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WVON celebrates 50th birthday with celebs, pols

Toni Braxtperforms during WVON 50th celebratiparty Chicago Theatre Saturday April 6 2013  | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Toni Braxton, performs during WVON 50th celebration party at the Chicago Theatre Saturday April 6, 2013 | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 7, 2013 12:18AM

Happy birthday, WVON.

Celebrities, politicians and classic WVON radio personalities gathered Saturday to celebrate the venerable radio station’s 50th anniversary.

The local African-American radio station was hailed as an influential part of Chicago’s cultural and political history.

“WVON has a been a cultural anchor for this city for 50 years and really for the nation,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told reporters as he arrived at the gala.

The celebration, at the Chicago Theatre, included a performance by singer Toni Braxton to a packed house.

Among guests in the audience were filmmaker George Lucas and his fiance Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments; Melody Spann-Cooper, the station’s president and chairman; Pervis “The Blues Man” Spann; Gov. Pat Quinn; Kenny Williams, a White Sox VP; comedian Dick Gregory and actor Robert Townsend . Actress Tracee Ellis Ross was co-host of the program.

WVON is found at 1690 AM, and the call letters of the talk station stand for “Voice of a Nation,” but they used to stand for “Voice of the Negro.” The station started broadcasting in 1963 and was originally owned by the Chess family, the owners of Chess Records.

Jackson said the station helped propel the historic political campaigns of President Barack Obama and the late Mayor Harold Washington.

But the station also “broke” into the music scene many now-classic artists, including The Temptations and Aretha Franklin, among many others, said Herb Kent, known as the “cool gent” and one of the station’s original broadcasters.

Jackson said historic news also was reported first by WVON.

“When Dr. [Martin Luther] King was killed, this was the first station in the nation to break the news,” he said.

The event’s theme, “IMPACT 50,” was meant to showcase all that and more.

For Townsend, a Chicago native, the station, in a crucial way, inspired his Hollywood career.

Townsend said he heard Kent announce The Temptations had broken up. Years later, still curious about why the Motown group had split, Townsend directed and appeared in “The Five Heartbeats,” a movie about a vocal group not unlike The Temptations.

“The soundtrack of my life came from WVON,” he said, adding. “WVON changed my life with one announcement . . . I wanted to know what happened behind the scenes to that group, and that film became ‘The Five Heartbeats.’”

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