Bill “Hoss” Allen, Gene “Daddy” Nobles, and “John R.” (John Richbourg), the late-night announcing crew of WLAC radio in Nashville, were inducted together into the Hall of Fame in 1994 for their groundbreaking work in exposing millions of listeners, black and white, to the sounds of blues and rhythm & blues from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. WLAC began broadcasting in 1926 with no blues programming, but in 1942 it became one of the elite stations selected by the FCC to transmit a 50,000-watt “clear channel” signal at night. The nightly broadcasts could reach not only the southern, eastern and midwestern states but also across the Canadian border and down into the Caribbean. (By comparison, during their early years, most local stations, including those with legendary blues programs such as KFFA in Helena and WDIA in Memphis, were limited to the regional coverage of 250-watt signals.) WLAC became the primary national outlet for blues labels and mail order operations, as listeners could send in C.O.D. orders for the latest blues, R&B and gospel releases on Chess, Excello, King, Federal, Vee-Jay, and Jewel to Randy’s, Ernie’s, and Buckley’s, Nashville area record shops that sponsored the shows. As Louisiana record producer and distributor Floyd Soileau told Living Blues in the spring of 1973, WLAC was, even then, still crucial to the success of a blues 45: “If you don’t make it on WLAC, you’re nowheresville!” John R., Nobles, and the mail order blues shows departed WLAC later that year when the station instituted programming changes, leaving a void in the blues infrastructure that has never been filled. Talk shows now dominate the airwaves of a station that cast aside its vast legacy in the story of American music.
The WLAC DJs were white, although many listeners would have been surprised to learn so. John Richbourg, known on the air simply as John R., was the most prominent of the personalities, sometimes referred to as “The Granddaddy of Soul Music” for all that he accomplished (even though Gene Nobles could be similarly acknowledged, since he began playing the music first). John R.’s dedication to the artists and his reassuring baritone voice earned him a devoted following among both listeners and performers. A former actor, born in Davis Station, South Carolina, on Aug. 28, 1910, he was a natural pitch man who could sell not only records but hair pomade, tonics, and baby chicks over the air, and he also made major contributions as a record producer, recording Joe Simon, Lattimore Brown, Fenton Robinson, Sam Baker, and many others for Sound Stage 7 and his own Seventy 7, Sound Plus, and Rich imprints. After his death on Feb. 15, 1986, the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi established the John Richbourg Collection with the donation of tapes, photos, and other memorabilia from the Richbourg family.
Gene Nobles, a native of Hot Springs, Arkansas (born Aug. 3, 1913), developed his salesmanship early in his career as a carnival barker and bingo caller. Known for his snappy repartee and colorful “slamguage” radiospeak, Nobles was described in Wes Smith’s book The Pied Pipers of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Radio Deejays of the 50s and 60s as a prankster and racetrack habitué. It was through Nobles that Randy Wood of Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee, developed a thriving mail order business on WLAC. Nobles, who also once served as WLAC’s sales director, died in Nashville on Sept. 21, 1989.
Bill Allen, known as “Hoss” or “Hossman,” was indeed the party animal of the bunch. His good-time aura extended to his on-air persona, which came to bloom when he stepped in as a replacement for Nobles, first on an occasional basis and later in a regular slot when Nobles left the station for a time. Allen, born in Gallatin on Dec. 3, 1922, studied at Vanderbilt and had some experience as a musician, but chose a career in radio. While Nobles and Richbourg left the station in the 1970s, Allen remained, found sobriety, and eventually hosted a gospel program long after blues and soul had vanished from the programming. Allen took to the road for three years in the 1960s doing promotion for Chess Records, and in 1966 served as host and producer of a legendary television blues and R&B television show, The!!! Beat. Allen ran his own Athens and Hermitage record labels in Nashville, as well as Rogana, a production company that licensed masters to other companies. Allen died on Feb. 25, 1997.
A fourth member of the WLAC cast who deserves mention is the eldest of the group, Herman Grizzard (born July 14, 1900). A lifelong Nashville area resident who joined WLAC in its earliest days, decades before the station began its blues and R&B programming, Grizzard handled news, sports, and country music, but was still around to participate in the late night black music and mail order escapades of the 1950s and ‘60s. Buckley’s Record Shop was a sponsor of both his blues/R&B show and his pre-dawn country program. Grizzard died on April 25, 1971.
— Jim O’Neal