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WLAC--Nashville's 2nd Radio Giant


WLAC at 2421 West End Avenue

    WLAC was one of the nation's first radio stations, taking the air on November 24th, 1926, the year after WSM took to the air in Nashville. Created primarily as a promotional venture and publicity medium for the Life And Casualty Insurance company, WLAC originally operated only part-time and on a non-commercial basis. Beautifully equipped studios, as modern as the day, were constructed on the fifth floor of the insurance company building. Thousands of visitors, attracted by the novelty of the new medium, enjoyed the hospitality of the spacious, palm-shaded reception room.

Accepted from the start with a warm welcome from Nashville residents, WLAC expanded steadily. Known as the "South's Master Station," WLAC adopted the slogan "Health, Thrift, Entertainment, and Education." In 1928, the station affiliated with the Columbia Broadcasting System to become the CBS outlet for Nashville.

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WLAC remains a CBS affiliate to this day, some 67 years later.

Originally operating with 1,000 watts of AM power, WLAC increased to 5,000 watts in 1928. In March of 1942, WLAC became one of only sixty-four radio stations in America licensed to operate as a Class 1 "Clear Channel," with 50,000 watts of power. This enabled WLAC's programming to reach parts of five states in daylight hours. After dark, WLAC's massive "skywave" signal blanketed twenty-eight states and several foreign countries. Upon achieving clear channel status, the station's top of the hour identification announcement proudly proclaimed, "This is WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee, operating on 50,000 watts at 1510 kilocycles, authorized by the Federal Communications Commission of Washington, D.C."

Through the 1940's, WLAC faithfully cleared the full line-up of the CBS Radio Network. WLAC also produced programs, such as "The Old Dirt Dobber," which were distributed nationally by CBS. The station maintained its own full orchestra, including a Kilgen pipe organ installed right in the studio.

As the infant television industry began to eclipse network radio in the 1950's, WLAC began airing locally produced music programming, with such legendary on-air personalities as John R., Gene Nobles, and Bill "Hossman" Allen. Listeners all across America tuned in nightly to hear the latest rhythm and blues hits, along with ads selling Randy's Record Shop, Royal Crown Hair Dressing, and "live baby chicks."

After shifting to a "Top 40" rock and roll presentation in the 60's and 70's, WLAC adopted a news and talk format in 1980. That format remains today, as WLAC continues to serve Nashville and Middle Tennessee with fast, accurate news reporting and stimulating talk shows.

[information above from http://wwns.com/wlac/history.html]

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[the following is reproduced from the recollections of Jim Lowe]

   Back in the 1950s, when white teenagers were just beginning to discover that Pat Boone's version of "Ain't That A Shame" was not the original, a radio station in Nashville, Tennessee, was beeming rhythm and blues and gospel music to millions of young listeners, each discretely tuning his dial to 1510 on the AM dial late into the evening hours.

It was 10:00 pm in the East, bed time for many a schoolboy. But, if the weather was cooperative and the tuner sensitive enough, wonderful sounds soon began to issue forth.  Not Perry Como, not the Chordettes, certainly not Pat Boone.  No, here streaming directly into our bedrooms were the strange, new, and wonderful tones of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Lowell Fulson, Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Little Junior Parker, The Spaniels, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf, and Etta James.

Here was something special, something to be shared only with your very best friends, not with those jerks at school who didn't know about it and couldn't understand it if they did.  Here was something that made you wish you could soundproof the door to your room or, perhaps, buy a pair of headphones, all to insure that listening bliss might continue into the wee hours when your mother assumed that you had long been asleep.

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Gene Nobles on WLAC for Randy's Record Shop

   Nothing characterized the WLAC listening experience more than the nightly program sponsored by "The World's Largest Mail Order Phonograph Record Shop" -- Randy's Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee.  They must have done a heck of a business.  No street address, no post office box ... just "Gallatin, Tennessee."

During the mid-'50s, Randy's sponsored what may have been the most listened to disc jockey show in the country.  Introduced by the nostalgic tones of "Swannee River Boogie" by Albert Ammons, "Randy's Record Hi-Lights" was broadcast on clear-channel WLAC at 10:15 pm Central Time, six nights a week--and at 11:00 pm on Sunday.  And 50,000 watts of power insured that it could be heard all over the East, South, and Mid-West, probably in Canada and Mexico as well.

Your genial master of ceremonies was Gene Nobles, seen here holding a soon to be displaced 78 rpm disc.  He was ably assisted by engineer George Karsch in the control booth, whom Nobles referred to as "Cohort."  Listeners sometimes called him the "ape man," as he occasionally punctuated records and commentary with Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan ape call, as found on the Dale Hawkins recording of "See You Soon Baboon."  I listened to Gene and his show as often as possible.  For whatever reason, he was my favorite and I always had the impression that he was the star of the WLAC lineup.

I'll never forget, however, the night when my hero's feet of clay were exposed.  Nobles' exuberant comments notwithstanding, he didn't always pay attention to the records being played.  Evidently, he and the ape man worked from a list prepared in advance of the show.  But this night they got out of synch somehow.  So just as a record by Chuck Berry had finished playing, poor Gene could be heard saying: "How about that great number by Nervous Norvus, one of my favorites."  I've since learned that this slip may have been attributable to the fact that Nobles was known to have consumed a bottle of Seagrams V.O. in the studio each night.

Gene Nobles has as much claim as anyone to being the first to play rhythm and blues records for a racially mixed audience and developing a distinctive deejay "patter."  Gene called it "Slanguage" and it included such phrases as "from the heart of my bottom."  Mr. Nobles passed away in 1989.

"Randy" was Randy Wood, a successful entrepreneur whose catalog boasted that his shop was "The Home of the World's Largest Stock of Recorded Music.  Randy was patriotic too, offering a "10% discount to all men and women now serving in the Armed Forces."  Lest we forget, these records were "also available in 45 r.p.m."

Randy Wood was also President of "Dot" Records.  Ironically, it was in this capacity, in 1955, that he met with Hugh Cherry of WMAK (Nashville) and was introduced to an aspiring 20-year old singer named Charles Eugene Boone.  Wood was impressed and signed the young man to a contract.  In November of that same year "Pat" Boone had his first hit on Dot: "Ain't That A Shame."

In addition to Boone, Wood's label featured other white artists such as Sanford Clark and, yes, Nervous Norvus.

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John R

   Giving Randy's show a run for the money was the program sponsored by the venerable Ernie's Record Mart, at 179 3rd Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee.  "Ernie's Record Parade" could also be heard every night.  It was a one-hour show broadcast Monday through Friday at 9:00 pm Central Time and on Saturday from 8:00 until 9:45 pm.  On Sunday night the "all spiritual" show began at 8:30.

The host on Ernie's show was the steadfast "John R."  His full name was John Richbourg and he began working at WLAC in 1942.  His distinct, deep, and sometimes gravelly voice, together with his "hep-cat" patter combined to confuse many listeners into believing that he was a black man.  Actually, he was a white man who had come to WLAC following stints at other stations and a youthful attempt to pursue a career on the musical stage.  John R. signed off for the last time on June 28, 1973.  As late as the 1980s, Mr. Richbourg was answering letters from his fans, sending out autographed photos, and selling tapes of his programs.

John Richbourg died February 15, 1986 at age 75.  At his funeral, gospel singer Ella Washington sang "Amazing Grace" and "Because He Lives."  One of his old friends, Motown songwriter Jackie Beavers, performed a song John R. had requested, "Eye on the Sparrow."  More details on the life of John R. may be found in an article by Dale R. Patterson at the excellent Rock Radio Retrospective web site.

"Ernie" was Ernie Young, details about whom are found in an article about the Radio Four gospel group written in 1995 by Opal Nations.  Here is the pertinent portion:

Between 1952 and 1955, The Radio Four were captained by the Reverend Dr. Morgan Babb. ... [who] was also taken on as gospel A&R man by Ernie L. Young, founder and president of Nashboro Records out of Nashville in 1951, a post he held for nine years.  The kindly, resourceful Young became a part of the Nashville music scene at an early age and was soon supplying records for the juke boxes he operated around the city.  When records were taken off the juke boxes, they were sold at his record store, Ernie's Record Mart at 177 Third Avenue.

Young found that his customers, for the most part African American, were devoted collectors of gospel music, and that the local market for gospel was such that supply undercut demand.  To counteract the situation, Young, out of his store location, founded Nashboro Records and Record Distributing in 1951.  The Excello label, a secular sister of Nashboro, was set up shortly thereafter to handle the demands of a burgeoning rhythm and blues market.  Young, without prior training, undertook all the recording and mixing on primitive, two-track, mono equipment in the dingy attic above the rudimentary mail order department.

The Nashboro/Excello Record and Distributing Company operated on a shoestring budget with just three employees, Dorothy Keaton, Young's devoted and indispensable secretary, Willie D. Hendrix who worked in the packing room and oft-times doubled as a packer and learn-as-you-go sound engineer, and a short, deaf bookkeeper, James Clifton who cussed every time radio dispatched taxi drivers out on the street jammed his hearing aid.  The store financed the record company at first, until the success of Arthur Gunter's ... enormous hit "Baby Let's Play House" stormed the charts in January 1955.

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Herman Grizzard

   Youthful insomniacs and dedicated listener's could stay up past midnight in the East and listen to the third in the nightly series of record-shop-sponsored shows, this one brought to us courtesy of Buckley's Record Shop.

Buckley's show, entitled "After Hours," was introduced by the theme song "After Hours" by Erskine Hawkins.  The host disc jockey was a gentleman who seemed to be older than Gene Nobles or John R (and was).  That gentleman was Herman Grizzard, pictured here, who had been with the station since the '30s.  Each of these record shops offered "special" packages of records available by mail order at a group price.  As I recall, each 5-record special from Ernie's was offered for a period of a couple months and was called something like Ernie's "Bullseye" Special or some similar name that would distinguish it from, say, Ernie's "Blue Ribbon" Special.  Five records for three dollars or so was a great deal too, as long as you didn't mind having a ringer or two in the group--some title that you probably wouldn't have otherwise purchased.  I mean ... did I really want a copy of "Gumbo Mombo" by Guitar Gable?

I can remember sitting in bed making notations in a diary detailing the play lists of these shows and the contents of each special record deal. 

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Bill "Hoss" Allen

   Bill "Hoss" Allen was yet another popular dee-jay at WLAC.  After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1948, Allen began his radio career at WHIN in his hometown of Gallatin, Tennessee, hosting "Harlem Hop."  Allen soon moved to WLAC, initially filling in where needed, ultimately taking over the 10:15 to midnight spot, when Gene Nobles retired.

The "Hossman" also hosted many gospel programs.  Indeed, in 1981, Savoy Records released an LP (SL 14627) entitled: Bill "Hoss" Allen Presents "Let's Go To The Program."  Subtitled "Twelve of America's Greatest Gospel Groups," the record includes recordings by such groups as The Swan Silvertones, The Soul Stirrers, and The Original Blind Boys of Alabama, introduced by Allen and altered to include applause, as though the performances were actually live, in concert.

Allen helped promote the careers of many musicians, but always down played his own significance:

"I have heard many, many DJ's who were a lot more personable, professional, and maybe even knowledgeable.  I was just myself.  I was just the Hossman."

Randy Wood saw it differently:

"He was completely unique, you might say.  He didn't copy anyone, he was an original."

A humble man, Allen, enjoyed telling stories at his own expense.  One such involved the time in 1950 that Randy Wood offered him the opportunity to become a partner in the upstart "Dot" record label.  Allen turned Wood down and by 1956 "Dot" had become so successful that Wood moved his base of operations to Hollywood. Bill Allen died February 25, 1997, at the age of 74. 

For more of Jim Lowe's memories and recollections, click here.

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   Newsman Tim Sanders doing a WLAC "on-the-scene" traffic report at Eighth Avenue South and Broadway in the 1930's.

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WLAC "Official Listener" Certificate