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Night Moves: WLAC and Nashville’s Untapped Legacy (Part 1)

Night Moves: WLAC and Nashville’s Untapped Legacy (Part 1)

FIfty-thousand watts of electrical current travels far and fast. Riding along the night sky, it can cut a path from Memphis to Minneapolis in the blink of an eye, skipping across the Great Lakes to Toronto and back down into the heart of Dixie. On especially clear nights, it can rocket across the seas to tropic islands, before bouncing back to lofty mountain tops, carrying sounds that will either change a generation or be relegated to the boxes in someone’s attic. Until 1946, Nashville’s WLAC was just another CBS affiliate station, but in the hands of a few rebel disc jockeys, it became the first radio station to broadcast rhythm and blues to a national audience, forever changing the face of American culture.

“Previous to 1946, WLAC was just a typical, CBS network radio station.”, says Michael Gray, museum editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and co-curator of the Hall’s 2004-2005 exhibit, Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues 1945-1970. “It didn’t have anything that really distinguished it from other stations around the country. It was when they started playing the black music at night, that they are remembered for today”. It all began late one evening, in 1946. The story goes that a group of black college students, from either Fisk or Tennessee State Universities, paid night DJ Gene Nobles a visit, toting a box of their own personal R&B records. When they asked, “Would you play some of our music?”, Nobles obliged them, and the rest is history.

During daytime hours, WLAC aired everything from soap operas to local news and big band music. R&B programming kicked off at 8pm every night, with each of the four overnight DJs: Gene Nobles, John “John R.” Richbourg, Bill “Hoss” Allen and Herman Grizzard. Each DJ brought his own passion to the microphone and had the freedom to play whatever they wanted, while also catering to their mainly black audience.

Having began his career as a carnival barker, Nobles worked his way around radio stations throughout his home state of Arkansas, before settling in at WLAC in 1943. By 1946, he was interspersing black gospel selections with some of the top big band hits of the day. The more requests he got, the more gospel he played, and before long, he was the first DJ at WLAC playing gospel and rhythm and blues exclusively. John R., though not the first, became the most well known of the night crew. His instantly recognizable voice boomed out over the airwaves every night with, “This is John R., way down south in Dixie”, as a clarion call to turn the dial up. Musicians traveling along the Chitlin’ Circuit always had their dials on 1510AM, hoping to hear their latest single. High school kids were tucked into bed with their teddy bears and transistor radios, hoping that Dad wouldn’t walk in and hear the blasphemous noise coming from beneath their pillows. Even DJs from other stations around the country would listen to costco propecia

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John R., as his show was usually going on while they were driving home from work. Hoss Allen began as a fill-in DJ, eventually taking over Nobles’ 10:15pm slot when Gene left. Out of all the DJs, Hoss was known to have the greatest passion for what he played. Over the years, he hosted multiple gospel shows, and along with John R., had his hands in multiple Nashville record labels and other artist management duties. His gospel programming continued on into the 1980s, despite format changes that occurred.

While they were plugging music, they were also pushing products. Sponsors who serviced black communities were buying up air-time, in turn financing the continued success of WLAC. “Collectively, they were pitchmen”, says Gray. “You can’t forget that they were selling stuff. They loved the music, but more than anything, they were also selling stuff”. One minute you’d hear a jingle for White Rose Petroleum Jelly, followed by mail-in offers for one-hundred “live baby chicks” and “swinging soul medallions”. Even artists got in on the act, with Little Richard hocking Royal Crown Hair Dressing, saying “I goes for the girls with the Royal Crown look, mmmMMM!”.

Along with the station’s various product sponsors were the record stores that individually sponsored each show. Every night, Gene Nobles’ shows were brought to listeners by Randy’s Record Shop, out of Gallatin, TN, beginning in the late 1940s. Owner Randy Wood turned his appliance business into a booming record industry, when sales of the demonstration records he kept on-hand for his record player sales, began outselling his record players. At the suggestion of a customer, Randy approached Gene about partnering up to sell the records Nobles’ was spinning. “Imagine it’s the late 40s, you’re hearing these great black records and the whole time, Gene Nobles is saying, ‘And you can order that from Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin,TN’. There’s people all over the country that, if you say Gallatin,TN, they’ll remember it. They were selling the records by mail order. Locals could walk in and buy them too, but mainly, their business was mail order.”, adds Gray. The success of Randy’s mail-order business provided enough income to start up one of Nashville’s most important independent record labels, Dot Records. While Gene was plugging Randy’s Record Shop, John R. was pointing people towards Ernie’s Record Mart, in downtown Nashville. Ernie’s formula was similar to Randy’s, having a mail-order business that eventually spawned multiple small record labels, starting with Nashboro Records, in 1951. Since Nashboro was primarily a gospel label, Ernie started Excello Records to service his R&B artists in 1952. Excello cut such important singles as the original version of “Baby Let’s Play House”, by Arthur Gunner. The following year, Elvis picked up the single and took it all the way up the Billboard charts. These record shops, with their satellite record labels became the foundation for Nashville’s music industry, successfully doing everything that RCA, Columbia and Decca Records would later do, but doing it first.

(End of Part 1)

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3 Responses to Night Moves: WLAC and Nashville’s Untapped Legacy (Part 1)

  1. Mary Williams says:

    I enjoyed the article. Looking forward to part 2.
    Are there any recordings of Ernie’s Record Mart’s radio music sessions that have been preserved for sale. Has that venue been explored? I would love to acquire some of those memories. It was the greatest time for me and my family to lie awake and listen to that soulful music.

    • Robert Martinez says:

      There are many compilations regarding Ernie’s Record Mart and the music. I suggest “Ernie’s record Mart” on Excello and also “Night Train To Nashville” which features the White Rose petroleum jelly jingle – what a hoot! Also pick up the Best of Slim Harpo, The Excello Story Part 1 & 2 and Lonesome Sundown – I’m a Mojo Man. Most all of these records were Excello Records which was owned by Ernie’s Record Mart in Nashville. They are all a treat and should bring back great memories. I have them all. Available through amazon.com

  2. tommy davis says:

    I’m sitting here listening to Pandora and it brought back memories of my teenage years in hopkinsville ky listening Randy’s radio station. It would be late and the station music would go in and out,but l enjoyed every second of those days,they were the best.I thank you for those tim

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