“I’m a ghetto man who made good. I never forgot where I came from and who put me on top — God and Jack The Rapper.” ~ James Brown
Jack “The Rapper” Gibson was the first Black radio DJ at a black-owned station and he was bar-none the mentor to 40 years of musical superstars and crossed paths with Black personalities who are highlights of history books and black entertainment royalty: Sammy Davis, Jr., Billie Holiday, Erroll Garner, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, and Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and many others.
His long reaching influence began in 1949, when he and Atlanta university professor J.B. Blayton established the first black-owned radio station in the United States — WERD.
In addition to his involvement in the music scene, Gibson gave voice to one of the most critical periods of American history — the Civil Rights Movement. In a long on-air interview with Malcolm X in 1963, he shared some anger and even a few laughs with the controversial spokesman for the Nation of Islam. In 1968, he took to the streets of Detroit after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to do a live radio broadcast.
But Gibson’s most long-reaching achievement was the annual black music convention he called “The Family Affair.” Music industry elite cleared their schedules each year to lend their talents to the Grand Old Man’s Family Affair: Prince, Tina Turner, Nancy Wilson, Janet Jackson, James Brown, Whitney Houston, Eddie Murphy, Hammer, and Toni Braxton, Sinbad.
Gibson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has been honored by The United States Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and countless other organizations.
Shortly after completing his “as told to” autobiographical collaboration with Walker Smith, titled Mello Yello: The Incredible Story of Jack the Rapper, Gibson passed away in Las Vegas. He is survived by his loving wife Elsie, his daughter Jamilla Gibson Bell, and his son “Jack 3” Gibson. His last wish was that the book of his life be published and widely read so that this missing Black chapter of American History would not be forgotten.
Smith, the author, is a child of a jazz drummer and a book-addicted beatnik, Walker Smith grew up in a house filled with music and literature. A singer with three solo album under her belt, using the pseudonym, Bobbi Walker, she closed the music chapter of her life to pursue her biggest passion, creative writing and history studies in New York. She wrote interviews and articles for African Voices and Vertigo magazines, features for the Reel Sisters Film Festival, and a collaborative biography with Gibson, the black radio pioneer.
Here, she shares her experience with Gibson and why this biography is a must read.
Why is it important for Jack Gibson’s story to be read, heard, told?
When he lived, Jack was a walking, talking, purveyor of history, both cultural and “front-page”. Thank God we finished this book before he passed. His stories paint a rich, vivid portrait of the intimate side of Jack’s life and the history he lived through. This isn’t some dry chronicle of the inner workings of the music industry. Jack takes you by the hand and walks you through the doors of the Savoy, Motown, STAX, Brunswick, and even WERD in 1949 to witness the first words spoken over the airwaves on the first black-owned radio station in the United States. “We are here.” He did have a way of finding the right words at the right moment.
If Jack Gibson were alive today who would be his peers? Why?
The first person who comes to mind is Tom Joyner. Jack was an early mentor to Tom, and Tom’s morning show has a lot of the elements of Jack’s old radio shows. It’s fun, informative, and has a very easy, relaxed feel to the format. If you read Mello Yello, you’ll see the similarities. Jack was an intimate friend to his audience, and always a comedian. As a deejay in the 50s, Jack would call for donations to assist someone who was sick or was down on his luck. Tom Joyner has taken that idea to new heights with all his charity work, with a special focus on scholarships through his foundation. He is really carrying the torch, and I know Jack would be proud of him.
Which stories would he cover in today’s news in music, entertainment and culture?
I’m sure he’d be all over the continuing problem of young black men being killed in our streets. Jack was very outspoken, as anyone who ever read his newsletter the “Mello Yello” will tell you. There are incidents of police violence in the book, and it seems that while so many things have changed for us, not much has changed in the department of racial profiling.
But Jack would also be having fun with the cultural and entertainment angle. He was a playful jokester, and he’d often break out in uproarious laughter as I recorded our interviews for the book. I’d really like to hear his take on some things that I suspect would have made him reach for the mike and burn up the airwaves: How low will sagging pants sink before they are finally gone? Why did Lady Gaga wear a meat dress to the MTV Awards? Now let’s talk about Kanye…
What would his Twitter description say?
“The Original Rapper – Telling it like it T-I-S IS… And that’s the truth, Ruth!”
What was the experience like working with a music pioneer and visionary in terms of capturing and chronicling his story?
I write historical novels, so it was enthralling! History is like candy to me, not just nuts-and-bolts history, but personal memoirs, because they provide an atmospheric foundation that makes you feel as if you are actually there. Jack lived it and relayed it back to me with amazing accuracy—the sights, the sounds, the laughter, and the tears.
What did you learn about Jack Gibson that has had the most impact on you?
Aside from his huge impact on early radio and the music industry, there were three unexpected things I learned. First was how hard Jack fought to allow the rappers into his conventions when many of his sponsors and advisors were dead-set against it. He faced down the most influential executives telling them that he could not eliminate such a large element of black music from his convention because the whole convention was supposed to be about the free expression of all black recording artists. He won them over and we all know how it went. But even after the shooting incidents and the major drop in attendance, Jack stuck to his principles. All rappers should respect him for that and never forget him.
Second, I was struck by the exuberant joy of all those early entertainment pioneers like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., and all Jack’s dear friends from back in the day. The stories about their daily parties at the Lord Calvert Hotel made me want to go back in time and check in for a long stay. The royalty of black entertainment stayed at the Lord Calvert because they were not welcome at any of the Whites-only hotels back in those days. It was another facet of those times that are most often seen as morose and hopeless, but Jack gave me a fun, colorful peek at how the biggest superstars banded together to keep their spirits up in the face of segregation.
But I think what had the most staggering impact on me was Jack’s love for his wife Sadye. He talks a lot in the book about his dalliances with other women, his work, his social life, so when we got to the Sadye chapter of the book, I was a bit stunned. He poured out his emotions and I had no doubt about his devotion to her. It opened a door of understanding for me about how to view all humans, see past the flaws and mistakes, and see the whole person. He was an exceptional man.
Explain what a radio interview “by window” is?
The best way to explain it is to give you directly in Jack’s words:
“The Civil Rights Movement was beginning to rumble in the fifties, at the same time I was at WERD. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was sitting smack in the middle of history. Well, one floor up, to be exact. WERD had moved up the street from 274½ Auburn Avenue to 330 Auburn Avenue, or Sweet Auburn Avenue, as we called it. We shared the building with the newly-formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The bottom floor was theirs and we occupied the upstairs space.
“There was always some kind of bustling activity going on downstairs—strategy meetings, plans for boycotts, speech writing and the training of new volunteers. So all the WERD employees were getting all the breaking news first. And what we didn’t hear about at the office, we found out over a big plate of ribs, because we all ate down the street at “Ben Reed’s Houston Street Rib Shack.” Ain’t that a killer? There we were, greasin’ down with Dr. King while he strategized, and not one of us had an inkling that what he was doing would change the world.
“Dr. King traveled a lot during that time, but when I knew he was in his office, I’d take a break from my program and say, “And now, here’s a word from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.” Then I’d dangle the microphone down through an open window to his office window, and he’d grab it and say something inspirational to the listeners. We were short on budget, but long on imagination, because we found all kinds of ways to keep ourselves going through those tough times.”
What did the industry lose when Gibson passed away? What is his richest legacy?
When we lost Jack, we lost some of the joy and that grassroots determination that unlocked so many doors. Everything that is happening in the Black entertainment industry today rests upon a framework that Jack and his contemporaries built against impossible odds. For example, when he began his newsletter called the “Mello Yello,” he was so short on cash that he bought goldenrod paper for its printing because it was the cheapest paper he could find. And, that’s how it got the name “Mello Yello.” Somehow, I find that appropriately ironic and he made me smile with that story. It was the same with the Family Affair. He and his wife Sadye started with nothing but an idea and pulled together a massive convention that all the major record labels had to respect. And, I don’t mean some grudging respect from afar; the majors made sure their artists were well represented at the Family Affair. No one missed that convention. It was the event of the season every year.
He also invited stars and radio personalities from the early days and made sure that the new young crop of stars could meet them and hear their stories. Jack wanted them to know who paved the way for them and how they did it.