Hal Jackson: Still On The Air After 69 Years The African-American radio pioneer celebrated his 93rd birthday this week at a tribute in his honor at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also marked his 69th year in the radio business.
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Hal Jackson: Still On The Air After 69 Years

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Hal Jackson: Still On The Air After 69 Years

Hal Jackson: Still On The Air After 69 Years

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There was a birthday bash this week at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem for Hal Jackson.

(Soundbite of Hal Jackson radio broadcast)

Mr. HAL JACKSON (Disc Jockey, WBLS): Everybody in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, bless your hearts for being with us. You've made us number one, number one.

SIMON: Mr. Jackson, can I ask how old you turned?

Mr. JACKSON: Uh-oh, 93.

SIMON: All right. Hal Jackson's in our studios in New York, where he still has a weekly show on WBLS. He is one of the founders of the Inner City Broadcasting Company, a fantastically successful string of stations. Mr. Jackson, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JACKSON: I thank you for having me. It's a real honor.

SIMON: Well, the honor is ours. Tell me, if you could, about the time you walked into - I believe it was radio station WINX in 1939. An African-American man, you walked into a station in Washington, D.C., and said, hi, I want to be on the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: Oh, they told me that no nigger will ever go on this radio station, so get it out of your mind. Don't even think about it. You take that in stride. You just say that's a boost to make sure that we get on there. And then to go on, it really made it a wonderful opening for somebody else.

SIMON: How did you figure out a way how to get on the air?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, I had to get a friend of mine at the white advertising agency to buy the time. We stayed outside of the studio until we got the proper signal. And then we walked right in and went right on the air. So there was no stopping. They hit a panic button, but it was too late.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. JACKSON: Tomorrow night is the big night over at the Abyssinian Baptist Church when the parents...

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. JACKSON: I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning...

Mr. JACKSON: And none of us went into the studio before that one moment. Then we all walked in.

(Soundbite of radio show The House That Jack Built)

Mr. JACKSON: Don't worry and don't even have a sneeze. In The House That Jack Built, everything is cozy and warm...

SIMON: And the show you did for so many years called The House That Jack Built, take us back to that. As I understand it, you would greet listeners, then take them on a tour from room to room.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JACKSON: That was a creative thing that I loved, and everybody seemed to like being a part of it because we opened up the musical doors. And we have recorded stars from here to Mars. Whether you're home or in your cars, you're relaxing with Jackson in The House That Jack Built. Each room that we would go in, in this imaginary House that Jack Built was for a different kind of person. In other words, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune headed the National Council League of Women, was one thing. And then when we had Dr. Charles Drew opening up another door, he would talk about the blood plasma that he had created. And it was just terrific. And of course, the music, jazz, I, you know, had lived so much with it. And R&B as well. I was so into the jazz thing. Jazz was in the living room, and we just loved it.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

SIMON: I'm going to read a list of firsts that are attributed to you: first African-American on network radio, first African-American in the Radio Hall of Fame, first person to broadcast live from a theater, first person to host a rock and roll show at Carnegie Hall. I must've missed a few, too, didn't I?

Mr. JACKSON: The things that I have been a part of on the first is just my love for what I was doing. Like a basketball team. I organized this team. And they're the world's professional basketball champions. That's what it turned out to be. Now, everything else was from the bottom up. I loved the idea of doing interviews with people, let them feel a part of this House that Jack Built.

SIMON: I hope you don't mind me asking this. We know that the present Mrs. Jackson is with you there, yes?

Mrs. JACKSON: Yes.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

SIMON: You've been married four times, I'm told, Mr. Jackson.

Mrs. JACKSON: You've been married four times.

Mr. JACKSON: I didn't know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: Oh, my goodness.

SIMON: All right. You were close friends with Ella Fitzgerald, I gather.

Mr. JACKSON: Very dear friends with Ella. Ella was - you'd never believe it when she was on stage - she was basically a very shy, shy person. And I used to sit with her and encourage her. But the minute she would hit that stage, she would really light up.

(Soundbite of song "Stone Cold Dead in the Market")

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) I lick 'im wit' the pot and the fryin' pan. I lick 'im wit' the pot and the fryin' pan. I lick 'im wit' the pot and the fryin' pan. That if I kill him, he had it coming. Man, he's stone cold dead in the market. He's stone cold dead in the market. He's stone cold dead in the market. I killed nobody but my husband...

SIMON: Are there any other musical performers you remember that maybe are not as famous as Ella Fitzgerald, but they were important to you?

Mr. JACKSON: You mean, other famous people? Josh Gibson, who was one of the greatest of all baseball players, he never did get into the Major League. But it gave me a chance to tell everybody what a great home-run hitter and player that he was.

(Soundbite of song "Get on the Good Foot")

Mr. JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Can't pass the people, can't pass-ah, hit me. Ooh...

SIMON: James Brown, did you know him?

Mr. JACKSON: Oh, my God. Yes, I knew him. I worked with James so many times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: He was just unbelievable. Once he'd get onstage, he would just tear everything up. And he was a very kind person. Whenever I'd go to hospitals to see people, he was right there with me. And then he would do a little serenading for them. James was a talented, talented young man. A very talented young man.

(Soundbite of song "Get on the Good Foot)

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) Where people do the sign and take your hands-ah, And dancin' to the music James Brown band, mmm. They're dancing on the good foot. I got to get on the good foot. Got to do it on the good foot. Do it with the good foot. Said the long-hair hippies...

SIMON: You know, Mr. Jackson, here this week you're turning 93, God bless. And I can't help but reflect on the fact that when you started on the air, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. And now you will be playing music under a President Obama. What does that mean to you?

Mr. JACKSON: I think it's wonderful, and I think we have grown. The American people have grown to open up their minds and their hearts to what is good for the country. Obama is that kind of person that canstraddle it. Everybody couldn't straddle that line that we needed, but he can.

SIMON: What music, what song do you suggest we play coming out of this interview to cap this historic week?

Mr. JACKSON: Oh, my goodness. "There's No Stopping Us Now," that's a good one.

Mrs. JACKSON: "Ain't No Stopping Us Now."

Mr. JACKSON: There ain't no stopping us now, many things.

(Soundbite of song "Ain't No Stopping Us Now")

MCFADDEN & WHITEHEAD: (Singing) Ain't no stoppin' us now. We're on the move. Ain't no stoppin' us now. We've got the groove...

SIMON: Mr. Jackson, awfully nice to talk to you. Happy birthday.

Mr. JACKSON: And by the way, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Can we have you back when you turn 95?

Mr. JACKSON: It'd be a pleasure.

SIMON: All right.

Mr. JACKSON: It would be an honor for me to come back.

SIMON: We'll pencil it in two years from now.

(Soundbite of song "Ain't No Stopping Us Now")

MCFADDEN & WHITEHEAD: (Singing) There's been so many things that's held us down. But now it looks like things are finally comin' around. I know we've got a long, long way to go. And where we'll end up, I don't know. But we won't let nothing...

SIMON: "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" by McFadden and Whitehead. We also heard music by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, and songs from "Evolution of Soul," a collection of Hal Jackson's favorites. You can hear his show, "Sunday Classics," on WBLS-FM in New York or on WBLS.com everywhere, every Sunday. And you can hear us every Saturday. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of song "Ain't No Stopping Us Now")

MCFADDEN & WHITEHEAD: (Singing) I want you to listen, listen to every word I say, every word I say. Ain't no stoppin' us now. We're on the move. Ain't no stoppin' us now. We've got the groove.

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