black records could be played. You know, on the pop radio stations. And we had, during that period of time, some very, very strong pop promotion people, and I think we still have them today. But, we would strategize and it would work. So we were able to break a lot of records at Black radio and cross them over.
-- LeBaron Taylor, one of the first African Americans to hold an executive position with a major label (CBS Records).
Black people got really into radio. Motown records came along. We had the Chicago sound, the Philadelphia sound. And this thing was really growing until it got to the '70s. And the '70s was an absolute explosion of Black music. And I think just music period, but especially Black music. That's when it really happened. A lot of people thought it was in the '60s, but it wasn't. It was really in the '70s going all the way up to disco.
So, we were right in the middle of that. And as these artists were being made - Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Miracles - the records were given to us first. And especially to me because I had such a big audience. And I'd play a record and boom it would be a hit. I could play it one time, it would be a hit. It was just that awesome and that popular. And this type thing. We just had all the new records. Tyrone Davis got started with us. I was gonna say Aretha, The Temptations, The Marvelettes, The Miracles. What's the guy's name..."Lean on Me"...Bill Withers. I could just go on and on and on and on. Wilson Pickett. I could just go on an on and on. The people who matured with us.
And it was a combination of us playing the best music possible and introducing people to all the latest things in music. And the fact that we're personalities twenty-four hours a day.
-- Herb Kent, deejay on Chicago station WVON
Pictured at left are The Miracles performing in Cleveland, Ohio in 1962.
Well as Berry Gordy said at the Family Affair this year in his speech in accepting the Original 13 award. He says, "If it were not for Black radio, this boy that you see standing here receiving this award would still be in the hood in Detroit."
I think that'll wrap the whole thing up right there.
Pictured at left is KYOK deejay Walt Love, sitting in his studio with stacks of 45 rpm records in 1968.
This exhibit compliments the landmark 13-part radio series "Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was" (1996).
The series, produced by Jacquie Gales Webb for Smithsonian Productions and hosted by Lou Rawls, garnered the George Foster Peabody Award and Columbia University Alfred I Dupont silver baton.
For more information about the series, or Black radio in general, please contact The Archives of African American Music and Culture. The AAAMC holds the interviews and production materials related to the "Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was" radio series, along with other archival collections related to Black radio.
Archives of African American Music and Culture
2805 E. 10th, Suite 180
Bloomington, IN 47408
Produced by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.
Curators: Brenda Nelson-Strauss, William R. Vanden Dries
Editor: Dr. Mellonee V. Burnim, Director, Archives of African American Music and Culture
Assistants: Matthew Alley, Douglas Dowling Peach, Allison Bohm
Audio interviews (1995) from the collection “Black Radio: Telling It Like it Was,” a radio series produced by Jacquie Gales Webb for Smithsonian Productions; Sonja Williams and Alexis Gillespie, Associate Producers; Matt Sakakeeny, John Paulson and John Tyler, editors; Wesley Horner, Executive Producer; courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Video interview (1981) from the Portia K. Maultsby Collection.
Images from the Jack Gibson, Johnny Otis, Katherine Lewis, Ed Castleberry, Rick Roberts, George Nelson, Travis Gardner, Doug "Jocko" Henderson, and William Barlow collections at the AAAMC. Additional images provided by Clarice Durham, Sonja Williams, Jacquie Gales Webb, Vy Higginsen, and Tim Fabrizio.
Audio and video content digitized courtesy of the Indiana University Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative.
Archives of African American Music and Culture
2805 E. 10th, Suite 180
Bloomington, IN 47408