The voices of Philly's soul radio

Sonny Hopson, "super-high-adrenaline," would sing along with his records.
Sonny Hopson, "super-high-adrenaline," would sing along with his records. (REUBEN HARLEY / Daily News)
Posted: February 17, 2014

In 2011, at an after-school workshop about Black History Month at Mighty Writers, the Philadelphia nonprofit that teaches children how to write, Nefeesah Cannady posed a question.

"Ever since I've been little, I've been hearing about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks," Cannady, then a junior at Central High School, said. "I know everything about those people - they were great Americans. But how come I don't know anything about the black Philadelphians that came before me?"

That question, said Mighty Writers founder Tim Whitaker, "triggered this idea about all these pioneering black DJs from the 1950s up until 1979 that are all but forgotten."

Forgotten no more. Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio, a two-hour show written and produced by Yowei Shaw and Alex Lewis and hosted by Sound of Philadelphia architect Kenny Gamble, will air at 6 p.m. Sunday night and at 2 p.m. Feb. 22 on WHYY-FM (90.9)

The program focuses on African American jocks such as Douglas "Jocko" Henderson, Georgie Woods, Sonny Hopson, Louise Williams, and Jimmy Bishop, as well as their white cohorts such as Joe "Butterball" Tamburro, Harvey Holiday, and Bob Klein, the general manager of WDAS (1480-AM), the white-owned station that faithfully served the black community in Philadelphia from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Going Black, whose title comes from a business decision that Klein made in 1951 to turn WDAS-AM into a station aimed at black Philadelphians, celebrates a cast of characters who were both entertainers and community leaders.

Henderson - "The Ace From Outer Space" - would descend from the rafters in a spaceship at shows at New York's Apollo Theater. He once sent Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, a telegram congratulating him on joining the DJ in orbit.

Woods - "The Guy With the Goods" - was routinely billed higher than acts such as the Temptations at shows he presented at North Philadelphia's Uptown Theater. He also stood tall as a civil rights leader working to keep peace when riots tore neighborhoods apart in Philadelphia in the 1960s.

And Hopson, the motor-mouthed proto-rapper who would talk and sing over the music he played, was known as a genius self-promoter who would have himself paged at sporting events so everyone would know that Sonny Hopson was in high demand.

"I'm a public-radio junkie," said writer-producer Shaw, 26. "I love it. I work in it. And I really had never heard anything like these personality jocks. Public radio can be a little sterile in comparison. This stuff is just electrifying. I was just really sucked in by the artistry . . . . They were having such a good time on the radio. So funny, so smart. Stuff you don't really hear today, that freedom."

Whitaker, 65, is the executive producer. The Philadelphia native grew up listening to 'DAS.

"Sonny Hopson is a madman," he said with a laugh. "He was super-high-adrenaline. I always remember he would play a Jackie Wilson song, and would sing along with it, like Jerry Blavat does.

"Bob Klein was the rabbi of the whole thing. And the importance of the DJs changes from guy to guy. Georgie Woods had the gravitas to talk to the community about political action. Jimmy Bishop was the cool, good-looking guy. Louise Williams [Bishop's wife, and now a Pennsylvania state representative from Philadelphia] was the Gospel Queen. And Jocko was the big fun guy, always rapping and talking over the songs. Blavat pays tribute to Jocko a lot."

"When I was a kid, I was listening to WDAS and WHAT," Blavat recalls on the show. "I was listening to the black guys - Georgie Woods, Jocko. They were playing the real songs, not the cover versions."

Gamble tells the tale and a host of participants and academics stress how the role of black radio stations such as WDAS and the smaller WHAT (1340-AM) evolved to, in the words of Jocko's son Douglas Henderson Jr., "instill a sense of community in the community."

"What's amazing about these stations, WDAS and WHAT, is that not only were they the cool stations to listen to for music and larger-than-life personalities," Shaw said. "They also had well-developed news departments. They couldn't just rip and read news, because the wire services weren't covering stories important to the black community. They had to work harder."

In the 1960s, Shaw said, Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among other civil-rights leaders, were guests on The Listening Post, hosted by former NAACP leader Joe Rainey. Other notable WDAS journalists included future 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley, news director Bob Perkins, who has long since become a Philadelphia institution playing jazz on WRTI-FM, and the late newsman Brahin Ahmaddiya, who hosted the show Insight Inner City.

The influence of locally owned stations waned in the 1980s and 1990s, as loosened Federal Communications Committee regulations paved the way for corporate consolidation and homogenization. Today, WDAS-FM's slogan is "Philly's Best R&B and Classic Soul." It's one of six stations owned by Clear Channel Communications in Philadelphia. In the heyday of WDAS from the 1950s to the late 1970s, however, WDAS was a stronghold in the city's black community.

"We had a very tight-knit environment at WDAS," said DJ Dyana Williams, who hosted a show called Love on the Menu in the 1980s after the station moved to 105.3 on the FM dial.

In his voice-over, Gamble reminisces about growing up in South Philadelphia in the 1950s and recording a song at a penny arcade at 15th and Market Streets. He and his friends walked all the way to the WDAS studio in West Philadelphia.

He didn't get it played on the air. But he did meet the all-powerful Woods. And when he returned to the station - with his shoeshine kit - he made himself indispensable to the jocks, building connections that would pay off when he eventually founded his own record company with Leon Huff. "There wouldn't be any Philadelphia International," he says, "without WDAS."


ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628

@delucadan

www.inquirer.com/inthemix

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