Around the Mall & Beyond

Red-hot, beat-me-down, bring-you-up swing tunes' are just part of Radio Smithsonian's Black Radio...

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Jack Cooper of Chicago is credited with the first black DJ program. He bought time from WSBC, a foreign-language station, got his own sponsors and went on the air, speaking the King's English. But his colleague Al Benson, the king of black radio in the late '40s and the '50s, changed all that. He addressed listeners, many of them Southern migrants, in their own slang, loud and loose. DJs started developing their own unique spiels and used all kinds of street lingo. The style caught on instantly. In fact, many white DJs imitate that hard-charging manner to this day, whether they know it or not.

The whole thing had started, according to Webb, as early as 1931, in the days of live performers, when a radio pianist quit in a union dispute. Cooper simply wound up a phonograph and set it in front of the mike. "And that's why he's called the first DJ."

Cooper also pioneered The All-Negro Hour, mirroring the network variety shows with skits, comedy, drama, news and whole choruses of performers.

"There were family programs like The Wings Over Jordan Choir, in the days when families would sit around the radio together. Every Sunday it was broadcast out of Cleveland over CBS. The choir toured Europe, too. All the older people remembered it."

Perhaps the finest hour of Black Radio came in the '60s. When the 1968 riots threatened to burst Detroit at the seams, a DJ named Martha Jean (The Queen) Steinberg came on the air, played gospel music, talked and prayed, and calmed people. However, Steinberg and other black DJs also understood the need for humor, to get audiences to listen. She recalls, "We were considered clowns, we were considered ignorant, we were considered jokes. But if we hadn't been laughing we couldn't have got our point across. We had to be clowns: we are bright, intelligent people, independent thinkers, philosophers, you know?"

"She developed into a gospel announcer," Webb told me. "No more R&B. She had a salute to blue-collar workers. She'd get on and tell housewives when their husbands were getting their paychecks so they could go down to the plant and bring them home. Eventually she became an ordained minister. She has her own station now, has people working for the poor and feeding the hungry."

Black DJs did more than just support the civil rights movement; they embodied it. Their charismatic presence also helped to alert white business leaders that black programming represented tremendous economic power and political influence.

DJs were not merely disembodied voices, abstractions floating on the airwaves; if you lived in their city you could actually see them in nightclubs or in their studios. With his wonderfully raspy, avuncular voice, series host Lou Rawls talks about Al Benson: "I grew up hearing him spinning records in his record store window. We used to go there and watch all the time, especially on weekends: he'd have recording artists come in as guests. We got to see all the stars."

And the black DJs spawned a sea change in popular music. Without them there wouldn't have been rock'n'roll. They turned young blacks and hip young whites on to rhythm and blues, an essential precurser of rock'n'roll. One reason DJ Tommy (Dr. Jive) Smalls was able to introduce Bo Diddley on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955 was that Sullivan had seen newsreels of the crowds attending Smalls' R&B shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

All through this sparkling series are snippets from old tapes, rarities in themselves, for DJs were a peripatetic lot and didn't bother to save the thousands of hours' worth of broadcasts they had logged. A young Memphis DJ and singer named Rufus Thomas does a hilarious commercial for Pink Pussycat wine. Jocko Henderson tells how he introduced the Supremes at the Apollo and had to literally pull Diana Ross, still a shy girl, from behind the curtain.

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