Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wolfman Jack on the Charts

Wolfman Jack (born Bob Smith) created such a perfect radio persona that it's hard to imagine him not being around before he started howling from XERF, a 250,000 watt "border blaster" in Ciudad Acuña (near Del Rio, Texas) in 1963. Later in the sixties, the Wolfman's moon-bark and growling jive talk filled American midnight skies thanks to two additional airwave monsters, the Tijuana stations XERB and XEG. He was the hallucinating night driver's companion, the insomniac's blessing and curse, and the juvie's secret accomplice. (He remembers the '50s DJs he cut his fangs on as being "a lot cooler than even the toughest hood in the toughest street gang around.") It all sounds a bit mythical, but George Lucas was one listener who experienced the Wolfman's radio hoodoo and made it quasi mythical by featuring it as a crucial aspect of American Graffiti (1973), the ultimate manifestation of the early seventies nostalgia boom.

For me, what makes Wolfman Jack special among radio legends is that he was a true "personality DJ" fueled by music. Usually the personality jocks are inconvenienced by music while the music wonks tend not to sweat the manner of delivery. It was Wolfman Jack's passion for R&B 45's he discovered in the '50s, most of them oldies by the time he became a household name, that fueled his character and made him so addictive to listeners. This passion is all over his 1995 memoir Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal (written with Byron Laursen), and it's one reason why the book, published only a single month before his death, is such a pleasurable showbiz memoir. Other reasons are its voice, which anyone familiar with him would recognize as his (hats off to Laursen, who transcribed personal interviews), along with remarkable stories like the one where he explains how he joined forces with XERF. That's a tale of shadowy border intrigue, greenbacks in burlap sacks, and gun slinging bandidos worthy of a rock 'n' roll corrido or two.

The post-American Graffiti Wolfman Jack, of course, was a multimedia experience. In addition to ongoing radio work, he was the Midnight Special host from 1973 to 1981, a regular presence on TV commercials ("Clearasil's the triple threat!"), and the guest star/host of many a sitcom, drama, and variety show. All of this activity makes me think about the stuff the Wolfman didn't do. How would his involvement in Happy Days have reshaped the show had his staff not turned down the show's invitation? Or how might his ambitious road show I Saw Radio - featuring tributes to vintage rock 'n' roll, archived clips from classic DJs, and an elaborate set including a massive radio dial - have flourished had it not literally gone up in flames, thanks to some Union thugs? (His recounting of a confrontation between said thugs, the show's road crew, and some Detroit theater security who turned out to be "three of the wimpiest rent-a-cops this side of a Don Knotts film festival" is another story that sticks in my head.)  To his credit, whatever the media situation Wolfman Jack did find himself prowling through, his rock 'n' roll pedigree was always the clear reason why.

Here are a handful of Wolfman Jack-oriented singles that got airplay in the early to mid-'70s and charted in Billboard:

Wolfman Jack - "I Ain't Never Seen a White Man" (Billboard #106, entered 9/23/72). Written by Dick Monda. Produced by Don Sciarrotta and Dick Monda. 45: "I Ain't Never Seen a White Man"/"Gallop" (Wooden Nickel 1972). LP: Wolfman Jack (Wooden Nickel 1972).

This racial equality offering appeared on Wolfman Jack's self-titled solo album, which was his first proper one (pictured above). It featured compositions by Richard Monda, who had already been writing songs for another wolfman and his monster friends on the Groovie Goolies cartoon. As Daddy Dewdrop, Monda took his song "Chick-A-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It)", with its Wolfman Jack-influenced lead vocal, to #6 in 1971.

The Guess Who - "Clap for the Wolfman" (Billboard #6, entered 7/20/74). Written by Burton Cummings, Bill Wallace, and Kurt Winter. Produced by Jack Richardson. 45: "Clap for the Wolfman"/"Road Food" (RCA Victor 1974). LP: Road Food (RCA Victor 1974).

Canada got a real case of Wolfman fever in the mid-'70s and this might have had to do with his 1973 stints on WNEW and WNBC in New York City. In his Have Mercy book, he claims that this single's success and a subsequent tour with the Guess Who saved him from a self-destructive situation in the Big Apple. Must have been pretty bad if a rock 'n' roll tour felt like rehab.

Ray Stevens - "Moonlight Special" (Billboard #73, entered 7/27/74). Written and produced by Ray Stevens. 45: "Moonlight Special"/"Just So Proud to Be Here" (Barnaby 1974). LP: Boogity Boogity (Barnaby 1974).

A pretty funny parody featuring "The Sheepdog" introducing acts like "Mildred Queen and the Dips" (Gladys Knight and the Pips), "Agnes Stupor" (Alice Cooper), and "J. Joe Harry Lee Jimmy Bimmy" (Jerry Lee Lewis). This was Stevens' followup single for his chart-topping "The Streak."

Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta - "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" (Billboard #9, entered 12/7/74). Written by Jerry Corbetta and John Carter. Produced by Frank Slay. 45: "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You"/"Texas Two-Lane" (Claridge (1975). LP: Don't Call Us - We'll Call You (Claridge 1975).

This Denver group was simply called "Sugarloaf" when they hit #3 with "Green Eyed Lady" in 1970. With this single, they were officially "Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta," since Corbetta had been working as a solo artist for another label before getting back together with the old gang. "Don't Call Us" razzes on CBS Records, who had recently rejected the band, and includes the dialtones to the label's private number. Also featured: winks to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder along with an imitation of the Wolfman. (Love that B-side!)

Todd Rundgren - "Wolfman Jack" (Billboard #105  entered 1/18/75). Written and produced by Todd Rundgren. 45: "Wolfman Jack"/"Breathless" (Bearsville 1974). LP: (The version with Wolfman's participation appeared on no album).

On Rundgren's 1972 Something/Anything? album, this song (which doubles up as a thumping Motown tribute) appears without the Wolfman's voice anywhere. The 1974 single release of "Wolfman Jack," though, rectified the situation.

Wings - "Listen to What the Man Said" (Billboard #1, entered 5/31/75). Written by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney. Produced by Paul McCartney. 45: "Listen to What the Man Said"/"Love in Song" (Capitol 1975). LP: Venus and Mars (Capitol 1975).

Although the radio version of this Paul McCartney smash often didn't include it, the Venus and Mars album version starts out with a spoken Wolfman Jack intro: "Heh, heh, very good to see you down in New Orleans, heh, heh, yeah, yeah..."

The Stampeders - "Hit the Road Jack" (Billboard #40, entered 2/28/76). Written by Percy Mayfield. Produced by Mel Shaw. 45: "Hit the Road Jack"/"Hard Lovin Woman" (Quality 1975). LP: Steamin (Music World Creations 1976).

More Canadian love for the Wolfman, this time from the Calgary trio who scored a #8 hit in 1971 with "Sweet City Woman." Lacking in Ray Charles buoyancy, the single's still fun with contributions from Wolfman Jack himself. In 1976 and 1977 he would host a TV variety series called The Wolfman Jack Show, which was filmed in Vancouver and syndicated to the US.

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids - "Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)" (Billboard #29, entered 8/26/76). Written by Rod McQueen. Produced by Joe Renzetti and David Chackler. 45: "Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)"/"Maybe It's All in My Mind" (Private Stock 1976). LP: Sons of the Beaches (Private Stock 1976).

This Sha Na Na-style '50s tribute band (also from Colorado, like Sugarloaf) appeared in American Graffiti as the prom combo and contributed the only freshly-recorded material to the movie's soundtrack album. An eventual team up with Wolfman Jack, then, seemed natural, even if it ended up sounding more like something from Happy Days' shark-jumping era. (Certain pressings of this single, for some reason, omitted his spoken interludes.)

Late '70s Bonus:

Tammy Wynette - "(I'd Like to See Jesus) On the Midnight Special" (1978, country #26): Written by Dorvell Smith and Robert Seay. Produced by Billy Sherrill. 45: "(I'd Like to See Jesus) On the Midnight Special"/"Love Doesn't Always Come (On the Night You Need It)" (Epic 1978). LP: Womanhood (Epic 1978).

The chorus goes, "I'd like to Jesus on the Midnight Special, I'd like to see the Wolfman bring him on." Wolfman Jack's response: "...To my knowledge, the Son of God never made a personal appearance for us [on the Midnight Special]. But practically everybody else in show business eventually did" (Have Mercy, p. 263).