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'Midnight Special's Wolfman Jack: The DJ Who Howled

Icons | January 2, 2018

Wolfman Jack on 'Midnight Special,' late '70s. (Photo by Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

A radio DJ born in Brooklyn, Wolfman Jack was a wildman of the airwaves whose famous gravelly voice and high-energy antics made him one of the most famous disc jockeys of all time. In his prime radio years, Wolfman Jack was a national DJ, broadcasting from a station with the most powerful signal in North America; his show could be heard in Los Angeles, New York, and everywhere in between. While most radio DJs, even very successful ones, remain disembodied voices to their listeners, Wolfman Jack managed to get out from behind the microphone, becoming a TV personality (on Midnight Special) and an occasional movie actor (in American Graffiti and other films).

Wolfman Jack Gained Fame Broadcasting From Mexico

The Wolfman was born Robert Smith in Brooklyn, New York, and he was a fan of radio and DJs from a young age. He graduated from the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., in 1960. From there he had a string of jobs and alter egos -- in Newport News, Virginia, he broadcast as "Daddy Jules," but when the studio changed format he became "Roger Gordon and Music in Good Taste." In Shreveport, Louisiana, he worked at a country music station as "Big Smith With The Records," but began developing a much better character -- Wolfman Jack.

As Wolfman Jack, Smith went to work in Mexico at XERF-AM, a "border blaster" station that sent out a signal at five times (or more) the strength allowed in the U.S. Thus, a radio station situated south of the border could reach much of the continental U.S., and even other continents at night. He spun the latest vinyl in rock and roll on a nighttime radio show in Mexico. Soon he moved back to the States but continued to send taped broadcasts back to Mexico to be aired.

He was somewhat of a pioneer in this field because it was like no other radio program known in the States at the time. Given the fact that the show was broadcast from Mexico, he was not governed by the same rules that American radio stations were required to adhere to. Moral standards were much more relaxed in Mexico at the time.

He was able to do things other disc jockeys couldn’t get away with. The Wolfman was known to howl and bark out lewd, crazy statements and orders to his listeners. Despite this, he was still being heard on the radio.

The Wolfman Persona Was Perfect For Him

He was said to have been every bit as wildly animated during his studio broadcasts as he sounded. That signature voice coupled with his electric personality earned the Wolfman huge success and a cult-like following. He was known as a faceless, AM radio phenomenon. He was well regarded as a disc jockey hero.

While enjoying his ever-increasing success, eventually Smith had his name legally changed to Wolfman Jack. He began making personal appearances in nightclubs and movies, giving his fans a face to go with the name and the voice. After a few years though, Mexico hopped on the censorship bandwagon and the big guy was out of a job. 

1973 Was A Big Year For The Wolfman

Wolfman Jack hit the big screen in a big way with his appearance in the 1973 movie American Graffiti -- his fans were pleasantly surprised to see that his looks perfectly fit his personality and famous howl. It turned out that Wolfman Jack had stage presence as well as that voice, and he became the announcer and frequent host of The Midnight Special, a late-night live music show that aired on NBC from 1973-81. He continued to appear in movies, had cameos on TV shows, and cut commercials and infomercials. He was considered the epitome of rock and roll and had fun doing it.

His career began very humbly and grew to unmatched success. He always appreciated his fans and never refused to humor them; often posing for pictures, signing autographs and making personal appearances.

The Wolfman was dedicated and serious about his career.  He performed his Friday night radio program from Planet Hollywood until his unexpected death in 1995, at the young age of 57.

The Wolfman was one of those people that you didn’t have to know personally to know him. He left a lasting rock and roll legacy that will be remembered for years to come.  Howl on Wolfman!

Tags: Career-Defining Moments | The 1970s | Wolfman Jack

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.