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R&B Radio Pioneer Hunter Hancock Dies

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In a way, the disembodied head is the perfect symbol for a radio DJ from the Golden Age: the invisible voice danced directly into your ear late at night in the dark, maybe hidden under a pillow as the voice – intermixed with exciting, rhythmic, forbidden music – illicitly stole away sleep.

Hunter Hancock – who played jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel on the radio in Los Angeles from 1943 to 1968 – has died at 88. He wrote his own very lively life story for the Doo-Wop Society website in 1999:

    I was born in Uvalde, Texas, in 1916, and raised 90 miles away in San Antonio. I graduated from high school in 1934. Over the next few years I had, at my best count, 22 different jobs, including salesman, bank clerk, chauffeur and drummer. But perhaps my most dramatic job in those days was singing in a vaudeville troupe, including a stint at a Massachusetts burlesque club.

    Then along came Pearl Harbor. I was classified 4-F by the draft board because of the effects of a childhood operation. So I went back to San Antonio to find myself a steady job. In September 1942 I walked into a small radio station, KMAC, and they asked me to read some commercials and news copy. Apparently I did okay, because they hired me on the spot.

    ….I fled Laredo at my first opportunity and took the train to Los Angeles, where every other 4-F radio announcer was already looking for work. The best I could find at first was a temporary spot at a station in a neighboring town, but an employee there mentioned to me that there was an opening at KFVD, a small Los Angeles sundown station. [off the air at sundown]

    Next morning I was sitting on KFVD’s front steps at 338 S. Western Avenue when the program director arrived. They hired me that day…as the Weekend man. Working Sundays sounded like a bad deal, but I was happy to get the work. More importantly, it gave me the biggest opportunity of my life. In April 1943, Todd Clothes in downtown L.A. bought a one-hour show on Sunday–during my shift–to appeal to the Negro community. The program director felt I should play jazz, which sounded like a good idea to me at the time, because I was unfamiliar with black tastes in music. The show, called “Harlem Holiday,” became modestly popular. My theme song was Chick Webb’s “Holiday in Harlem,” featuring the voice of young Ella Fitzgerald. I was one of the first radio men to play Cecil Gant’s “I Wonder” in 1944.

    In 1947 the station let me expand to a daily half-hour show which I called “Harlematinee.” I started off playing jazz on this show too. But only a couple of days later, Jack Allison, a salesman from Modern Records, came to see me. He told me, “Hancock, you’re playing the wrong records. If you want to reach a huge Negro audience, you should be playing ‘race’ records.” I didn’t know what race records were, but he gave me a list of what records were selling to blacks in the South. I didn’t recognize any of them. But I was so impressd by his material that I took a chance and played two of his records that afternoon. Almost instantly, other local distributors showed up at the studio with other race records, and by the end of the following week my show was 100% race music. Nowadays we call it rhythm and blues. Without realizing it, I became the first disc jockey in the western United States to play R&B.

    In no time the show was a huge hit. The station sold so many commercials that they had to add another half-hour, then yet another hour, until I was finally doing three-and-a-half hours every day, Monday through Saturday, plus my jazz show, “Harlem Holiday,” on Sundays. In those early days I’d do interviews with the artists. I may be wrong, but I think I’m the first deejay to interview a young Nat “King” Cole.

    ….Since KPOP was a sundown station that signed off at dusk, my boss didn’t mind if I accepted non-competing night-time shows from other stations. In 1956 KGFJ signed me to do a nightly Top 20 show from 9:00 to 11:30, which I called “Huntin’ With Hunter.” The name came from my favorite hobby, hunting. I’d record my shows during the day and then Margie would play them back at night. In 1957 I also broadcasted a half-hour Sunday gospel show on yet another station, KGER, called “Songs of Soul and Spirit,” sponsored by Realty Equities, a real estate company at Main and Vernon.

    Speaking of Realty Equities, I was blessed with many long-time sponsors who followed me from show to show for many years. If you listened to me then you’ll remember Dr. Wiseman, Sulphur-8, D & W Records, West Pico Furniture, Royal Crown Cola, Union Mortgage, L.A. Bureau Finance, National TV Stores, Bibb’s Department Store, Leo’s TV and Consolidated Accounts. Those guys kept me on the air. But they got their money’s worth, because for several years the Pulse survey–an early precursor to today’s Arbitron–declared my show number-one in the black market. According to one 1954 survey, one out of four black households was tuned to “Harlematinee” between one and four in the afternoons.

    In the fall of 1955, on Friday nights, I also had a television show on KCBS, Channel 2, called “Rhythm and Bluesville,” that lasted seventeen weeks. My guests included Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Platters, Richard Berry, Gene & Eunice, and The Jaguars.

    ….In 1959 my business partner, Roger Davenport, and I started our own record label, Swingin’ Records. Our first release was a homemade tape that Big Jay McNeely, the great saxophonist, brought me called “There Is Something on Your Mind.” It was a huge hit for us on the R&B charts that year. Then we had a pop hit with Rochell & The Candles’ “Once Upon a Time.” We also released singles by Marvin & Johnny, The Hollywood Saxons, Joe Houston and a dozen or so other artists.

    By that time, though, everything was changing. Rock ‘n’ roll had taken over the music business. KPOP was sold to a new owner and turned into a country station. I remained on KGFJ well into the 1960s, but by then disc jockeys were playing a Top 40 format and being told what records to play. I had to go by their playlist and say only what they wanted me to say, which was very difficult for a guy like me. Also, I had to spin a lot of records that I was frankly ashamed to play. By 1968 I was so tired of the radio business that I retired and never looked back…until now.

    A couple of my friends at the Doo-Wop Society have asked me why I was successful during my 20-plus years as a disc jockey. Well, I believe it was due primarily to two things. First, I learned what records my audience liked, so I gave them what they wanted. The second reason, I think, is that people liked my “corny” style on the air. That was just me being me.

Hancock neglected to mention part of the big changes were the payola scandals of the late-’50s – Dick Clark squirmed his way through but Alan Freed was crushed – and Hancock was involved as well:

    He was convicted in 1962 and sentenced to probation for failing to report $18,000 income on tax forms for 1956-58. Prosecutors said the money was payola from record companies bribing him to plug and play their records. Hancock testified that he considered the occasional cash to be gifts. [AP]

As did they all, I would imagine.

You can hear Hunter doing his funky DJ thing on the Cruisin’ 1959 CD listed below. The body is gone, but the voice lives on.

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About Eric Olsen