Radio Legend The Cool Gent Herb Kent Passes
By Kai EL’ Zabar
Black Chicago’s favorite radio personality known by his handle as the “Cool Gent” has moved on to where all cool cats go. Born on Oct. 5, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, made him 88. He made his transition Saturday evening just two years shy of turning 90.
Herb received his early musical inspiration from the Chicago, R&B clubs located in his South Side neighborhood and pursued his love of music with a passion for nearly 70 years. Herb Kent earned several descriptive and affectionate names denoting his talent among, which were ‘Herbie Baby,’ the ‘Cool Gent’ and ‘King of the Dusties.’ He entertained millions of listeners throughout the world with his knowledge of music, playing the best of the best and his weekly contests pitting one talent against another allowing the listening audience to weigh in. One such recent contest was Michael Jackson against Prince. He’d choose one and another radio personnel would call the other. The audience would ring the lines as he’d played song for song voting song for song. It was all in a day’s fun but kept listeners engaged and tuned in.
Mr. Kent attended Hyde Park High School and by age 16 (1944), he got a shot at radio by appearing on-air at Chicago’s prestigious WBEZ Radio station and he was bit by the bug. In 1948 his first paid gig was for WGRY, a Gary radio station and in 1952 he landed a salaried job at WGES hosting a country western show. In the late 50’s he began working for WJOB in Hammond Indiana. The sprints at these small stations were the beginning of what became his life long career hosting a number radio shows throughout Chicago including WVON, WJJD and V103, where he was still working through his last day on earth. His early start gave him plenty of time to develop his unique radio communication style, which made him a great on-air personality.
Kent cut his teeth in radio when the DJ’s had power and authority programming their own shows. They could make or break a talent and signal handedly build their own listening audiences based on their music playlist. He not only has been able to entertain and inform listeners on his weekly radio show, he has also opened many doors for African Americans. He has proven to be a bankable commodity and is a living icon.
He is often given credit for launching the careers of R&B legends Minnie Ripperton, also a native Chicagoan who grew up in Bronzeville and attended Hyde Park High school; Curtis Mayfield, Smoky Robinson and the Temptations.
Like most contributors to society Mr. Kent was multi-dimensional making a difference in various areas of life. He served as a civil rights activist, and used his popular broadcast platform as a voice to speak about African-American issues. So it is duly noted that he was also affectionately referred to as, “The Voice of the People.”
Among Mr Kent’s many awards and recognitions include his 1995 induction into the Museum of Broadcast Communications Radio Hall of Fame. In 1996, Kent witnessed the official dedication of a street on Chicago’s South Side in his honor: “Herb Kent Drive.” He was also recognized by the dedication of a United States postal stamp bearing his image, which was included in the 1998 “Golden Days of Radio” series. The following year, Herb Kent was named the Honorary Mayor of Bronzeville by its residents. In January of this year, Mr. Kent received the Chicago Defender’s Men of Excellence Lifetime Achievement Honoree for the excellence he has personified as one of the most important figures in Chicago radio and his service to the community.
In an interview about his autobiography, “Cool Gent: the Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent,” Herb Kent described himself, as a straight-A college student in the 1940s, enamored with radios. He said that he has loved radio since the age of 5.
Mr. Kent with a smooth, mellifluous voice just perfect for the medium, which remained his signature, was told straight out by a professor, “You have the best voice in class, but you’ll never make it in radio because you’re a Negro.”
However like many Black men who were not encouraged by teachers Kent, went on to prove his professor wrong.
Mr. Kent, stated that, “You can’t live the way I have without some hard and sad times.”
He estimated that he faced death at least nine times because of his rock-and-roll lifestyle, which included lots of women and lots of hard partying.
“I hope readers of my book will learn to stay away from substance abuse,” says Kent, “But I also want readers to know that they should find what they really love and pursue it, and when you get knocked down, don’t stay down, get right back up.”
In his passing Mr. Kent leaves us his book, with a foreword written by Mayor Richard Daley. The autobiography is a fascinating read about celebrity, climbing upward, the evolving world of radio when deejays were star makers of the music industry and selected records from large rooms filled with vinyl disks. It gives the reader an inside glimpse of Chicago life up front and personal over the past 70 years.
His passion for radio was like the true maestro’s, though he may not have composed music he did compose and created moods for the listening audience through his orchestrated selection of songs. Herb Kent the ‘Cool Gent,” performed his last orchestrated symphony of sound Saturday morning with his final radio broadcast and then he dropped the mic.
Kent cut his teeth in radio when the DJ’s had power and authority programming their own shows. They could make or break a talent and signal handedly build their own listening audiences based on their music playlist. He is this year’s Men of Excellence Lifetime Achievement Honoree for the excellence he has personified as one of the most important figures in Chicago radio. He not only has been able to entertain and inform listeners on his weekly radio show, he has also opened many doors for African Americans. He has proven to be a bankable commodity and is a living icon.
“Cool Gent: the Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent by Herb Kent and David Smallwood” by Herb Kent (Lawrence Hill Books 2009, $24.95) at Amazon.com