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On this Day in Movie History, July 1, 1995: Wolfman Jack Dies

Wolfman Jack
Public Domain

On this day, July 1. 1995, gravelly-voiced American disc jockey famous in the 1960s and 1970s Wolfman Jack died. “He walked up the driveway, went in to hug his wife and then just fell over,” said Lonnie Napier, vice president of Wolfman Jack Entertainment. Wolfman Jack died of a heart attack in Belvidere, North Carolina, on July 1, 1995.

Wolfman Jack had finished broadcasting his last live radio program, a weekly program nationally syndicated from Planet Hollywood in downtown Washington, D.C. Wolfman Jack said that night, “I can’t wait to get home and give Lou a hug, I haven’t missed her this much in years.” Wolfman had been on the road, promoting his new autobiography Have Mercy!: Confessions of the Original Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal, about his early career and parties with celebrities.

Born Robert Weston Smith in Brooklyn on January 21, 1938, the younger of two children of Anson Weston Smith, an Episcopal Sunday school teacher, writer, editor, and executive vice president of the Financial World; and Rosamond Small. His parents divorced while he was young. To help keep him out of trouble, his father bought him a large transoceanic radio, and Smith became an avid fan of R&B music and the disc jockeys who played it.

After selling encyclopedias and Fuller brushes door-to-door, Smith “(Wolfman Jack) attended the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, DC. Upon graduation (1960), he began working as “Daddy Jules” at WYOU-AM in Newport News, Virginia. When the station format changed to “beautiful music,” Smith became known as “Roger Gordon and Music in Good Taste.” In 1962, he moved to country music station KCIJ-AM 1050 in Shreveport, Louisiana to be the station manager as well as the morning disc jockey, “Big Smith with the Records.”

The character of Wolfman Jack was based in part on the manner and style of bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. It was at KCIJ that he first began to develop his famous alter ego Wolfman Jack. Smith’s “Wolfman” persona “derived from Smith’s love of horror flicks and his shenanigans as a ‘wolfman’ with his two young nephews. The ‘Jack’ was added as a part of the ‘hipster’ lingo of the 1950s, as in ‘take a page from my book, Jack,’ or the more popular, ‘hit the road, Jack.’”

In 1963, Smith took his act to the border when the Inter-American Radio Advertising’s Ramon Bosquez hired him and sent him to the studio and transmitter site of XERF-AM at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico, a station whose high-powered border blaster signal could be picked up across much of the United States.

In 1971 he moved to station KDAY 1580 in Los Angeles, which could only pay him a fraction of his former XERB income. However, Smith capitalized on his fame by editing his old XERB tapes and selling them to radio stations everywhere, inventing rock and roll radio syndication. He also appeared on Armed Forces Radio from 1970-1986.

At his peak, Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in fifty-three countries. He was heard as far off as the Wild Coast, Transkei, on a a station based there, Capital Radio 604.

In August 1973, the same month that American Graffiti premiered, in a deal promoted by Don Kelley, the Wolfman was paid handsomely to join WNBC in New York and the station did a huge advertising campaign in local newspapers that the Wolfman would propel their ratings over that of their main competitor, WABC, which had “Cousin Brucie” (Bruce Morrow). The ads would proclaim, “Cousin Brucie’s Days Are Numbered,” and they issued thousands of small tombstone-shaped paperweights which said, “Cousin Brucie is going to be buried by Wolfman Jack.”

After less than a year, WNBC hired Cousin Brucie, and Wolfman Jack went back to California to concentrate on his syndicated radio show. He moved to Belvidere, North Carolina, in 1989, to be closer to his extended family.

In 1973, he appeared in director George Lucas’ second feature film, American Graffiti, as himself. In gratitude for Wolfman Jack’s participation, Lucas gave him a fraction of a “point” — the division of the profits from a film — and the extreme financial success of American Graffiti provided him with a regular income for life. He also appeared in the film’s 1979 sequel, More American Graffiti, though only through voice-overs.

Subsequently, Smith appeared in several television shows as Wolfman Jack. They included The Odd Couple; What’s Happening!!; Vega$; Wonder Woman; Hollywood Squares; Married… with Children; Emergency; and — most notoriously — Galactica 1980. He was the regular announcer and occasional host for The Midnight Special on NBC from 1973 to 1981. He was also the host of his self-titled variety series, The Wolfman Jack Show, which was produced in Canada by CBC Television in 1976, and syndicated to stations in the US.

In March 2003, a memorial was dedicated to the Wolfman in Del Rio. Wolfman Jack was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1996, and into the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1999.

Birthdays
1899 – Charles Laughton (Academy Award-winning actor: The Private Life of Henry VIII [1933]; Mutiny on the Bounty, Witness for the Prosecution, Advise and Consent, Les Mis’rables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Captain Kidd, The Man on the Eiffel Tower, Spartacus; husband of actress Elsa Lanchester; died Dec 15, 1962)

1902 – Myron Cohen (comedian, entertainer, actor: When Nature Calls; died Mar 10, 1986)

1902 – William Wyler (director: Funny Girl, Ben Hur, The Big Country, Friendly Persuasion, Roman Holiday, Carrie, Wuthering Heights; died July 27, 1981)

1916 – Olivia de Havilland (Academy Award-winning actress: To Each His Own [1946], The Heiress [1949]; Gone with the Wind; sister of actress, Joan Fontaine)

1925 – Farley Granger (actor: Very Close Quarters, Night Flight from Moscow, The Purple Heart, The Robe, Arnold; died Mar 27, 2011)

1931 – Leslie Caron (actress: Lili, The L-Shaped Room, Gigi, An American in Paris, Father Goose, Daddy Long Legs)

1934 – Claude Berri (Langmann) (actor, director: Le Sex Shop, Marry Me, Marry Me, director: Germinal, Uranus, Manon of the Spring, Jean de Florette, Tchao Pantin, I Love All of You, One Wild Moment, The Two of Us; died Jan 12, 2009)

1934 – Jamie Farr (Jameel Joseph Farah) (actor: M*A*S*H, The Blackboard Jungle, Scrooged, Cannonball Run, With Six You Get Egg Roll)

1934 – Jean Marsh (actress: Upstairs, Downstairs, The Jewel in the Crown, Fatherland, Frenzy, The Changeling)

1934 – Sydney Pollack (director: The Firm, Out of Africa, Tootsie, Absence of Malice, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were; died May 26, 2008)

1939 – Karen Black (actress: Easy Rider, You’re a Big Boy Now, Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, House of 1000 Corpses)

1939 – Frank Parker (actor: The Concorde: Airport ’79, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives)

1942 – Genevieve Bujold (actress: Anne of a Thousand Days, Coma, Dead Ringers)

1952 – Dan Aykroyd (comedian, actor: Driving Miss Daisy, Sneakers, Coneheads, Saturday Night Live, Dragnet, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, Pearl Harbor)

1956 – Lorna Patterson (actress: Goodtime Girls, Airplane!, Private Benjamin [TV])

1967 – Pamela Anderson (actress: Baywatch, Raw Justice, Playboy's Babes of Baywatch, Pam & Tommy Lee: Stolen Honeymoon, Cribs)

1970 – Henry Simmons (actor: NYPD Blue, Another World, One Life to Live, A Gentleman’s Game)

1972 – Claire Forlani (actress: J.F.K.: Reckless Youth, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, The Rock, The Last Time I Committed Suicide, Meet Joe Black, AntiTrust)

1977 – Liv Tyler (model, actress: Silent Fall, Heavy, That Thing You Do!, Armageddon, Cookie’s Fortune, Lord of the Rings series)