Bob Smith grew up about as poor as you can get in Brooklyn, New York. His family was so poor, he would rub grease on his chin while on his way to visit his friends in the evening so he could brag that he had eaten steak for dinner instead of suffering the embarrassment of telling them he had nothing.
Bob was in a gang. They would roam the streets tagging, shooting at each other with zip guns. His friend KLEPTO, who was legendary for quickly cleaning out stores, would shoplift and keep Bob supplied with the R & B and rock and roll records he loved.
The thing that saved Bob Smith was his love for radio. Back in the days before A.M. radio was a dirty word to teenagers, high powered stations could be heard all over the country at night. Disc jockeys at these stations had shows that were truly national. His idols were Dr. Jive, Jocko Henderson, John R., Hound Dog Lorenz and Alan "Moon Dog" Freed. He found a couple of old beat up turntables and practiced being his heroes. Bob's father gave him an old radio, a transoceanic model with all sorts of tuning knobs.
Wolfman Jack Howls Across The Border
Bob and his friends cleaned out the coal bin in the cellar and strung miles of copper wire to serve as an antenna to bring in the far away stations better. He was particularly fascinated by the border radio stations. These Mexican radio stations operated at powers 3-5 times higher than U.S. stations were allowed. They were located on the borders of Mexico and Texas or California, but were leased to Americans. They were in reality "outlaw" U.S. stations mostly catering to an English speaking audience.
If the ionosphere was just right the "outlaw X" XERF in Del Rio would blast into New York City as clear as if it was a local station. The electricity coming off the transmitters was so powerful that birds flying too close would drop dead. The extreme energy would cause nearby parked cars headlights to glow.
These "bandit", "outlaw", or "border blasters" as they were called, transmitted programs by all sorts of wild characters, usually pitching something. In the 1920s and 1930s, Doc Brinkley pitched his cure for impotence involving surgical procedures and goat glands at his hospital in Del Rio. The stations were the havens of pre-Jim Bakker broadcast evangelists selling Jesus, miracles and pleading for donations.
Bob dreamed that one day he would be on the air at one of the border blasters broadcasting around the world. He got his first job at a New Jersey radio station. He was allowed to hang around in exchange for running errands and cleaning up. He got his big break when an announcer failed to show up one night.
He took a radio course, then got a real job at a station in Newport News, Virginia. He did a show then would go out and sell commercial time. While trying to sell commercial time to a dance school he met his wife, Lou (Lucy Lamb), who worked there. From there he moved to a station in Shreveport, Louisiana where he was called Big Smith with the Records. In his spare time, he developed another radio persona based on the disc jockeys that he had idolized as a teenager. He practiced and made tapes.
Living in Shreveport placed him within a days drive of the Mexican border. He decided to give it a go. He and partner, Lawrence Brandon got in a car and drove the 400-500 miles to Del Rio. When they arrived, they made an appointment for the next day to meet with Del Rio attorney Arturo Gonzalez who held the rights to operate XERF.
Unable to contain themselves, they set out that night to see the station he had always fantasized about. They hired a taxicab to take them. "Man, it was real scary," recalled Smith, "'cause there was no roads going out to the station. Had to go over sand dunes an' everything to get out there. I thought the guy was taking' me for a ride, you know. I didn't know if I was gonna make it back or not."
When they arrived, he found the station in the middle of a management crisis. The station was in receivership. Gonzalez and the Mexican government were having a dispute over taxes owed by XERF and about the policies regarding the sale of airtime to the preachers.
The Mexican government had taken over the station and appointed a receiver called an interventor. The interventor they put in was a snaky guy named Montez who was like a gangster. The radio station employees had a union and they wanted to take the station back and have their own receiver appointed. Bob just happened to walk in right in the middle of their meeting.
Bob played a man named Mario from the union, who spoke English, the tapes he had been working on. Then, he offered to pay the man's way to Mexico City to talk to the government about appointing a union receiver. He gave the man $1500 for the trip and whatever bribes he needed to pay. The union appointed Bob their U.S. representative and kicked out Montez. This did not sit too well with Montez who took to firing shots at Bob in the middle of the night.
Bob and his partner, Brandon drove to San Antonio and spent $25,000, every dime they had, on barbed wire, sandbags, lights, guns and an ancient sixty millimeter machine gun that they sat out there just for show. They turned the radio station into a fortress. Bob walked around with a pistol on each hip and a Bandolera across his chest. He said it made him look like Viva Zapata.
One of the first things that Bob did was call all of the station's preachers and psychics from a phone booth in Del Rio. He informed them that they would now have to pay in advance for airtime and to send the money to his address in Shreveport. They didn't believe him. Two days later, he pulled their programs and in its place Bob Smith made his first appearance on the air as Wolfman Jack. The preachers got the message and sent in their payments. They had the cash. Later, he would double the rates and they paid without flinching. They still had the cash.
He didn't turn on the transmitter to the radio station until about six every evening. There wasn't much point in wasting all that juice to broadcast to the wide open spaces of West Texas. In the evening, the ionosphere cooled down and the radio signals would blast off and bounce around the world.
Wolfman sold air time to the preachers until 12:30 AM. Then, the gravel voiced Wolfman Jack took to the air- "Howling at a quarter-million watts........down here with the donkeys" until 4 AM.
XERF's signal reached as far as the Soviet Union. The KGB agents practiced their English listening to the station until Wolfman Jack made disparaging remarks against Kruschev, then they started jamming the signal. Wolfman Jack sold, sold, sold. Some of the products he pitched: Record packages- from Ernie's Record Shop in Nashville and Stan's Record Shop in Shreveport. 40 songs for $4.95. He would sell 600 record packages a day. Dog food- "The wolfman eat it all the time!" Weight loss pills" Weight gain pills.
100 Baby chicks for $3.95 COD. "You can walk them around with little leashes. Give them names. And when they grow up ya can eat 'em." The chicks, the customers would soon find out, were not very good for eating. They generally died pretty fast. The ones that grew up flew like eagles and gangs of twenty-five or so would swoop down out of trees and attack dogs and other animals, sometimes people.
Florex pills- which were supposed to have the same effect as Viagra. "It'll put some zing in your ling!" They really were just sugar-coated pills with aspirin inside. The FTC stopped him from advertising it but the orders kept rolling in for years.
Roach clips- he never said what they were really for (smoking marijuana) but talked about how you could clip the roaches tiny little legs to them and throw them out the window.
Wolfman Jack/Bob Smith earned 50% commission on everything he sold. Soon, XERF was making $150,000 profit a month. He had 50-60 people on the payroll. He brought in doctors and dentists to take care of the families. He held blowout parties. They often barbecued goats over open fires.
He made sure he spread the money around to keep the federales, local politicians and police happy. He said, "A little mordida, here. A little mordida, there."
Bob moved into the hotel in Del Rio that was once owned by Doc Brinkley. He joked that he would have no use for Doc Brinkley's cure.
He always left the radio on his room tuned to XERF. After he had been in Mexico about two months, his wife came down for a visit. Wolfman and Wolfwoman were getting reacquainted and right in the middle of their act of love gunshots rang out over the radio. A young boy broke in over a preacher's program and shouted, "pistoleros, pistoleros!!"
Montez had gotten jealous about all of the money that was rolling into the radio station and had surrounded the station in an attempt to take it back.
Bob threw on his pants, ran to his car and raced to the border. He knew to always carry a big wad of cash on him at all times. The dollars were flying as he rounded up a small army.
He got the sheriff, a guy in a garbage truck, guys on scooters, guys on horseback, the second shift from the radio station, about forty people and twenty vehicles. When they got to the XERF it was almost dawn. The attackers were circling the radio station like Indians circling a wagon train.
Wolfman said that you could see the dust flying from the horses riding around. They were shooting at the station, and Wolfman's guys, barricaded in the station, were shooting back. Wolfman and his posse came over the hill and he had everybody honk their horns and whoop and holler. He said it must have looked to them like a thousand people coming and the attackers took off.
They found one of the bad guy's men dead, probably from a stray bullet from his own side. Three of the XERF people were shot, but none seriously injured. It cost about five hundred dollars to have it forgotten about. Montez never bothered them again.
Arturo Gonzalez, the man that formerly controlled XERF, was another matter. "I think I got a lawsuit from him everyday." Wolfman recalled.
After 2½ years, Wolfman got tired of all of the responsibility, being shot at and living in a fortress. He turned XERF back to Gonzalez and moved to Minnesota where he and another partner had bought a radio station. Part of his deal was that he still would do his Wolfman Jack show by tape.
In 1967, he got tired of the cold Minnesota winters and started all over again back across the border at XERB. The transmitter was in Tijuana, but the studio was in Los Angeles. Wolfman Jack moved his family to a house in Beverly Hills. He would wave at a young Jamie Lee Curtis who lived across the street as he pulled out of his driveway to go to work. The shows on XERB were recorded in LA, then the tapes were driven down to Mexico to be played at the transmitter.
He added XEG in Monterrey and XELO. He was blasting from four stations and was once again the undisputed king of border radio.
He was rocking along, when jealousy kicked in over the money he was making, and the Mexican government took the radio stations away from him. He was out of work until a Los Angeles station offered him a job for $18,000 a year.
He went on to success in "legitimate" jobs in radio and television until his death in 1995.