Author: Walker Smith
Publisher: Sonata Books LLC/Walker Smith Books
Format: Book (softcover, 270 p.), eBook
Release date: 2015
Based on interviews conducted by Walker Smith over a two year period from 1997-1999, Mello Yello: The Incredible Life Story of Jack the Rapper is part biography, part autobiography—told primarily through the words of Jack Gibson.
Affectionately known as “Jockey Jack,” and later “Jack the Rapper,” Jack Gibson was a legendary figure in Black radio and the Black entertainment industry. Though not well known outside of those circles (amazingly, Gibson doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry), his influence was incredibly broad, reaching all four corners of the nation and extending from the 1940s until his death in 2000, and beyond. A master storyteller to the end, Mello Yello is his final exposé on the industry—with sidebars on life, love, and the pursuit of happiness—edited by Ms. Smith in a manner that’s both informative and entertaining.
Born May 13, 1920 on the South Side of Chicago, Gibson was the son of a prosperous doctor from Barbados, who was also Marcus Garvey’s personal physician. Though Gibson trained at Lincoln University to be an actor, due to his mixed race heritage and light skin he was not able to land one of the few roles reserved for Black actors. Capitalizing instead on his vocal talents, Gibson was given a starring role in “Here Comes Tomorrow,” the first radio soap opera drama to feature an all-Black cast. Produced by another legendary Chicagoan, the African American writer Richard Durham, the show went on the air in 1945 over Chicago station WJJD. As Gibson recalls, “during a time when Negro actors were relegated to playing cartoonish sidekicks, maids and butlers, we were playing three-dimensional characters concerned with voting rights, segregation, and family relationships.” Shortly thereafter, Gibson launched his own music-based radio program, “The Jack Gibson Show,” while also working as a local emcee and helping Black artists such as Sarah Vaughan get booked into Chicago clubs.
Gibson’s next big break occurred in October 1949 when he was invited to participate in opening the first Black-owned and operated radio station in America—Atlanta’s WERD. As Gibson recollects, “I had been playing Black music to make money for the white man so long that the importance of this venture did not escape me—or anyone else in Atlanta, either.” His first words on the air were “Good morning Atlanta,” aimed towards his Black listeners. But Gibson’s “next three words were meant for everyone, Black and white, like it or not: We are here.” WERD ushered in an era of jive-talking deejays who played “race records”—primarily blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues. But this was still the Jim Crow era, and as Gibson recalls: “Back in my day, white folks put so many obstacles in our way, we just treated it like an everyday thing. Sometimes it seemed like a miracle that we were on the air at all, or that all those talented black entertainers put up with the indignities they did.”
Over the next decade, Gibson hopped from city to city, serving as producer and deejay at various stations: WLOU-Louisville, WMBM-Miami, WCIN-Cincinnati, WABQ-Cleveland, and back to WERD in Atlanta where he began what was likely the first jazz program in the South. Several chapters of the book recount his exploits in these cities: covering the Civil Rights Movement, serving as a mediator between the police and the Black community, working with fellow deejays such as Tommy Smalls (aka “Dr. Jive, the “Mayor” of Harlem) and Eddie Castleberry, and “breaking” records for various artists and promoting their shows.
Radio, however, could not contain Jack Gibson forever. A true renaissance man, he branched out into other facets of the industry, as detailed in chapters 13-17. In 1961, “he put his innovative mind to work and developed a new design for radio control rooms.” Later that year, Gibson transitioned to promotion manager at Motown Records, where he started the Soul imprint and accompanied Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, and the Supremes on tour, witnessing the latter group’s break-out performances at the Copacabana nightclub and on the Ed Sullivan Show. Gibson also did a short stint at LeBaron Taylor’s Revelot label in Detroit, then with Joe Medlin at Brunswick in New York, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in Chicago, and from 1969-1972 he worked with his friend Al Bell at Stax Records in Memphis. During this period he also founded the National Association of Radio Announcers (NARA, and later NATRA), where he worked to improve conditions for African Americans in the radio and record industries.
Chapter 19 tells the story behind the final stage of Gibson’s career. After semi-retiring in 1976, he launched the industry magazine Jack the Rapper, the oldest Black trade publication targeted to radio, which continued through 1997 (in later years known as Jack the Rapper’s Mellow Yello). Building upon this momentum, in June 1977 he organized “Jack the Rapper’s Family Affair,” a Black music convention “where generations of performers, radio and record executives came together to celebrate each other and the music of Black America.” For the next twenty years the annual Family Affair Convention, typically held in Atlanta, was a networking and resource mecca for the Black entertainment industry. Ironically, as rap music garnered a larger share of the music industry, many newcomers assumed that “Jack the Rapper’s Family Affair” convention was devoted to rap music. As this section of the book concludes, battles—some turning violent—between rival rappers attending the convention regrettably lead to its demise.
Walker Smith has done an excellent job of editing the interviews into a fitting tribute to Jack “The Rapper” Gibson—one of the foremost pioneers in Black radio and Black music, a man who mentored and promoted countless deejays and artists, and a national treasure who should receive much wider recognition.
Editor’s note: Many of the images published in Mello Yello are from the Jack Gibson Collection at the Archives of African American Music and Culture (AAAMC). Photos from the Gibson collection can be viewed through Indiana University’s Image Collections Online; a video of a 1981 interview of Jack Gibson by Dr. Portia K. Maultsby was recently preserved by IU’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative and can be viewed here; Gibson is also featured prominently in the AAAMC’s new multi-media virtual exhibit, “The Golden Age of Black Radio,” available online at Google Cultural Institute.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss