As 'American Graffiti' turns 50, Wolfman Jack's still howling on Long Island radio
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As 'American Graffiti' turns 50, Wolfman Jack's still howling on Long Island radio

Jun 07, 2023

Wolfman Jack on air during his short-lived stint at WNBC/660 in 1973. Credit: AP/Richard Drew

Anyone who stays up past midnight on Saturdays with their radio tuned to Ronkonkoma's "Big Hits" station, WLIM/98.1, knows the voice well. After all, It's that voice they've come for — that rasp, that croak, that yowl, that howl:

"Aaaoooowwwwwoooowwww … Is my bravado showing? Good. I want my bravado to reach out and grab ya and hold ya tightly and to feel ya so that we can hear this …"

Cut to whatever "this" was at the time — a top 40 hit that landed on the charts anywhere between 1962 and 1995 when Wolfman Jack was one of the most famous radio personalities in the world. He died in 1995, but "The Wolfman Jack Show," a pastiche of sound checks, comedy bits, and other assorted flotsam that comprised one of the most colorful careers in radio history, continues to get airplay and on the internet.

Why "Jack," why 98.1? "We've been running it for a long time because the 98.1 programming concept is that we're really pushing a wide range of music, from the '60s all the way into the '90s," says Scotty Hart, 98.1's veteran DJ and program director. The show, he adds, includes outtakes from Wolfman Jack's early days at XERF-AM, a 150,000-watt station based in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, which could be heard across large sections of the U.S.

In fact, "that flamethrower," says Hart, "could be heard across half the world" and turned Wolfman Jack into an international brand that lives on to this day. (Wolfman joined New York's WNBC/660 in 1973, but that stint was short-lived. New York's own local legend, WABC/770's "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, easily out-rated him; ironically, Morrow would jump to WNBC the next year.)

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Born Robert Weston Smith in Brooklyn in 1938, both stage name and style were inspired by another famous DJ, Alan Freed, who went by "Moondog" (and who also howled on the air), and by the great bluesman Howlin' Wolf. Listeners assumed he was Black, but when many saw him in "American Graffiti" — the George Lucas-directed classic that exposed Wolfman Jack to a wider audience, and which turned 50 on Aug. 11 — they were surprised to learn otherwise.

A big personality blessed with a healthy ego, Wolfman wrote in his '95 bio, "Have Mercy! Confessions of the Original Rock 'n Roll Animal," "you're running with the world's most famous disc jockey, a thirty-year king of the airwaves who has preached rock, soul, and rhythm-and-blues salvation to 100 million listening fans at a time, on 2,200 stations in 43 countries …"

All basically true, and when he died, his AP obit, included this addenda: "Between cuts, he would hawk plastic figurines of Jesus, coffins, and inspirational literature, and exhort his listeners to 'get yo’self nekkid.'”

Another 98.1 veteran, Bill "the Wiseman" Wise said in a recent phone interview, that Wolfman Jack "was just one of those unique personalitiess and that's what this station is made up of. We've got enough negativity going on every single day" in the world. "The Wolfman Jack Show,," he explains, offers an essential alternative — "a fun, up-tempo" one.

Verne Gay is Newsday's TV writer and critic. He has covered the media business for more than 30 years.

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