Exclusive for Doo-Wop Society of Southern California
Hello, this is Hunter Hancock...and you're huntin' with Hunter.
I was born in Uvalde, Texas, in 1916, and raised 90 miles away in San Antonio. I graduated from high school in 1934. Over the next few years I had, at my best count, 22 different jobs, including salesman, bank clerk, chauffeur and drummer. But perhaps my most dramatic job in those days was singing in a vaudeville troupe, including a stint at a Massachusetts burlesque club.
Then along came Pearl Harbor. I was classified 4-F by the draft board because of the effects of a childhood operation. So I went back to San Antonio to find myself a steady job. In September 1942 I walked into a small radio station, KMAC, and they asked me to read some commercials and news copy. Apparently I did okay, because they hired me on the spot. Four months later, the boss sent me to his sister station, KPAB, in Laredo, to be the program director and chief announcer. But I hated Laredo, a backwater town if ever there was one. The future, clearly, lay somewhere else for your intrepid narrator.
as a Texas lad.
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Hunter Hancock at
KFVD, circa 1944.
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I fled Laredo at my first opportunity and took the train to Los Angeles, where every other 4-F radio announcer was already looking for work. The best I could find at first was a temporary spot at a station in a neighboring town, but an employee there mentioned to me that there was an opening at KFVD, a small Los Angeles sundown station.
Next morning I was sitting on KFVD's front steps at 338 S. Western Avenue when the program director arrived. They hired me that day...as the Weekend man. Working Sundays sounded like a bad deal, but I was happy to get the work. More importantly, it gave me the biggest opportunity of my life. In April 1943, Todd Clothes in downtown L.A. bought a one-hour show on Sunday--during my shift--to appeal to the Negro community. The program director felt I should play jazz, which sounded like a good idea to me at the time, because I was unfamiliar with black tastes in music. The show, called "Harlem Holiday," became modestly popular. My theme song was Chick Webb's "Holiday in Harlem," featuring the voice of young Ella Fitzgerald. I was one of the first radio men to play Cecil Gant's "I Wonder" in 1944.
In 1947 the station let me expand to a daily half-hour show which I called "Harlematinee." I started off playing jazz on this show too. But only a couple of days later, Jack Allison, a salesman from Modern Records, came to see me. He told me, "Hancock, you're playing the wrong records. If you want to reach a huge Negro audience, you should be playing 'race' records." I didn't know what race records were, but he gave me a list of what records were selling to blacks in the South. I didn't recognize any of them. But I was so impressed by his material that I took a chance and played two of his records that afternoon. Almost instantly, other local distributors showed up at the studio with other race records, and by the end of the following week my show was 100% race music. Nowadays we call it rhythm and blues. Without realizing it, I became the first disc jockey in the western United States to play R&B.
In no time the show was a huge hit. The station sold so many commercials that they had to add another half-hour, then yet another hour, until I was finally doing three-and-a-half hours every day, Monday through Saturday, plus my jazz show, "Harlem Holiday," on Sundays. In those early days I'd do interviews with the artists. I may be wrong, but I think I'm the first deejay to interview a young Nat "King" Cole.
In addition to my radio work, I was doing lots of talent shows at various clubs and black theaters around town, and I got to watch as many new young artists were discovered, such as Big Jay McNeely (who would later record a major hit for me called "There Is Something on Your Mind"), the Penguins, Gene & Eunice, Little Esther, the Robins, and so many others. At one point in late 1951 I also hosted a series of "Midnight Matinee" shows, first at the Olympic Auditorium and then at the Orpheum Theater downtown on Broadway. By that time my audience was not just blacks. Whites and Chicanos were also listening to "Harlematinee" and coming to my live shows. Excerpts from two Olympic Auditorium shows were recently released on an album, and I'm amazed now to hear how loud I was in those days.
About that time I picked up my on-air nickname, "Ol' H.H." Well, John Dolphin, who owned the Dolphin's of Hollywood record shop at Vernon and Central, gave me that name. Every time I walked into his store, he'd say, "Well looky here, there's ol' H.H.," and it stuck.
Majorie "Margie" Williams
was Hunter's popular radio
sidekick in the 1950s.
CLICK TO SEE LARGE PHOTO
By 1955 I was popular enough to convince my station (which by this time had changed from KFVD to KPOP) to let me broadcast from my own office at 1554 Gower Street in Hollywood, just north of Sunset Boulevard. I had four studio-quality turntables, two Ampex tape machines, a microphone and a control panel. I also had a Girl Friday and on-air sidekick named Margie, a beautiful black woman with the sweetest voice you've ever heard. She was the wife of Tony Williams, the lead singer of The Platters. I could spend the rest of this page telling you what a loyal and wonderful person she was. I think some of my listeners loved Margie better than they liked me. I'm sad to report that Margie died earlier this year (1999).
Since KPOP was a sundown station that signed off at dusk, my boss didn't mind if I accepted non-competing night-time shows from other stations. In 1956 KGFJ signed me to do a nightly Top 20 show from 9:00 to 11:30, which I called "Huntin' With Hunter." The name came from my favorite hobby, hunting. I'd record my shows during the day and then Margie would play them back at night. In 1957 I also broadcasted a half-hour Sunday gospel show on yet another station, KGER, called "Songs of Soul and Spirit," sponsored by Realty Equities, a real estate company at Main and Vernon.
CLICK TO SEE LARGE PHOTO
1955 KFVD advertising prospectus for "Harlematinee."
Speaking of Realty Equities, I was blessed with many long-time sponsors who followed me from show to show for many years. If you listened to me then you'll remember Dr. Wiseman, Sulphur-8, D & W Records, West Pico Furniture, Royal Crown Cola, Union Mortgage, L.A. Bureau Finance, National TV Stores, Bibb's Department Store, Leo's TV and Consolidated Accounts. Those guys kept me on the air. But they got their money's worth, because for several years the Pulse survey--an early precursor to today's Arbitron--declared my show number-one in the black market. According to one 1954 survey, one out of four black households was tuned to "Harlematinee" between one and four in the afternoons.
In the fall of 1955, on Friday nights, I also had a television show on KCBS, Channel 2, called "Rhythm and Bluesville," that lasted seventeen weeks. My guests included Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Platters, Richard Berry, Gene & Eunice, and The Jaguars. CLICK THUMBNAILS TO SEE FULL-SIZE PHOTOS
Gene & Eunice
I also landed a cameo spot in a 1957 British rock 'n' roll film called Rock Around the World, which starred Tommy Steele, who at that time was England's top star. If you want to know the truth, the movie really stunk. To help attract an American audience, they filmed me introducing rock 'n' roll as a world-wide phenomenon, but I don't think I could have helped that movie.
CLICK TO SEE LARGE PHOTO
Hunter appeared at a
downtown theater for
the premiere of Rock
Around the World in
which he had a
In 1959 my business partner, Roger Davenport, and I started our own record label, Swingin' Records. Our first release was a homemade tape that Big Jay McNeely, the great saxophonist, brought me called "There Is Something on Your Mind." It was a huge hit for us on the R&B charts that year. Then we had a pop hit with Rochell & The Candles' "Once Upon a Time." We also released singles by Marvin & Johnny, The Hollywood Saxons, Joe Houston and a dozen or so other artists.
CLICK TO SEE FULL-SIZE PHOTO
Hunter hosts a
KPOP record hop
at Lourdes Hall
in East L.A.
By that time, though, everything was changing. Rock 'n' roll had taken over the music business. KPOP was sold to a new owner and turned into a country station. I remained on KGFJ well into the 1960s, but by then disc jockeys were playing a Top 40 format and being told what records to play. I had to go by their playlist and say only what they wanted me to say, which was very difficult for a guy like me. Also, I had to spin a lot of records that I was frankly ashamed to play. By 1968 I was so tired of the radio business that I retired and never looked back...until now.
A couple of my friends at the Doo-Wop Society have asked me why I was successful during my 20-plus years as a disc jockey. Well, I believe it was due primarily to two things. First, I learned what records my audience liked, so I gave them what they wanted. The second reason, I think, is that people liked my "corny" style on the air. That was just me being me.
Hunter records his
"Huntin' With Hunter"
show at his Gower
Street office in
CLICK TO SEE LARGE PHOTO
Let me say a few things about doing a show in the old days. When I started in 1942, the control rooms of almost every small station operated the same way. They had a control panel, a microphone, and two turntables. Close by, in another room, was the news Teletype machine. Records were all 78 rpm, except for 16-inch transcriptions that sometimes contained commercials. In those early days we were called announcers, not disc jockeys, and most stations let us choose our own playlist. Prior to my own show, for instance, I'd select enough records for the first hour, adding more as time went by. I'd check the station's FCC program log for upcoming commercials. At the last minute before going on the air, I'd do the most important thing of all: I'd go to the bathroom, because shifts were long in those days. Once I was on-air, it was up to me to cue the records, start the turntables at just the right time, and make sure there was no "dead air" between the music and my announcing. No engineers in those days.
I also had to do newscasts. While a record was playing, I'd tear some newsprint off the Teletype and usually read it cold without checking it first, which sometimes caused some peculiar news reporting. It was all basically a one-man operation. Nowadays there's a news staff that handles all that.
If you want to hear how I sounded in the '50s, you can still find an album (on CD) called "Cruisin' 1959," part of a series of albums that featured disc jockeys of the time. I was the only jock they picked from west of the Mississippi. There's also another album, harder to find, called "Midnight Matinee," that features two of my live shows at the Olympic Auditorium in 1951.
But hey, I'm still here and still talking. Nowadays I live in retirement and play religious and classical music. I also sing at Sunday services, which I've been doing for most of my life. My dear wife died early this year, and I miss her terribly.
But fate has been kind to me. I know many people who have contributed so much more to mankind than I have, but I hope that in my small way I was able to bring pleasure and joy to people by playing the music they wanted to hear and by saying things that helped brighten their lives, if only for a little while.
Thanks for going "Huntin' With Hunter."
Hunter Hancock died on August 4, 2004.
|With DWS board members Ray Regalado and Jim Dawson.|
|Hunter's stepdaughters, Victoria Hawks (left) and Rosemary Davis, flank Myron Mills at Hunter's memorial service. Photo by Ray Regalado.||Vocalists Marvin Phillips (left), Jewel Akens and Rip Spencer pay their respects. Photo by Ray Regalado.|
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