In a previous article about disc jockey Terry Knight, I referenced his job as Jack the Bellboy at radio station WJBK in Detroit. I seemed odd to have a jock called Jack the Bellboy. In fact, into the early sixties, a cast of Detroit DJs were known as Jack the Bellboy. The original Jack the Bellboy was one Ed McKenzie. Later, when McKenzie decided to move his Bellboy show across town to a competing radio station, WJBK owner Storer Broadcasting went to court to retain exclusivity of the coveted Bellboy show. I was curious as to why anyone would fight about a radio show that relied heavily on the word “bellboy.” The article below explains the appeal of the jock known as Jack the Bellboy.
I had it all wrong and didn’t understand the concept of “Jack the Bellboy.” The origin of that DJ name takes us back to the mid-’40s, shortly after the end of WW II. The term “rock ‘n’ roll” (a phrase dating back to the 1930s in the African-American community) had yet to go mainstream. The songs that eventually morphed into rock music were initially referred to by radio deejays and promoters as “race” music or sometimes “jump blues.” Many parents in the U.S. were conservative and didn’t want their kids listening to R&B music. In retrospect, some of the titles and themes of the early R&B/blues tunes would startle a parent. There were suggestive and bawdy titles and themes, although obviously not all of the titles or records raised eyebrows. I am not suggesting that “J the BB” played all of these records. But here is a short list of pioneering R&B singles and it includes songs recorded by male artists, female artists and singing groups: Long John Blues; Lollipop Mama; It Ain’t the Meat (It’s the Motion); Long Slidin’ Thing; Work With Me Annie; Annie Had A Baby; and one of the biggest hits of the day Sixty Minute Man (click here to listen) by Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Parents were worried that exposure to unwholesome music could lead to youthful crimes of moral turpitude.
That was the social setting in the mid-’40s, when the Jack the Bellboy radio show was created. The idea for the title and the theme began with a record: In 1940, Lionel Hampton released an instrumental (more jazz than R&B or blues), called Jack the Bellboy (click here to listen). Nat King Cole covered it and in 1947 another rendition called Jivin’ with the Bellboy by Illinois Jacquet was released. Ultimately, the concept of the Jack the Bellboy radio show had nothing at all to do with hotel employees packing around other people’s luggage. “J the BB” was all about presenting the cool music that bellboys were assumed to be jivin’ to.
Enter Detroit broadcaster Ed McKenzie. In 1945, he appropriated the Jack the Bellboy tune and it became the theme for his new radio program. The playlist for Jack the Bellboy’s late afternoon show featured fresh and different music that was largely ignored by other Detroit radio stations. He targeted a younger audience with a mix of pop hits of the day, big bands, jazz, blues, boogie-woogie and early R&B. Clif Martin, who lived in Detroit at the time, told me: “McKenzie’s Bellboy show began before rock music came along. In the beginning, he played ’40s bands and singers and a bit of what was then considered to be progressive jazz. As time moved on into the ’50s and beyond, R&B, the Motown Sound, and rock music became more commonplace on the Bellboy show.” Prominent performers, often featured in the early days of McKenzie’s radio show (and on his TV show Ed McKenzie’s Saturday Party), included Frank Sinatra, Spike Jones, Benny Goodman, and pioneering African-American artists such as Sarah Vaughn, Louis Jordan, Lavern Baker, Nat King Cole, Carmen McRae, Roy Hamilton, and Della Reese.
Keep in mind that this show began in 1945, so McKenzie’s program was innovative and ahead of its time. As a comparison, in 1945 Alan Freed was new to radio and his “Moondog” fame didn’t arrive until the early ’50s. Dewey Phillips didn’t get on-air in Memphis until 1949. It was 1954 when Phillips became the first DJ to interview Elvis and the first to play Elvis’ debut record: That’s All Right b/w Blue Moon of Kentucky. Author and Detroit radio historian, David Carson, in his book Grit, Noise and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ‘n’ Roll, described Ed McKenzie and the early days of his Jack the Bellboy radio show:
“J the BB” was created at WJBK, but in February 1952 Ed moved across town to WXYZ radio. He thought he was taking the Bellboy show with him. Since McKenzie had invented the show, he believed that he owned it. Storer Broadcasting had other idea. They said they owned it and the company took the case to court. In August 1952, the court sided with Storer: The show belonged to originating station WJBK and not to anyone else. Legally, it was decided that the station owned the rights to the show. McKenzie lost in court, because he developed the character while in the employ of WJBK.
Synopsis of court case: “The program was presented on WJBK, during McKenzie’s regular workday, as a regular assigned duty. For McKenzie’s services in preparing and presenting the program, the selling corporation (WJBK) compensated him by regular salary and talent payment commissions on advertising, without any special agreement as to ownership. As a radio program, its name and the material and scripts thereof, are written and developed by an employee during the course of his employment for his employer, using his employer’s radio facilities, without any special agreement as to ownership, ownership vests in and becomes the property of the employer. Consequently, the name and program in question were at all times the property of the employer radio station.”
The court also noted the financial success of the “J the BB” program: “As of September 1946, the show had nominal value. By February 1947, its popularity and value grew. WJBK’s revenue for the first six months of ’47 exceeded total income for the preceding year. McKenzie’s income tripled in that time period and the court determined that the program was of substantial value to its owner radio station WJBK.”
After winning the lawsuit, WJBK shelved the Jack the Bellboy name for five years before bringing it back. Although the name had continued commercial value, for Detroit residents of a certain age there was only one Jack the Bellboy and that man was Ed McKenzie! Since Storer Broadcasting retained ownership of the name Jack the Bellboy, from 1957 into the early ’60s, the station enlisted several other jocks to serve as Bellboys: Tom Clay, Harvey Kaye, Dave Shafer, Terry Knight and Robin Walker. Author David Carson, told me: “When he was at WJBK, and for six months at WXYZ, Ed McKenzie only identified himself as ‘Jack the Bellboy.’ The DJs at WBJK who came later used their own names in combination; for example, ‘This is Dave Shafer on the Jack the Bellboy Show,’ or ‘This is Jack the Bellboy Harvey Kaye.’ The “J the BB” nickname, a term of endearment in Detroit, strictly referenced Ed McKenzie in the early ’50s and it was not carried on with the jocks that followed.” Losing the big court case was a blow, but that didn’t mean McKenzie’s radio career was stalled. David Carson explained:
“Ed moved his afternoon show to Detroit’s WXYZ in February 1952, but six months later, there was the lawsuit filed by WJBK that prevented him from using his Jack the Bellboy nom d’air. Despite the loss, McKenzie’s popularity grew even greater. By 1954, he was hosting a big two-hour music variety show called ‘Ed McKenzie’s Saturday Party’ which aired from noon to two on channel 7 television. Ed would ask the teenage audience their opinion on new records and have them vote on a talent contest each week. Besides appearances by pop and rock artists, ranging from Eddie Fisher to Chuck Berry, McKenzie also featured many of the great names in jazz on this influential program.” (From Grit, Noise and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ‘n’ Roll).
At the end of the ’50s, McKenzie became mired in controversy that made him unpopular with many of his radio colleagues. In 1959, as a means of protesting payola and other trends in the radio business, he resigned from Detroit’s WXYZ. He was fed up with radio:“disc jockeys are playing too many commercials and lots of bad music because they are being illegally paid to do so.” Detroit daily newspapers, and even LIFE Magazine, published his critical commentary. It ran in the November 23, 1959 issue of LIFE, which was available at newsstands only two days after Alan Freed was fired from WABC. The payola scandal was heating up and the public hearings that rocked the industry were only three months away. Understandably, many radio professionals of the era felt betrayed by McKenzie’s claim that almost every deejay of significance was illegally pocketing money, accepting free merchandise, or receiving sexual favors.
There is another eye-catching statement in the article. Clear back in 1959, McKenzie said he was earning $60,000 a year as a DJ at WXYZ. If that sum is adjusted for inflation, in current dollars that would be nearly $518,000. Not a bad jock salary 60 years ago! The LIFE article is lengthy, but here’s an excerpt:
Edmond T. McKenzie, has worked in broadcasting in Detroit since 1937. His career, income and popularity had gone steadily upward until he quit big time radio in disgust some eight months ago. Here he tells what made him want to leave.
“Eight months ago I quit a $60,000-a-year disk jockey job on Detroit radio station WXYZ. I could not stand present-day “formula radio“ — its bad music, its incessant commercials in bad taste, its subservient to ratings and its pressure of payola. Because of the charts that are put together by music trade publications (Billboard; Cashbox) that rate the popularity of records, I had to play music on my program that I would never have played otherwise. And the charts are phony because of the most disgusting part of the radio industry — payola. Payola really got started about 10 years ago. Until then the record business was controlled by the big companies by Decca, Columbia, RCA-Victor and Capitol. When the obscure little record companies started up and begin turning out offbeat records by unknown artists, they looked for a way to get their product distributed and played. The answer was payola: offering disk jockeys cash to play records they wouldn’t ordinarily play.
I never took payola because it was completely dishonest, but I was often approached by small companies who were having a tough time getting their stuff on the air. They would say, “Well, how much do you want to ride this record for the next three weeks?” They might offer $100 for a one week ride, which would have meant playing the record several times a day to make it popular. Many disk jockeys are on the weekly payroll of five to ten record companies, which can mean a side income of $25,000 to $50,000 a year. The payment is by cash in an envelope. Phil Chess, co-owner of Chess, Checker and Argo Records, told me that when he called on certain disk jockeys to promote his records, the first question some jocks would ask was, “How many dead presidents are there for me?” Dead presidents means the president on bills. A $20 bill is a “Jackson.”
McKenzie didn’t abandon radio altogether, instead he banished himself from major market jobs where he was bound to run into “formula radio.” He told the press: “I have joined a group of other radio mavericks at WQTE, a small daytime station between Detroit-Monroe. On this station I feel like I can honestly entertain people without the excessive commercialism and I don’t have to play any music unless I think it’s good. The station is only 500 watts, but it’s honest.” I don’t know everything there is to know about the man, his career and life story, but the original Jack the Bellboy (Ed McKenzie) passed away in 2001 at age 90.
QZVX was initially unable to locate archival audio or video of Ed McKenzie on-air. Further research led to the 1951 motion picture Disc Jockey. McKenzie briefly appeared as himself. Other popular ’50s era major market DJs appeared as well. The filmmaker anticipated free publicity when the 28 air personalities in the cast “talked up” the movie when it played at local theaters. What follows might be the only remaining audio or video clip of Ed McKenzie. David Carson told me: “I searched high and low for any clips of Ed to include in a Detroit radio montage that I put together for the launch of my first book, ‘Rockin’ Down the Dial,’ twenty years ago. But I came up empty handed — even Ed who had some wonderful photo scrapbooks hadn’t saved any audio!”
McKenzie appears 29 seconds into this short clip, but you should watch all of it. Every one of these guys was an undisputed giant on the AM dial back in 1951.
Finally, the next audio tracks (3 minutes total running time) are the voices of three of the WJBK “Bellboys” who followed in Ed McKenzie’s footsteps. The first DJ is Tom Clay (circa 1957), followed by Jack Shafer (circa 1962), and finally Terry Knight’s first night as “J the BB” (circa 1963).