WVON marks 50 years as a voice for Chicago’s black community
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter/@cstdhoekstra April 2, 2013 8:55PM
Pervis Spann (from left), Herb Kent and E. Rodney Jones pose with other WVON staffers in 1967.
Updated: May 4, 2013 6:16AM
This is the thing to know about AM radio in the 1960s. The echo.
No Chicago radio station had more of a ripple effect than WVON-AM.
The voices of the on-air “Good Guys” — Moses “Lucky” Cordell, Herb “The Cool Gent” Kent, Pervis “The Blues Man” Spann and others — spoke with empowering warmth. If they sounded like they were in a narrow gold mine, there was light at the end of that tunnel.
The bass on the 1960s hits of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly and the Family Stone reverberated across Chicago. The 1450 frequency of WVON was a fancy number if it had been a North State Street address. But WVON-AM was the voice of an emerging black community.
WVON stood for “Voice of the Negro.”
It is a cultural giant.
WVON’s 50th anniversary will be celebrated this weekend in no small fashion:
† Neo-soul vibes player Roy Ayers headlines an anniversary party at 7 p.m. Friday at the Alhambra Palace, 1240 W. Randolph St. Jazz singer Joan Collaso will also appear. ($50, www.wvon.com, 773-336-3435)
† The “IMPACT 50” gala features six-time Grammy winner Toni Braxton at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Chicago Theater, 175 N. State ($100-$500, www.ticketmaster.com, 800-745-3000). Also included will be the King High School Marching Band and a chronological dance routine choreographed by Andrea Kelly, former wife of R&B singer R. Kelly. Scheduled speakers include the Rev. Jesse Jackson — who cut his oratorial chops at WVON — comedian Dick Gregory, actor Robert Townsend, TV host Tavis Smiley and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
WVON is now found at 1690 AM, and the call letters of the independently owned talk station stand for “Voice of the Nation.” Melody Spann-Cooper is president and chairman. Her father, Pervis, is battling Alzheimer’s disease but is expected to make a short appearance at the Chicago Theatre.
The 1450 frequency once was WHFC, spinning hits from Germany and Lithuania. In 1963, Chess Records owners Leonard and Phil Chess acquired the station as a way to promote the black artists they were recording. (An FM station was thrown in for free. That turned out to be WSDM, which during the 1970s was Chicago’s first all-female smooth jazz station, now WLUP.)
Like a shrewd baseball general manager, Leonard Chess drafted the best on-air talent he could find, ranging from the late “Mad Lad” program director E. Rodney Jones to talk show host Wesley South, whose “Hotline” is regarded as the first African-American radio talk show.
WVON was powered by only 1,000 watts a day and 250 watts at night, but its high ratings caught the attention of rock ’n’ roll giants.
“WLS [then ‘the Big 89’] was saying, ‘Who are these guys?’ ” recalled the 84-year-old Cordell, who assumed the late morning shift when he came to WVON in 1965. “We were first in certain time periods. Ridiculous. Young white people were becoming more aware of black music. And other stations didn’t play Muddy Waters.” Berry Gordy debuted most of his Motown tunes at WVON, because the station was about the echo of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”
“We don’t have the ratings the advertisers look for,” Spann-Cooper said during a roundtable discussion with Cordell and current morning host Matt McGill at the WVON studios, 1000 E. 87th St. “Here is what I want to devote the next part of my professional career to: African-Americans have allowed themselves to be mainstreamed. We’ve lost our authentic culture.
“So when you get to a station like WVON, which is trying to educate and empower this community, you fight with your relevance. To many we are a monolithic community that has been gobbled up by the broader community in a way the Hispanic community has not. The gay and lesbian community has managed to carve their niche. The Asian community does it. But for some reason African-Americans don’t seem like a valued target group because we are now general market consumers.
“If we are going to survive, we have to get back to that which is authentically ours.”
Spann-Cooper’s father operated from a point of connective ownership similar to the Chess Brothers’.
Pervis Spann produced rhythm and blues shows at the Regal Theater. In 1963 Spann and Jones bought the Burning Spear nightclub, 5523 S. State. After a 1973 Led Zeppelin gig at the Chicago Stadium, Robert Plant found his way to the Spear to jam with soul singer Otis Clay.
WVON is managed by Midway Broadcasting Corp., formed by South and Pervis Spann in 1979. (After the 1969 death of Leonard Chess, the Chess family sold the station).
Midway leases the signal from current owner Clear Channel Communications with an option to buy.
“This place is different than Clear Channel,” said Spann-Cooper, 48. “It is important that small independent businesses survive in this country. Everything can’t be owned by Bonneville and Clear Channel.” WVON has a staff of 42 people.
McGill, 49, grew up at 81st and Drexel listening to WVON. His father, Winston McGill, was president of the 3rd Ward Democratic Party. “The  election of Harold Washington gave WVON an opportunity to teach a civic lesson about politics and power, block by block, black alderman to black alderman,” McGill said. “The power of me registering five more people to come out and vote. That moved policy to where we elected our first black president.”
Today’s socially keen WVON talk shows include legal advice on “The Cliff Kelley Show” which airs from 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dr. Ian Smith speaks about diet and health reguarly on McGill’s show.
“We stand on the shoulders of the ‘Good Guys,’ ” McGill said. “But these weren’t ordinary shoulders. These shoulders were attached to bodies of strength. To think that WVON has lasted 50 years? You have conglomerates that have filed for bankruptcy, gotten rid of the personalties and just played music because it is the smart financial thing to do.
“Yet, we are still on the air delivering a message.”
Spann-Cooper admitted WVON does not have young demographics. She said, “Young for us is 30. We have an acquired listenership. When I was young I didn’t like to watch the news. But I will eventually get them.
“How many Lil Wayne songs can they listen to?”