Hey John R!
Nashville's R&B Radio
The WLAC jocks, 1968. Seated, from left: John “John R” Richbourg, Gene Nobles, Bill “Hoss” Allen, and Herman Grizzard. Standing: Don Whitehead, the radio station’s first Black full-time announcer. Courtesy of the family of Hoss Allen.
“Would you play some of our music?” With those words in 1946, several Black college students are said to have handed WLAC-Nashville disc jockey Gene Nobles, who was white, a stack of R&B and jazz records to play. From that night forward, WLAC’s 50,000-watt clear signal bounced across the stratosphere as the most powerful force in R&B broadcasting in America, just as Nashville began to assert itself as a major recording center, not only for country music but also for R&B on Excello Records and other labels heard on WLAC. With the 1951 addition of WSOK, a full-time Black programming station, mid-twentieth century Nashville rocked on wax and wavelength to a beat that would literally change the world.
"WLAC was all we ever listened to."- James Brown
During the golden era of WLAC’s R&B programming, the jocks built a memorable catalog of product pitches, including White Rose Petroleum Jelly, Royal Crown Hairdressing, and the infamous WLAC baby chicks. At left is a 45-rpm recording of the wildly popular White Rose Petroleum Jelly jingle, sung by Earl Gaines and, uncredited, Gene Allison. Courtesy of Dan Sherry.
In December 1951, WSOK debuted in Nashville as one of the nation’s first full-time all-Black stations. Though white-owned, WSOK featured a staff of Black announcers and Black-oriented programs with names such as Cook’s Blues, Cool Rhythms, and Peace in the Valley.
In 1956, WSOK founder Cal Young sold the station, and its call letters changed to WVOL. The station retained its all-Black format and its community focus, however, with on-air staff routinely helping to raise emergency funds for listeners in need.
"We buried a lot of people, and clothed a lot of people, and housed a lot of people, and fed a lot of people, and after that then the general market began to pick up and follow."- Dr. Morgan Babb, former WSOK/WVOL program director