Hal Jackson epitomized Black radio. He was the monumental role model for generations of radio DJs across the country. Jackson, who passed away on May 23 in New York City, set the tone, mood and style for what a good on-air radio personality should represent. He set the bar extremely high; Jackson wasn’t good, he was great.
As a living radio legend, his perseverance opened the doors for generations of radio personalities who made prominent names for themselves such as Gary Byrd, Jerry Bledsoe, Rocky G, Jack the Rapper, Hank Spann, Frankie Crocker, Pat Prescott, Vy Higgensen, Jocko Henderson, Eddie O’Jay and many others.
“Hal Jackson helped a lot of industry people like myself,” said Van Jay, who was with WBLS-FM from 1978-1983. “He wasn’t a selfish person. He shared his knowledge with anyone who came in contact with him. He will be missed.”
Jackson was the first Black to be inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame (1990) and the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.
Like jazz musicians of his era, such as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Lunceford, Chick Webb and Count Basie, Jackson had to prove himself; being on radio was his bandstand. Ironically, his steps to fame were similar to Ellington’s, who was born in Lincolnton, N.C., whereas Jackson was born in Charleston, S.C. Both of their families eventually moved to Washington, D.C.
Ellington’s first job was selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games in Griffin Stadium. Jackson, 16 years younger, eventually worked the same stadium in the 1930s by volunteering to clear the trash during Washington Senators games.
This led to Jackson’s early career as a play-by-play sports announcer in Washington, D.C.- the first African-American to announce action at a sporting event, calling the plays at the Negro League’s Homestead Grays baseball games.
Jackson and Ellington both became popular in and around the D.C. area before moving on to gain more fame and fortune in New York City.
Jackson’s first successful show, “The Bronze Review” on WINX in Washington, D.C., demonstrated his early community activism spirit. The 15-minute show that aired at 11 p.m. debuted with Jackson interviewing Mary McLeod Bethune, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s director of Negro affairs. Later, guests included Lena Horne and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY). It became a widely listened-to show in D.C.’s Black community.
In addition to the talk show, Jackson was broadcasting on four different radio stations in three cities: on WINX and then over to Silver Springs, Md., to host a show on WOOK, and shows on WANN in Annapolis, Md. (a three-hour R&B show) and WSID in Baltimore (a three-hour sports program). Long before Tom Joyner became the “fly jock,” Jackson was busy hitting three cities on a daily basis. He was the first to broadcast on multiple shows in various cities. He was the first travelin’ jock.
Jackson also became a sports entrepreneur, assembling an all-Black basketball team, the Washington Bears, which won the invitational World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1943.
“Many of us will remember and be thankful for Hal’s unselfish contributions,” stated Vince Sanders, former vice president and general manager of WWRL.
In 1949, when Jackson moved to New York, his busy schedule continued at WLIB, WMCA–where he became the first Black DJ in 1954– and at Birdland. He also did show on WLIB, and on Sundays, he did a children’s show on channel 11 featuring “Uncle Hal, the Kiddies’ Pal.” During his days at WMCA, the busy DJ informed me his assistant was Telly Savalas, who eventually became a very successful actor.
Some years ago, this writer had the pleasure of interviewing Jackson. The interview took two days in his offices at Inner City Broadcasting and the piece became a two-part story that ran for two weeks.
His accomplishments are astounding, but he was very humble, taking it all in stride with his smooth voice and bright smile. When you walked away from him, you realized a special moment had been experienced. His motto was, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.” By having a conversation with him, it was clear he followed these words to the letter.
In 1971, Jackson and Percy Sutton, former Manhattan borough president, co-founded the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation (ICBC), which acquired WLIB. WLIB became the first African-American-owned and -operated station in New York. Jackson became the group chairman but maintained his voice on the new WBLS-FM, “the total Black experience in sound.”
Jackson was on air with his “Sunday Morning Classics” for over 25 years, which turned into “Sunday Classics” when the time was cut down. His wife of 23 years, Deborah Bolling, joined him on the show under the name Debi B., along with Clay Berry.
Unlike any other radio show, Jackson’s “Sunday Classics” was a history lesson in music. Listeners would hear Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Jackie Wilson, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, the O’Jays, Count Basie and so on.
He wanted his listeners to understand the link between the music regardless of what it was called: jazz, R&B, doo-wop or bebop. His theme song, Miles Davis’ “Someday My Prince Will Come,” let you know it wasn’t just about R&B.
During his over 60 illustrious years in radio, Jackson befriended musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Holiday, Chuck Jackson and the Mills Brothers, among others. Everyone flocked to Jackson. He was the one who inspired us all to do better with a smile and thoughtful words.
“He was a great friend,” stated Vaughn Harper, a WBLS DJ from 1976-2005. “I miss him already.”
Had he not been such a tenacious young man, he would have never broken so many barriers or became a civil rights activist, concert promoter, sports announcer, talk show host, radio personality, sports team owner, radio executive and owner and music historian. Jay-Z, now part owner of the Nets basketball team, gave Jackson credit for opening yet another door years ago.
Jackson’s funeral will take place on Thursday, May 31 at 11 a.m. at Riverside Church, Claremont Avenue at 120th Street.