Gravelly-voiced US disc jockey Robert Weston Smith, better known as Wolfman Jack, was born on January 21, 1938. Well-known throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Jack was the Elvis Presley of rock and roll radio. He repackaged work started by black artists and became famous by feeding the music, in his own original style, to an audience of white music fans starving for something new.
Radio was still generally segregated in the early 1960s so Smith decided to create an alter-ego, a shadowy doppelganger, a Wildman, who would freely play the R&B records he truly loved. Philip A. Lieberman, author of the book Radio’s Morning Show Personalities: Early Hour Broadcasters and Deejays from the 1920s to the 1990s, the moniker was a combination of 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 . . . ‘hit the road, Jack.'”
His first broadcasts were from XERF-AM. XERF was a station just across the border in Mexico that had a signal that was supposedly ten times stronger than any American station. It was from this location that he would soon garner a national following.
Jack’s rough tongue and scratchy voice complete with black slang and wolf-man howls soon became his trademark. He sent America an audio offering of jazz, R&B, rockabilly and rock and roll. American teens took to him immediately and no one else would ever come close.
Wolfman Jack became a regular subject of the national press appearing in major magazines and newspapers. Once musicians like The Guess Who and Todd Rundgren released hit songs about him his fame was assured. The ever-present questions became even more important: Just who is Wolfman Jack? What does he look like? Is he black or white? Where does he come from? Only Jack himself and a few select others knew the answers and they weren’t talking.
It would not be until 1973 when the secrets would be revealed. George Lucas, who recalled the Wolfman’s programs from his childhood, wrote him into the screen play of what would become his movie, American Graffiti. Jack was already enshrined in rock and roll history by the time the film was released.
However, the motion picture made him a true media star. Jack was soon one of rock’s premiere spokesmen. He made numerous personal and TV appearances. He even scored him own television show The Midnight Special.
On July 1, 1995, Jack had completed the broadcast of what would be his last live radio program, a weekly show that was nationally syndicated from Planet Hollywood in Washington, D.C. He had just recently returned from a promotional tour for his autobiography Have Mercy!: Confessions of the Original Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal. That evening he returned home and fell over inside his house in Belvidere, North Carolina. At the age of 57 Wolfman Jack was dead of a heart attack.
He was buried in his own yard. Anyone wishing to visit his gravesite at his former home may not be able to locate the little town on a map however it is approximately 15 miles west of Elizabeth City. His resting place is a half mile north of Layden’s Supermarket on Route 37.
It’s on the right and is easy to spot because it’s the only house with a headstone in the side yard. The marker can be seen from the road. Visitors should be discreet as the home is a private residence. Wolfman Jack’s famous howls finally reached the very heavens in the end.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.