When does a disc jockey (DJ) attain the status of greatness?
Perhaps it is when his or her personality and voice are remembered years after they have gone off the air, and long after their last record spins at the party you attended.
Across the U.S., DJ’s, including radio personalities and those who provide entertainment at clubs and events, have left a major impression on listeners in the African-American community.
Longtime DJ Thomas “Sparkle Soxx” Griffin, who has been in the business since the early 1970s, noted that during that era DJ’s were like local celebrities.
“I used to always say a DJ was two notches below a rock star,” Griffin said. “That was when DJs had the opportunity to exhibit their personality and choose what they wanted to play. Therefore, the better selection you had of music and the better the personality you had, the larger your fan base would grow.”
However, Griffin asserted, over the years national corporations began to buy locally owned radio stations, and decided to play the same rotation of the same songs every 90 minutes, removing a lot of the creative space DJs had.
Many corporate station owners, he added, did not want to let charismatic radio personalities flourish because they didn’t want to pay them more money.
“What they try to do, in my opinion, is really squash the DJ’s creativity and growth,” Griffin said.
Indeed, some listeners may lament the changes in radio that have occurred over the years, but they can also recall fond memories of DJs whose on-air phrases and style they will never forget.
Between the 1970s and early 2000s, various radio formats were dominated by Black radio personalities such as Griffin; Vycki Buchanon, “The First Lady of WTLC”; “Dangerous” Derrick Jones; Spider Harrison; “Super” Jay Johnson; Tony Lamont; Geno Shelton; and Kyle Street.
With great anticipation, listeners would tune in to local specialized radio formats, waking up with Guy Black’s Breakfast Club in the morning and ending their evening with Jerry Wade’s Soft Touch (now the Quiet Storm).
Some personalities made their start as party DJs, while others received their first jobs playing mostly R&B music on WTLC-FM (105.7), which first went on the air in 1968.
Popular African-American DJs could be found in other genres, such as blues with Lonnell “King Ro” Conley, and in the jazz market with Chuck Workman, Ralph Adams (WICR-FM), and Kelly Vaughn on the former smooth jazz station WTPI-FM (107.9).
Today, some of the veteran DJs, such as Griffin, Harris, Lamont, Shelton and Vaughn, are still active on radio as on-air personalities or event promoters.
Others have established careers outside of Indianapolis, most notably Johnson and Street, who work in Chicago, Buchannon, who moved to Las Vegas and Harrison, who relocated to California.
Griffin began his career hosting a Christmas party in 1973, and was hired by WTLC-FM (105.7) four years later. Between various stints of working at WTLC, Griffin also appeared on WZPL-FM (99.5) in the late 1980s, Hoosier Radio in the 1990s and WPZZ-FM (95.9).
Like many DJs of his generation, Griffin, 58, shows no signs of leaving the field.
“I really hadn’t planned to be in the business this long,” Griffin said. “I always used to joke about one day being a 60-year-old DJ, and it appears that I will be one of them.”
In an earlier interview, longtime WTLC radio personality and promoter Geno Shelton spoke for many DJs of his era when describing what he has enjoyed about his work.
“I’ve always loved music and have always liked to entertain people,” said Shelton, who has been a fixture on radio since the mid 80s. “I don’t ask people to just come to a party or to just hear some records. I want whatever I’m involved in to be a complete experience for everybody.”