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Wolfman Jack –San Diego top 40 DJ immortalized in American Graffiti

"It’s the image that keeps me going.”

Wolfman Jack obit in the New York Times, July 3, 1995
  • Wolfman Jack obit in the New York Times, July 3, 1995

With the death last weekend of Wolfman Jack, the legendary Top-40 deejay immortalized in the hit movie American Graffiti, San Diego has lost another of its few connections to rock ‘n’ roll legend. During his heyday in the middle 1960s, the gravel-throated Wolfman broadcast from a Mexican radio station 15 miles south of San Diego, punctuating his hit parade with outrageous pitches for plastic statues of Jesus that glowed in the dark and Japanese sewing machines that he sold by mail for $24. Two decades later, Wolfman Jack returned to San Diego, an overweight, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking shell of what he had once been, vainly attempting to resurrect his past glory.

Between 1965 and 1969, when the Wolfman — real name, Robert Weston Smith — was still the most popular disc jockey in America, he broadcast from XERB-AM in Rosarito Beach, just 15 miles south of the border. The station’s powerful 250,000-watt signal was aimed directly north, and Wolfman’s nightly prowl — a blend of popular rock ‘n’ roll, obscure blues, and campy routines — could be heard throughout the United States, all the way up to the Canadian border. The Wolfman had catapulted to fame in the early 1960s, when he was broadcasting from another powerful border radio station across from Del Rio, Texas. By the time he got to San Diego he was famous; his trademark wolf howl and hyena laugh were ingrained in American pop culture.

“Wolfman was pure spirit; he was an icon to younger jocks," recalls Harry “Happy Hare” Martin, a popular San Diego deejay from the 1950s who returned to town in 1967. “Most people, including a lot of San Diego listeners, thought he was a black jock, and they liked him just because of his wolf howls and all the fun he had on his show. I specifically remember one black girl who called him on the air, and she asked him, ‘Wolfman, is you a spade?’ And Wolfman shot right back, ‘No, darling, I is green, the international color.’ He played off it and never tipped his hand until that movie."

In 1969, Wolfman moved to a soul radio station in Los Angeles. Three years later he returned to his hometown of New York and joined the staff of WNBC-AM, then the leading Top 40 station in the country. He was there when American Graffiti hit and, a year later, a song by the Guess Who, “Clap for the Wolfman,” shot to the top of the pop charts. Wolfman was earning $350,000 a year, more than any other jock in the country, he boasted in a 1987 interview.

But by then, the Wolfman had already become a parody of himself. The screaming Top 40 jocks that he epitomized had fallen out of vogue some years before.

I met Wolfman in 1987, when he returned to San Diego for what turned out to be his last hurrah. A local radio station, XTRA-AM, which also happened to broadcast from Rosarito Beach, was refusing to replace rock ‘n’ roll with news and talk, as most AM stations had by then. XTRA’s management had been trying for several years to capitalize on the growing wave of nostalgia by milking the “Mexican radio” connection. They pointed the station’s 50,000-watt signal due north and beamed oldies all the way up the Southern California coast to Santa Barbara. But the ratings failed to go up, and as a last-ditch effort they decided to bring Wolfman Jack to town for two days of live broadcasts.

Wolfman by then had been reduced to syndicating his own golden oldies radio show; he was no longer able to command the high-profile shifts on the high-profile radio stations that had once eagerly sought him out. XTRA had just subscribed to the show, and grateful Wolfman agreed to come down in person for the official launch.

I met him at XTRA’s broadcast booth high on a hill overlooking Rosarito Beach, not more than a mile from where the XERB studio had been. Wolfman Jack was wearing a black Zorro hat and more gold than a Hollywood pimp; he was overweight by at least 40 pounds and wallowed in his chair, red-eyed, unkempt, and nervously puffing on a Mexican chico, or cigarillo. I was there for the second of his two four-hour morning shifts, and throughout the show it was clear that despite the early hour — he went on the air promptly at 6 a.m. — and the remote location of the studio, Wolfman lack was happy to be there.

He opened his Friday morning show with a gleeful, “Hey, San Diego, you got Wolfman lack, and it’s sure great to be back with all you folks here in San Diego. Yeah! We’re gonna rock ‘n’ roll like you ain’t never rock ‘n’ rolled before. So if you’re ready, the old Wolfman is gonna fumigate your soul. How-wooooo!”

He played a couple of oldies that were hot on the charts when he was hot, too: the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” followed by “Earth Angel,” an old doo-wop number by the Penguins. Then came a comedy routine — a fake commercial for a reunion album by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Listeners heard the Wolfman singing along to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” while another announcer barked, “They were the hottest folk trio of the Beat Generation, and now their reunion has an extra added attraction. Yes, it’s Peter, Paul and Mary...and Wolf, singing the songs that moved millions.” The spot ended with Wolfman Jack himself saying, “It’s such a great thrill to be the fourth member of this fabulous trio. I never thought three voices could complement my own with such sweetness.”

Later, during a real commercial, Wolfman Jack remarked about his fall from grace in the late 1970s. He spoke not with bitterness, like so many rock ‘n’ roll has-beens, but rather with grudging acceptance, as though he had come to grips with his fate and met it head-on with a shrug, not a scowl. Back when he was on top, he said, deejays had complete freedom over what they played, said, and did on the air, “and that’s the way it should be; that’s what made the music business so good. The trouble is, in the early 1970s the radio people began to take over, the accountants and the researchers, the people who didn’t know what the hell was going on. That’s what screwed things up.”

After the commercial, Wolfman Jack played several more oldies — the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” Maurice Williams’ “Stay,” and two or three others — followed by another series of commercials. As soon as the last one was over, Wolfman grabbed the microphone and took a call: “Who’s this on the Wolfman 69 XTRA gold phone? Hello? Yes, darlin’, how are you? I understand it’s your birthday. What’s your name? Annette? How old are you today, Annette? Twenty-four? Well, here you go, ready now?”

Sounding like a cross between Ray Charles and a parrot in great pain, the Wolfman sang a complete verse of “Happy Birthday” On the air, Annette giggled; off the air, in the control room, the engineer grimaced and covered both ears with his hands. The song finished, Wolfman Jack put on “Sixteen Candles.” And as the Crests wished Annette a happy birthday all over again, he wiped his sweaty brow with a tissue, slumped into his chair and heaved a sigh. Mexican radio had made him a legend, and here he was, back on the Mexican airwaves for the first time in almost two decades. Our eyes met and I could see instantly that he knew what I knew — it just wasn’t the same. The songs were old, the routines were tired, and so was Wolfman Jack.

That afternoon, driving back to San Diego in a huge black Cadillac limousine, Wolfman Jack let his hair down just a little. On the broken road from Rosarito to Tijuana, he spied a roadside taco stand and hollered at the driver to stop and pull in. The doors and windows to the little yellow building were all open, allowing the diesel fumes from the street to filter inside. Wolfman Jack plopped his bulging frame into the only vacant bar stool. “It’s kind of strange, but I’ve got to have my tacos this morning,” he said. “You know, when I used to live here in the ’60s, I used to eat these tacos every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They’re in my blood, man.”

Within ten minutes, he had wolfed down six tacos and two Corona beers. I couldn’t help but notice how tired and out of place he looked, particularly since he was still wearing the all-black getup he had worn to the studio for a round of publicity stills. I asked him if he ever went out in public wearing casual clothes, if he ever let anyone but his family see Robert Weston Smith rather than Wolfman Jack.

He shook his head sadly. “It’s all part of the Wolfman Jack image,” he said. “And it’s the image that keeps me going.”

In the ensuing months, XTRA brought Wolfman Jack back to San Diego on a number of occasions for promotions, concerts, and more live broadcasts. But ultimately, the syndicated Wolfman Jack show was not the ratings bonanza the station’s management had hoped for, and before too long he was gone, along with XTRA’s oldies format.

A few weeks before the show’s end, I ran into the Wolfman again at an XTRA client party at the Sheraton Grand Hotel near the airport. He sat in a chair in the center of the room, gripping a tumbler filled with brown liquor (it may have been bourbon, or perhaps tequila). He was clearly inebriated. I went over to say hello and when he saw me, he turned blubbery. He had read an article I had written about him some months before in San Diego Magazine, and he was very grateful. He told me as much, his eyes brimming with tears, and proceeded to give me a very tight and sincere hug.

I had hoped to see him again one day. Now it’s too late.

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