The DJs, producers and label owners
WLAC DJs Gene Nobles and Herman Grizzard are often cited as the first who braved plugging black music in Nashville in the 1940s, largely through playing jazz records. Individual DJs pivotal to the story of the development of R&B and soul included Morgan Babb and Ted Jarrett at WSOK through the 1950s, then Bill “Hoss” Allen and John “R” Richbourg at WLAC in the 1960s and early 1970s. These DJs extended their role to other related industry activities, including record promotion, label ownership and production, cementing the R&B sound in Nashville’s music history.
Before Morgan Babb (b.1929, d. 2014) ended up owning and running his own Christian radio station WMBD in the 1980s, he had spent nearly thirty years with WVOL. Babb, originally from Russellville, Kentucky, got his musical inspiration from his gospel singing mother. He started his DJ career in 1948 at a Kentucky station where he first adopted the moniker of “Happy Jack”. At the same time, along with some of his seven siblings he formed the gospel group The Radio Four. They eventually made the move to Nashville, where the group recorded for some of Nashville’s first independent labels including Republic Records and Tennessee Records.
Through time, Babb settled to start a family and left the group. But Happy Jack continued to broadcast, this time for WSOK, where in 1954 he became chief announcer and programme director through its transition to WVOL (and beyond, until 1981). He was also a scout for some gospel labels, and continued to employ song-writing skills he had developed with The Radio Four and other groups and artists, to a degree helping pioneer the early development of R&B in Nashville through writing material such as Lillian Offitt’s “I Miss You So” in 1957. Babb also managed the careers of a number of artists, including Jimmy Church and host of gospel singers.
Morgan Babb a.k.a ‘Happy Jack’, broadcasting for WSOK from the window of Ernie Young’s record store in Nashville, circa 1954 (courtesy of Dale Babb Sr., Celeste Babb and the Babb family).
By the mid-1960s, Happy Jack got his calling and was now the Reverend Morgan Babb of the King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church on 10th Avenue North in North Nashville. He and his church choir continued to record gospel for Nashboro Records. He started the humanitarian WMBD station in later decades, where the Reverend Babb prayed with station callers, catered for the homeless, testified, preached and promoted community focused events. WMBD was eventually sold in 2005.
Theodore R. Jarrett (b. 1925, d. 2009) was an African-American who had a traumatic childhood, including the death of his father in a shooting incident and living with a physically abusive grandfather. His mental escape was via song writing and playing the piano as he got older. After returning to Nashville from a two year stint in the military during World War II, he was determined to pursue a career in music.
Jarrett’s plans were to enrol at Fisk University to complete a degree in music, but his intentions were put on hold (at least at this stage of his life) by the opening of a new local radio station. When WSOK opened in 1951, Jarrett was employed as their DJ, playing mainly gospel and blues. He had a number of side-lines during this time, as performer, talent scout and songwriter. By the end of the fifties, he had written the award winning country hit “Love, Love, Love” for Webb Pierce and two major R&B hits; "It's Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)" for Louis Brooks and His Hi-Toppers and “You Can Make It If You Try” for Gene Allison. These R&B records became successful local hits and were covered numerous times by later artists.
From this point on, Ted now channelled his energies into song-writing and production rather than radio, working on various labels including Hit, Poncello and Spar. After initial releases of novelty dance songs and standards, by the mid-1960s Poncello and Spar were firmly focused on R&B. The recordings often belied their southern routes due to Jarrett’s full on productions and recreation of the big city soul sound, particularly on releases by the likes of Herbert Hunter, Levert Allison and The Jades.
By the close of the 1960s, soul music was moving in two directions: a funk orientated sound with the characteristic use of horns for a heavily punctuated dance beat; and sophisticated sweet soul complete with strings and elaborate orchestration. Within a couple of years, Jarrett formed a partnership with Bob Holmes, ex-A&R man for the R&B label Excello. Their Ref-o-ree label encompassed both of these musical styles in soul music’s phoenix period until the label closed in 1973. Ted opened his final label, the long running T-Jaye, and returned to Fisk University to complete his Bachelor of Arts Degree.
Bill “Hoss” Allen
William ‘Hoss’ Allen (b. 1922, d. 1997) was a true entrepreneur, who had a couple of near-fail moments in the musical industry. However, alongside John Richbourg, he became one of the biggest DJs, publishers and promoters of R&B in Nashville throughout the 1960s. He even hosted a TV show which ran for a couple of seasons which served as a vehicle to showcase his own recording artists alongside ‘national’ acts.
Hoss Allen was a jazz musician during the Second World War. His journey into the commercial side of the music scene started in the late 1940s when he hosted the Harlem Hop show on WIHN, introducing R&B and jazz records. Within five or so years he was working for WLAC. Initially employed as a talk show host, he swiftly moved onto a time slot where he honed his ‘jive-talk’ vocal approach to selling products and services on air, in between introducing blues, R&B and gospel recordings.
He had a brief venture into running his own Athens label, but ditched this idea (at least temporarily) for promotion work for Chess. By the mid-1960s Allen was back at Nashville, this time running the Hermitage label. At the same time he formed the Rogana production company with the intention of marketing recordings to other labels.
“The idea with Rogana was he had access to more artists than Hermitage could handle” says Fred James, compiler of The Rogana Story: Hossman Blues (SPV 49792 CD). “Hoss rented office space from Starday / King Records. He held sessions there every weekend with Johnny Jones and the Imperial Seven as the studio band. This band featured the cream of Nashville R&B musicians. In addition to Johnny on guitar, there was Billy Cox on bass, Freeman Brown on drum, Harrison Calloway and Aron Varnell on horns, Larry Lee on rhythm guitar and several keyboard players. Allen recorded many local Nashville artists like Frank Howard and Dottie Clark at the Starday studio.”
WLAC staff. From left: John Richbourg, Gene Nobles, Don Whitehead (standing), Bill “Hoss” Allen, Herman Grizzard. Courtesy of University of Mississippi.
Hoss also took a number of his artists such as Rodge Martin, Lucille Mathis and Art Grayson to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record at FAME. Some of these tracks appeared on Hoss’ Hermitage label; others were leased out to Excello and other Nashville labels, as well as to some outside the region.
By 1970, the first wave of soul music popularity had waned while psychedelia, folk and southern rock took hold. Consequent shifts in the station’s musical programing forced Richbourg and other longstanding WLAC DJs to move on. Allen however remained mainly with WLAC and its later format WLAC-FM, working for the next twenty years in various capacities, including gospel show work and voice overs, eventually retiring in 1993. Hoss Allen was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, shortly before his death.
John “R” Richbourg
Originally a South Carolina native, John Richbourg (b. 1910, d. 1986) attempted to make a living as a theatre actor in New York, radio announcer on WTMA in Charleston, SC, before arriving at WLAC. After only a year at the station he was called to serve his country, returning to Nashville in 1946 where he would eventually settle. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, as John ‘R’ he attracted not only the black community but also a white teenage audience to WLAC, hungry for rock and roll, blues, R&B and soul.
Richbourg first got a taste for the recording business by using the station’s studio facilities to record gospel music, then gradually other facilities at Stax and American Recording Studios in nearby Memphis. His preference moved progressively towards recording R&B and soul acts, both for his own label Rich in the early 1960s shared with Detroiter James Hendrix, and for lease to third party labels, culminating in a partnership with Monument owner Fred Foster which took the Sound Stage 7 label to great heights.
In terms of soul music releases, Sound Stage 7 is certainly one of the most prolific to come out of Nashville, featuring Joe Simon (personally managed by Richbourg), Ann Sexton, Roscoe Shelton, Roscoe Robinson, Jackey Beavers, The Avons, The Valentines, Latimore Brown and several others. Richbourg’s production and artist management skills and activities were pooled under the J.R. Enterprises banner. Raw local talent and in-leasing of artists from other parts of Tennessee and the cities of the north ensured longevity for the label and its derivatives, the Richbourg-owned Seventy Seven and Sound Plus.
John Richbourg with Jackey Beavers and others, possibly members of The Continental Showstoppers.
John Richbourg’s departure from WLAC occurred in 1973 after disagreeing with the station’s decision to change musical programming towards a mainstream pop format. Despite this, he had a productive period during the remainder of the decade, focusing on recording, producing and managing soul artists on Seventy Seven and reissuing some of his label back catalogue. He continued to be active in the blues, soul and gospel industry until his death, at the age of seventy-five.
Radio Show Sponsors
As well as the cosmetic and domestic product companies who sponsored WSOK and WLAC, local record stores would support the shows and would sell the records played by the stations via mail order. “I recall John ‘R’ and Hoss Allen selling Randy's and Ernie’s record packages” says Ken Adkins. “All my musical taste came from these places. Randy’s had a huge mail order business. They would send out packages of six 45s (or 78s if you preferred) all over the south between 1953 and 1963.”
One of the first record stores on WLAC to be promoted on air was Buckley’s, a record distributor and mail order house in Nashville, however by the 1960s Ernie’s Record Mart in Nashville and Randy Wood in Gallatin were the primary suppliers of vinyl to music hungry radio listeners.
Ernie’s Record Mart was located on 179 Third Avenue. Ernie Young (the uncle of WSOK founder Cal Young) was primarily interested in selling records, but used his own shop to set up the gospel orientated Nashboro label and then Excello a year later. Excello was to become one of the most successful and prolific Nashville early R&B labels. Ted Jarrett, in his biography You Can Make It If You Try, commented on the cramped conditions artists had for recording at Ernie’s place; gospel would be recorded on the bottom floor of the shop with a simple microphone set up, and R&B upstairs in a small room. DJ Morgan Babb would broadcast his show from Ernie Young’s record shop window in the early 1950s. Ernie first sold records as promoted by Babb for WSOK, then by Richbourg for WLAC. At its peak around a thousand mail orders were processed on a daily basis.
Randy’s Record Shop (first location), Gallatin, Tennessee, circa 1952. Courtesy of the Sumner County Museum (reproduced by permission from the Allen Haynes Collection).
Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin (located 30 miles outside Nashville) provided a similar service. The origins of this little empire was a radio repair shop. A couple of theories suggest how Randy first discovered the potential in selling mail order records. The most likely was a prompt by Murray Nash, who worked for a distributing company for RCA in Knoxville. Nash advised Randy to buy advertising time at WLAC. In return DJ Gene Nobles would plug Randy’s store on air as the place to buy R&B. And so Randy’s mail order business quickly blossomed. This venture was also supported Randy Woods’ other project, the Dot record label, which was a highly successful enterprise in its own right during the 1950s. Dot featured a range of pop, gospel and country acts and occasional R&B. In 1957 the label moved to Hollywood, California. Randy sold it on to ABC Paramount, but remained the label president for the next ten years.
Launched in 1964, Night Train was the first of two popular TV shows to feature Nashville R&B artists. Produced by the WLAC TV arm, it was hosted by WVOL’s Noble Blackwell, and ran as a weekly late night show. The house band included band leader Johnny Jones and put the spotlight on a wide range of artists such as Peggy Gaines, The Hytones, The Avons, The Spidells and Jimmy Church.
In 1965 The !!!! Beat hit the air. This show was a vehicle for Hoss Allan to take a further step in expanding the marketing possibilities of his acts, albeit briefly, via another media route. The !!!! Beat was the first national US TV show to specifically profile R&B artists. Hoss chose to go to WFAA-Dallas so that the show could be shot in colour, as at the time there were no stations in Nashville which could facilitate this. The resident band The Beat Boys was initially led by Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, then later Johnny Jones and members of The Imperial Seven, with Frank Howard and the Commanders providing vocals. Jimmy Church would appear on bongos when not singing. Hoss hosted the programme. Nationally successful artists who appeared included several Stax artists, Joe Simon, Mitty Collier, Jamo Thomas, Z.Z. Hill, Barbara Lynn and Garnet Mimms. The show lasted twenty-six episodes over two seasons.
Excerpt from "House of Broken Hearts: The Soul of 1960s Nashville", a book by E. Mark Windle. Available to order in the new book section.