How Nashville's WLAC Became The Powerhouse Of R&B Music


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While R&B music is a staple on radio today, it hasn't always been that way. It also might surprise you that it got its first shot at a widespread radio audience on Nashville's very own WLAC.

In 1946, a group of Black college students, back from serving in World War II, approached Gene Nobles, the station's on-air personality, with a stack of records to see if he could play something different, per the Tennessean. He began spinning blues and jazz records after dark and was soon met with letters from around the country wanting to know more about the new sound.

The station grew in popularity and eventually became what is considered to be the first "high-powered gatekeeper" to play R&B, the newspaper reports, even introducing its audience to legends like B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding and many more who would occasionally premiere their new singles on the station. Even Little Richard had a strong connection to the station, with his authorized biography saying he first heard his breakout hit "Tutti Frutti" on the radio on WLAC.

"When it came on, I jumped up and started screaming and running through the house and shouting, 'That's my record,'" he said.

In addition to Nobles, WLAC had several legendary DJs like John R., Hoss Allen, Herman Grizzard and Don Whitehead, who broke ground as one of the first African American radio hosts at a station that size.

WLAC made a lasting impact on Nashville and the music industry as a whole, with its reach hitting up-and-coming artists like Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. The station even expanded to television with WLAC-TV's music show Night Train, which featured the first TV program with an all-Black cast.

"The influence that WLAC wielded in the R&B world, it just can hardly be overstated," said Michael Gray, executive senior director of editorial and interpretation at the Country Music Hall of Fame. "It provided a shared cultural experience for millions of African Americans while also transforming the lives of millions of white teenagers."


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