The Wolfman was born in Brooklyn on Jan 21, 1938, to a writer and financial publishing exec and his wife. The parents divorced when Robert was a child.
To keep him out of trouble his father bought him a radio powerful enough to bring in stations from across the country, and even receive transatlantic signals. He soon became a fan of the popular 50s DJs like Dr. Jive, Jocko Henderson, and Moon Dog Alan Freed, whose signature howl, along with his own affinity for horror movies later influenced Wolfman’s on air persona.
He attended National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, DC, and after graduating knocked around small radio stations in various formats. In 1963 he was hired by XERF-AM, one of the “Border Blaster” radio stations just across the Mexican border that served up 250,000 watts of English language entertainment, evangelical messages and sales scams to a much broader audience than government regulated, US based smaller stations could reach.
Though most of us who grew up with his voice in our ears and his face on TV and in movies can easily recognize him with his signature goatee and full head of, combed back black hair, early in his career he leveraged an air of mystery about his appearance to increase his appeal. There was even considerable public speculation about his ethnicity, which arguably allowed him to connect with a broader audience and champion a wider range of musical artists.
It wasn’t until his manager and business partner Don Kelley began working to transform his image from a cult personality to a mainstream performer with an identifiable visual image that his appearance became ubiquitous.
From a technical standpoint he was also influential. He was a pioneer in re-marketing his shows through syndication, often recording in LA then shipping the tapes across the border into Mexico for broadcast. Later, when oldies stations began capitalizing on a 50’s pop culture revival (spurned in no small part by Wolfman’s own appearance in George Lucas’ American Graffiti in 1973), he found a new market for his old taped shows.
One of his most high profile gigs in the 70’s was as the announcer for the late night TV music showcase The Midnight Special. The show was not just a parade of Top 40 acts, and included many bands and performers that would never become household names, but were monsters in their particular niches. The Wolfman’s iconic voice introduced me to some of the great and eclectic acts that would influence my own musical tastes- bands like Little Feat, Steeleye Span, and Weather Report.
He was a frequent guest on TV shows and had numerous cameos as himself in movies.
Wolfman shed his “immortal coil” on July 1, 1985, and was interred in a family cemetery in Belvidere, North Carolina. Long my he howl!