By Dianne Washington
Robert Weston Smith (January 21, 1938 – July 1, 1995), known as Wolfman Jack, was an American disc jockey active for over 3 decades. Famous for the gravelly voice which he credited for his success, saying, “It’s kept meat and potatoes on the table for years for Wolfman and Wolfwoman. A couple of shots of whiskey helps it. I’ve got that nice raspy sound.”
Smith was born in Brooklyn, New York on January 21, 1938, the younger of two children of Anson Weston Smith, an Episcopal Sunday school teacher, writer, editor, and executive vice president of Financial World, and his wife, Rosamond Small. He lived on 12th Street and 4th Avenue and went to Manual Training High School in the Park Slope section. His parents divorced while he was a child. To help keep him out of trouble, his father bought him a large Trans-Oceanic radio, and Smith became an avid fan of R&B music and the disc jockeys who played it, including Douglas “Jocko” Henderson of Philadelphia; New York’s “Dr. Jive” (Tommy Smalls); the “Moon Dog” from Cleveland, Alan Freed; and Nashville’s “John R.” Richbourg, who later became his mentor. After selling encyclopedias and Fuller brushes door-to-door, Smith attended the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, D.C.
In his early days, Wolfman Jack made sporadic public appearances, usually as a master of ceremonies for rock bands at Los Angeles clubs. At each appearance, he looked a little different because he had not decided what the Wolfman should look like. Early pictures show him with a goatee, but sometimes he combed his straight hair forward and added dark makeup to look somewhat “ethnic.” Other times he had a big afro wig and large sunglasses. The ambiguity of his race contributed to the controversy of his program. His audience finally got a good look at him when he appeared in the 1969 film A Session with the Committee, a montage of skits by the comedy troupe The Committee.
Wolfman Jack started his recording career in Minneapolis while working at KUXL Radio in 1965 with George Garrett, who helped record the album Boogie with the Wolfman by Wolfman Jack and the Wolfpack on the Bread Label. He was also responsible for engineering, producing, and assembling the band. Wolfman Jack also released Wolfman Jack (1972) and Through the Ages (1973) on the Wooden Nickel label.
In 1973, he appeared as himself in George Lucas’s second feature film American Graffiti. Lucas gave him a fraction of a “point”, the division of the profits from a film, and the extreme financial success of American Graffiti provided him with a regular income for life. He also appeared in the film’s 1979 sequel More American Graffiti, though only through voice-overs. In 1978, he appeared as Bob “The Jackal” Smith in a made-for-TV movie Deadman’s Curve based on the musical careers of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean. Smith appeared in several television shows as Wolfman Jack, including The Odd Couple, What’s Happening!!, Vega$, Hollywood Squares, Married… with Children (his final public performance), Emergency!, The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, and Galactica 1980. He was the regular announcer and occasional host for The Midnight Special on NBC from 1973 to 1981. He was the host of his variety series The Wolfman Jack Show, which was produced in Canada by CBC Television in 1976 and syndicated to stations in the U.S. In 1984, Wolfman Jack starred as himself on the short-lived ABC animated series Wolf Rock TV. He also voiced the chief of the Rama Lama tribe on the TV special Garfield in Paradise in 1986.
Jim Morrison’s lyrics for “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” were influenced by Wolfman Jack’s broadcasting. He is also mentioned in the Grateful Dead song “Ramble On Rose”. He furnished his voice in The Guess Who’s top-10 hit single “Clap for the Wolfman”. Wolfman Jack was regularly parodied on The Hilarious House of Frightenstein as “The Wolfman,” an actual werewolf disc jockey with a look inspired by the original The Wolf Man movies. A few years earlier, Todd Rundgren recorded the tribute “Wolfman Jack” on the album Something/Anything?; the single version of the track includes a shouted talk-over introduction by the Wolfman, but on the album version, Rundgren performs that part himself. Canadian band The Stampeders also released a cover of “Hit the Road Jack” in 1975 featuring Wolfman Jack. From 1975 to 1980, Wolfman Jack hosted Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Berry Farm, which transforms itself into Knott’s Scary Farm each year for Halloween. It was the most successful special event of any theme park in the country, and often sold out.
In 2012, the estate of Wolfman Jack released a hip-hop single featuring Wolfman Jack clips as the vocals. In 2016, clips from the Wolfman Jack Radio Program were used in the Rob Zombie film 31.
On July 1, 1995, Smith died from a heart attack at his house in Belvidere, North Carolina, shortly after finishing a weekly broadcast. He was 57 years old. He is buried at a family cemetery in Belvidere.