On the evening of Saturday, October 22, fresh off his weekly Wake-Up Club radio show and just hours before heading back downtown to do his Sunday-afternoon program on WVAZ, the immortal Herb Kent proved to be mortal.
Instead of hearing Kent clown around, reminisce about run-ins with R&B royalty, and play the dozens with opponents in his Battle of the Best contest, the WVAZ audience listened as Joe Soto (sometimes doing a reverently silly approximation of Kent’s syrupy voice) and Kent’s production team turned over the airwaves to fans, colleagues, politicians, musicians, and other folks who’d encountered the Kool Gent during his staggering 72 years in broadcasting.
This resulted in some incredibly compelling radio, but because Kent’s career had been so long, each anecdote felt inadequate. While the decade or two (or three) that each guest mentioned in connection with the King of the Dusties was significant, their stories represented only small pieces of the south-side native’s epic career. He started with broadcast workshops as a teen at Hyde Park High School, enjoyed a career-making 1960s run on the Chess brothers’ WVON (where his Good Guys roster of radio DJs became the city’s most influential tastemakers during the Motown era), played new-wave hits popular in black clubs on his innovative early-80s show Stay Up and Punk Out (which influenced the emerging house-music scene), and ended this weekend still in the midst of his lengthy, popular run on V103.
Like fellow superveteran Art Laboe, who started marketing pop songs as “oldies” in 1959, Kent began spinning relatively recent R&B records as “dusties” during his stint at Harvey-based WBEE in the 50s. Unlike Laboe, whose dedication-heavy show charmed me every night when I lived in Los Angeles a few years back, Kent had a magically seductive vocal timbre, an impossibly smooth persona, and a wicked sense of humor that never dulled. Though both men went from peddlers of premature nostalgia to legitimate keepers of the old-school flame, Kent had something that set him apart from Laboe, or Dick Biondi, or Frankie Crocker, or Casey Kasem, or any other iconic old-time DJ—he never felt dated, never came off like a relic or a novelty. If you didn’t like hearing Kent banter and flirt and joke between songs, then enjoy your Spotify, because you don’t like radio. He was not only the Guinness record holder for longest on-air career (wresting the title from Paul Harvey, who like Kent was both a Chicagoan and a National Radio Hall of Fame inductee) but also, to my ears at least, the purest radio talent of all time.
Mr. Kent never demonstrated that purity better than the last time I encountered him. I’ve enjoyed a number of run-ins with my hero over the decades: he DJed my wedding; he was a guest a number of times on my cable-access kids’ show, Chic-a-Go-Go; my mother-in-law helped him get his honorary Stony Island street sign; and when I located the rarest and earliest Michael Jackson studio recording for a Reader story in 2009, the tape was on the same property as Dusty Stepper, Herb’s famed horse. So I was honored to be invited on his Sunday show earlier this year.
I’m not qualified to make any kind of medical diagnosis, but off the air Kent was definitely repeating questions and saying the same sentence over and over in ways I’ve encountered with relatives of a certain age. But when the studio’s on-air light was lit, this natural broadcaster was as sharp, funny, and professional as he’d ever been. It was simply amazing to witness radio magic conquer time and age and science.
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Kent’s on-air persona was unchanged, but there were a few off-air moments when I encountered something new. I’ve interviewed the man dozens of times for articles and books and TV, always getting valuable data. Yet because he lived through the devastating 1959 payola scandals, Kent always denied knowing anything about the corruption and under-the-table pay-to-play deals from the old days, even though they were common knowledge. But during commercials and news breaks on my final visit to Kent’s show, he let loose with raucous jokes about the debauchery he witnessed when radio ruled. No confessions, no dates or names, nothing quotable—just profoundly funny, unfiltered goofing around about an industry he’d known longer and better than almost anyone living today. He also, as always, teased me about (and mimicked) the high voice I do for Ratso, the puppet cohost of Chic-a-Go-Go. So on my last afternoon with Herbie Baby, I got to hear him talk in falsetto like a child and unleash some adult shit that made my puppet blush.
From the cradle to the grave, Herb Kent was, and continues to be, radio’s Greatest of All Time.