The Great Radio Icon Hal Jackson Starts New Radio Station in Heaven
By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
There is an old African proverb that says, "when you are passing royalty, bow your head, and you will harvest bananas (great wealth)."
That was how I felt whenever I was in the presence of Hal Jackson. Not because he was haughty or aloof - but because he was Broadcast Royalty. Hal was open, warm, friendly, a true master of his craft; and one of the most wonderful, friendly brothers I have ever met (with the exception of his cohort, the late Percy Ellis Sutton).
On the air, or off, he was always smiling, affable, personable. I would make it my business to go up and get my hugs from Hal and his lovely wife, Ms. Debi whenever we were at the same even. He was a perennial figure at the Annual African American Day Parade, always curbside, watching the dignitaries of Harlem and the representative community organizations, march proudly up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Ave. to the uninformed).
If you wanted to relive your youth, you just had to tune in to Hal on WBLS-FM on Sundays, and no matter what your mood was before, you'd be dancing and singing within 10 minutes of tuning in.
There are many of us who never knew radio without Hal Jackson. We was, as confirmed by the media, the first Black man on the air. He "broke the color line", which is another way of saying that during the dark days of segregation, jim crow, and racist prejudicial actions against Black people, Hal Jackson opened up the door, and made a way for so many others to follow.
So now is the time to bow our heads. Royalty is passing in the form of Hal Jackson's spirit as he moves forward to establish and even greater, bigger, badder, and more bodacious station in Heaven.
He's already proven he could do it. He was the one who convinced Percy Sutton to purchase WLIB (then FM) Black in the day. It was 1971. Our favorite DJs were Frankie Crocker and Hal Jackson. One of our favorite theme songs was "Moody's Mood for Love." But we boogied to all, and I do mean all, the latest artists of the day. From Eddie O'Jay - Orange juice in the morning!" all the way through the day - it as thanks to Hal Jackson that New York had it's Black voice.
Co-founder, with Mr. Sutton, of the Inner City Broadcasting Co., not too many of his listeners were aware of Hal's business prowess, or his reputation as a visionary, or that he was an activist, that did not hesitate to take a principled, hard core stand when it came to the rights of Black people.
It was Mr. Jackson who first conceived of the idea of a National Black Holiday in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after he was cut down by an assassin's bullet in 1968. It was Stevie Wonder and other artists and activists who came together to make it happen. And the rest, as they say, is history. Using his access to the airwaves, he stimulated the initial movement for the 6.5 million signatures solicited on petitions and letters submitted to Representatives John Conyers and Shirley Chisholm on behalf of creating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.
And what a history! Harold "Hal" Jackson, who was born on November 3, 1915, and recently had a 96th Birthday Anniversary Celebration in Battery Park City, was a lot younger than most of his listeners. He was always full of energy, alert, action oriented, ready for the next next - whatever that turned out to be. He was open, where so many of us are closed. He reveled in new ideas and opportunities. Like Percy Sutton, once he got the germ of a new idea, he began the work of putting it together and bringing it to fruition.
And thank God for that pioneering spirit of his. Having lost his parents at a very young age, the South Carolina native was sent to Washington, DC to live with an aunt, Alice Cornish, (who I understand is still living at the age of 105). She raised him, sent him through Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and then to Howard University.
Jackson had always wanted to be on the radio, and in 1930, after having tried on several occasion to get a job with the then segregated, white-only radio station, WINX, he took a job cleaning up the stadiums, as an in. When he asked for a job, the general manager told him that no "ni---r would ever work there."
Hal Jackson may well have been the original spirit behind the phrase "by any means necessary," before Malcolm X used it decades later, because he certainly didn't let anything get in the way of his accomplishing what he set out to do. Even racism. He hit up on a scheme to get around that issue, and with the help of some Black businessmen, under the name of the "Bronze Review;" got on the air. Jackson found a sponsor, C.C. Coley, who owned half a dozen barbecue joints in town, and, working incognito through a white-owned advertising agency, Jackson purchased 15 minutes of time on WINX at 11 p.m. each night for $35 a show. He wrote a proposal to present "The Bronze Review," as a program of entertainment, interviews and news, but said nothing about having a Black host. The station's white executives had no idea that "bronze" was our upscale word for "negro" in Washington Black in the day.
On his debut night, Jackson and his first guest, Mary McLeod Bethune, President Franklin Roosevelt's adviser and founder of Florida's Bethune-Cookman College, waited outside until 15 minutes before airtime, so the managers couldn't bar them from the air. "The Bronze Review, was devoted to discussions about Washington's blighted black neighborhoods. Guests included Eleanor Roosevelt, Lena Horne, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Duke Ellington, among others. It was DC's nightly must-listen talk show for decades. Hal was extremely popular in the DC area. His other on-air shows, included WOOK, hosting the jazz and blues program, The House That Jack Built, mornings, in Silver Spring, MD; afternoons at WANN in Annapolis, and an evening gig on Baltimore's WSID. His nightly sign-off reflected his peripatetic life: "I've got to pack the the shellac and hit the track, but I'll be back." By the 1940s, Jackson was hosting four different daily programs for four different Washington-area radio stations. He performed commercials in rhyme and urged listeners to join his "Good Deed Club," collecting toys and books for charities.
The white managers were making so much money they did not interfere with the programming until Jackson led a strike against them for higher wages. They then asked him to leave. However, in 1954 he moved to New York City after having been contacted by WMCA, to create the city's first integrated on-air staff. Jackson's "All-American Revue" was designed to appeal to both black and white listeners, with music by Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Xavier Cugat. As in DC, he eventually was on the air around the clock.
In late 1950s, Jackson had added a children's TV show that featured New York's first integrated studio audience. Later, he was asked to host week end concerts at Palisades Park, and was challenged by Black listeners for working at a park that did not permit Black people access to their saltwater swimming pool. Jackson questioned Irving Rosenthal, the park's owner, about the racist policy; and he protested that it was not true, and that "The pool is open to everybody." The following day, Jackson brought 50 Black visitors to swim in the pool. He was an activist par excellence, long before the term was really understood.
However, things were not always great. There were challenges to his integrity and intelligence, in the form of the big scandal around payola. when he admitted taking promoters' checks for $25 or $50, It cost Jackson his job at WLIB. He maintained he was be out for prosecution because of his civil rights work with Martin Luther King Jr.; the two had led pickets against construction projects that wouldn't hire black workers.
In the 1960s, after the Payola charges were dropped, and his name cleared, Hal was program director of the Queens station WWRL. He eventually returned to WLIB, where he morphed into the role of executive, joining with investors to form Inner City Broadcasting, which bought WLIB in 1971 and later added an FM station that became one of New York's most popular stations, WBLS. As mentioned earlier, it was Hal who brought the idea of purchasing the station to friend and ally, Percy Sutton, when he learned it was up for sale. They formed the investment group to purchase the station and eventually owned stations in five cities. Hal served on the Board of Directors at Inner City Broadcasting.
As vice president of WBLS, Hal made Frankie Crocker program director, and oversaw the station’s shift from jazz to Crocker's newly branded "urban contemporary radio" -- a sophisticated combination of rhythm-and-blues, dance music and other genres designed to appeal to young listeners across racial lines. When Crocker left to become Frankie "Hollywood" Crocker (in his debut movie "Five On The Black Hand Side"), Hal became the program director. By the mid-1970s, WBLS was the No. 1 station in New York. Also on the air were Eddie O'Jay ("Your Orange Juice in the Morning"), Gerry Bledsoe; and later Ken "Spyder Webb", Vaughn "Velvet Voice Harper, and Gary "Global Black Experience - GBE" Byrd. The first three of these NYC DJ legends have already made their transition, and are no doubt happy to have Hal with them again.
Broadcasting was his passion, and Hal continued an on-air presence, hosting the Sunday Classics every Sunday on WBLS-FM. Hal's wife, Debi Bolling-Jackson; Debi-B, as she's affectionately called, served as co-host on the Sunday Classics. It was rated number one for ten plus years; with the largest listening audience in the history of Sunday radio in the tri-state area; and the longest live broadcast in the United States. You can hear everything on this show from Mahalia Jackson singing gospel to Ne-Yo; James Brown, Michael Jackson, Jackie Wilson, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Whitney Houston, Bob Marley, Nancy Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Boys II Men and Alicia Keys.
His accomplishments as the first Black sports announcer, and radio personality was honored in 1995 when he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, the first African-American to hold the honor. Mr. Jackson is a popular radio and television personality and one of the most respected men in the communications industry.
As a radio pioneer, Hal has many "firsts" that have assisted in opening doors for aspiring Black broadcasters, musicians and performers. In his 70+ years in the communications industry he was the first Black radio announcer in network radio; the first Black host of a jazz show on the ABC network; the first Black play by play sports announcer on radio in the country; the first Black to host an interracial network television show on NBC-TV; the first person to broadcast from a theater live; organized and owned the first Black team to win the World's Basketball championship; the first Black host of an international network television presentation; was instrumental in acquiring the first radio station owned and operated by Blacks in New York City; the first New York City radio personality to broadcast three daily shows on three different stations in the same day; the first to broadcast live via satellite from Jamaica into New York. On December 24, 1989, Debi B and Hal Jackson hosted the first ever, broadcast from anywhere in the U.S. to Osaka, Japan. This was the first time in the history of Japanese and American radio that a broadcast was sent from the United States with a simulcast in Japan. Hal's radio program has been rated #1 by Arbitron continuously in its time slot for over 11 years on 107.5 WBLS in New York (per WBLS)
Among his other honors are: Being honored by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt President Harry S. Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy, Jr. for his fund raising efforts. In 1989 Hal Jackson's 50 Years of Broadcasting was acknowledged by California Congressman Mervyn M. Dymally of California on the floor of the House of Representatives, which has become a part of the Congressional Record. The spring of 1990, he was honored with being the first Black man or minority) inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. November of 1999 Hal celebrated 60 years of Broadcasting Leadership with a star-studded event at the Rainbow Room in New York. In 2001 Mr. Jackson was inducted in the Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame.
His largesse extended beyond radio. Forty plus years ago, Hal founded Miss Black Talented Teen, which later became known as Hal Jackson's Talented Teens International. The original concept was to give African American teens the opportunity to show off their beauty and talent before an audience of judges and their peers. In the process they would develop charm, grace, self confidence. He was the Executive Producer and Host of the competition which also highlights the intelligence, creativity and talents of young African American and minority women 13 - 17 year of age. The ladies are given the opportunity of displaying their talents and competing for educational scholarships, trips abroad and the opportunity of networking with young women from around the world who are their peers. Past winners and participants are Angela Pitman-Hughes, Tammi Townsend, Vanessa Williams and Jada Pinkett Smith, among a great many others.
According to author and filmmaker, Nelson George, “Hal Jackson was one of the last living links to when black voices were as rare on radio as they were on the silver screen. He connected several generations of listeners to the bounty of great African-American music by not always observing the artificial boundaries between jazz, blues, Broadway, and rhythm and blues. He further stated, Hal Jackson had “helped black people see the best in themselves, both before and after the civil rights movement.”
As reported in my blog in January, 2012, it was announced at the Rainbow Push Wall Street Conference, that hard times have fallen on Inner City Broadcasting Corporation. According to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB), in 2011, under legal pressure from its creditors, they agreed to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Chapter 11 is, theoretically, a restructuring of existing debts, whereby the corporation, business or partnership remains in complete control of its assets. (Chapter 7 Vs. Chapter 11 Vs. Chapter 13 | eHow.com)However, rather than restructuring, it appears that InnerCity Broadcasting has been bought by the investment group YMF Media, according to a New York Times article. As part of the process, the company proposed hiring a chief restructuring officer. The one stipulation Inner City requested was that the officer be forbidden to fire four specific people. One of the four was Hal Jackson.
Hal is survived by his lovely wife, Ms. Debi, as well as two daughters, Jane and Jewell Jackson McCabe (founder of 100 Black Women); a son, Hal Jackson Jr., a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, his aunt, Alice Cornish of Washington, DC; anMad an even greater family of African American brothers and sisters who owe him a debt of gratitude that it will take another 96 years to repay. That debt will never be amortized, because Hal Jackson gave us the gift that keeps on giving: He gave us our voice.
Thank you Hal. And you can be sure I, among many, will be tuning in to your new radio station in Heaven. And please give our greetings to Percy Sutton. That's a partnership that will never die. You will be missed, but never, ever forgotten.
NOTE: Hal Jackson's wake will be held at Frank Campbell Funeral Home, 1076 Madison Avenue @ 81st,on Wednesday, May 30 from 2-5 and from 7-9 pm.
His Homegoing services will be held at The Riverside Church, Claremont Ave & 120th Street, using the Riverside Drive entrance, on Thursday, May 31, at 11 AM.
Stay Blessed &
ADDENDUM: I would be totally remiss if I didn't include this message from Hal's biggest fans: MANDRILL
Mandrill Tribute To Hal Jackson
Hal Jackson was intimately associated with the career of Mandrill. He was at the helm at WBLS/WLIB in New York City when our third album, Composite Truth, hit the streets in the early 70’s. Hal believed in the Wilson Brothers /Mandrill and supported us in every way. He relayed that spirit to his entire staff, including such world-class announcers like Frankie Crocker, Vaughn Harper, Vy Higgensen, Ken “Spider” Webb, G. Keith Alexander and so many others. This support contributed to a break out album in the US and abroad and garnered gold album status for Mandrill’s Composite Truth including such hits as “Fencewalk” and “Hang Loose”.
Mr. Jackson will be remembered as a close friend and mentor. He will also be looked to as an individual who took the bull by the horns and did it his way. He was the first Black radio announcer on network radio and was on the air for more than 70 years, The entrepreneurial example that he has set is indeed a blueprint for freedom and independence in this dog eat dog entertainment industry.
He will be truly missed but his spirit and legacy will live in our hearts and minds forever. We love you Hal and may you rest in peace.
Ric Wilson, MD
For the Wilson Brothers (Lou, Ric, Carlos & Wolf) of Mandrill
Stay Blessed &