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Though music is made to be sold, be it the 78 RPM records that existed when rock began in 1947, through the 45 RPM singles that replaced those en masse by the mid-1950’s or any of the cassettes, compact discs or mp3 files that followed, there was always ways to hear the music without actually buying the records/songs.

Today it’s streaming services that bring music to our ears but in the past it was radio, something which still exists but no longer has the same power or cachet.

However because each radio station has a limited reach, not to mention frequent changes in format, disc jockeys and even the numbers on the dial, it means that what’s important to one region and era is meaningless to those outside of that.

Occasionally though there are some stations which leave a bigger impact and rock’s story couldn’t be properly told without talking about them and so as part of the occasional We Interrupt This Broadcast entries we’re going to try and shed some light on one such avenue that aided rock’s popularity as it grew into a cross-cultural behemoth.
 

 

Take Out Some Insurance
Let’s go WAY back to when radio was in its infancy in the 1920’s and WLAC in Nashville was one of its first commercial stations.

Started by – and named for – the Life And Casualty Insurance company, the station was more of a novelty for its first few years before it became a CBS affiliate in 1928 and saw its signal boosted from a thousand watts to five thousand in the process. Fourteen years later in 1942 it became one of just sixty-four stations nationwide to operate as a Clear Channel outpost with 50,000 watts of power so they could cover about five whole states since the surrounding area was rural with not enough concentrated population to support smaller more localized stations.

But they were forced to use a “directional” signal, which meant they used five transmitters and the Northeast and Northwest ones would be pulled back after six PM so as not to interfere with the Boston and Seattle stations also situated at 1510 on the dial for their regions. In doing so it created a “sky-wave” signal, which essentially meant that power they were holding back from those directions got redistributed in the remaining directions, so that after dark the signal was essentially pumping out 100,000 watts straight north to Canada and in a bell shape throughout the South all the way down into the Caribbean.

Just as fellow Nashville clear channel station, WSM, which brought The Grand Ol’ Opry in to homes across the country thereby helping to popularize country music, WLAC wound up doing the same for rock ‘n’ roll in the years to come.
 

Daddy Gene And The Birth Of A Rock Radio Empire
Before television took over the leisure hours of the country the radio networks ran national programs over their countless affiliates and commanded huge audiences for their comedies, variety shows and soap operas during the day and early evening, but late at night the local stations were free to run their own programming to fill the time and in 1947 WLAC had hired Gene Nobles to host these shows starting at 10:15 each night after the network programming ended and a local fifteen minute newscast had aired.

Nobles began to play records by black artists on his show who weren’t afforded any time elsewhere on most radio stations and because of the reach of their signal it meant WLAC quickly became the one outlet for African-Americans to hear music meant for their ears and they began drawing massive audiences.

Nobles had been a carnival man and had the huckster delivery down pat and with the gimmick of giving his engineer, George Karsch the nickname “Cohort”, to whom he’d talk and give commands to but who never spoke in return but rather played a recording of Johnny Weissmuller’s “Ahhh-ahhhhhh-ahhhh-ahhhhaaa” yell from the Tarzan movies in response, the show was far wilder than anything else on the air, helping to cement rock’s anything goes image.
 

Randy’s Record Shop
This type of program didn’t attract the usual respectable advertisers, both because of the late night time slots and the brand of listener the music was drawing in, and so you had a colorful assortment of mail order products being hawked over the air including baby chicks, hair pomade and Bibles.

Into this world stepped Randy Wood, an electrical engineer by trade who’d met a guy named William Kirkpatrick in the Army who wanted to open an appliance store in his hometown of Gallitin, Tennessee. Kirkpatrick’s plan was to do do the simple rewiring of old appliances that had broken down – lamps and toasters – while Wood focused on building custom Hi-Fi sets to take advantage of the new post-war technology that was promising to be big business.

Local sales for these services were good enough to keep them profitable but Wood had the idea of stocking records in the store to demonstrate (and sell with) the Hi-Fi sets as a way to make some added income. Though the sets themselves sold well, the records for some reason did not and as a result he needed to get rid of them.

He mentioned this to Bob Holmes, the Capitol Records promotion man he’d been dealing with and Holmes, in a bid to keep the account, told him about Gene Nobles who had a big radio show in Nashville able to reach five states or more and who had cheap advertising spots available as a way to perhaps sell what he had. Wood gave it a shot and signed up to sell his surplus records – virtually all pop material from Capitol and RCA – for six dollars an ad at 11:30 each night, six nights a week but got no response for what he was pitching after a few weeks and was in the hole more than seventy bucks when he decided to drop it.

The audience however kept hearing about Randy’s Record Shop, as Wood called it, making it seem like far more than it actually was, which was nothing more than a few boxes of records in an appliance store, and ignoring the fact that the titles being mentioned in the ads themselves were touting the likes of Nat Cole and Johnny Mercer, people began simply writing in requesting the songs Nobles was playing over the air… namely rock ‘n’ roll.

Wood was astonished when he began getting these “orders” for artists like Roy Brown, Amos Milburn and Wynonie Harris along with envelopes of cash and he had a sudden epiphany. Scrambling to line up distributors to get these records, Wood promptly bought even more time on Nobles show and began packaging multiple records together, allowing him to move more product while inflating the shipping and handling charges which is where mail order reaps its profits. In no time he touted his shop as the biggest mail order record business in America and created a veritable empire in the process which soon included Dot Records, a label that ironically would become known for a rash of white cover versions of the black rock Wood made his name and fortune on.

But his primary contribution to the music world remains the advent of mail order records, for in 1947 this was about the only way black listeners without a local retail outlet of their own could buy this music and because the reach of the station was so large (almost half the country) it virtually assured that the many independent record companies putting out rock in its formative stages had the opportunity to break even or perhaps make a profit themselves and stay in business, just from being included in one of Randy’s Record packages.
 

This Is John R., Way Down South In The Middle Of Dixie…
Because of the runaway popularity of the show hosted by Gene Nobles other retailers wanted in on the action and WLAC began carving out more hours for these shows, including some in prime time, to profit off this demand.

But Nobles was the only disc jockey they had who was capable of selling this music and he was being run ragged now, so in late 1947 they moved announcer John Richbourg into the role of disc jockey and hoped for the best.

Richbourg was a total contradiction on paper, a Jewish New York native working in the repressive South who had moved into radio when his career as a Shakespearean actor hadn’t panned out. Adopting the name John R. (or John Awwwwrrra as he said it) with the tagline “Way down South in Dixie”, and utilizing his natural deep voice and extensive theater training he developed a character whose racial origins were never certain as he adopted many black colloquialisms as part of his speech patterns on air (though off air he remained the buttoned-down erudite man he always was) and for decades most listeners just assumed he was black.

In time he became the most famous voice on the station manning the late night time slot, 11:30-1 AM which was sponsored by Ernie’s Record Mart in Nashville leading Ernie Young to start his own Nashboro and Excello Record labels when he saw the demand for the music was even greater than he had expected.
 

It’s “Git Down Time” With The Hossman!
The third of the Big Three at WLAC was Bill “Hoss” Allen, ironically enough from Gallatin the home of Randy’s Record Shop. He was in his mid 20’s, doing local radio in town and got to know WLAC’s sales manager Blackie Blackman who in turn introduced him to Randy Wood over Christmas 1948. Impressed with his voice and delivery Wood was soon requesting that Allen be the one to sit in for the frequently “vacationing” Nobles (a gambler who’d disappear for days on end at the track) on WLAC.

In April 1949 the Hossman, as he was most commonly known, got his own regular show on the station and would soon become just as big as the others, both with his night time rock shows – The Dance Hour and Randy Records Hi-Lights – as well as his Sunday morning gospel show which he hosted until his retirement in 1993, the last music show WLAC had after switching to an all-talk format in the early 1980’s.

Along the way he took three years off to work for Chess Records in the early 1960’s as a promotion man before returning to WLAC. He also went into television as the host of the legendary cult program The !!!! Beat in the mid-60’s which was one of the few places you could see live performances by black rock artists on the small screen outside the traditional Top Ten acts who got occasional spots on national variety shows.
 

The End Of An Era
By the early to mid-1970’s with the rise of FM radio which made the mega-watt AM stations far less important, WLAC lost its cultural identity. Nobles retired first in 1972 and John R. signed off for the last time the following year while Allen stopped playing the music he’d grown to love as the format shifted in an effort to remain relevant.

By now the sponsored shows which had made up the bulk of the airtime and revenue and had given the station its unique identity, were no more and the era of mail order records had long since run its course.

The one caveat however was by this time rock itself was firmly entrenched as the dominant sound in America thanks in large part to the enormous impact of stations like WLAC.
 
 

 
(As always please visit the Master Index for the chronological list and links of all records reviewed to date)