While most elders his age have long since retired for their professions, Chicago radio legend Herb “The Cool Gent” Kent, 80, shows no signs of slowing down.
“If you count back to 1928, that makes me 80 years old,” Kent, whose career spans more than 60 years, told the audience at Afri-Ware, 266 Lake St. in Oak Park.
The WVON Radio host was at Afri-Ware last Saturday to promote his autobiography “The Cool Gent: The Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent.”
Joined by co-author David Smallwood, former editor of N’Digo newspaper, Kent also signed copies of the book, which was released in February. Sporting his trademark cowboy hat, Kent talked about his nine lives and how he beat cancer of the esophagus, and his former drug and alcohol use. He also shared stories about his life before radio.
“At 5 or 6 years old, I would stand on a chair, box or anything and listen to the radio. A guy named Jack L. Cooper came on back in the early 1930s, and I just loved his show,” Kent said.
“By the time I hit high school, I was building radios,” he added, recalling growing up in the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago. “I knew I had to do something. I was one of a few black guys at Hyde Park High School and got into the radio club, and they made me president of it. While in high school I audition for the Board of Education radio station, WBEZ, which is still on the air. They had programs every Tuesday or Wednesday that taught students to do radio. They had two students from every high school.”
Kent auditioned and was selected as one of the students. When he graduated, Kent got a job at NBC for $35 a week. That, he said, is where it all started.
“I did all types of shows and you could not tell I was black,” recalled Kent-speaking in his smooth, slightly baritone voice-about what happened when listeners found out he was black. “One day, these people from Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio came in mad as hell. ‘Black people are circling Arthur Murray- you better get him off the radio!’ That was not my first experience with that. It was just a racial thing.
“Then I started playing Frank Sinatra music and they called me and said, ‘Man, you better play some blues.'”
Kent then started playing for the first time R&B music. He soon moved on, and ended up at WVON in 1962.
“Now, that is a station they really should make a movie of,” Kent said, sharing more history. “Leonard Chess, if you saw the movie Cadillac Records-it should have been named Chess Records. Leonard Chess bought that station for $1 million, and they threw in an FM station. The first year, he made $4 million. You couldn’t buy a FM station today, I guess, for under $250 to $400 million and an AM station, maybe $25 or $30 million.”
Kent was among the first on-air hosts when he joined the newly launched WVON in the early 60s. He was part of the “Good Guys,” the name given to the station’s group of disk jockeys.
“When we went on the air, it was the most dynamic radio station. I don’t think there is a radio station in the United States that could compare to WVON when we first started doing our stuff,” Kent said.
He recalled the station, which at the time had a modest radio signal of 1000 watts during the daytime and 250 watts at night, beating established stations like WLS, which boomed out at 50,000 watts.
“They called and said, ‘Who are you guys?’ It was just that powerful, and I will never forget it. We were one of the first pioneers to do that black thing, because it came in the 1960s. We had the (1968) riots and I remember going to the West Side and covering it. WVON was instrumental in stopping the unrest and calming things down.”
Kent, who has one daughter, is a member of the Radio Hall of Fame and has appeared in three movies, and currently teaches at Chicago State University. He’s also known as the Mayor of Bronzeville.
“And I have a band called Herbie Babies,” Kent added.
Kent shared a story about “The Wahoo Man,” one of his most popular radio characters. Kent was driving in his gray Cadillac Eldorado that he purchased from previous owner, Muhammad Ali, to Chili Mac’s Restaurant with friends. Upon leaving his car, he noticed two beautiful women running from across the street screaming. They were being chased by a man with a broomstick who had a little black dog.
While inside the eatery, Kent noticed the man entering with broomstick in hand and stared into his chili. The man was told to move on. After dinning, Kent and company returned to his car, which had an alarm that Kent said made a ‘wah-wah’ sound. The strange man was outside and started to hit Kent’s car with the broomstick. Kent started the alarm and the man hollered, “Wahoo, Wahoo! That don’t scare nobody!”
Kent subsequently made a character out of him, telling spooky stories on the radio. Parents would say they could get their children to behave by threatening them with the Wahoo Man.
Kent talked about other interests, though radio remains his passion.
“I’m still taking guitar lessons and it is something I love to do,” he said. “I always loved radio. It is an amazing thing.”