Remembering Hunter Hancock

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After his Aug. 22 death, obituaries for songwriter Jerry Lieber (“Poison Ivy,” “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” dozens more) noted that his fascination with rhythm and blues music began when he heard L.A. disc jockey Hunter Hancock.

Hancock, described as the West Coast’s Alan Freed for his influence at bringing black music to white teens, lived in L.A., but he closed out his life at Claremont Manor, where he died in 2004.

A revered music figure, he was revered at Claremont Manor too, where his photographs still adorn the walls and where his irrepressible good spirits enlivened the halls.
Hancock appeared in ads for the retirement home in which he declared cheerfully, “It would take three diesel train engines to pull me out of here.”

Almost sounds like a rhythm and blues song.

I met Hancock in late 2002 at Claremont Manor and published this feature story about him in the Daily Bulletin on Jan. 16, 2003. The full text is below.


“Music Man: Hunter Hancock was the DJ who put black sounds on L.A. airwaves in late 1940s”; published Jan. 16, 2003, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

By David Allen

As a disc jockey, Hunter Hancock gave black music a whole new spin.

In the late 1940s, Hancock, a Los Angeles DJ on KFVD-AM, abandoned jazz music for rhythm and blues — obscure records that had been heard only on jukeboxes in the black community, not on the public airwaves.

A white man, Hancock became a sensation among blacks. Not only did he turn obscure records into hits, the music he helped popularize paved the way for rock and roll and soul.

Today, 15 years after retiring, Hancock lives in Claremont in relative anonymity. But the 86-year-old remains proud of his legacy, especially his acceptance by those across the color barrier.

Not that listeners always realized he was white.

“Almost everyone thought I was black,” Hancock recalled. “But I began to make personal appearances in the black neighborhoods and the word spread pretty quickly. Then I was on TV and it was obvious I wasn’t black.”

Did anyone care? After the surprise wore off, no.

Said Hancock: “I think most black people were grateful someone was finally playing the music they liked.”

By Hancock’s reckoning, he was one of just three DJs in the whole country playing R&B in 1948, and perhaps first out of the gate. Seminal Cleveland DJ Alan Freed only switched from classical music to R&B in 1951, although as an East Coast-based figure Freed became far better known.

Aficionados speak of them in the same breath.

“What Alan Freed was to R&B on the East Coast, Hunter Hancock was to R&B on the West Coast,” wrote Los Angeles radio historian Don Barrett of laradio.com.

Hancock, Barrett wrote, exposed exciting music to “a new generation…ready to embrace anything but the prevailing pop standards of Perry Como, Doris Day and Patti Page.”

At first blush, Hancock would seem an unlikely man to bridge the racial divide.

He attended segregated schools in rural Texas and had little contact with blacks until moving to L.A. in 1943.

“I was really a novice when I came out here as far as race relations,” Hancock said. “But I learned very quickly.”

The Hancocks were a musical family: His mother taught piano and his father led a band and tuned pianos. His two brothers played instruments professionally, and Hancock played drums and sang in a vaudeville troupe.

Young Hunter’s plans for college were abandoned when his father died two weeks after high school graduation. Hancock pitched in to support his mother, working such jobs as chauffeur, bank clerk and salesman. At one point he read announcements over the loudspeaker in a department store.

A radio station in San Antonio hired him to read news and commercials, but he soon was transferred to a sister station in Laredo — a backwater that made him eager to try his luck elsewhere.

After twice failing his military draft physical because of a childhood hernia, he came to Los Angeles to seek his fortune.

A tip about a radio job led him to park himself on the front steps of KFVD the next morning so he could meet the station manager on his way in. He got the job.

At first he was playing jazz records on a modestly popular hourlong Sunday show called “Harlem Holiday,” meant to appeal to a black audience. That led to a daily half-hour show in 1947 called “Harlematinee,” which also featured jazz.

But in a fateful visit to the station, a record salesman for Modern Records told Hancock politely that he was all wet.

You’re not playing the records blacks like, he told Hancock, showing him sales charts from the Deep South. Hancock didn’t recognize a single record.

The salesman gave him two race records, the black music that later became known as rhythm and blues. Hancock found the records intriguing and played them during his show.

Response was immediate. More salesmen called on him. Within two weeks, “Harlematinee” was all race music.

“Without realizing it, I became the first disc jockey in the western United States to play R&B,” Hancock writes on his website.

“In no time the show was a huge hit. The station sold so many commercials that they had to add another half hour, then yet another hour, until I was finally doing 3 1/2 hours every day, Monday through Saturday, plus my jazz show, ‘Harlem Holiday,’ on Sundays.”

He opened shows like this: “From bebop to ballad, swing to sweet, and blues to boogie. Some of the very best in rhythm and blues records, featuring some of the greatest and most popular musicians, Negro singers and entertainers in the world.”

He was authentic. Where other DJs would play Ricky Nelson’s cover version of “I’m Walkin’,” Hancock would spin the Fats Domino original. He often interviewed the singers on the air. One such chat was with a promising newcomer named Nat King Cole.

Hancock would only play a record once, but sometimes that was enough. “Only You” by the Platters became a hit after he gave it an airing. Mercury Records was so grateful, the label gave him a gold record. It hangs on his wall today.

Growing up, his parents listened to classical music, and it’s still his favorite style today.

Playing jazz, and then R&B, came about by accident. Luck and timing played a big hand in his success, he admitted.

“It was a business with me,” he said. “Some of the records I liked. Some I didn’t. But that should never affect what you play. You play what the people want you to play.”

His approach worked. At one point in the 1950s, “ol’ H.H.,” as he was nicknamed, was broadcasting six hours a day, six days a week, with a half-hour gospel show on Sundays — gigs spread over three different stations.

Because KPOP, as KFVD had been renamed, went off the air at dusk, the afternoon host of “Harlematinee” was allowed to take nighttime jobs at other stations.

Sundays he had a gospel show on KGER. But he was best known for his nightly Top 20 show on KGFJ, “Huntin’ With Hunter,” hosted with his popular sidekick, Margi Williams. The show was recorded from Hancock’s Hollywood office, which was decorated with a bearskin and other hunting trophies. (Yes, Hunter was a hunter.)

But Hancock wasn’t limited to radio.

In 1955 he hosted a half-hour TV show, “Rhythm and Bluesville,” on KNXT, featuring such guests as Duke Ellington, Little Richard and Fats Domino. Ahead of its time, the show lasted only 17 weeks due to a lack of advertising.

“Most major companies didn’t want to have anything to do with a black music program. So we went off the air,” Hancock said. “Today it would be 100 percent different.”

He also hosted sock hops and concerts in theaters and high school gyms around the city. His audience wasn’t just blacks — whites and Chicanos attended too.

At sock hops he would spin records. At concerts he would emcee as singers such as Tina Turner and James Brown lip-synched their records.

He was voted the most popular DJ in Los Angeles by the Sentinel, a black newspaper.

Whites weren’t always appreciative.

“People would call in and call me a nigger-lover,” Hancock said matter-of-factly. “During the (Watts) riots I brought a shotgun to the station. Not because of the black people, but because of the white people who cursed me up one side and down the other for playing black music.”

His influence probably peaked in the late 1950s. The initial flush of rock died and the airwaves were filled with teen pop.

KPOP changed to a country music format. KGFJ changed too. Hancock went on a hunting trip and returned to find he could no longer choose what records to play.

“After the payola scandal, the station got worried about us selecting our records. So they decided they would select the records,” Hancock said.

He continued at KGFJ until 1968, when health problems and disgust over the loss of control led him to retire.

Thanks to savings from the years when his show had plenty of sponsors, Hancock has had a comfortable retirement. With his second wife, Dorothy, he hunted and camped throughout the United States. He also indulged his other hobby, landscape photography.

They moved in 1995 to Claremont Manor, an upscale retirement community, because Dorothy was showing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. She died in 1999. They were married 42 years.

Today he lives independently in an apartment at Claremont Manor, which uses him as a spokesman. His beaming face was featured in newspaper ads with his colorful endorsement: “I love living at Claremont Manor so much I tell people it would take three diesel train engines to pull me out of here.”

Around the retirement complex he’s known as a joker who spreads cheer and lends a helping hand. He’s active in theater, sings in the chorus and spends hours each week reading into a tape recorder for the blind and dyslexic — his latest form of announcing.

His photographs hang throughout the common rooms, and he’s taking pictures of all 400 residents for a yearbook.

Residents know him only by reputation — no blacks live there. (“No one wants to be the first,” said Hancock, who’s tried recruiting blacks from his church.)

But one black woman on the staff used to be a listener, and some of the entertainers who come there to perform are also oldtime fans, program director Rachelle Morris said.

“A choral group came in. Many of them were black. They knew who he was. They were from Washington, Oregon and San Diego,” Morris said.

Another guest entertainer, upon hearing Hancock’s name, immediately told Morris: “Oh, ‘Huntin’ With Hunter.’ ”

Hancock made a living playing records, not crusading for civil rights. But he speaks with feeling about the blacks he’s met who did him a good turn.

Margi Williams, his on-air partner, had his complete trust. She translated black slang for him so he didn’t play any off-color records. Once, when she filled in for him for a week, she became ill on the fourth day but refused to go to the hospital until Hancock got back because he was counting on her.

As Dorothy’s mental state deteriorated, she once wandered away from Claremont Manor. A passing motorist who saw the disoriented woman stopped to help her. He was black. It turned out he was a fan of Hancock’s, too.

“There’s a lot of damn good people in the world no matter what color they are,” Hancock said.

He doesn’t know if the records he played had any impact other than entertainment. But he allows: “Perhaps getting white kids interested in black music didn’t hurt the desegregation movement.”

Even out of the music business, the old DJ still cares about harmony.

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  • Bob House

    Nice column — I had missed it the first time around.

    Just throwing our a few other early So Cal DJ names to see what other readers might remember:

    Huggy Boy
    Art Laboe
    Emperor Bob Hudson
    Bill Balance
    The Real Don Steele
    Robert W. Morgan
    B. Mitchell Reed
    Shadoe Stevens
    Al Jarvis
    Humble Harv

  • Debra MacLaughlan-Dumes

    To add to Bob House’s list:

    Dave Hull
    Sam Riddle
    Reb Foster
    Bob Eubanks
    Jim Hawthorne
    Jimmy O’Neill

    I have a blog that deals with a lot of old L.A. radio history, especially as it relates to KPAS/KXLA/KRLA located at 1110 on your antique radio dial:

    http://krlabeat.sakionline.net/blog.html

    [I had no idea. Way to go, Debra. -- DA]

  • John Rieth

    I was a Hudson’s commando!