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RIP Herb Kent: Cool Gent, King of the Dusties (and Former Classical and Punk DJ)

The Cool Gent started as a radio-club hobbyist on WBEZ in 1944. Over the years, he became the King of the Dusties, emceed for Martin Luther King at Soldier Field, and shaped the development of Chicago’s distinctive house music style.

The King of the Dusties went from building radios to one of the most influential voices on them.   Photo: Kuni Takahashi/Chicago Tribune

How long was Herb Kent on the radio? The legendary Chicago DJ, who passed away this weekend at age 88, started in 1944 as a 16-year-old, a year after WBEZ started—as a Board of Education extension meant to prepare CPS students for careers in broadcasting. The Cool Gent was a nerd: a member of Hyde Park High School’s radio club, who built radios for fun.

“I was always fascinated with radios, microscopes, and telescopes. Around six years of age, I would stand on a box to turn on the radio and listen to Red Hot and Lowdown and later worked for the DJ that did that show (believe it or not I can’t remember his name),” Kent told Soul Train last year. “When I was ten years old, I would spend my spare time building model planes from kits.  Later I began building radios from crystals, wires, earphones, and toilet paper inserts.”

From how Red Hot and Lowdown and its host, Bob Hawk, were described back in the day, it might have laid the groundwork for Kent’s style: “nonsensically amusing,” a combination of ”popular music and witty talk… ‘real corn, but people loved it,’” mixing “platters and wisecracks” with an emphasis on blues music, including live performances from Memphis Minnie.

The young Kent was actually less than confident in his presence, but at WBEZ he learned elocution and breathing, and theatrical training for what was still a popular form in the medium. It would be awhile until Kent found the voice that made him famous on WVON; until then, he took whatever jobs were available, including the mailroom at WMAQ in Chicago (where he befriended future mentor Hugh Downs) while he was a student at Northwestern.

In a 2006 interview, he recalled his first professional job as a DJ, at WGRY in Gary in 1949. Kent started out playing the classical he’d learned to DJ at WBEZ; the station owner had to tell him to play “race” music.

He didn’t last long. Soon he was back at NBC, biding his time and falling back on his training as a radio actor. As a student, he’d been told that he wouldn’t make it because he was black, but there was ample evidence to suggest otherwise. Chicago was already host to the first black radio announcer, and, arguably, the first DJ ever (insofar as he was probably the first radio host to play records on air): Jack L. Cooper.

A theater editor for the Chicago Defender, Cooper tried to break through in radio in the 1920s, but found his options limited to playing racial stereotypes. He moved back to Chicago and launched The All-Negro Radio Hour in 1929 on WSBC, then as now a station broadcasting to a variety of Chicago cultural niches in a variety of languages. By the 1940s, when Kent was learning the business, Cooper was a local giant, with 40 hours of programming on four stations and an audience among both working-class migrants and the burgeoning black middle class. “His personal sound was white. Absolutely white,” Kent said in an oral history. “Very, very articulate but very white. He had a tendency to sound like the white announcers and he was the first one to do that.”

Around the same time, Phil Chess, who died last week at the age of 95, and his brother Leonard started Chess Records. The little indie label would play a critical role in the transition from jazz and blues to rock ‘n’ roll; the careers of the Chess brothers and Herb Kent would run on parallel tracks throughout the 1950s until they would cross at WVON. Kent followed the direction music was taking in the city, signing up with the new WBEE R&B station out of Harvey in 1955, with “Rock & Roll on the Bee Hive,” competing with former mentor Al Benson.

Al Benson was the flip side to Jack L. Cooper, a parole officer turned preacher turned DJ who spoke in an emphatic vernacular, as WVON’s Pervis Spann told the Reader’s David Whiteis: “‘I enrolled in the broadcasting school, Midwestern Broadcasting, down on Wabash Avenue. I wasn’t very cultured, diction was bad, but I’d listen to Al Benson’—widely acknowledged as the godfather of black radio in Chicago—’and he was on the air, his diction wasn’t no better than mine!’” Kent remembered him the same way: “He mispronounced words by the score. And he would eat and talk at the same time.”

Benson’s familiar style made him immensely popular; at one point, he won a Tribune poll as the most popular DJ in the city. Music was changing, and the children of the Great Migration were a growing audience. Kent played their music, and he could speak their voice, building on the styles of both Cooper and Benson (and his own long-ago theatrical training and early radio-drama experience).

His audience followed him from WBEE to WJOB to WHFC—and when the Chess brothers bought WHFC and turned it into WVON, Kent helped broker the deal. Three years later, in 1966, Kent emceed Martin Luther King Jr.’s Freedom Summer rally at Soldier Field. After King was assassinated, Kent was the voice on WVON calling for calm on the streets of Chicago and reporting live from Roosevelt Road during the riots.

Kent’s WVON heyday was actually brief—as with his mentor Benson, time caught up to Kent, who was fired by the station after 16 years at the age of 48, told by the station owner that “I didn’t have enough energy,” according to the Tribune. “He told me radio is a young man’s game.” (The Tribune’s Gary Deeb, however, reported that the real cause was a salary dump prior to a sale of the station.)

But Kent kept up—and actually got more cutting edge. Not long after he was fired from WVON, Kent, under the influence of his daughter, launched a show called Stay Up and Punk Out on WXFM. Though short-lived, Punk Out strengthened the underground connections between Chicago’s black radio audience and the punk/new wave scene of the early 1980s, with Kent’s love of Devo and the B-52s laying the foundation for the city’s house music scene. When Frankie Knuckles was making his break, he was influenced not just by Chicago’s young club DJs, but by a 50-something who started out spinning classical music in the 1940s:

While the Warehouse was providing a sanctuary for many gay Black Chicagoans, disco’s infiltration of the mainstream gave fuel to the fire to those at the opposite end of Chicago’s music scene. In July 1979, during a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers at Comiskey Park, local disc jockey Steve Dahl led the “Disco Demolition,” which saw the ceremonial detonation of hundreds of disco records. It remains one of the better quotes through dance music’s history when Frankie Knuckles later remarked that “house music is disco’s revenge.”

At the same time, another radio DJ was weaving a vibrant and exciting tapestry of sound that would be a huge influence on the new generation of open-eared dance freaks, as disco retreated back underground. “People seldom mention Herb Kent who, to me, was the father of it all,” DJ and producer Chez Damier told Dave Stenton from the Resident Advisor website. “He was the one that could play disco at the same time as the B-52s and totally educate me—punk rock and disco and Italo all in the same breath.”

Kent’s “King of the Dusties” nickname reflects his association with ’50s and ’60s R&B; he wrote that he started using the term “dusties” way back in his WBEE days, when they hadn’t had much time to collect dust. But Kent’s immense career ties together a much longer history, from Bob Hawk, Jack L. Cooper, Al Benson, and the birth of WBEZ through to Frankie Knuckles and the birth of house music, an influence on generation after generation from the 1950s up until his last years.

Just this month, Chicago featured Jamila Woods, a 26-year-old singer and Pushcart-nominated poet riding the wave of her brilliant debut album Heavn, as part of our “New Bohemia.” And last year, Woods was featured in Poetry with “Ode to Herb Kent,” tracing the arc of his career for the next generation: “You soundtrack the church picnic, trunk party, Cynthia’s 50th birthday bash, the car ride to school, choir, Checkers. Your voice stretch across our eardrums like Daddy asleep on the couch. Sound like Grandma’s sweet potato pie, sound like the cigarettes she hide in her purse for rough days. You showed us what our mommas’ mommas must’ve moved to.”

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