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The Sound and The Fury: The Legacy of Black Radio In Philadelphia.

September 2, 2011

Text by Tim Whitaker. Images courtesy of the Temple Urban Archives.

As a kid, I was a radio junkie.

At home, in the car, on vacation, I’d go up and down the radio dial, fishing for something new, a sound or personality that would take me someplace I’d never been. Almost always, my explorations would take me to the far right of the AM dial (“the ghetto,” as it was called in many radio circles).

There, no matter what city you happened to be in, you’d find the hippest disc jockeys on the dial playing records you’d never get to hear on mainstream radio. The jocks on these stations played the records they wanted to hear, and their enthusiasm for the sounds they put down on their turntables would blow right through the speakers.

In Philadelphia, there were two radio stations at the far right end of the dial that fit that description – the legendary WDAS, at 1480 on the AM dial, and the long departed WHAT, at 1340.

In the ‘50s through the early to mid ‘80s in particular, these stations created radio personalities with a style all their own.

In the beginning, there was Jocko Henderson (“Eee-diddly-ock, this is the Jock, back on the scene with my record ma-chine!”). Jocko worked stints at both WHAT and WDAS and had a top rated show in NYC as well. Because of his rhyming radio style, he is often referred to as the first rapper.

Jerry Blavat, an original radio rapper himself, credits Jocko as an early influence. In his early years, Blavat worked at a number of small AM radio stations at the far end of the radio dial, including WHAT.

Scores of radio personalities made their bones at these two AM outlets.

There was Georgie Woods (“The “Guy with the Goods,” pictured in the top image and to the right), who in addition to his top-rated radio show hosted live soul revue shows at the Uptown Theater; Jimmy Bishop, the hippest of the hip, ever the ladies man; Louise Williams, the “Gospel Queen” who today broadcasts on WURD (900 AM) when not serving as a state representative; Butterball, still on the air at WDAS after more than 40-plus years; WHAT’s Sonny Hopson, the “Mighty Burner;” doo-wop and soul specialist Harvey Holiday, today broadcasting on WOGL; and there was Kae Williams, Sir Lancelot and scores of others.

It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that I learned that WDAS, in particular, was more than just a radio station that played the coolest sounds in town. WDAS was a pipeline to the black community, often covering stories that were ignored by the mainstream white press. Visitors to the WDAS studios included Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Ed Bradley, later of “60 Minutes” fame, was a member of the station’s news department.

During the riots of 1964, WDAS stopped playing music and reported live from the streets so that the community would hear first-hand accounts of what was happening. WDAS also sponsored bus trips to the March on Washington, and created “Unity Day,” for decades an important date circled by thousands of Philadelphians.

Today, with few exceptions, radio stations abide by strict formats, which means radio stations sound the same from city to city.

Many of the early pioneers of black radio – the real innovators of the medium – are lost to history, their legacies forgotten. The sound and fury they brought to listeners helped shape the history of the people they served. They deserve to be remembered, not simply for the energy and excitement they brought to listeners, but for their commitment to justice and freedom for all.

Tim Whitaker is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit that inspires city kids to write. With the help of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s “Knight Arts Challenge” and the Argus Fund, Mighty Writers will be creating a multimedia history of black radio in Philadelphia.

 

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