The Wolfman – Part One
The Mexican ‘Border Blaster’ – XERF
Nestled in the town of Ciudad Acuna in the Mexican state of Coahulia – once upon a time resided a ‘sleepy’ little station operating as 1570 kHz XERF-AM.
Ciudad Acuna resides just below the U.S. border – closest to a U.S. town called Del Rio, today with a population of just over 40,000. XERF was founded way back in 1947 – taking over a facility which housed an earlier station which was taken over in 1939 by the government of Mexico.
In the late 1930’s, the original station operated at a modest-by-Mexican standards – 50 thousand watts. Before becoming XERF it had increased to 100 thousand watts. XERF would join an unaffiliated group of Mexican stations which would come to be known as the “border blasters” due to their huge 250,000 watt transmitters (which would never be permitted in the confines of the United States).
Border blasters aren’t synonymous with “pirate radio” (common in the UK) as the pirates were located in waters outside the territory of a country – another very intriguing story).
A Texas-based company acquired control of the station and it’s mega transmitter – locating it’s new operation a bit of distance away from the original location. An early station personality was Paul Kallinger who actually worked from the Texas side of the border out of a small studio in Del Rio. Paul was weary of placing himself into the Mexican boundaries due to the activities of local outlaws which made places such as the profitable radio station a target.
The original format was a bit all over the place but relied heavily on religious programming. Then along came an upstart jockey by the name of Bob Smith. Smith had worked around the U.S. at various stations first in Newport News, Virginia at station WYOU in 1960 broadcasting as “Daddy Jules” spinning country 45’s.
When the station changed formats to what they termed “beautiful music” (easy listening no doubt) – “Jules Daddy” transformed instantly becoming “Roger Gordon” (“and Music in Good Taste”). Must have been a bit torturous for Smith.
His next stop in 1962 was to travel to Shreveport, Louisiana with station KCIJ becoming “Big Smith with the Records”.
Then one day – his life would change. Sometime in 1963 Smith made the move to XERF taking with him his fairly new on-the-air persona, “Wolfman Jack” – derived from multiple sources – the accompanying ‘howl’ from Alan Freed’s “moondog” show – “Wolfman” from his love of werewolf motion pictures, and “Jack” stemming from hip lingo such as in the Ray Charles’ tune “Hit the Road Jack”.
Smith lasted about eight months in the XERF Mexican studio, before making the move back to the United States for safety reasons. As mentioned above, the XERF ‘border blaster’ operation was profitable and fell into the cross hairs of armed outlaws – who actually seized the station temporarily until Mexican federal troops took up positions around the station.
This proved to be one attack too many for Mr. Smith and so he departed for Louisiana where he would tape his programs and send them to XERF for broadcast. XERF went through many changes and exchanges in ownership – also changing formats frequently and often returning to religious programming. Pentecostal ministers found their way into the programming until Mexico – largely Roman Catholic – in 1971 banned such proselytizing.
Later, the Wolfman migrated back toward his ‘border blaster’ roots entering into the employment of radio station XERB which also employed the big wattage, and this time Smith based himself out of Los Angeles – again mailing tapes of programs across the border. The setting used for a brief on-screen appearance by the Wolfman in the movie American Graffiti was based on his set-up with XERB not his time with XERF.
As for XERF it was on again – off again – until finally – new perspective owners could no longer procure parts of the old 250,000 transmitter, nor locate technical expertise able to bring the equipment back up to programming capability. “Station Love 16”, the “Texas Night Train”, and “Wonderful Radio London” were among the various incarnations coming over the air waves at XERF
Finally, the facility and the ownership was vacated leaving everything to the Mexican Government to figure out. They could not. The technology was beyond reasonable repair and the tastes of the radio listening public had moved on to FM Stereo listening as well as MTV on the tube. The operation was migrated to an FM operation and after 2012 broadcasts (now at 100 thousand watts) bore zero resemblance to the days of “The Wolfman”, 250 thousand blasting watts and the dramatic days of sieges and guns-a-blazing!
The True ‘Soundtrack of Our Lives’ – Part Two
All of the following was spurned on by my reading Wolfman Jack’s autobiography “Have Mercy! which was first published in June of 1995. As previously posted the Wolfman was born Robert Weston Smith and went by Bob Smith. Bob spent much of his early broadcasting career in the mysterious shadows of his persona, not being seen on TV or public place. Until, that is, when he made the move to California where the mysterious Wolfman would emerge for all to see and enjoy.
Sadly, the Wolfman would pass away – dying very suddenly from a heart attack on July 1st, 1995 in the driveway of his home not long after completing a broadcast and after coming home from a promotional launch of his book. He was just 57 years-old at the time of his death.
Student Film Project
Back in the early 1970’s a former University of Southern California film student was formulating a long-time idea for a motion picture. The student had garnered some attention within his college environment where his student film projects were enthusiastically embraced by – yes – students.
Among his projects was one – which won a prize when submitted to the “National Student Film Festival” in 1967 – originally titled “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB” and later shortened to “THX 1138 4EB”. But it was another student film “The Emperor” – a very short 20-minute production, which would set the stage for the future for George Lucas.
“The Emperor” was based on a California radio DJ named Bob Hudson who broadcast in L.A. as “The Emperor”. The film was very well-received in 1967 – at which time Lucas was then a USC graduate student.
Bob Hudson would be named by Billboard Magazine as the number 1 ranked DJ in the morning drive in massive Los Angeles in 1966 spinning discs for the kingpin station KRLA (he had migrated from San Francisco’s KYA in 1962). Also in 1966, Hudson would record a strange novelty parody of Napoleon XIV’s hit “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”, Hudson’s being titled “I’m Normal” with Landry recording as “The Emperor”. The track achieved a very humble number 146 ranking for one week.
In the early 1970’s Bob teamed up with another DJ, Ron Landry, recording for Dore Records as “Hudson and Landry” – making many comedy appearances on major variety TV shows.
When Lucas was formulating his ideas for his film, he was envisioning the Wolfman as the central figure, having grown up in Modesto, California listening to the mysterious DJ broadcasting out of Los Angeles. But Lucas was not able to find his way to meet up with Bob Smith.
So life continued on for Lucas – He was determined to keep his dream of a semi-biographical ‘coming of age’ flick. He got a break of sorts when Universal Pictures decided to take a chance with his idea. But they weren’t going to take much of chance and most likely only offered to work with the young Lucas based on film producer Francis Ford Coppola taking a liking to George’s script idea. Coppola was fresh off his highly successful “The Godfather” and so he exerted some clout and influence.
Hollywood Becons the Wolf
So now slow forward back (what?) to Bob Smith, sitting in Hollywood, where his radio station adventures had been dealt a severe blow when his station group was informed by Mexican authorities that they would no longer permit evangelic broadcasts into their country where the better part of the population has Catholic.
Religious programs accounted for nearly 80 percent of Wolfman’s station broadcasts and so very suddenly his radio group found themselves in dire straits. They had invested very heavily in station broadcasting equipment, paying cash when their income from Christian programs evaporated.
And so it was with some caution but more curiosity than anything that the Wolfman, accompanied by his friend Don Kelley decided to respond to a memo which had been earlier tossed aside by Wolman’s manager and left as refuse. Earlier, Kelley had noticed the memo sitting at the edge of the manager’s desk with Bob Smith’s name on it and asked why the movie studio had called. He was told that they wanted to interview Smith for a movie part but he told Universal to pound salt when he asked how much would be paid to Smith to do the interview – to which they responded that actors weren’t paid for interviews.
Kelley wisely retrieved the memo and brought it to The Wolfman. So off they went to Universal where they were quietly greeted and guided to a remote spot on the studio lot, to a tiny non-air conditioned trailer. Inside was a receptionist secretary who had been instructed to provide the pair with a film script to review while awaiting the arrival of young George Lucas.
The Wolfman began casually scanning the first page – and the decided to just start skipping throw random pages. He became alarmed and asked his friend Kelley to step out of the trailer for a moment. He worriedly told Kelley that he was finding his name in the script on basically every single page he glanced out, with notations saying “the Wolfman says this” and the Wolfman says that”.
Kelley asked what the problem was. Smith replied that he was worried about how much Universal was going to charge for all of that “publicity” not being wise in the ways of motion picture production. Kelley assured him that actors don’t pay studios – but it goes the other way.
They returned to the trailer, Lucas arrived for the meeting, the three hit it off big time, and “Wolfman Jack” was signed to a whopping $3,000 acting fee to perform in this movie “American Graffiti”. It was a god send for Smith, who was in deep trouble due to the demise of his radio holdings.
American Graffiti was set in the early 1960’s and was meant to depict Lucas’ home town of Modesto. But he did choose his town feeling that it had changed too much to convey the right setting. Initially the film began shooting in San Rafael but logistic problems and a cool reception by town fathers forced a move north to Petaluma, California, where filming would proceed to conclusion.
Universal exec’s disliked the movie, the premise, the money – nearly everything and most likely would have killed the project midway had it not been for Coppola whipping out his check book telling them he would immediately take the project away from them sending it to a competitor. At the time, Universal wanted to completely re-cut the movie but Lucas refused – backed by Coppola.
Universal reluctantly backed off – re-cutting just three scenes – the balance proceeded into the final cut.
The next slap in the face for Lucas was Universal’s stingy ‘non’ promotion approach for Graffiti. They released the film in the Spring of 1973 without any promotional push. Wolfman took the matter into his own hands – getting behind a premier showing by enthusiastically pushing the event on his radio show. The premier was a huge success with hundreds of teens being turned away at the theater.
Sharing the Spoils of Graffiti
Next, Wolfman continued to push – paying out of his own pocket, doing promotional events at 10 California movie theaters. Universal took notice when the 10 theaters overwhelmingly out-drew audiences in other test locations chosen by Universal around the nation.
This gesture on the part of Wolfman Jack would become a life changer down the road. After American Graffiti took off – slowly at first – but steadily – and made it’s first 20 million dollars, Bob Smith would receive a piece of mail one day – from his autobiography: “I looked in the afternoon mail and found a letter from George Lucas and partner Gary Kurtz. In it, they outright gave me the perpetual rights to a small percentage (of the film). I just about had a heart attack!”
The next three checks from Lucas and company would completely rescue Smith from his debts. And then, about every six months or so “the checks kept on coming for a long time – about $150,000 to $200,00 every six months.”
Saving the Soundtrack
Lucas and American Graffiti would achieve lasting fame with the entire soundtrack backdrop a running commentary from “Wolfman Jack on the Air” adorning the turntable with magical doo-wop and classic rock gems for the most part. Lucas and Smith poured over radio tapes from Smith’s archived broadcasts picking out dedications and live listener requests to use or reenact in the film. And they teamed up to select the songs.
Here again, Universal – concerned about paying royalties – wanted to record the songs with a ‘sound-a-like’ orchestra! Can you imagine??? Again, Lucas resisted. And so a deal was cut with music publishers to all accept a flat fee. The total cost was $90,000. This deal was accepted by all companies except for RCA which blocked any Elvis tune from making the final cut. Every song used in the film was included one the three soundtrack long plays with the exception of “Gee” by the Crows – which did make the second volume of the soundtrack.
The publication fee agreement left Universal with very little capitol with which they were willing to part and so they informed Lucas that they could not afford any other soundtrack music – as is usually utilized in motion pictures. This was a no brainer for Lucas and Smith, the movie would simply feature a continuous stream of songs coming in ‘live’ from the Wolfman Jack program – broadcast to us – the audience via the many souped up cars constantly cruising the streets of ‘Modesto’.
The effect was the crowning touch for the movie – setting the picture solidly in 1962 (or thereabouts since a few of the tunes post dated ’62) – a page right out of our lives – or at least as we imagined our lives had once been.
Low Budget = Unknown Talent
The show featured many young upstarts, all working for very low wages due to the very restricted budget. Ron Howard had the most experience from his Andy Griffith days. The others – and there were many more than we generally remember, for all practical purposes were making a motion picture ‘debut’.
American Graffiti went on to receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actress (Candy Clark as “Debbie”). No Academy Awards were received but then no one ever thought the movie would get out of the studio. It did win Best Motion Picture in Musical/Comedy category at the Golden Globe Awards. Paul Le Mat won a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe for his role as “John Milner”. Dreyfuss received a node by the Globes as “Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical”. Lucas won an Outstanding Director award from the Directors Guild of America. Cindy Williams won a Best Supporting Actress trophy for her role as “Laurie” from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Only Ron Howard was left out but would make up for it as we all know in the not-so-distant future.
And the Wolfman continued to do his thing – landing a job as Emcee for “The Midnight Special” (at a very low salary) and finally a DJ position back East with WNBC – this time not for peanuts – but an astonishing $350,000 a year!
No Thanks! Mr. Lucas – A Universal Blunder
During all the ups and downs Lucas experienced with Universal, another ‘down’ was thrown in for good measure. Based on their trepidation of everything Graffiti, they informed George, when the film was complete – that they absolutely wanted nothing to do with his hair brain idea for a film with that those nutty characters, “Luke Skywalker”, “Hans Solo” and “Princess Leia”!
No problem – George – by 1977 – full of confidence, “Lucasfilms” was started – 20th Century Fox became the studio of choice – Episode IV was released (yes – a confusing order of releases – Episode I would come in 1999) and the rest is – well, show business!
A Colorado Side Note
The University of Colorado band “Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids” appeared in the film as “Herby and the Heartbeats” performing “At the Hop”, “Louie, Louie” and “She’s So Fine”.
A Fond Farewell
“American Graffiti” was a bold stroke for 1973.
It was probably the first genuine attempt to acknowledge the times and the music from just a little over a decade earlier from a Baby Boomer’s perspective. This was the real stuff – not the meanderings of a Hollywood establishment – This wasn’t Gidget or Beach Blanket Bingo. This wasn’t a silly surfing exercise with monkeys and bikini’s, This wasn’t Paul Lind or Dick Van Dyke cavorting with goofy teens. American Graffiti was our anthem. American Graffiti was our ‘soundtrack’.