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 someoneâs attic. Until 1946, Nashvilleâs 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.
âPrevious to 1946, WLAC was just a typical, CBS network radio station.â, says Michael Gray, museum editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and co-curator of the Hallâs 2004-2005 exhibit, Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues 1945-1970. âIt didnât 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 todayâ. 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, âWould you play some of our music?â, 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 âJohn R.â Richbourg, Bill âHossâ 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, âThis is John R., way down south in Dixieâ, as a clarion call to turn the dial up. Musicians traveling along the Chitlinâ 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 wouldnât 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
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 Noblesâ 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. âCollectively, they were pitchmenâ, says Gray. âYou canât forget that they were selling stuff. They loved the music, but more than anything, they were also selling stuffâ. One minute youâd hear a jingle for White Rose Petroleum Jelly, followed by mail-in offers for one-hundred âlive baby chicksâ and âswinging soul medallionsâ. Even artists got in on the act, with Little Richard hocking Royal Crown Hair Dressing, saying âI goes for the girls with the Royal Crown look, mmmMMM!â.
Along with the stationâs various product sponsors were the record stores that individually sponsored each show. Every night, Gene Noblesâ shows were brought to listeners by Randyâs 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 Noblesâ was spinning. âImagine itâs the late 40s, youâre hearing these great black records and the whole time, Gene Nobles is saying, âAnd you can order that from Randyâs Record Shop in Gallatin,TNâ. Thereâs people all over the country that, if you say Gallatin,TN, theyâll 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.â, adds Gray. The success of Randyâs mail-order business provided enough income to start up one of Nashvilleâs most important independent record labels, Dot Records. While Gene was plugging Randyâs Record Shop, John R. was pointing people towards Ernieâs Record Mart, in downtown Nashville. Ernieâs formula was similar to Randyâs, 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 âBaby Letâs Play Houseâ, 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 Nashvilleâs music industry, successfully doing everything that RCA, Columbia and Decca Records would later do, but doing it first.
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