Special guest blog by former WEXL disk jockey Jack North about his days working for the No. 1 country station in Detroit 1966-70.
Jack North reminisces about WEXL radio
I’m very excited to present a guest post written by Jack North, who worked at WEXL radio Royal Oak in 1966-70, during the era when the pioneering station was the No. 1 country radio broadcaster in Detroit. This piece is written in his own words, so read on and enjoy! — Craig Maki
In October of 1966 at the age of eighteen, I fulfilled my dream to be a radio disc jockey when I was hired by Dale Lewis at WEXL, Detroit’s only country station at the time, to be the 6 p.m. to midnight DJ. After graduating from Cass Tech, where I was in the Performing Arts curriculum, I skipped college and went to EIT’s School of Broadcasting on Woodward Avenue. One day, about midway through the three- or four-month course, I was pulled aside by the instructor (who was a DJ at one of the Detroit stations, but I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I cannot remember his name) who told me about the opening at WEXL. He said that even though I hadn’t finished the course, he thought I was ready. I made an audition tape and got the job, so I dropped out of the class to begin my broadcasting career.
Being a typical Detroit teenager in the 1960s I was more into rock and roll and rhythm and blues, dividing my loyalty between WXYZ, WKNR, WJBK (before they switched to WDEE) WJLB, and others. Almost as soon as I started at WEXL, I felt right at home with country music. The station’s format had us playing a couple of “oldies” every hour and, oddly, I was familiar with about seventy-five percent of the older country songs. I had been exposed to country music in my family more than I realized. (A favorite aunt of mine was from Kentucky originally, so I guess that was one of the sources.)
I worked at the station for four years alongside Dave Carr, Bill Mann, newsman Bob Mason, and others. It was a fun time, and I learned a lot from everyone.
Because I was initially on an evening shift, rather than “drive time,” I had a little more leeway in straying from playing strictly the top charting country hits. I’d play an album cut once or twice an hour, either from a new release or from one of the older albums by the top country artists. I tended to favor the “folksy” sound of artists such as George Hamilton IV, early Waylon Jennings, or Bobby Bare. But I also really liked the greats, such as Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Earl Scruggs, Patsy Cline, etc.
Occasionally, during my evening shows, I’d get a call from the Detroit Tigers locker room, requesting a song or two! I never actually spoke to any of the star players, though. I think the calls came from trainers or coaches.
The evening show also developed a following from a group of listeners who called themselves “Peggy and the Hospital Bunch.” They’d send me cards and little gifts, and let me know they enjoyed my show, but they never once broke the anonymity of their group. I never knew who they were, nor at which hospital they were working while listening. When the Tigers won the pennant in ’68 they sent me a huge stuffed tiger and poster board display. I have a picture of it taken in the WOMC studio across the hall from our WEXL studio.
Yes, WOMC was owned by the Sparks family at that time. It was located in the same building. One of my duties during my shift was to change the huge reels of tape that were used by WOMC’s automated system. In those days, WOMC was basically a background music station … the kind you’d hear in a doctor’s office. I also had to read and record occasional newscasts to be played back during the night. (The news at Sparks’ stations was strictly “rip ’n’ read,” which meant you just pulled the hourly three- to five-minute news summary off the AP machine and read it. In fact, I’d occasionally begin my late-night WOMC newscasts with something like “This is Rip Enreid with the news.” No one ever caught on.) It’s strange to think now that FM stations in those days were generally not very popular. Radios that included FM reception were more expensive, high-tech devices.
One of the perks of working in radio was being able to see live concerts by the biggest stars in the country. A couple times a year a huge all-star “Grand Ole Opry” show would come to Detroit for two big shows, matinee and evening, at Cobo Arena. WEXL personalities emcee’d the shows, so I had the thrill of not only seeing some of the biggest stars of the day, like Johnny Cash, Sonny James, Ray Price, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb, Porter Wagoner, and on and on and on, but also of being on stage introducing some of them including Tammy Wynette, Hank Snow, “Little” Jimmy Dickens, and many, many more.
The way those shows were presented was this: Each of the day’s shows, matinee and evening, was divided into two halves, or acts. Each of the dozen performers would have about fifteen minutes to do a few songs backed by the first performer’s band. The band would stay on stage, playing for several performers. At the end of each act a headliner would take the stage with his or her own band and do a slightly longer set. George Jones, for example, would be the first act closer, and Sonny James would close out the second act to wrap up the matinee show. Then at the evening show, they’d switch and James would close out the first act and Jones the second.
One of the most unforgettable memories of those shows was seeing Waylon Jennings. This was early on in his career, before the “outlaw” phase. What made it so memorable wasn’t that I met him … in fact, I never did, officially. But after his fifteen- or twenty-minute gig, he came offstage and went back to the large dressing room where all the other performers would hang out and eat, drink, and talk. After a few minutes backstage, Jennings came back out to the side of the stage where I was standing and watching the show. I was tempted to introduce myself and tell him how much I liked his songs, but something stopped me. It was plain to see that this artist was still working. He wasn’t just watching the performers on stage; the young, future superstar was studying them, learning. It was very, very impressive. Over the years I’ve kicked myself for not talking to him, but at the time it just didn’t seem appropriate to interrupt him from his work.
Sonny James, by the way, was one of the most likeable and courteous people, performer or no, that I have ever met. I don’t know what his secret was, but once he met you and talked a bit, he could come into town a year later and address you by name, ask about your wife, by name, or make other chit-chat that referenced something you talked about during his previous visit. I don’t know if he had a file card system back on his bus, or a personal assistant who kept up with all that info, but it made you feel as if he really cared about you. Sonny James was awesome.
My time at WEXL was very precious and formative. I left Detroit to work at a station in York, Pennsylvania, where I won Billboard’s small market Air Personality of the Year award. Then I worked for a time in Nashville at a country music fan magazine. I ended up in Savannah, Georgia, where I worked briefly in pop radio before going into television. I had my own local TV show for many years, hosting late-night horror movies. I also worked behind the camera as a writer, producer director and sometimes performer for stations or ad agencies in literally hundreds of local or regional commercials. I also owned my own theatrical company, Murder Afloat, where I wrote, produced, directed and performed in murder mysteries aboard several of Savannah’s riverboats for twenty years. I’ve done dozens of professional and amateur theatrical shows, including one off-off Broadway stint in New York City.
I have now “semi-retired” to the Atlanta area, so my wife and I could be near some of our family. I continue to work in theater; I am a King at Medieval Times in Atlanta. I also play music out at some open mikes, playing guitar and singing old R&B, rock, or jazz standards. I’ve posted a few on YouTube.
For some reason I’ve never been one to hang on to memorabilia, but I do occasionally get curious about people I’ve worked with in the past. It was while looking for information about WEXL and Dave Carr, for example, that led me to this site. It brought back great memories, many of which I hadn’t really thought of until writing this piece.
Thanks, Jack North