Tuesday, December 29, 2009

WLAC Radio - Nashville



Back in the 1950s, when white teenagers were just beginning to discover that Pat Boone's version of "Ain't That A Shame" was not the original, a radio station in Nashville, Tennessee, was beaming rhythm and blues and gospel music to millions of young listeners, each discretely tuning his dial to 1510 on the AM dial late into the evening hours.

It was 10:00 pm in the East, bed time for many a schoolkid. But, if the weather was cooperative and the tuner sensitive enough, wonderful sounds soon began to issue forth. Not Perry Como, not the Chordettes, certainly not Pat Boone. No, here streaming directly into our bedrooms were the strange, new, and wonderful tones of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Fats Domino, Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Little Junior Parker, The Spaniels, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf, and Etta James.
Jimmy Reed-"Baby What You Want Me To Do?"

Here was something special, something to be shared only with your very best friends, not with those jerks at school who didn't know about it and couldn't understand it if they did. Here was something that made you wish you could soundproof the door to your room or, perhaps, buy a pair of headphones, all to insure that listening bliss might continue into the wee hours when your mother assumed that you had long been asleep.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters
(Who didn't know what this song was about?)

Gene Nobles was on WLAC for Randy's Record Shop. Nothing characterized the WLAC listening experience more than the nightly program sponsored by "The World's Largest Mail Order Phonograph Record Shop" -- Randy's Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee. They must have done a heck of a business. No street address, no post office box ... just "Gallatin, Tennessee."

During the mid-'50s, Randy's sponsored what may have been the most listened to disc jockey show in the country. Introduced by the nostalgic tones of "Suwannee River Boogie" by Albert Ammons, "Randy's Record Hi-Lights" was broadcast on clear-channel WLAC at 10:15 pm Central Time, six nights a week--and at 11:00 pm on Sunday. And 50,000 watts of power insured that it could be heard all over the East, South, and Mid-West, probably in Canada and Mexico as well.

Gene Nobles has as much claim as anyone to being the first to play rhythm and blues records for a racially mixed audience and developing a distinctive deejay "patter." Gene called it "Slanguage" and it included such phrases as "from the heart of my bottom." Mr. Nobles passed away in 1989.

Commercials by regular sponsors: Click on to listen.

Live Baby Chicks
Royal Crown Hair Dressing
Ernie's Record Mart
Randy's Record Shop
"Randy" was Randy Wood, a successful entrepreneur whose catalog boasted that his shop was "The Home of the World's Largest Stock of Recorded Music. Randy was patriotic too, offering a "10% discount to all men and women now serving in the Armed Forces." Lest we forget, these records were "also available in 45 r.p.m."

Giving Randy's show a run for the money was the program sponsored by the venerable Ernie's Record Mart, at 179 3rd Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee. "Ernie's Record Parade" could also be heard every night. It was a one-hour show broadcast Monday through Friday at 9:00 pm Central Time and on Saturday from 8:00 until 9:45 pm. On Sunday night the "all spiritual" show began at 8:30.

The host on Ernie's show was the steadfast "John R." His full name was John Richbourg and he began working at WLAC in 1942. His distinct, deep, and sometimes gravelly voice, together with his "hep-cat" patter combined to confuse many listeners into believing that he was a black man. Actually, he was a white man who had come to WLAC following stints at other stations and a youthful attempt to pursue a career on the musical stage. John R. signed off for the last time on June 28, 1973. As late as the 1980s, Mr. Richbourg was answering letters from his fans, sending out autographed photos, and selling tapes of his programs.


Herman Grizzard


Youthful insomniacs and dedicated listener's could stay up past midnight in the East and listen to the third in the nightly series of record-shop-sponsored shows, this one brought to us courtesy of Buckley's Record Shop. Buckley's show, entitled "After Hours," was introduced by the theme song "After Hours" by Erskine Hawkins. The host disc jockey was a gentleman who seemed to be older than Gene Nobles or John R (and was). That gentleman was Herman Grizzard, who had been with the station since the '30s. Each of these record shops offered "special" packages of records available by mail order at a group price. As I recall, each 5-record special from Ernie's was offered for a period of a couple months and was called something like Ernie's "Bullseye" Special or some similar name that would distinguish it from, say, Ernie's "Blue Ribbon" Special. Five records for three dollars or so was a great deal too, as long as you didn't mind having a ringer or two in the group--some title that you probably wouldn't have otherwise purchased. I mean ... did someone really want a copy of "Gumbo Mombo" by Guitar Gable?


Bill "Hoss" Allen
was yet another popular dee-jay at WLAC. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1948, Allen began his radio career at WHIN in his hometown of Gallatin, Tennessee, hosting "Harlem Hop." Allen soon moved to WLAC, initially filling in where needed, ultimately taking over the 10:15 to midnight spot, when Gene Nobles retired.

The "Hossman" also hosted many gospel programs. Indeed, in 1981, Savoy Records released an LP (SL 14627) entitled: Bill "Hoss" Allen Presents "Let's Go To The Program." Subtitled "Twelve of America's Greatest Gospel Groups," the record includes recordings by such groups as The Swan Silvertones, The Soul Stirrers, and The Original Blind Boys of Alabama, introduced by Allen and altered to include applause, as though the performances were actually live, in concert.

Atttribution: Jim Lowe's recollections (edited for length)

I have awfully fond memories of lying in bed late at night with that faint, tiny red light glow on my radio, turned down low... just listening away to WLAC.
(DNJ)

12 comments:

Martha Markline Hopkins said...

I really enjoyed that. Sorry I wasn't able to tune in to these great stations at that time. My cheap radio picked up only local stations. I do have feverishly fond memories of listening to "Blueberry Hill" over and over the week I was in bed with measles. It must have been the week it came out, for they gave it lots of air time.

JOHN SPENCER ROANOKE VA said...

I LISTENED TO WLAC IN THE 50'S. I WAS STATIONED IN VIETNAM IN 1963 AND THEY PUT A JUKE BOX IN OUR REC ROOM. IT WAS FILLED WITH ARTISTS THAT WE HAD NEVER HEARD OF LIKE THE BEATLES, BOB DYLN. ROLLING STONES ETC. WE DID NOT HAVE ANY RADIO STATIONS. I WROTE TO JOHN R TELLING HIM WE NEEDED SOME MUSIC FOR THE JUKE BOX. ABOUT 3 WEEKS LATER WE RECEIVED A BOX FROM RANDY'S RECORD SHOP WITH ALL THE GREAT R&B ARTISTS. WE THREW AWAY ALL THE JUNK RECORDS. I SENT A LETTER TO JOHN R'S WIFE IN NASHVILLE AND SHE SENT ME A CASSETTE OF JOHN R LIVE BROADCAST. I HAVE SHARED IT WITH ALL MY FRIENDS. GLAD THERE IS MORE AVAILABLE NOW.
JOHN SPENCER, ROANOKE VA

weslego11 said...

Oh! Now at age 55, I still remember heating water on an wood stove for baths in Jacksonville N C and mama tuning to 1510 AM J R and Randy Mart to write all the Gospel records(45)she would order when dad send us money from Nam, they came in six packs,and she would give them to the old ladies at the church.my brother would order the midnight specails we would be until early morning to caught the new song to play Amomon have a recording of the show but from the late 50's to old for me

Jaybird said...

I have recently been buying all of the old WLAC programs that I can find. John R. was and is my favorite DJ of all times. He was better than TV in the early fifties and is much better now. Maybe someone should start a John R, Memorial Day and have a national event in Nashville. Jabird in NC

Patricia Ruth Lewis said...

JayBird where do you purchase the old programs from WLAC? let me in on the secret too PLEASE i would like to purchase some of them too

Patricia Ruth Lewis

Anonymous said...

Recently I bought a series of John R recordings from (I think the early 60's). The ad that came with it said John R is Back, he's heard online now on rockhouse radio on Facebook I think. DD

Anonymous said...

OH someone asked where to get them, the John R tapes are available on eBay, many of them are copies of the others so look for the originals from his recordist named Jolley

Timothy Smith said...

O my goodness! I was a little fellow when WLAC would blast the airwaves late Sunday nights with that old time gospel hour sounds from gospel groups like the Highway QC's, Harmonizing Four, Swannee Quintets, Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, Mahilha Jackson, Pilgrim Jubilees, Swan Silver Tones, Dixie Hummingbirds, and other popular choirs. My household and many more got their little chicks from your radio ads. Many community back yards were filled with chickens. Thanks for all the wonderful sounds and memories. The radio brought me full circle to Christ Jesus. I won't forget what yah did for black American music. God Bless.
Pastor Timothy Smith
Fort Worth, Texas

Anonymous said...

We used to get an occasional good signal in the Tampa Bay area, but whenever we could, a buddy and I used to drive up the Gulf Coast on US 19 until we were well north of the bay area. We'd pull off somewhere get a crystal clear signal skipping across the gulf. Loved listening to BIG John R!

Anonymous said...

HI I just bought the series of 10 John R specials from Jolley on eBay. He was the one that actually ran John R's radio control board and taped all of the shows now available. Some are better than others but they're all great.

James P. Smith "Wolff" said...

James P. Smith a.k.a. "Wolff" Growing up during the early 50's in Yazoo City, MS., we listened to John R. in the evenings, due to the fact, that stations that played the musical genres of Blues, R & B, and Jazz, were off the air. Therefore, WLAC, located in Music City USA, where I now reside, was a staple for us. In fact, listening to WLAC, helped to influence the beginning of my musical aspirations. In the Delta, where I come from, we were surrounded by so many giants of that bygone era. I was blessed to travel the legendary "Chittlen Circuit," as a bassist. Lord willing, after we complete my first music project, with some of the great musicians here in Nashville, my prayer is that ya'll will enjoy what the old " Wolff," will be putting down. Howling at ya!!!


sandi said...

I have a 1949 WLAC BOOK 3 in excellent condition we found while cleaning out my mother's house