Radio lost a true legend on October 22 when Herbert Kent passed away at the age of 88. Herb was known to generations of radio listeners in and around Chicago as “The Cool Gent.” His night show on WVON was rated second only to WLS in its powerhouse AM days in the 1960s.
It’s hard today to consider just how influential the disc jockey used to be. Radio personalities were larger than life. They had the power to make or break hits, and not merely in the payola era. Even after that time, the endorsement of the man on the radio was key to a group having success.
Herb was tearing it up at WGES when the station was sold to Leonard Chess, the man behind Chess Records. Chess changed the call letters to WVON to represent the Voice of the Negro, and encouraged the deejays to be larger than life. In Herb’s autobiography, which I recommend that you read, he explained that Chess encouraged the jocks to talk whenever they felt it would build excitement, even in the middle of the record.
The Herb Kent show was an event. It had its own theme song, performed by Earl Washington called “The Cool Gent.” Herb had a style of patter and banter that made him a listener favorite. Herb may also have saved much of the South Side of Chicago from burning to the ground as well: on the night of April 4, 1968, as riots flared following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Herb took to the airwaves and pleaded for calm.
Herb’s influence could also be summed up this way – he was so popular that a group named themselves after him. In 1956, the Golden Tones, a Vee-Jay Records group led by a young Dee Clark, met with Kent at WGES to ask him to become their manager. In his book “American Singing Groups,” author Jay Warner explained that Kent declined to manage the band, but went along with their request to use his nickname for the name of the band. The Kool Gents managed local success on Chicago radio, while Clark later went solo, turning out hits like “Raindrops” for the Vee-Jay label.
Herb started in radio in 1947 and worked up until recently. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized Herb as the longest-running radio personality in history. I had the honor and privilege to speak to Herb in March as I was finishing up my dissertation on the placement of Black records on local radio charts. We had a brief chat, but I enjoyed (as I did when I worked with him at WRLL in Chicago) sharing stories with him.
My favorite Herb story: One day Herb was needing to use a studio to record a telephone interview with a few members of the Soul Stirrers, the backup group for Sam Cooke. Herb came to me to ask my help with the use of the studio. I walked him through everything he needed, assuming that he only needed the basic tools needed for a phoner, and tried to keep my explanation as simple as I could. As he was set to go, he said “I have one more question.” It was at that point that he asked me a complicated question about the sample rate that the digital recorder was using. Herb sandbagged me. He knew damn well how every piece of gear in that room worked. Heck, he taught radio at the City Colleges. I think on some level he wanted me to feel like I was important. After all, he did that with each and every listener, and I think that is the reason that the medium of radio will miss him most.
You can hear Dee Clark and the Kool Gents by clicking here.