The pirate radio stations of the 1960s are part of British pop folklore, but America had its equivalents broadcasting from the border with Mexico. And its most celebrated star DJ was the near-mythical Wolfman Jack.
Every DJ has their “radio persona” – a larger than life personality created to reach across the ether and plant itself in the imagination of the listening faithful.
Immortalised in George Lucas’ breakthrough movie American Graffiti, the Wolfman derived from an era when radio’s disembodied voice could be almost mesmeric.
His influence on radio today can still be heard… you just need to know what to listen for.
Of course, Wolfman Jack wasn’t born with that name. He was born Bob Smith and he grew up in the tough New York neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Neglected by his parents he sought succour and inspiration from the voices he heard on the radio at night beaming up from the Mexican border.
When you heard him you knew you’d unlocked the door to a really secret world.
In his 20s he landed a number of DJ jobs on local radio stations where he experimented with a variety of bizarre and eccentric DJ personas.
Finally in the late 1950s, determined to take on border radio – the American-equivalent of Britain’s off-shore pirate radio stations – he made his way down to Mexico to the great “border station” XERF and bought himself a show.
Amongst Bob Smith’s heros were disc jockey Alan Freed, aka Moondog, and blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, whose names formed the inspiration for his own alias, Wolfman, a name which debuted as early as the first show.
“There was nothing as exotic, as mysterious and as forbidden as when I first stumbled across Wolfman Jack broadcasting from the border,” says Nic Patowski, a teenager when he first tuned into station XERF. “He was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
“You had no idea who he was or what he was but you knew whatever he was doing it was probably wrong. When you heard him you knew you’d unlocked the door to a really secret world.”
“When I first heard him… I was thinking of old recordings of the blues singer Howlin’ Wolf. He had this incredible confidence.”