The Nashville Central Station that helped bring R&B to the world

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The Spidells, a Tennessee A&I State University quintet, perform during a recording of the Night Train in the studio of WLAC Channel 5 on October 29, 1964.
The Spidells, a Tennessee A&I State University quintet, perform during a recording of the Night Train in the studio of WLAC Channel 5 on October 29, 1964.
Illustration: Brian Gray, USA TODAY Network, Photo: Jimmy Ellis / The Tennessean

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In 1946, a few black college students approached a local radio DJ with a stack of records.

Returning after serving in WWII and studying the GI Bill, they wanted to hear something different on WLAC station in Nashville. On-air personality Gene Nobles agreed, and after dark he started to replace pop songs with boogie, blues and jazz records on the station.

Nobles began shooting 78s with swingin pianist Pete Johnson and saxophone bluesman Bull Moose Jackson. Mail started pouring in from corners of the South and Midwest. People wanted to know more. And they wanted to know more.

Little Richard, broadcast in 1966, was a staple of WLAC radio.

Little Richard, broadcast in 1966, was a staple of WLAC radio.
PA

With a 50,000-watt clear channel broadcast, the station made music history. WLAC became what is believed to be the first high-powered Guardian to play R&B records, introducing listeners to Duke Ellington, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Ace and – years later – Little Richard, BB King, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Redding and countless others.

For some, WLAC has pumped out the living room stereos. Others hid battery-powered receivers under pillows and listened to songs between the chick and ointment commercials.

Blind Boys of Alabama singer Jimmy Carter, 89, recalled listening as a child from his living room in Birmingham.

“Every night from around 10 am to 1 am would be fully WLAC,” he said.

Blind Boys of Alabama singer Jimmy Carter grew up listening to WLAC.

Blind Boys of Alabama singer Jimmy Carter grew up listening to WLAC.
Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Stateman

WLAC was a beacon for R&B music – a crucial mason in building an imposing legacy from timeless artists. It didn’t last that long on the air, but some might argue that these pioneering Nashville playlists turned out to be as influential at the time as WSM Radio, another well-known Music City 50,000-watt station. to host the indelible Grand Ole Opry country program.

“The influence WLAC has had in the R&B world simply cannot be overstated. It has provided a shared cultural experience for millions of African Americans while transforming the lives of millions of white teens, ”said Michael Gray, senior executive director of writing and performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame. .

Michael Gray, Senior Executive Director of Writing and Performing at the Country Music Hall of Fame
The influence WLAC has had in the world of R&B cannot be overstated. It has offered a shared cultural experience to millions of African Americans while transforming the lives of millions of white teens.

On a given night, the WLAC signal extended from Canada to the Caribbean. It has already reached as many as 40 states and between five and 10 million listeners during peak years, according to Tennessee records.

White Nobles disc jockeys, John “John R.” Richburg, Herman Grizzard and Bill “Hoss” Allen – nicknamed the 50,000-watt Quartet – anchored the changes to downtown Nashville with swift commercials and seriously Southerner voices that led many listeners to believe they were black (the station then hired Don Whitehead, a Tennessee state alumnus and talented lone black on-air member who pioneered as one of the first African-American radio hosts in a place the size of WLAC).

Fred Carpenter, a retired local reverend and once a member of Nashville’s booming R&B scene, remembers falling asleep on summer nights to the sound of WLAC. He listened from a swing outside his childhood home on 13th Avenue South in Nashville, pushing the dial on his radio to the far right to reach the station at 3:10 p.m.

“I had this radio and I could listen to WLAC and John R. and Hoss Allen both played all of these songs – blues and gospel,” said Carpenter, 82. “I just enjoyed it immensely. There’s no one else but me.”

But Carpenter wouldn’t be alone. Thanks to the station, Howlin ‘Wolf’s music reached Gregg Allman in Florida, and in Minnesota, a young Robert Zimmerman heard the Staple Singers long before he became Bob Dylan, according to a 2016 interview with Mavis Staples.

Two years before moving to Chicago, Buddy Guy first heard “Maybellene” by Chuck Berry on WLAC; Robbie Robertson tuned in to Toronto for songs that went on to help define The Band’s sound and imagery.

Jimmy Church, posing at his home in Nashville on April 4, 2014, had his own band and performed music with many artists on Jefferson Street.

Jimmy Church, posing at his home in Nashville on April 4, 2014, had his own band and performed music with many artists on Jefferson Street.
John Partipilo / Tennessee

And Little Richard first heard his hit “Tutti Frutti” on the radio via WLAC, according to an authorized biography.

“When it happened I jumped up and started screaming and running around the house and screaming ‘This is my record,’ he said.

Catch your music on WLAC? “This is the station,” said Jimmy Church, a veteran of the Nashville R&B scene.

Church first heard her voice on WLAC at the age of 17, as part of local vocal group The Seniors. He was still enrolled in Pearl High School in Nashville. Church was later a member of The King Kasuals, a group that featured a young Jimi Hendrix.

“If your record was played on WLAC, that means you were heard everywhere,” Church said. “50,000 watts? … It was a highlight.”

WLAC veteran DJ Bill

Veteran WLAC DJ Bill “Hoss” Allen, second from right, is working on planning a 1985 fundraising gig with Tony Joe White, left, Art Neville, Bobby …
Veteran WLAC DJ Bill “Hoss” Allen, second from right, works planning for a 1985 fundraising gig with Tony Joe White, left, Art Neville, Bobby Jones and Aaron Neville , all of which were aided by John R.’s pioneering shows of Sounds of the Soul.
Billy Easley / Tennessee
A record parade

From the late 1940s to at least the 1960s, WLAC anchored a growing ecosystem for R&B music in Nashville.

Local spots Randy’s Record Shop and Ernie’s Record Mart have teamed up with DJs to sell album orders by mail. Richbourg hosted a show called “Ernie’s Record Parade,” and Nobles often told listeners that Randy’s was “the place to be for R&B records,” according to “You Can Make It If You Try,” a book by Ted Jarrett, a leading figure in R&B from Nashville.

WLAC veteran, rhythm & blues DJ Bill

Seasoned WLAC rhythm & blues DJ Bill “Hoss” Allen, right, with Bobby Jones, who was aided by pioneering broadcasts of soul sounds from John R. (Richbourg).
Billy Easley / Tennessee

The outlets for these stores have become a ritual on WLAC, joining the advertisements for the Royal Crown brand ointment. and jingles for White Rose petroleum. And it worked – they quickly overflowed with business. By the early 1960s, Ernie was receiving at least 1,000 mail orders a day from Nashville, according to “You Can Make It If You Try.”

Strong sales led Randy Wood, the owner of Randy, to launch Dot Records, which went on to release music for 1950s pop star Pat Boone; Ernie’s owner Ernie Young started Nasboro and Excello Records, the latter having previously featured trainer artists Slim Harpo and Earl Gaines. Excello’s releases have come overseas, influencing youngsters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Ernie’s records advertised in packages, said Carpenter, who previously performed as soul artist Freddie North. In In the early 1960s, Carpenter was working in marketing for Nashboro.

“Even if it was a hit that wasn’t on our label, we could still wrap it up and leave [the hit] be a primary feature, ”Carpenter said. “It was a good selling point. You were always pushing records out of the Nashboro group. ”

Meanwhile, some on-air talent at WLAC has expanded into TV spots, artist management, concert promotion and the recording industry. In 1964, WLAC-TV launched the music show “Night Train”, the first television show to feature an all-black cast. In 1966, Hoss Allen hosted a similar program called “The !!!! Beat” in Dallas.

Invoice

WLAC Radio’s Bill “Hoss” Allen, broadcast in 1975, spread to television after the success of WLAC.
Kit Luce / Tennessee

Off the air, Allen befriended Brown, King and others, his daughter BeBe Evans said. Artists like Brown, Berry, and Fats Domino would sometimes give WLAC the first round of a new single.

“It was his life,” Evans said, adding, “His voice was so big, his personality was so big.… It’s bigger than life, that’s all I can say. And I meet. always people and they say, “Oh my God, I listened to your dad.

“He was having fun. He loved doing it.”

The ride wouldn’t last forever, however.

In the 1970s, WLAC’s programming changed as public interests shifted and competition increased. It wouldn’t be the only major R&B station forever, after all; and the FM radio was in full swing.

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