#466: Clap for the Wolfman

WOLFMAN

“Another lovely day begins, for ghosts and ghouls with greenish skin. So close your eyes and you will find that you’ve arrived in Frightenstein. Perhaps the Count will find a way to make his monster work today. For if he solves this monster-mania, he can return to Transylvania! So welcome where the sun won’t shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!”Vincent Price

GETTING MORE TALE #466:  Clap for the Wolfman

I surely cannot be the only person in the world who heard of rock and roll because of the legendary radio DJ Wolfman Jack…although mine was in a roundabout way!

The irresistibly gravel-voiced Wolfman Jack was born in 1938 as Robert Smith.  A love of classic horror led to the creation of the Wolfman character.  He played rock and roll records from a high-powered transmitter on the Mexico border.  So powerful was the signal that Jack claimed “Birds dropped dead when they flew too close to the tower.”  On a clear night, listeners in the Soviet Union could hear the Wolfman half a world away.

Killing birds and eating records, the Wolfman really came to fame when tapes of his broadcasts were used for radio syndication.  By selling his tapes world-wide, Jack could be heard on over 2000 stations at his peak.    The Wolfman character became synonymous with rock and roll no matter where you lived.

American Graffiti: Richard Dreyfuss and Wolfman Jack

I was too young to know of Wolfman Jack directly.  I was even too young for American Graffiti, the 1973 George Lucas classic about the cruising scene in Modesto California circa the summer of ’62.  Wolfman Jack made a memorable appearance as himself, and did radio DJ intros for most of the tunes through the movie.  This however was preceded by a 1971 Canadian kid’s comedy show called The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. Similarly to of the syndication that made the Wolfman a smash success, Frightenstein was on TV well into the 70’s and 80’s, even though all the episodes were made in 1971.  Via Frightenstein, I learned who the Wolfman was.

Because of the endless re-runs, there was no way for young Canadian kids to miss it.  Before we had cable, it was one of the few shows we could reliably get, both at home and at the cottage, as it was broadcast from Hamilton Ontario.  Billy Van played almost every character himself: Grizelda the Witch, the Librarian, Dr. Pet Vet, Bwana Clyde Batty (a British explorer who ran the “Zany Zoo”), and many more.  Van’s most memorable character however had to be The Wolfman – an actual wolfman radio DJ inspired by Jack, down to the gravelly voice and wolf howls!  The Wolfman would spin classic rock and roll records each show, accompanied by psychedelic images of him dancing and playing air guitar with the character of Igor, played by Fishka Rais.  (The huge Rais was one of very few additional actors on the show.  Vincent Price and Professor Julius Sumner Miller recorded all their parts over the course of the summer of 1971.  And let’s not forget Guy Big, as the Midget Count!)

When the Wolfman’s segments would begin, you would know it immediately.  His theme song was “I Wanna Take You Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone.  “I am the Wolfman!  Ah-oooooooo!” he would howl at the start of his show.  He would play “golden oldies” by the Stones and other classic rock and roll artists, on his radio station “EECH”. He would tell callers that he was “fangtastic”.  (The “golden oldies” concept was brilliant.  Even if he was playing a fairly recent Stones single, he’d call it a “golden oldie”, thus ensuring that the show seemed current even when being broadcast in, say, 1986.  Planning and syndication!)

One of the few Youtube clips featuring original audio and music.

So there I was, a young kid sitting on the basement floor during Canadian winter, playing with Lego and watching  this pretty low-budget kid’s show, when suddenly this wolfman appeared!  “I am the Wolfman!  Ahooooooo!”  I didn’t know the music.  I’d never heard Sly and the Family Stone.  They were great!  I was hooked.  I even made my own tapes of the Wolfman.  I played the Wolfman…and all the other characters.  I had him battling Star Wars composer John Williams for chart superiority!  Fortunately, these tapes no longer exist!

I had no idea yet that Billy Van’s Wolfman was based on a real person.   That came later, probably through my parents, as I learned more about rock and roll.  All I knew was that he was a fun character who played good songs.  “I Wanna Take You Higher” was an early favourite.  The Stones made a strong impression.  He also played Mungo Jerry.  I didn’t like the slow songs.  Unfortunately due to the legal rights involved, “I Wanna Take You Higher” had to be replaced on the DVD versions.  Rights could only be obtained to release a few episodes on disc. (Most of the Youtube clips you will find are overdubbed versions with different music, and a new voice, since Billy Van had passed away before the DVDs were released.)

Wolfman Jack himself appeared on many television shows and records over the years.  After American Graffiti, he appeared in the ill-advised sequel, which flopped.  TV loved him; he even guested on Battlestar Galactica’s spinoff series Galactica 1980.  Notably, in 1974 he appeared as himself on The Guess Who’s classic single “Clap for the Wolfman”, a memorable tribute featuring plenty of the Wolfman’s trademark growl.  His influence trickled down, creating waves far exceeding the radio broadcasts that once reached Russia.  Via these tributes to his accomplishments, the Wolfman served to introduce rock and roll music to new generations, either via TV and movies or Billy Van’s character inspired by him.  Clap for the Wolfman indeed!

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24 comments

  1. Yeah! I wasn’t allowed to watch much tv, but this was one show we would catch from time to time. We didn’t have ch Hamilton up in Sudbury, so I think it might have been the cbc or ctv affiliate that aired it. It used to creep me out a little.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m with you, I was too young for the original Wolfman but I do remember a bit of the TV show. I was more of a cartoons and Hockey Night In Canada kind of kid though, so it’s not like I tuned in all the time. Still, I like the sounds of that transmitter tower. Must’ve confused the heck out of the Russians!

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  3. I saw Burton Cummings recently in Vegas and he sang Clap for the Wolfman.

    Billy Van was one of my favourites on tv at that time. He was so talented and could play anything. He was also a regular player on the Sonny and Cher show and he played multiple roles on that show as well.

    He all liked watching The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. It was great fun.

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      1. I know. He was there at that time because there were so many Canadians there to see the curling. Norm McDonald was also there that weekend, so a Canadian theme. Nearly all of the audience were Canadian.

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  4. I loved that show, even though as a young kid, it kind of scared me. I remember the witches brew, the awesome howl, the tunes.
    CHCH Hamilton will never be the same after all the recent job losses. It always seemed like a quirky, low budget station, but I kind of liked it. Also, the sports reporters Mark Hebscher (giving out the Hebsy awards), and Paul Hendrick.
    I miss the old CHCH, Frightenstein, and the Wolfman.
    Thanks for the great memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ZZ Top would know. So would Steve Earle. He used to go across the border all the time and absorb the music.

      American Graffiti is probably, right down to it, the best thing Lucas ever did. And it was second movie. He was just a kid. He left mistakes in the movie, on purpose. Imagine George “Mr. Fixit” doing that today.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me too, I’ve always loved the neon glow of that film. My absolute favourite part is the little postscript at the end where you find out their lives pan out. I think it’d be so much better if that happened in real life.

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  5. I watched Frightenstein religiously as a youngster. Now I’m almost positive I’ve seen footage of wolfman and Igor used as a music video by some Canadian band and I’m sure it was Sloan but I can’t seem to find the video anywhere on YouTube right now. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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