Wolfman Jack, the rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey whose gravelly voice and wolf howls made him one of the nation’s most recognizable personalities, died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 57.
The Wolfman collapsed shortly after returning home earlier in the day, said Lonnie Napier, vice president of Wolfman Jack Entertainment.
He had just completed a 20-day trip to promote his new book, “Have Mercy, The Confession of the Original Party Animal,” about his early career and parties with celebrities.
“He walked up the driveway, went in to hug his wife and then just fell over,” said Napier from the Wolfman’s home, about 120 miles east of Raleigh.
Born Robert Smith in Brooklyn, the Wolfman rose to prominence in the early 1960s on XERF-AM, playing the latest rock ‘n’ roll on a Mexican station that broadcast at 250,000 watts, five times the power allowed on any U.S. station at the time.
His howls and yips, and the blues and hillbilly records he spun, blanketed much of the United States all night long.
Between cuts, he would hawk plastic figurines of Jesus, coffins, and inspirational literature, and exhort his listeners to “get yo’self nekkid.”
“This man was an original. He was energy,” fellow disc jockey “Cousin” Brucie Morrow said Saturday. “He typified 1960s, 1970s radio. And he was a terrific, terrific radio character.”
Though already well known, it wasn’t until the Wolfman played himself in the 1973 movie “American Graffiti” that America saw the face and the dark beard with a white stripe that went with the voice. Many early listeners mistakenly assumed he was black.
“It took the Wolfman from a cult figure to the rank of American flag and apple pie,” he once said of the movie.
After “American Graffiti,” he appeared in advertising campaigns and more than 40 network TV shows. He also had his own syndicated TV show, “The Wolfman Jack Show.”
In the 1980s, the Wolfman became host of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Palace” on The Nashville Network, featuring performers such as the Shirelles, the Coasters, Del Shannon, Martha Reeves and the Crickets.
“It’s real American music - what rock ‘n’ roll originally was before people turned it around and sideways and upside down. From 1958 to 1964, that’s real rock ‘n’ roll. Then the Beatles hit and everyone sounded like them. They didn’t give our boys long enough,” the Wolfman said in a 1988 interview.
He also had played host on a weekly TV show called “The Midnight Special” for eight years, leaving in 1982.
The portly Wolfman had recently lost 40 pounds through diet and exercise, Napier said.
“But he still smoked his Camels. He was going to live the way he lived,” he said.
The Wolfman’s name came from a trend of the ‘50s, when disc jockeys took nicknames such as “Moondog” or “Hound Dog.” He enjoyed horror movies, so he took the name Wolfman.