Night Moves: WLAC and Nashville’s Untapped Legacy (Part Two)

Samantha Harlow | January 26th, 2012

(Part One can be found here)

WLAC was just as instrumental in breaking the careers of national artists, as it was in fostering the careers of Nashville’s talent. John R. and Hoss Allen are directly responsible for breaking James Brown’s first single “Please, Please, Please,” while Gene Nobles is credited with launching the careers of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. They were also the first to give substantial air time to B.B. King’s breakout single, “3 O’Clock Blues.”

The success of WLAC stretched passed the bounds of radio waves. With the advent of new technology, WLAC parlayed its radio-dial clout into the television stratosphere. Beginning in 1964, Night Train to Nashville became the first television show to feature all black artists and music, showcasing Nashville’s local talent. In 1966, Allen created and hosted The !!!! Beat, a similar show that was broadcast in color. For many WLAC listeners, this was the first time they had ever seen the face of one of their beloved voices. The fact that this voice was coming out of a white man was astounding. From the beginning, Nobles, Hoss and John R. all used the same slang their artists and listeners used. They sounded like a group of black men playing black music, and they were able to connect with their predominantly black audience. When people found out they were all middle-aged white men, they were completely caught off guard. Recalls Howard, “I got to meet Hoss Allen and I was so in shock when I met him and John R.. I was so in shock because I had listened to these guys, as a kid in Pulaski, Tennessee, and I moved to Nashville when I was eight or nine. The whole time I was under the impression that these guys were black, you know?” In an era of unprecedented racial unrest, when the tides of time were violently turning, it seems impossible that these men could become so loved and involved with a community that under any other circumstance was blocked off to them. In reality, it’s not that hard to understand; they saw a need around them, the need for an outlet, and they decided to fill it. Adds Gray, “I think a lot of the racial barriers were tested on the airwaves, and ultimately, I think the people that were tuning into WLAC, black or white, loved the music and they loved the DJs for playing the music.” In an interesting twist, Don Whitehead, news anchor and the one on-air personality who was assumed to be white, was the only black person on staff at WLAC.

50,000 watts, flying at light speed through the air, covers a lot of ground. Not only were the people of Nashville tuned in every night, but kids across the country were glued to their transistor radios as well, often bearing a beating from Mom and Dad as punishment. Though they had no intention of changing the world, the men at WLAC helped usher in the age of rock n’ roll, despite their refusal to play it on their own signal. From New York to Chicago, Mississippi to North Carolina and even on to Jamaica and Iceland, rhythm and blues was pounding into the brains of rock’s first generation of players, and providing the fuel for such notable personalities as Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack. Tracy Nelson, Grammy-nominated blues singer, remembers tuning into WLAC every night. “As you would imagine, I was from a very white, middle class, Norwegian family. So, when I first heard that music, and I’ve said this before, it was like something had beamed in from Mars: I had never heard anything like it, and it just captured me immediately. Then I began listening as much as I could, and going from there and listening to other stuff too. Finding people who were interested in some of that music and learning from them. It was just a joyous, eye-opening experience. It was listening to music for pure pleasure, and it was amazing. It just totally took me away.” After walking in on her brother listening to a gospel program, she began listening nightly, both at home and in the car. Though her parents wildly objected to Elvis Presley, they never batted an eye at Tracy’s love of R&B. While taking guitar lessons in high school, she got turned onto old blues artists such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, which followed a natural progression to R&B, soul music and the like. She began singing professionally with a local R&B band, and over time, developed her own voice as a blues powerhouse. “I got more wrapped up in that and started recognizing it as a form, and that’s kind of what stayed with me”, says Nelson. “I mean that’s, to this day, kind of how I still think of myself, as a knock-off, early R&B artist.”

Frank Howard had similar experiences growing up, as did the members of his current band, The Valentines, who hail from all across the country. “[WLAC] reached in places where nobody else was reaching. We’ve got an all-white band now, and those guys are in their fifties and sixties. Those guys talk about, even now, how they used to slip and listen to WLAC, because they wasn’t allowed to listen to that music. As a young boy, I wasn’t allowed to listen, because they played a lot of blues back then, Johnny Ace and B.B. King, they played a lot of blues. As I remember, I was listening to a Johnny Ace’s song called ‘I Look at the Face of the Clock on the Wall.” It’s a beautiful song, and my dad said, ‘I don’t want to hear you listenin’ to that no more.’ He listened to it, but he didn’t want us to listen to it.”

When R&B was hot, WLAC was at the center of it, but, as time passed, things changed. Nashville had a great independent scene, with many small record labels to bolster its talent, but there was neither one major label nor one dominant “Nashville” sound. Memphis had Stax and Detroit had Motown, but Nashville had a lot of different sounds that never completely gelled. Over time, the small labels and management companies were bought by the larger ones, taking away some of the power of small labels and radio stations. The urban renewal projects of the 1950s brought an inglorious end to clubs such as The Bijou and The New Era, while the construction of I-40 in the late 1960s demolished what was left of the club scene on Jefferson Street. With no outlet to perform and no labels to record their music, the large acts quit coming to town and the smaller ones went about their daily lives as if their musical prime had never happened at all. The dawn of disco brought about the demise of live bands, when club owners realized that they could pay one guy to spin records, as opposed to five guys playing the music live.

Eventually, the sun went down on WLAC’s heyday. Once the R&B format caught on, stations all over the country were scrambling to get their own local flavor, reducing the need for WLAC’s vast reach. Their own format changed in the early 1970s to a Top 40 playlist, which didn’t last long. By 1980, WLAC had switched to talk format, though Hoss Allen continued broadcasting his Sunday morning gospel shows through the next few years. Gene Nobles, John R. and Herman Grizzard all eventually left, fed up with the changes that had been made. Gone were the days of Randy’s Record Shop and White Rose Petroleum Jelly ads. The colorful characters that helped define a movement all signed off, one by one. Though they weren’t the only station to broadcast R&B throughout the 50s and 60s, they were the only ones who could reach outside their own neighborhood to do it. WLAC brought a niche market to the masses, spawning a thousand copy-cats, while doing their part to pass on an art-form they thought to be culturally significant. What they were able to do with 50,000 watts was no less than remarkable.

Further reading:
Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues, 1945-1970
You Can Make It If You Try: The Ted Jarrett Story of R&B in Nashville
 The Pied Pipers of Rock and Roll: Radio Deejays of the 50s and 60s

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