WVON at 40: Radio station celebrates its place in Chicago’s history

December 19th, 2003

By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic

The cramped, one-story building at 3350 S. Kedzie is easy to miss, hidden inside a chokehold of industrial builds that huddle alongside I-55 on Chicago’s South Side. But a transmitter tower stands as tall as the highway, and if you’re traveling through, the signal of WVON 1450-AM booms loud and clear.

In an era of corporate radio behemoths like Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting, the tiny radio station is a survivor. For 40 years, its 1,000-watt signal has been a beacon for black Chicagoans and an important factor in the city’s civil rights history. The Rev. Martin Luther King broadcast from its microphones, as did a string of U.S. presidents, Chicago mayors and a who’s-who of legendary R&B stars.

Pervis Spann, who has hosted the all-night blues show since its inception in 1963, is WVON’s last remaining vestige of history on the air. Besides his job as a radio host (“I never wanted a day shift,” he says), he also co-owns the station, a role he juggles alongside past and present incarnations as concert promoter, book author and cable television host.

“I am a bonafide workaholic,” he says, relaxing in the same studio where the Rev. King broadcast to Chicagoans in the late ’60s.

“I’m always doing something to turn a buck.”

Spann is turning the station’s 40th anniversary into a cause for celebration. Tonight, B.B. King arrives to play a revue-style show at the Sabre Room, and Bobby “Blue” Bland will do the same honors a week from now.

Spanns’ hustler credentials formed when he moved to Gary, Ind., from Itta Bena, Miss., (where he lived down the road from King) to work the steel mills with his father to the tune of $13 a day. After a stint in the Army in the early ’50s, Spann looked to a career in radio because he heard a humor that’s where the money was. He enrolled in a local broadcasting school and eventually talked his way into a job with WOPA, located in Oak Park. His way of getting the job was pure Spann. After being told by the station manager on a Saturday that there were no jobs, Spann showed up the following Monday.

“Didn’t I tell you I didn’t need no help?,” the manager asked him. Spann replied, “Yes sir, but a lot of things happen in 24 hours.”

Spann became one of Chicago’s most influential promoters of soul music during the ’60s – spinning records of up-an-coming artists, then talking up their concerts he helped organize. The first concert he put together was B.B. King’s. That night, Spann crowned him the “King of the Blues,” and fastened a royal headpiece on him to seal the deal. Spann ended up King’s manager and was instrumental in getting artists like the Jackson 5 and Aretha Frankline their first exposure in Chicago.

During this time, WVON was becoming more influential with the black community. Leonard and Phil Chess, who were looking for a station to market artists on Chess Records, bought the station in 1963 from Richard Hoffman, a Republican congressman and small-time media baron.

The station’s call letters came from “Voice of the Negro,” and the brothers built a staff by hiring away its competitors’ star personalities, including Spann. By May 1964, according to “Spinning Blues Into Gold” (St. Martin’s Press), a history of Chess Records, the station was the most popular station with black Chicagoans.

When the civil-rights movement was at its peak, the station was instrumental in delivering news and giving black leaders like Rev. King airtime. The reason for the station’s spike in popularity, Spann said, was “because most of the white stations wouldn’t tell the truth. They would just tell what they thought sounded good to the white community. The black stations just told what did happen, how many black folks got beat up, who got killed, how they got killed. Black folks (listened) because they wanted to hear the truth about what was going on. Whatever was said on the this radio station was the truth,” he said.

During this time, Spann went into business with his fellow DJ Rodney Jones. The duo opened the Burning Spear, at 55th and State streets, known for its elaborate decor and rising four-foot stage. While booking bigger shows at the Regal Theatre and other clubs, Spann helped bolster local and national acts in Chicago, plus provided a musical bridge between black and white audiences. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were both visitors to the Burning Spear, and tour buses from downtown made regular stops.

The brakes hit when the Rev. King was assassinated and riots broke out on the South and West sides. Street gangs started taking hold of neighborhoods and the city because musically segregated once again.

The club shuttered in 1974. “It just got bad,” Spann remembered. “When the mayor would try to clean it up, the folks just wouldn’t come out.”

In the ’70s, WVON was sold twice and ended up the AM outlet fro WGCI. Spann and fellow DJ Wesley South bought the 1450-AM frequency and when it learned that Gannett – which bought WVON in 1977 – changed its call letters to WGCI, they bought back the rights to the old call letters and resumed broadcasting. Except for Spann’s late-night show, the station is now all-talk.

WVON’s legacy is in the midst of a resurgence. This year, the Black Ensemble Theatre staged “The WVON Story,” a musical celebrating its past. Spann also is working on a memoir he expects to self-publish early next year. He can be seen on “Blues and More,” a shoe he’s hosted for 13 years on Channel 25. Guests have included B.B. King, Jamie Fox, and James Brown. Although his co-host Carl Wright has been lured away for roles in “Big Mamma’s House,” “Barbershop” and other films, he hasn’t strayed from Spann’s bizarre public-access television world, which includes homemade commercials for local businesses, outrageous humor and videos. At age 71, the “Blues Man” is not slowing day or night. “I don’t have no problems getting no sleep,” he said. “Sometimes I lay on my couch.”

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