Night Moves: WLAC and Nashville’s Untapped Legacy (Part One)
Fifty-thousand watts of electrical current travels far and fast. Riding along the night sky, it can cut a path from Memphis to Minneapolis in the blink of an eye, skipping across the Great Lakes to Toronto and back down into the heart of Dixie. On especially clear nights, it can rocket across the seas to tropic islands, before bouncing back to lofty mountain tops, carrying sounds that will either change a generation or be relegated to the boxes in someone’s attic. Until 1946, Nashville’s WLAC was just another CBS affiliate station, but in the hands of a few rebel disc jockeys, it became the first radio station to broadcast rhythm and blues to a national audience, forever changing the face of American culture.
“Previous to 1946, WLAC was just a typical, CBS network radio station,” says Michael Gray, museum editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and co-curator of the Hall’s 2004-2005 exhibit, Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues 1945-1970. “It didn’t have anything that really distinguished it from other stations around the country… [until] they started playing the black music at night.” It all began late one evening in 1946. The story goes that a group of black college students, from either Fisk or Tennessee State Universities, paid night DJ Gene Nobles a visit, toting a box of their own personal R&B records. When they asked if he would play some of their music, Nobles obliged them, and the rest is history.
During daytime hours, WLAC aired everything from soap operas to local news and big band music. R&B programming kicked off at 8pm every night, with each of the four overnight DJs: Gene Nobles, John “John R.” Richbourg, Bill “Hoss” Allen and Herman Grizzard. Each DJ brought his own passion to the microphone and had the freedom to play whatever he wanted, while also catering to their mainly black audience.
Having begun his career as a carnival barker, Gene Nobles worked his way around radio stations throughout his home state of Arkansas, before settling in at WLAC in 1943. By 1946, he was interspersing big band hits with black gospel selection. The more requests he got, the more gospel he played, and before long, he was the first DJ at WLAC playing gospel and rhythm and blues exclusively. John R., though not the first, became the most well-known of the night crew. His instantly recognizable voice boomed out over the airwaves every night with, “This is John R., way down south in Dixie” as a clarion call to turn up the volume. Musicians traveling along the Chitlin’ Circuit always had their dials on 1510AM, hoping to hear their latest single. High school kids were tucked into bed with their teddy bears and transistor radios, hoping that Dad wouldn’t walk in and hear the blasphemous noise coming from beneath their pillows. Even DJs from other stations around the country would listen to John R., as his show was usually going on while they were driving home from work. Hoss Allen began as a fill-in DJ, eventually taking over Nobles’ 10:15 p.m. slot when Gene left. Out of all the DJs, Hoss was known to have the greatest passion for what he played. Over the years, he hosted multiple gospel shows, and along with John R., had his hands in multiple Nashville record labels and other artist management duties. His gospel programming continued on into the 1980s, despite format changes that occurred.
While they were plugging music, they were also pushing products. Sponsors who serviced black communities were buying up airtime, in turn financing the continued success of WLAC. “Collectively, they were pitchmen,” says Gray. “You can’t forget that they were selling stuff. They loved the music, but more than anything, they were also selling stuff.” One minute you’d hear a jingle for White Rose Petroleum Jelly followed by mail-in offers for 100 “live baby chicks” and “swinging soul medallions.” Even artists got in on the act, with Little Richard hocking Royal Crown Hair Dressing, saying “I goes for the girls with the Royal Crown look, mmmMMM!”
Along with the station’s various product sponsors were record stores that individually sponsored each show. Every night, Gene Nobles’ shows were brought to listeners by Randy’s Record Shop, out of Gallatin, TN, beginning in the late 1940s. Owner Randy Wood turned his appliance business into a booming record industry, when sales of the demonstration records he kept on-hand for his record player sales, began outselling his record players. At the suggestion of a customer, Randy approached Gene about partnering up to sell the records Nobles’ was spinning. “Imagine it’s the late 40s, you’re hearing these great black records and the whole time, Gene Nobles is saying, ‘And you can order that from Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee.’ There’s people all over the country that, if you say Gallatin, Tennessee, they’ll remember it. They were selling the records by mail order. Locals could walk in and buy them too, but mainly, their business was mail order,” adds Gray. The success of Randy’s mail order business provided enough income to start up one of Nashville’s most important independent record labels, Dot Records. While Gene was plugging Randy’s Record Shop, John R. was pointing people towards Ernie’s Record Mart, in downtown Nashville. Ernie’s formula was similar to Randy’s, having a mail-order business that eventually spawned multiple small record labels, starting with Nashboro Records in 1951. Since Nashboro was primarily a gospel label, Ernie started Excello Records to service his R&B artists in 1952. Excello cut such important singles as the original version of “Baby, Let’s Play House”, by Arthur Gunner. The following year, Elvis picked up the single and took it all the way up the Billboard charts. These record shops, with their satellite labels became the foundation for Nashville’s music industry, successfully doing everything that RCA, Columbia and Decca Records would later do, but doing it first.
The success of WLAC had as much to do with the rich supply of local talent as it did with the big-name touring acts of the day. In a thirty-minute block, you’d hear James Brown’s latest smash, followed by the current single from local singer Christine Kittrell. Names such as Earl Gaines, Jimmy Church, Johnny Jones and Roscoe Shelton were as important on the air as Little Richard, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. The clubs in Nashville’s R&B circuit, The New Era Club, The Del Morocco, The Stealaway and The Bijou Theater were the training ground for Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsies bass player, Billy Cox. Every big name of the day passed through these doors, located all along Jefferson Street and Fourth Avenue, and every night was nothing but hot tunes and good times. “Nashville was one of the best; there were some of the best bands. Johnny Jones and the King Casuals was the best band here. There was a band at The New Era, The Interiors, which was a great band. Then you had a band at the Stealaway, then you had a band at the Del Morocco and [Jimi] Hendrix played at the Del Morocco. He was in the house band at the Del Morocco and when we went traveling with Jimmy Church, we played the Del Morocco, we played The Stealaway or we played The New Era,” remembers Frank Howard, Nashville banker and former lead singer of Frank Howard and The Commanders. Howard got his start singing in vocal groups on Jefferson Street, eventually joining up with Charlie Fite and Herschel Carter to form The Commanders. They held court every Wednesday night at Club Stealaway, while also touring with both Jimmy Church and Johnny Jones. Eventually, The Commanders began cutting their own records. “Just Like Him,” a tune written by Bob Riley, was brought to the attention of Hoss Allen, who fell in love with the cut. He took over as manager for The Commanders, becoming their producer, putting out their records on his own record label, Hermitage and later onto Dot Records. The boys recorded at all the major studios in town, including Starday-King Records, The Quonset Hut and Nashboro Records.
Though all of the DJs loved the music, Hoss and John R. were especially involved in the community of musicians that they were promoting. Hoss could be found at any one of Nashville’s clubs on any given night, while also producing multiple Nashville acts and taking them out on the road. Howard and Allen became good friends, and through Allen, Howard’s career bloomed. “I went on tours with Hoss; promotional tours,” said Howard. “The first time I met Otis Redding, we were on tour. We left from Atlanta and were going down to Florida. We stopped in Macon, GA, at Phil Walden’s office. We were in a mobile home and I stayed on the mobile home. Hoss said, ‘Come in, I got somebody I want you to meet.’ There was this long hall and he told me to go down that hall to the last door on the right. I went down there and Otis Redding was in there, and it just blew my mind. He was one of my favorite artists.” John R. was instrumental in the southern soul scene of the late 60s and early 70s, becoming A&R man for Nashville’s Sound Stage 7 Records, the soul division of Monument Records. He worked with several local Nashville artists, such as Joe Simon, managing them, producing their records and then putting them on the radio.
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