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Midnight Matinee

Photo by Michael Powers

THE POST­WORLD WAR II R&B EXPLOSION, WHICH cleared the way for every subsequent rock & roller able to keep a beat, was essentially detonated in Los Angeles, and Hunter Hancock, an unassuming, Texas-born radio announcer, is the man who lit the fuse and kept it burning for the next 20 years. Hancock's is a name few call out today, but to those who remember, he is an icon, the mayor of Rhythm & Bluesville, the platter-spinning cat who not only jump-started the careers of such local legends as Hadda Brooks and Joe Liggins, but was also the first DJ to hep thousands of white teenagers to the wild blues jungle that had sprung up, literally overnight, in their own back yards.

"He was the only outlet there was before Huggy Boy and those guys," says Dewey Terry of '50s blues-rockers Don & Dewey. "He was a good man -- good to the blues and good to rock & roll." For the last 20 or so years, many in Los Angeles assumed that Hancock had long since gone to his reward, but to the shock of many and delight of all, he's still kicking. Now 83, he's set to make his first personal appearance in over 30 years, at a Doo Wop Society­organized tribute featuring many of the R&B performers whose records he first broke.

The very first white announcer in America to exclusively program race records, Hancock ranks as one of the most significant forces in this city's troubled racial history, for exposing whites to black music and for bringing both groups together at innumerable musical events. With bandleader Johnny Otis, he oversaw numerous South-Central talent shows, and for years ran his own school-yard record hops. Hancock also packaged, promoted and emceed a dazzling series of R&B revues at such venues as the Shrine and Olympic auditoriums.

In short, he taught Los Angeles to rock. On his Midnight Matinee, a fast-paced R&B live revue on KPOP, Hancock's manic between-act exhortations were as exciting as the music itself: "We're gonna be goin' strong 'til TWO o'clock this morning. So if you're CRUIS-ING around in that Rocket 88, get it right on down HERE to 18th and Grand!" Introducing one head-spinning act after another, building excitement up from fever to frenzy pitch, Hancock the race-mixing rebel was perceived by some as inflammatory; he received frequent death threats from white-supremacist types.

"I GOT INTO RADIO AT KMAC IN SAN ANTONIO IN 1942," says Hancock. "In 1943, I said, 'I'm gonna go to California and get a job at NBC.' Well, every other 4-F announcer in the country was out here! Eventually I got a job on KFVD, working the weekend shift, and six weeks later Todds' clothing store in downtown L.A. bought an hour to appeal to the Negro market.

"At that time, there were at least a quarter of a million blacks without a radio program. So the program director and I decided the thing they wanted to hear was jazz. Well, it wasn't exactly, but that at least got me started. In 1948, they gave me another half-hour daily show, and on the third day Jack Allison from Modern Records came up to see me and said, 'Hancock, you're playing the wrong records!' He said, 'If you want to reach the vast majority of Negro listeners, you should be playing race music' and showed me some charts of record sales that blacks had been buying, from hearing them on jukeboxes. So I thought, 'It won't hurt to play a couple of 'em, just to see what happens.' Hadda Brooks was the first race record I ever played on the air . . . that was on Wednesday. By Friday, every distributor in L.A. had sent me race records. Within a few weeks, I was 100 percent race music, which now, of course, is called rhythm & blues."

Hancock's theme, with sock-boom backing from Johnny Otis' band, remained a call to action for years: "From bebop to ballads, swing to sweet, and blues to boogie . . . it's Harlematinee!" Even after Elvis broke out in '56 and radio finally responded -- swiping a fair chunk of Hancock's white listeners -- his core audience remained loyal. Hancock supplied the soundtrack during apocalyptic periods, from the Korean War to the Watts Riots, and he rode R&B straight into the soul-music era, until restrictive new formats and inviolate playlists deadened the entire broadcasting field.

"I always did maintain a huge black audience and a very large Hispanic audience," Hancock says. "I was told more than once that during the summer, when all the doors and windows were open, you could walk down any street in a black neighborhood, hear my show and not miss a beat."

 

The Hunter Hancock Tribute with Big Jay McNeely, the Calvanes, the Hollywood Saxons, Vernon Green & the Medallions, Johnny Flamingo and Jennette Baker happens at the Petroleum Club, 3636 Linden Ave., Long Beach, on Saturday, March 4, 8 p.m. For information, call (562) 493-9058.


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