Walker Smith may have numerous books on the market, but she wasn’t always a top-selling author. But earlier this year she released her long-awaited biography of celebrated radio pioneer Jack “The Rapper” Gibson.
Prior to her writing, Smith worked in Los Angeles under the name Bobbi Walker as a recording artist signed to hit-making Casablanca Records. She recorded three solo albums, but took creative writing studies on the side and began writing professionally part-time. By 1995, she had moved to New York to pursue a full-time writing career.
After moving to New Orleans, Smith released her first novel, The Color Line, just two months before Hurricane Katrina. After relocating again, she wrote her most personal novel, Bluestone Rondo using her childhood memories of her father’s bebop jam sessions with her own experiences as inspiration.
Her Jack The Rapper biography has been long in the making.
Jack Gibson, who became known as “Jack The Rapper,” established the first black-owned radio station in the United States with business partner J.B. Blayton. Also a promoter, Gibson was also hired by Berry Gordy to head up promotion at the then-new Motown Records. Gibson later moved to Revolt label, and then to Stax. Gibson also created the first Black trade magazine called The Mello Yello, then the popular Jack The Rapper Family Affair music conference. Gibson went on to be honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the United States Congress and the Smithsonian Institution for his accomplishments.
Soon after completing his autobiographical collaboration with Smith, Gibson died.
Here, Smith talks to TNJ.com about Gibson and the state of Black radio today.
TNJ.Com: What prompted you to write Mello Yello, the Incredible Life Story of Jack The Rapper?
Walker Smith: Jack Gibson (aka Jack the Rapper) commissioned me to write the story of his life. It was a collaborative effort. I am an author of Black historical novels, and was hesitant at first until I realized how much history Jack had lived through. He really did live an amazing life and he was a towering figure in Black music, helping to launch the careers of a great number of superstars. And the title Mello Yello comes from his widely-read industry newspaper that everyone called the Mello Yello.
TNJ.com: Why is Jack The Rapper’s story so important and unique?
W.S.: Jack’s story is important and unique because he spanned several phases of Black history in America. He blazed the trail for Black music with his partner J.B. Blayton in 1949 when they opened the first Black-owned and operated radio station in the United States – WERD in Atlanta. Then he went on the air and talked to the people in his own distinctive style. During some of the worst days of the civil rights movement, he held Black folks together with nothing but the honesty of his words and the sound of his voice. In Mello Yello, Jack’s stories paint a rich, vivid portrait of the intimate side of his life and the history he lived through. This isn’t some dry chronicle of the inner workings of the music industry. Jack takes you by the hand and walks you through the doors of the Savoy, Motown, STAX, Brunswick, where he helped launch the careers of stars like Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Isaac Hayes. He had uncanny timing.
He counted as his closest friends the royalty of Black entertainment, and tells hundreds of stories about them, some sad, but most of them are hilarious! I was struck by the exuberant joy of all those early entertainment pioneers like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., and all Jack’s dear friends from back in the day. The stories about their daily parties at the Lord Calvert Hotel made me want to go back in time and check in for a long stay! They all stayed at the Lord Calvert because they were not welcome at any of the white hotels back in those days. It was another facet of those times that are most often seen as morose and hopeless, but Jack gave me a fun, colorful peek at how the biggest superstars banded together to keep their spirits up in the face of segregation.
And then he went on to launch his Family Affair, a huge industry event each year. All the superstars cleared their schedules to attend the Family Affair – Prince, Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Snoop Dogg, Sinbad, Queen Latifah, Will Smith, and the list goes on and on… So Jack spanned several generations of superstars.
TNJ.com: How will you promote the book?
W.S.: We began our promotion with the Mello Yello book launch in New York in February to coincide with Black History Month. It was sponsored by the Living Legends Foundation, and that event kicked off a whole week of radio and television appearances. The Living Legends Foundation will also be sponsoring a second launch event in Atlanta in June for Black Music Month. I can’t wait to get to Atlanta to talk about the book, because Atlanta was Jack’s town. He began his radio career at WERD in Atlanta in 1949, and most of the Family Affair conventions were held in Atlanta. Jack’s daughter and my friend Jill Bell still reside in Atlanta. Jill and I will be running all over Atlanta talking about her Daddy, so I’m really looking forward to that.
I really want people to know about this pioneer of Black music. When we lost Jack, we lost some of the joy and that grassroots determination that unlocked so many doors. Everything that is happening in the Black entertainment industry today rests upon a framework that Jack and his colleagues built against impossible odds. For example, when he began his newsletter called the Mello Yello, he was so short on cash that he bought goldenrod paper for its printing because it was the cheapest paper he could find. And that’s how it got the name Mello Yello. Somehow, I found that appropriately ironic and that is why the book has the same title.
TNJ.com: What do you think of the state of radio today?
W.S.: With the control of Clear Channel, the feel of human connection is not as strong as it once was. When you hear the same lineup of songs day after day, it just feels automated. In Mello Yello, Jack talks about how unstructured and free his shows were. The local folks would call in or stop by and bring him pies. He’d emcee so many local shows, that everyone knew him.
TNJ.com: Do you think race still plays a major role in what gets played?
W.S.: Things have gotten better, but race still plays a major role in every business. I believe that if so many white kids hadn’t embraced rap the way they have, the powers that be would not have embraced it the way they have. However pale the color line has grown over the years, it is still in place. The only time it seems to disappear is when the color green is introduced.
TNJ.com: So many Black radio stations have failed in the past few years. What do you see as the root cause?
W.S.: Perhaps it’s the times. Every generation has its own unique set of problems, but imagine what it was like for Jack and his contemporaries. Segregation was a concrete reality, and the only millionaire I can think of offhand is Madame C.J. Walker. Not too much wealth in the Black community. So to get anything done, they had to adhere to the old adage: if you’re Black, you have to work ten times as hard for ten times less money. Rather than give up, they just put their heads down and forged ahead; found a way. After decades of “finding a way,” it was no big deal when Jack and his wife Sadye came up with the idea of the Family Affair. They started with nothing but an idea and pulled together a massive convention that all the major record labels had to respect. And I don’t mean a grudging respect from afar; the majors made sure that their artists were well represented at the Family Affair. NO ONE missed that convention. It was the event of the season every year. Imagine someone with no money pulling that off today!
I also think that the independent spirit has, to some degree, been co-opted by huge, faceless corporations with enough money to buy souls. Or maybe we still have to learn to believe in ourselves, the way Jack and his contemporaries HAD to believe in themselves. Have we lost the ability to unite for a common goal? Or are we too distracted by all the bling? What are the chances that we could pull off a bus boycott today? So Black radio stations failing is possibly a symptom of that lack of unity and self-belief.
It seems, at times, that we are our own worst enemies. Ironically, some of that discord began in the planning stages of one of the last Jack the Rapper conventions. This was back when rap was beginning to be a driving force in Black music. When Jack presented his ideas for that year’s featured performers, for the first time he included many of the top rappers. The majority of his sponsors, advisors, and influential executive attendees were dead-set against the idea, but Jack would not budge. He told them that he could not eliminate such a large element of Black music from his convention because the whole convention was founded on the free expression of ALL Black recording artists. He won them over and we all know how it went. But even after the shooting incidents and the major drop in attendance, Jack stuck to his principles. All rappers should respect him for that and never forget him. But it was a clear reflection of the in-fighting to come.
But there are still successful programs that have managed to keep the human element, due to the influence of their stars – like Tom Joyner and Jamie Foxx. You get that feeling that Jamie Foxx and his crew are kickin’ it with the listeners, and it has a very personal, intimate feel to it, although it’s a lot more raw in the language department than when Jack was a deejay. And then you have Tom Joyner, who Jack mentored back in the day. Tom’s morning show has a lot of the elements of Jack’s old radio shows. It’s fun, informative, and has a very easy, relaxed feel to the format. If you read Mello Yello, you’ll see the similarities. Jack was an intimate friend to his audience, and always a comedian. As a deejay in the 50s, he would call for donations to assist someone who was sick or down on his luck. Tom Joyner has taken that idea to new heights with all his charity work, with a special focus on scholarships through his foundation. He is really carrying the torch, and I know Jack would be proud of him.
TNJ.com: What’s next for you?
W.S.: I am a Black historical novelist, but my twist is trying to dig up the most unknown history and report it in story form. My first novel, The Color Line, was set during the First World War and the Harlem Renaissance; Bluestone Rondo tells the story of the electrifying Jazz scene in the 1950s as well as how McCarthyism affected Black people in America. I am currently working on a new novel set during the Civil Rights Movement in the Sixties. There have been countless novels based on the civil rights years, but most of them are set in the South. This book will focus on Chicago’s part in the movement, Bobby Gore, Fred Hampton, and major players and events that are often overlooked in the Civil Rights conversation. There is so much unknown Black history that I never run out of subject matter!