April 15, 2023
In 1974 until going off to college in 1976, on Friday and Saturday nights you could likely see a green 1965 Mustang with vinyl roof cruising around Aiken with my friends and me. The Mustang had an AM radio (I'm pretty sure an AM/FM radio was not available in the 1965 Mustang) that was pretty useless near sundown until after dark when I could pick up WLAC from Nashville. Perhaps those nights are why I like R&B so much!
WLAC was one of the nation's first radio stations, taking the air on November 24th, 1926, the year after WSM took to the air in Nashville. Created primarily as a promotional venture and publicity medium for the Life And Casualty Insurance company, WLAC originally operated only part-time and on a non-commercial basis. Beautifully equipped studios, as modern as the day, were constructed on the fifth floor of the insurance company building. Thousands of visitors, attracted by the novelty of the new medium, enjoyed the hospitality of the spacious, palm-shaded reception room.
Accepted from the start with a warm welcome from Nashville residents, WLAC expanded steadily. Known as the "South's Master Station," WLAC adopted the slogan "Health, Thrift, Entertainment, and Education." In 1928, the station affiliated with the Columbia Broadcasting System to become the CBS outlet for Nashville.
WLAC remains a CBS affiliate to this day, some 67 years later.
Originally operating with 1,000 watts of AM power, WLAC increased to 5,000 watts in 1928. In March of 1942, WLAC became one of only sixty-four radio stations in America licensed to operate as a Class 1 "Clear Channel," with 50,000 watts of power. This enabled WLAC's programming to reach parts of five states in daylight hours. After dark, WLAC's massive "skywave" signal blanketed twenty-eight states and several foreign countries.
Upon achieving clear channel status, the station's top of the hour identification announcement proudly proclaimed, "This is WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee, operating on 50,000 watts at 1510 kilocycles, authorized by the Federal Communications Commission of Washington, D.C."
Through the 1940's, WLAC faithfully cleared the full line-up of the CBS Radio Network. WLAC also produced programs, such as "The Old Dirt Dobber," which were distributed nationally by CBS. The station maintained its own full orchestra, including a Kilgen pipe organ installed right in the studio.
As the infant television industry began to eclipse network radio in the 1950's, WLAC began airing locally produced music programming, with such legendary on-air personalities as John R., Gene Nobles, and Bill "Hossman" Allen. Listeners all across America tuned in nightly to hear the latest rhythm and blues hits, along with ads selling Randy's Record Shop, Royal Crown Hair Dressing, and "live baby chicks."
After shifting to a "Top 40" rock and roll presentation in the 60's and 70's, WLAC adopted a news and talk format in 1980. That format remains today, as WLAC continues to serve Nashville and Middle Tennessee with fast, accurate news reporting and stimulating talk shows.
More About WLAC And R&B
(The "I" in the following is not me.)
Back in the 1950s, when white teenagers were just beginning to discover that Pat Boone's version of "Ain't That A Shame" was not the original, a radio station in Nashville, Tennessee, was beeming rhythm and blues and gospel music to millions of young listeners, each discretely tuning his dial to 1510 on the AM dial late into the evening hours.
It was 10:00 pm in the East, bed time for many a schoolboy. But, if the weather was cooperative and the tuner sensitive enough, wonderful sounds soon began to issue forth. Not Perry Como, not the Chordettes, certainly not Pat Boone. No, here streaming directly into our bedrooms were the strange, new, and wonderful tones of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Lowell Fulson, Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Little Junior Parker, The Spaniels, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf, and Etta James.
Here was something special, something to be shared only with your very best friends, not with those jerks at school who didn't know about it and couldn't understand it if they did. Here was something that made you wish you could soundproof the door to your room or, perhaps, buy a pair of headphones, all to insure that listening bliss might continue into the wee hours when your mother assumed that you had long been asleep.
Nothing characterized the WLAC listening experience more than the nightly program sponsored by "The World's Largest Mail Order Phonograph Record Shop" -- Randy's Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee. They must have done a heck of a business. No street address, no post office box ... just "Gallatin, Tennessee."
During the mid-'50s, Randy's sponsored what may have been the most listened to disc jockey show in the country. Introduced by the nostalgic tones of "Swannee River Boogie" by Albert Ammons, "Randy's Record Hi-Lights" was broadcast on clear-channel WLAC at 10:15 pm Central Time, six nights a week--and at 11:00 pm on Sunday. And 50,000 watts of power insured that it could be heard all over the East, South, and Mid-West, probably in Canada and Mexico as well.
Your genial master of ceremonies was Gene Nobles. He was ably assisted by engineer George Karsch in the control booth, whom Nobles referred to as "Cohort." Listeners sometimes called him the "ape man," as he occasionally punctuated records and commentary with Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan ape call, as found on the Dale Hawkins recording of "See You Soon Baboon." I listened to Gene and his show as often as possible. For whatever reason, he was my favorite and I always had the impression that he was the star of the WLAC lineup.
I'll never forget, however, the night when my hero's feet of clay were exposed. Nobles' exuberant comments notwithstanding, he didn't always pay attention to the records being played. Evidently, he and the ape man worked from a list prepared in advance of the show. But this night they got out of synch somehow. So just as a record by Chuck Berry had finished playing, poor Gene could be heard saying: "How about that great number by Nervous Norvus, one of my favorites." I've since learned that this slip may have been attributable to the fact that Nobles was known to have consumed a bottle of Seagrams V.O. in the studio each night.
Gene Nobles has as much claim as anyone to being the first to play rhythm and blues records for a racially mixed audience and developing a distinctive deejay "patter." Gene called it "Slanguage" and it included such phrases as "from the heart of my bottom." Mr. Nobles passed away in 1989.