Did Wolfman Jack work in Modesto? Did he work at KFIV? These are questions that we are frequently asked at the Modesto Radio Museum. The answer to both is… no. The misconception that he was once a DJ in this area may stem in part from the George Lucas blockbuster film American Graffiti in which Wolfman Jack’s voice is heard throughout as part of the film’s fabulous soundtrack. The fact that George Lucas singled out Wolfman Jack to also star in his movie gives us a clue as to who George may have listened to during his youthful days of cruising in California’s Central Valley. There is a scene in the film in which the Richard Dreyfus character, Curt Henderson, visits a radio station that closely resembled KFIV in those days; here Curt meets the man behind the voice, although he doesn’t realize who it is at the time. Perhaps this scene also led people to believe that Wolfman Jack worked at KFIV in Modesto.
It’s more likely however that folks tended to believe over the years that Wolfman Jack is from this area because he was on our radios a whole bunch in the ‘60s. We cruised to his voice and the music he played, laughed at his antics; We loved him, we imitated him, we accepted him as one of us, a seemingly local guy who knew how to tickle our wacky entertainment buttons. What we didn’t realize is that this scenario was unfolding in thousands of towns across the nation and around the world.
Wolfman Jack is not a stranger to Modesto. He made a few visits here to host Graffiti Fest concerts at Modesto Junior College stadium and was even seen at a movie premiere in our town, more on his visits shortly. In 1972 the owners of KTRB decided that on air personality Derek Waring would be called “The “Godfather” during his show. Wolfman Jack was asked to do a drop-in voicer for the Godfather and he obliged. Derek has always regretted that the Wolfman didn’t say “Derek Waring…The Godfather” to make it a little more personal, given the thousands of Godfathers out there, but that’s show biz. One of Modesto’s former local talents, Mr. Wonderful, Dave Holmes was once a producer for the Wolfman Jack Show in Southern California.
The Wolfman Jack Drop-in for Derek Waring, The Godfather on KTRB
Modesto Radio Museum member Greg Edwards who is a retired on air personality and former adjunct professor of broadcasting at Modesto Junior College remembers as a child scanning the radio dial and listening to distant radio stations. It was at this time in his life that he first heard what he describes as, “A wild DJ” named Wolfman Jack. He was broadcasting from Rosarito Beach, Mexico over station XERB and playing music that Greg had never heard before. In between records he would call listeners and ask them questions such as, “Are you naked?” XERB’s program listing showed Wolfman Jack filling the 9:00 PM to 3:00 AM slot and promoted him as, “The most unbelievable thing you have ever heard on the airwaves. It’s so different that word spreads like wildfire and people can’t help but listen to Wolfman Jack and his Wolfpack. The most talked about personality in America, both out in the audience and on other radio stations too.”
Wolfman on XERB, 1090 (courtesy of Greg Edwards)
Throughout his years in broadcasting Greg has met many VIPs but he says that meeting Wolfman Jack for the first time left an indelible impression on him. He remembers that it was in the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. Wolfman was working for the Nashville Network on radio with an all-night country show that was broadcast across America. Greg walked past the Opryland Hotel studio window and… there he was! Greg was able to spend nearly an hour with the Wolfman watching the, “genius at work.” He was impressed with how “high energy” the Wolfman was while the microphone was open but how “laid back” he was when off the air. Wolfman’s approach to doing his show was, “If you ain’t sweatin’, you ain’t workin’.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s Modesto held annual Graffiti Fest celebrations which included musical concerts and cruising. Greg tells us that although Wolfman Jack didn’t actually work at a radio station in Modesto, he did make some personal appearances during which he guest starred on Modesto’s air waves. On one occasion in 1990 he joined a remote broadcast over KOOK AM-970 which originated at Northern Tire and Wheel on McHenry Ave.
During his first encounter with Wolfman Jack in Nashville Greg couldn’t have imagined that they would meet again, but it happened. They met when the Wolfman was in Modesto in 1990 to emcee a Graffiti Fest concert. In 1993 and again in 1994 Greg was working for KAT Country 103 doing Graffiti Fest remote broadcasts from Save Mart Supermarkets; The Wolfman showed up to visit with Greg on the air! He graciously answered questions and greeted the public. During one visit while introducing the Wolfman Greg recalls that he conjured up his best Wolfman impression which many of us have, some much better than others. Greg proceeded with his introduction by growling out, “How is your Boogaloo situation?” It was apparent from Wolfman’s facial response that he was not amused. Greg remained in good standing though; He even went on to work in the Wolfman’s personal security detail while he visited Modesto. Fortunately, according to Greg there were no situations that threatened Wolfman Jack’s security and Greg says that his job was pretty much to make sure that our esteemed guest got his favorite meals, greasy cheeseburgers.
Ok, so who was Wolfman Jack and where did he come from? Let us shed some light on these questions. The Wolfman will assist us at the end of this story by also responding to these questions, in his own words. He even throws out some mentions of Modesto in the process!
The person who was to become Wolfman Jack was born Robert Weston Smith in Brooklyn, New York January 21, 1938. As a young man he was a Rhythm and Blues music kind of guy; He listened very closely to the radio announcers of the day making note of the music they played and their particular gimmicks and deliveries on the air. The ear catching names that made them unique in the field of early radio entertainment were not lost on this fledgling radio announcer. It’s conceivable that at this point Robert Westin Smith gave some thought to what name he would use if he were a DJ.
It was in the late ‘50s that Robert Smith made the move toward a career in broadcasting when he enrolled in the National Academy of Broadcasting (NAB) in Washington D.C. He graduated in 1960 and went to work for WYOU in Virginia using the name “Daddy Jules.” When WYOU changed formats he changed his name to “Roger Gordon and Music in Good Taste.”
In 1962 it was on to country music in Shreveport, Louisiana at station KCIJ where Robert Smith became “Big Smith with the Records.” It was at KCIJ that the Wolfman Jack moniker was first heard by radio listeners. Robert “Big” Smith, soon to become Wolfman Jack especially liked DJ Alan Freed who called himself “Moon Dog.” Freed would use a recording of a howling dog during his broadcasts and this left quite an impression on the budding radio star. Big Smith began calling himself Wolfman Jack and created his own unique library of sound effects to bolster his new radio identity. Sound effects that eventually would forever be associated with the Wolfman Jack character. Incidentally the name “Wolfman” came from a love of horror movies and “Jack” came from the lingo of the day where people would refer to each other as “Jack,” for example, hit the road Jack.
The Wolfman Howl (courtesy of Greg Edwards)
Wolfman Jack grew from local recognition to national prominence in 1963 when he became involved with a radio station XERF just across the border in Mexico. Radio transmitters in Mexico didn’t have the power limitations of U.S. stations and could operate at many times the power. The Wolfman Jack show was introduced to people all over the continental United States and even some foreign countries. In the mid 1960s Wolfman Jack would tape his shows in Hollywood and then ship the tapes across the border to be broadcast on radio station XERB.
Wolfman Jack Show Opener (courtesy of Greg Edwards)
In August, 1973 Wolfman Jack began working at WNBC in New York; That was the same month that American Graffiti premiered. He worked there for a year before returning to California in 1974 to work on his syndicated radio shows. In 1989 Wolfman Jack moved to Belvidere, North Carolina to be nearer his family.
At the height of his popularity Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in 53 countries. On July 1, 1995 the world lost Wolfman Jack when he suffered a heart attack; He was 57 years old. Robert Weston Smith, the Wolfman was laid to rest in the family cemetery in Belvidere. His headstone reads, “One more time,” “Clap for the Wolfman,” and “ooOOOWWWW.”
Wolfman Jack Closing A Show (courtesy of Greg Edwards)
In His Own Words
Here’s a 1990 interview with Wolfman Jack at Canadian Music Week in Toronto, Canada in which he describes in his own words how he became the Wolfman.
(The above Wolfman clip was edited for this article but is available in it’s entire one hour format by clicking here. )
– The Modesto Radio Museum has drawn on information from Wikipedia and from the Wolfman Jack 1990 interview at Canadian Music Week to compile this article. Many thanks to our friend Greg Edwards for his recollections, pictures, and audio contributions. If you have memories of Wolfman Jack that you would like to share please leave them in the comments section below.
– Derek Waring