Radio Legend Made His Mark on Music Scene
On Saturday evening, Oct. 22, a final chapter was closed on an era that personified Black Chicago history.
At 88 years old, Herbert Rogers Kent made his transition after being rushed to the hospital. His routine of doing his Saturday radio show on V103/WVAZ-FM was as natural as brushing his teeth. He didn’t have to think about it — it just flowed. We, as the Chicago radio listening audience, tuned in just as routinely as he showed up, never letting us down — giving us a bit of nostalgia while educating us about the soundtrack that has carved out our lives.
Herb Kent was not only the longest-running radio broadcast disc jockey, according to the World Records Academy in 2009, but he was our voice. A voice that Chicago radio listeners have gotten used to tuning in since when he began his career at 16 on WBEZ radio station in 1944.
Mr. Kent was born Oct. 5, 1928, a South Side kid from the projects who had a passion for entertaining and discovering great talent. In 1952, he moved over to WGES Radio, where he hosted a country and western show. Gradually, as his audience started to grow, so did his reputation, eventually accepting a position at WBEE as head announcer.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, Chicago became a centerpiece for Black music with Rhythm and Blues record labels taking over the southern stretch of Michigan Ave. Blues singers such as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf were familiar faces along with Etta James, The Chi-Lites, The Dells and The Impressions, laying the blueprint for “Record Row.”
During that period, Jerry “Iceman” Butler was a young singer and member of the popular group The Impressions — along with founding member Curtis Mayfield.
The Cook County Board Commissioner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recalls his fondest memory of Mr. Kent.
“Herb always engaged his audiences in intelligent conversation to accommodate. He would hook it up to something that was educational — he was part of the family, and I don’t mean my family but to all families.
“The last time we were together, we were co-hosting a show together and I said to him, ‘Age before beauty.’ He said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, then go right ahead.’ ” Butler laughs.
Early Days in Radio
During his 70 plus years in radio broadcast, Mr. Kent has worked for over 11 radio stations — each bringing his unique sense of humor, depth of knowledge, grace and appreciation for the listeners and fans he served. WVON, known in the 1960s as the “Voice of the Negro,” was owned by Chess brothers — Phil, Poland and Leonard. This era was not only groundbreaking in music but it was life-changing in the Civil Rights movement, and he used his influence on the air to touch a generation of Black people.
Promoter and owner of South Side supper clubs such as The High Chaparral and The Godfather I, Helen Wooten can recall earlier days of Kent DJ’ing. She first met him when she was 10 years old at a record store on the West Side, but later would join him on Saturday night as the first youngest, female radio on-air DJ at 14 years old.
Later, Wooten would become one of the city’s top club owners and concert promoters.
She said, “It was a great thing to know a great man for the last 58 years. We became friends during the early 1960s and started a business relationship, doing birthday parties. He would spin at my lounge every Tuesdays and Wednesdays for 15 years.”
His popularity among young people was legendary rock star status, as he was known to visit Chicago area high schools.
Record store retailer and proprietor George Daniels can recollect meeting Mr. Kent at a young age. “WVON started in 1963. I was a junior in high school and I would hear him then. A year later, I was dating Minnie Riperton and she worked at Chess Records, so when Chess bought WVON, I would see Herb and all the other disc jockeys that would come by Chess Records’ studio,” he said.
“Once I opened the store around 1973, Herb would come by there. Robin was 3 or 4 years old at the time, this was at my first location at 3937 W. Roosevelt Rd.” Daniels pauses, “She was just a little baby — that was Herb’s pride and joy. She would go everywhere with him.”
As his reputation grew, so did the habit of falling on the vices of the music business. Mr. Kent spiraled into a dark place of drug addiction, leading to a lengthy absence from the radio airwaves.
One day, he decided if radio wasn’t going to welcome him back, he was going to broker time and build his own show — on his own terms.
The saving grace of friends and family gradually helped Mr. Kent get clean, sober and focused on staying true to what he loved — the music.
Although he’s known to spin Soul music classics during the early 1980s — he was the first DJ on an Urban format to play punk music and premiere House mixes by young DJs, Wayne Williams and Jesse Saunders on then WLNR—what is now known as 106.3.
Marv Dyson, former long-time general manager at WGCI, recalls the first time he brought on Mr. Kent to launch his show.
“When I first took over WGCI, the first person I called was Richard Pegue. I didn’t know anything about programming. My background was in sales. Richard said, ‘You know, we need to get some names over here that people know and appreciate. We have to go after Herb Kent.’ ”
During that time, Mr. Kent was still at WLNR with his brokered show.
“I reached out to Herb we had breakfast and invited him afterward to come to work at WGCI AM 1390. He said, ‘Yes.’ The rest is history,” Dyson said.
“Radio was so different then, it was so much fun. We were competing against Barry Mayo (WBMX) and he was building V103. The idea was to get all of the best people that I could get. Herb Kent was an institution in this town,” said Dyson. “I grew up listening to him, so I knew the power he had. But he’d been out of mainstream radio for so long that people had begun to forget him, but as soon as we got him back on the radio it was like this city came alive. The Wahoo Man is back!
Radio personalities from around the city and across the country are shocked at Mr. Kent’s sudden passing, but more so, they are immensely grateful for having the pleasure of receiving kind words and advice from him.
Influencing the Next Generation
Mike Love, at the time of meeting Mr. Kent, was on the air with co-host The Diz at WGCI-FM Mondays through Friday in evening — a popular show geared toward younger listeners.
“I remember George Daniels said, ‘Man, go see Herb Kent on the weekends. Listen to him and be influenced by him, let him know how much he means to you.’ Sometimes, we would see some of the older vets — when they had Dusties 1390 AM, so a lot of the WVON vets would be in the next studio,” As he reflects, he laughs, “They would be little less patient with us, but now, I understand them as a person who is now a radio vet myself why.
Khris ‘First Lady’ Hutchinson is another familiar name in the Chicago radio broadcast community. Having worked at WGCI FM off and on throughout the years, she had the pleasure of knowing Herb since she was a little girl.
“My Dad and Herb were best friends all my life. My heart is heavy, but my memories of our relationship keep me smiling. I never knew what he was gonna say next. He was quick witted. I know he liked that I was too. We would go back and forth for hours. His laughter and teasing was always welcome.”
For the past few months, First Lady reunited with Kent, working in the studio with the ‘Cool Gent’ on his weekend show. “Working with Herb Kent, or Uncle Herb as I called him, was wonderful. He taught me more during one 7-hour show than most could have learned in a semester at school,” she said. “He shared his knowledge of life, the industry and his personal experiences with me all the time. Perhaps the best moments with “Uncle Herb” was when the microphones were off. The stories he shared…. I will hold forever in my heart.”
The highlight of listening to his show was no other than the Battle of the Bands, where Mr. Kent was known to invite everyone from political officials, community and business leaders as well as entertainers to encourage callers to vote for the show’s guest or his competing band.
No one knows better this than the founding member of the Chi-Lites, Marshall Thompson. He has been a guest of his multiple times and admits to Mr. Kent’s tactics. “Herb had them tricks. All of the artists were his friends and he knew everything about them.” Thompson first met the popular Disc Jockey in 1959 when he was attending DuSable High School. “We would ride around in his red Thunderbird car.” He recalls an argument among the group, and Mr. Kent invited them back to his house and his basement. He sternly addressed the young singers, ‘Ya’ll be better stick together.’ Thompson says, “We’ve been together as The Chi-Lites ever since.”
Never missing a beat, Kent began to teach radio broadcast class at Chicago State University in 2011. There, he nurtured and mentored many students, receiving a first-hand account of his extraordinary history building a solid career in communications. His presence resonated throughout the CSU administration.
Taking a break from her tour, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin released the following statement to The Chicago Defender. “I’m so sorry to hear about Herb Kent. I remember him fondly. He was my very first radio interviewer, a very nice man. I was introduced to him by Granville White, a record executive from Columbia Records. Please accept my sincerest condolences.”
Friendships Over The Years
Long-time friend Woody Henderson was a part of Mr. Kent’s inner-circle, meeting him in the late 1960s. Henderson was invited to be a part of the Electric Funny People, a comedy group that performed creative skits on the air and eventually at various clubs around Chicago. It was a friendship that would span over the next 50 years.
“He asked me to go onstage with the Electric Funny People. We worked for years together doing comedy shows every night he was on the radio.”
Henderson says when Mr. Kent came off the air at WVON, they practiced their act. Before there was SNL and Second City, radio listeners were treated to the creative comedy skits of the Electric Funny People. “We would work the comedy clubs all over the city.”
The two men had much in common, being divorced and devoted fathers to their daughters — they remained close friends throughout his life. Aside from working on the comedy circuit with Mr. Kent, he also was involved with political and community causes such as Operation Breadbasket in the early 1970s.
“Herb was very politically involved in his own way of dealing with it. He would encourage the community that we had a right to our equality. As far as human beings, I’ve never met a more decent human being than Herb Kent.”
Over the years, Herb Kent’s signature style of playing the songs, interviewing guests, creatively keeping connected to his listeners was pure class, and a teaching class for many familiar disc jockeys in other markets.
The WVON disc jockey line-up, known as the “Good Guys,” was a household name and everybody who was anybody in the music business knew it was a launching pad for successful careers.
Grammy award-winning singer Dionne Warwick released a statement: “I have very fond memories of Herb Kent. He always told me that he would see my smile whenever he played my recordings. I, like so many others, will miss him. I had the privilege of calling him friend. My sincere condolences to his family. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Recognizing His Achievements
The Chicago Defender and Real Times Media honored him for his significant contribution to the African-American community at the 2016 Men of Excellence Awards Dinner with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hyatt Regency in February. He’s been celebrated from various organizations, recently being inducted into the R&B Hall of Fame. His roots run deep, being honored from various resolutions presented by state, county and local municipalities over the last seven decades of his non-stop work.
Mr. Kent, affectionately embraced as the Mayor of Bronzeville, celebrated his 88th birthday this month and worked his last on-air shift Saturday at V103. Unbeknownst to his listeners, family and friends, they would be treated to his final show and distinctive voice that greeted millions of fans around the world.
In 2009, Kent released his autobiography, “The Cool Gent: The Nine Lives of Radio Legend,“ co-authored by David Smallwood, where he describes in detail his life journey, surviving and doing something he passionately loved.
“I think my success has had much to do with the way I appeal to my listeners as well as how I tap into the vein of what I call Cool School music. It doesn’t matter if it’s old school or new school — there’s a certain quality to some music that just makes it good, makes it timeless, makes it . . . Cool School.”
Funeral Services for Herb Kent
Friday, October 28th
Robey Park Manor Funeral Home
2510 Chicago Heights, IL 60411
Saturday, October 29th
House of Hope
752 E. 114th St.
Chicago, IL 60628
Homegoing Services: 10am-12noon