Byron Laursen Interview
Wolfman Jack A Tribute
In June of 1995, famed disc jockey Wolfman Jack published his autobiography, "Have
Mercy!, Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Soil Animal" (Warner Books).
Sadly, Wolfman Jack passed away on July 1, 1995. He was 57 years young.
His autobiography is more than just his story. It is a story of optimism,
aimed at changing how we view ourselves and our world. For that reason,
it should be read by everyone.
Writer Byron Laursen co-authored "Have Mercy!," a book by the
way, that received critical praise from the literary elite.
We spoke with Byron Laursen about the "Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal" — Mr.
Q. How did you and Wolfman Jack decide to collaborate on this book?
Did he contact you? Did you contact him?
A. I contacted him, but I knew him from quite a ways back. In '79 I believe
it was, I went to work for a magazine company in Los Angeles and it
just turned out, I didn't know it until a month or two had gone by, but
the guy who was the publisher of the magazine was Wolfman's nephew. His
picture is in the book. His name is Randy Achee. This is the magazine called "Ampersand," which
was for college students. It was sort of entertainment related, that would
get inseted into college newspapers, on campus. I was the music editor
first, and later on I became Editor-in-Chief. We were in the same office
building as Wolf. (Laughs.) At first we were too poor to have our own Xerox
machine. So, every time Xeroxing had to be done, I had to go on the elevator
up to the ninth floor and do it in Wolfman's office. Then after awhile,
a space became available so that the magazine and Wolfman Jack Productions
were all on the same basic big office suite. I got to know him then, and
both realized we were real music heads. One day he saw me coming into work
with a "Clypton Shaneer Zydeco" album and he got all excited.
He said, I worked with that guy. I said, "Well, I was just at the record
store and they had two of 'em. If you want, I'm gonna go back in a couple
of days and I'll pick it up for you." So, we just got a little bit
of a friendship going 'cause we both just loved roots music, blues, and
rhythm and blues. We knew each other a little bit socially. Wolf was genuinely
a great person to be around. He always used to call me "The Hardest
Working Man in Show Business" which I'm sure he called lots of people
that, 'cause it was funny. (Laughs.) The magazine went out of business and
I was off doing other things. I wrote a couple of books, apart from this.
I wrote a book called "Showtime" with Pat Riley, the NBA coach
when he was with the Knicks. I wrote a book called "The Winner Within" with
him. After I finished the first book with Riley, I was thinking what would
the next project be? I thought how about Wolfman. He had actually always
wanted to sell his life story to the movies and he wanted to be more involved
with movies. He'd done "American Graffiti" of course. He did small
things in about three or four movies; a horror movie called "Motel
Hell" with Rory Galhoun, a very gruesome thing. He did some T.V., some "Battlestar
Galactica" episodes. He always kind of wanted to expand on that. Suddenly
it dawned on me that the best way to make people aware of what an interesting
life he had would be to write a book. He was real happy I was into it. Both
of the books I did with Riley were best sellers. So, it was like a natural
combination. It was really close to the Fourth of July in '92, I was living
in L.A. at the time, and he had already moved to North Carolina by then.
But, he was out in L.A. because he was doing some gigs concurrent with the
Fourth of July. We got together and just started talking, and fortunately
I did bring along a tape recorder. He told me the story that we used to
start off the book with, the Ku Klux Klan and Shreveport, burning crosses
on his lawn. I thought that was a great start. Then the next time we talked
about the Mexico trip.
Q. So, basically he talked his story into a tape recorder that you brought
A. Yeah, and sometimes we did it over the telephone. Then, quite a lot
of the story came together because he put me in touch with people that had
been his partner or co-workers at different times. I just went around talking
to everybody I could, here and there. Chuck Berry briefly, one time backstage,
one of the guys who was Wolfs manager for a time, and put all the pieces
together. It kind of took a long while because it's an interesting
contrast. His career is based on playing a cool, hip, loose, swinging guy.
He really had a hard time remembering or even wanting to remember a lot
of stuff especially his childhood 'cause it was so painful.
Q. How long did it take to put this book together?
A. About two and a half, almost three years.
Q. In general, what was his mood as he was discussing his life with
you? Was he happy? Was he sad?
A. You know, it really varied. The childhood stuff was really sad for
him. We'd do it awhile and he'd want to quit. He'd say this is bumming me
out. The other stuff was mostly just fine, although his memory was really
shot full of holes. I'd have to interview the other people and come back
and say he told me a story about how you and he did this or that and then
he'd go, "Oh, yeah," and then he'd fill it in and have more details.
By and large he had a pretty terrible memory. It really should've taken
about one year to do this thing, but it really took a long time. I actually
wrote the book all the way through at least twice. I write it and sent it
to him and he started reading it into tape recorders and add a little bit
more or correct something. Especially this childhood stuff you could hear
this thump on the table and realize it was a glass of whiskey and he'd get
a little bit drunker as the tape rolled on.
Q. Did you learn anything about Wolfman Jack that you didn't know when
you started this book?
A. Oh yeah, quite a lot. I knew some general outlines of his life. I sort
of knew that he would've brushed up against anybody that's anybody in rock
'n' roll but he really knew just about everybody, and in many cases, really,
really well. There are a few stories I couldn't put in the book. He was
very nervous about what he called the "Code of the Road," and
not telling things on people that they wouldn't want told. Almost all the
anecdotes, I wouldn't say they're tame, are funny, they're all so benevolent,
or the joke is on Wolf more than anybody else.
Q. I was surprised to learn that Wolfman Jack didn't make all that much
money for a man in his position.
A. He made a lot of money when he was running the station in L.A., XERB,
but he was blowing it as fast as it came in. To be honest, a certain amount
went up his nose. One of the things that I really loved was that story when
he did the gig in Washington, D.C. with the dedication of the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial. He just threw the money out into the crowd. His nephew
told me some stories too about pretty much the same thing, driving downtown
with him. One time he had ordered a fur coat for his wife for Christmas
and Randy and Wolf drove downtown. Anytime they'd pull up at a stoplight
and people would go, "Hey, that's Wolfman Jack!" he would just
fling dollar bills out the window, and pull away from the light in a cloud
of greenbacks. He really did that stuff.
Q. Did he die broke?
A. I'm not sure. He was still wanting to hustle gigs. He was very pleased
that things were on the rise, with the book coming out. For a long time,
almost a year before the book came out; Dick Clark had been pestering him
about the film rights. It's not settled yet, but it looks like Dick Clark
will be buying the film rights. He started that radio show from D.C. and
that was really spreading out. In fact, the week he died, they finally,
I don't know how many markets they were in, about 30 or 35, they had finally
gotten two major markets, L.A. and San Diego, they were in more medium sized
markets, and had also gotten dropped by two stations, one in Missoula and
one in Tulsa I think for being too blue, too risqué, which I'm sure
would have pleased him if he'd ever heard that. He was still trying to get
one more good burst of energy in his career and he was feeling like it was
right about to happen. He was really feeling like stuff was right around
the bend for him.
Q. The day he died, what happened?
A. He always traveled with Lonnie (Napier — Wolfman's friend and
business associate) and Lonnie dropped him off. He came into this old wood-framed
house, up the stairs to the top of the stairs, and he was carrying like
a satchel with some of his shirts and traveling gear. He saw Lou (his
wife) coming forward to him and said, "One more time" and then
opened his arms to embrace her I guess, and had his heart attack then, dropped
the bag and just collapsed.
Q. Did his wife call 911?
A. As I understand it, they did call an ambulance and I guess attempts
were made to revive him, but it was futile. He had had warnings from doctors.
In fact he had lost about 40 pounds at that time.
Q. He'd also given up smoking didn't he?
A. No he didn't unfortunately. That would've been great. It was funny,
he wanted to stop smoking, and yet he didn't. He didn't want that taken away
from him. He was very compulsive, but, in a way that’s what made him
what he was, because he was so compulsive about the music he loved that he
wrapped his whole life around it. But, he was also compulsive about steak
and eggs for breakfast and a couple packs of Camels a day, too. I’m
just grateful that I got to be with him as much time as I did, and grateful
that he got to get around the country and get a lot of loving response from
all the people who came to the book signings.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved