“So, Bob Smith, the guy with a million schemes and hustles, went away somewhere, never to be heard from again. Wolfman Jack, the happy-go-lucky guy whose main concern in life is good times and rockin’ music, took over on a twenty four-hour-a-day basis. I became my own invention.”
“Have Mercy! Confessions of the Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal” by Wolfman Jack and Byron Laursen (1995)
Those of you who frequent these pages will know that the film American Graffiti (1973) looms large in my legend. It has long been a Labour Day staple in my house and watching the film – one of my Top 25 favourite films – is always an enjoyable and emotional experience. At the end of every summer when I watch the film, I come away with the feeling of wanting “more”; I will sometimes read the screenplay or novelization or watch the sequel. Sometimes I will scour the internet for additional information and look up things peripheral to the movie. Often I will focus my study on radio of the 1950’s and ’60’s and I have long been fascinated by this even independent of AmGraf. Finally one year I made the obvious move to look more closely into the career of Wolfman Jack. I quoted from his autobiography in a Tweet and a couple of my followers strongly urged me to read it. I found it at the ever reliable AbeBooks and ordered it. It came quickly in the mail while “the iron was still hot”; while I was still pondering the Wolfman. It was additionally serendipitous that I finished the book I had been reading almost the very same day so I happily dove into the book we’re looking at today.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune of hearing the Wolfman on the radio, then you will certainly recognize the voice that leaps out of the pages of this exciting book. The very best thing about this autobiography is the casual presentation and conversational tone the Wolfman employs. And I say “employs” but the Wolf ain’t puttin’ on no act, he’s just writin’ like he raps. This makes for not only an engaging read but an easy one.
I’m always fascinated reading about how people got their starts and Wolfman obliges in Have Mercy!. In his book, you’ll hear about his start as Bob Smith, born in Manhattan, reared in Brooklyn and a child of divorce. Feeling abandoned, he retreated into a makeshift recording studio in his bedroom and began to build his radio persona. An alter ego was a place to hide.
“That’s why I like being Wolfman Jack. Bob Smith from Brooklyn is a guy who sometimes gets hung with problems and fears. Wolfman Jack is a happy-go-lucky guy who knows how to enjoy a party.”
Wolf talks about his early radio influences, DJs like Jocko, John R., Dr. Jive and Symphony Sid. John R., Wolf explains, actually talked over the records as opposed to jocks from an earlier age who served more as masters of ceremonies. The success of legendary Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed sealed the deal for Bob Smith who ingratiated himself with Freed and became a gopher at Freed’s shows. Wolf then broke through at WNJR Newark where he apprenticed under DJ Mr. Blues who one night took sick. That night Bob Smith the engineer went on the air. Soon after, radio sunk its fangs deep and the Wolfman Jack persona was born in a charming scenario involving Bob Smith’s young nephews.
“Ever since I was a kid, the only thing I had ever wanted in life was to be a cool rhythm and blues disc jockey.”
I’ll have to restrain myself and not relate here the captivating story of Wolfman Jack’s origins at the “border blaster” stations of Mexico; first XERF and then the legendary XERB. (You can listen to vintage shows at this great XERB site) These “X” stations had always been populated by on-air preachers of dubious reputations who made their fortunes by selling to listeners all manner of merchandise. Jack says he tapped into that format for The Wolfman Jack Show. The Wolfman became a pioneer in selling Wolfman Jack/XERB collectibles and rock & roll merchandise. In Have Mercy!, you’ll learn that Wolfman almost single-handedly created the K-Tel-type compilation record LPs that were loaded with “oldies” and that Jack sold to his listeners. Again, the story of Wolfman Jack’s adventures in Mexico should be heard by all rock & roll fans and would make a spellbinding film. Except viewers would be hard-pressed to believe all that went on. And his explanations of the intense power of these radio stations is poetic and your imagination will be staggered.
“So much energy rolled off that transmitter tower, it vibrated the filaments in headlights until they lit up. You could hold a fluorescent tube up to the tower and it would do the same thing. Any bird that flew too close while the power was on would seize up with a birdie heart attack and fall to the ground, dead as a stone. People working at the studio would get a kind of drug-free high for the first few hours. Then they’d start to get loopy and need to take a heavy nap. XERF had an atmosphere like no other radio station in the world.”
The Wolfman Jack Show, first on XERF and then on XERB 1090, was the flagship show for black music in the country; “In the great years from 1966 to 1971, (XERB) was a better soul station than anything else that had ever been on the air – in New York, Chicago, or any place else in the world…When it came to spreading the news about rhythm and blues, the Mighty 1090 was the greatest force ever to hit West Coast airwaves.” I found a real kindred spirit in Wolfman Jack as he speaks often in his book about the black music and artists that he loved and that defined his work and his life. Many passages in his book were heavy for me to read as the words could’ve came out of my own mouth.
I found it interesting, too that Wolfman says he often in these days operated in the business world of radio as Bob Smith; no one who dealt with him knew him as Wolfman Jack and those who did didn’t blow his cover. Radio Man Bob Smith’s bubble eventually burst in Mexico and he eventually lost control of his border blaster. But DJ Wolfman Jack was still big and Jack landed a gig at KDAY in Los Angeles but things sure were different. He’d gone from major player to worker bee. But there were more triumphs to come.
I learned from this book that Wolfman Jack was also a pioneer in the field of syndication. He began to tape his show and send it out, first to Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam and then across the US. He later talks at length about his adventures hosting the live music television show, The Midnight Special. But what I really wanted to hear about was American Graffiti.
George Lucas came along at a low point in Wolfman Jack’s career, a time when he says “the wolf was at the door”. When he got contacted to appear as himself in the film, he wondered how much he would have to pay for such publicity. The thing that perhaps is most striking about Have Mercy! is the distinct change in tone when Wolf talks about American Graffiti. Much of the casual language and hyperbole is gone and Jack talks with reverence about the situation. It’s as if he also senses the deep grandeur of the film and the soulful part he played in it; and that refers to not just his role onscreen but his contribution to the aura of the movie. Wolfman Jack speaks with humility, respect and gratitude when he relates to the reader that, just two years before Graffiti, he was flat broke due to the fallout from losing control of XERB. As payment for his role in the film, George Lucas had given the Wolfman a small percentage of the profits from the film in perpetuity. Wolf says the first three checks he got paid off all his old XERB debts and then the “checks kept on coming for a long time – about $150,000 to $200,000 every six months”. Up until the writing of Have Mercy!, Jack says he still got “a lovely little royalty check every once in awhile”.
“The whole world is dying to have soul. If there’s any one thing I can promise that you’ll get out of reading this book…it’s the straight truth about how to have soul.”
Now for a couple of highlights, nuggets and fascinating things you’ll learn from Have Mercy!:
- You’ll hear of the debauchery of Wolfman Jack’s high-living years as a radio star at WNBC in New York. The zaniness of the show he and his team put on was fuelled by the cocaine use Jack regrets. At WNBC, Jack was pitted against crosstown rival Cousin Brucie.
- Wolf was married once and for years to Lou Elizabeth Lamb and the couple had two children. He laments his infidelities which – along with his drug abuse – caused a rift in their marriage but he says Lou forgave him for his transgressions and the couple moved on. But she never let him forget.
- Burton Cummings of the Canadian band the Guess Who approached Wolf to ask if he’d like to appear on the band’s record, a tribute to Wolfman Jack called “Clap for the Wolfman”. Wolf agreed to not only be heard on the record but also to tour with the group. Jack was paid $37,000 for six weeks of work; more than he made at WNBC in a year. “Clap for the Wolfman” was one of the Guess Who’s highest-charting singles, their last Top Ten.
- Jack shares great memories of hosting The Midnight Special. What was “special” about the Special was the fact that artists had to play live and had basically only one take to get it right. Wolfman also shares memories of co-hosting with the late Helen Reddy and of dealing with her obnoxious then-husband.
- Wolfman Jack became a bishop in the Universal Life Church and presided over one of Mike Love’s many weddings
- Jack relates a story about taking his kids to see Elvis Presley perform at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. He says his kids were distracted, though, when they spotted Carrie Fisher who they knew and loved as Princess Leia from Star Wars. Except Star Wars came out in 1977 and Presley last played the International in 1971. Memory does that to all of us, I guess.
“Being the Wolfman is more than just spinning records and making a funky, beastly sound of joy come out of a human throat. It’s being a mouthpiece for the possibility of happiness, it’s about the great connection to humanity that you can find in just spreading love around and being your own true self.”
Have Mercy! was published June 1, 1995 and Wolfman Jack died of a heart attack on July 1 of the same year; a scant four weeks later. He died right after finishing a tour promoting his book. One thing this means, though, is that Wolfman Jack’s autobiography does not miss later aspects of its subject’s career, as some bios do. I often note a biography’s publishing date to see how up-to-date it is. But more than this, Have Mercy! is a thoroughly engaging book and serves as an excellent chronicle of the life of a huge and unique figure in the history of rock & roll. To get a copy for yourself, start your search at AbeBooks.