He Lived the Blues Life And Didn't Know It

July 16, 1995|By TIM WARREN

I've interviewed hundreds of authors, athletes and celebrities, but few interviews had as much of an impact on me as the one I did last month with Wolfman Jack. For days after interviewing him in Washington June 17, I kept going over things that he had said. When rock and roll's most famous disc jockey died of a heart attack July 1, at the age of 57, he continued to stay on my mind.

Certainly there's simply the occasion of hearing that someone you've just interviewed has died suddenly. With Wolfman Jack, though, it was shock, but not surprise; if anything, he was the classic candidate for a heart attack.

As he had detailed in his just-published autobiography, "Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal," the Wolfman had used cocaine for the better part of two decades, and he smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes. "I'm going to die because of this cigarette because I enjoy it too much," he told me nonchalantly as he lit up his second Camel of the interview.

I also wrote in my article that appeared in The Sun on June 25 that the Wolfman was "big going on huge," and he was just that -- at least 50 pounds overweight. At the beginning of the interview, he leaned over to Lonnie Napier, a longtime friend and business associate, and pointed to the menu: "Would eggs Benedict be OK? I'm trying to cut back."

When Mr. Napier responded that eggs Benedict was probably the most fattening thing on the menu, the Wolfman sighed. He settled for poached eggs and bacon -- the Wolfman was the ultimate sensualist, and he was going to have some kind of real breakfast.

Though he seemed weary from having done a radio show the night before, the Wolfman was more than ready to talk -- about his book, about rock and roll, about his days as a deejay on outlaw stations, about preachers and racial relations.

But what struck me during the interview was not the wild, raucous fellow we were used to seeing and hearing. As he talked about his miserable childhood in Brooklyn, and his lifelong attempts to be not the unhappy lad named Bob Smith but the Wolfman Jack persona who loved to let the good times roll, the interview took on an inescapable sadness. His mother had just died, too, and a couple of times in the interview he broke down and cried.

That's how I'll remember the Wolfman.

Wolfman Jack was a hero of sorts to me -- a guy who played the music I loved and did so much to popularize it around the world. He came along in the early 1960s, at a time when disc jockeys were supposed to be entertaining, to be creative, and he continued to do so long after rock radio changed into a faceless, antiseptic enterprise. I spent many hours listening to him on the radio, reveling in his exuberance and his sheer joy in being able to play Sam Cooke and James Brown records. No one seemed to enjoy more what he was doing for a living. He was what rock and roll was all about.

At times in the interview, he certainly put on a cheerful face: "Now I'm so happy I can't think," the Wolfman chirped. He talked of his Friday night radio show at Planet Hollywood in Washington, broadcast over 50 stations nationwide. "I would rather do radio than sex," he wisecracked; "All of those people having a great time -- I get levitated every show."

Professionally, he was still busy, still commanding up to $10,000 an appearance, and he had cut out the drug abuse, he said, and the fooling around that had more than once prompted Lou, his wife of 34 years, to leave him. Now they were living quietly in northeastern North Carolina on a 160-acre plantation. Mr. Napier even allowed that the Wolfman, who epitomized urban cool and love of night life, was becoming "a country bumpkin." He had even taken up fishing.

But then he'd start talking about his unhappy childhood again, and the party-hearty persona of Wolfman Jack would disappear. He'd talk of being a lonely kid named Bob Smith who couldn't understand why his parents divorced when he was 5. The rancor in his voice was still evident when he talked about his stepmother, who he flatly declared was "evil." He acknowledged that when he began to write his autobiography, "I went into a depression you wouldn't believe. Going back over my childhood -- there were memories I didn't want to bring back."

The memories were so unpleasant that when he became a successful disc jockey, and his Wolfman Jack shtick was imitated by dozens of other deejays around the country, Bob Smith simply decided he didn't want to be Bob Smith any more. Mr. Napier told me later that practically no one, including the Wolfman's mother, called him by his real name. If someone did, he wouldn't answer.

"That's why I like being Wolfman Jack," he wrote in "Have Mercy!" "Bob Smith from Brooklyn is a guy who sometimes gets hung with problems and fears. Wolfman Jack is a happy-go-lucky guy who knows how to party. The challenge of my life has been letting more and more of Bob Smith go, becoming the Wolfman on an almost full-time basis, while still taking care of business."

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