In the early `80s, a female Urban AC singer on Casablanca Records going by the name “Bobbi Walker” was introduced to Black radio legend Jack “The Rapper” Gibson at a notorious annual Black music industry celebration of his creation, “The Family Affair.” Little did either know that in the following decade, they would be reunited by mutual friend/record executive Eddie Pugh, and the former singer/now author Walker Smith would spend two years of Sundays capturing not only Jack’s story but in the voice that would make his biography, “Mello Yello,” sing.
Jack’s is not a life for cursory broad strokes. His full story must be read. To lead you in, what follows are reflections from the authoress who stepped away from her niche of historical black fiction (“The Color Line”) to lovingly render a life story that is all the way real.
A. Scott Galloway: How did you land the gig of writing Jack Gibson’s life story?
Walker Smith: When Eddie recommended me, I told him I don’t do bios but he insisted I at least meet with the man. I was living in New York in `98 so I drove to The Smithsonian in D.C. for a dinner with Jack and his wife where I did a short interview. I sent him a sample chapter written in first person. I also suggested that each chapter be named after a song from each period of his life. He loved that idea and hired me.
Smith: His estate went into probate. His share of the book transferred to his son and daughter. So a lot of time went by. Finally, I had just put out my third novel, “Bluestone Rondo.” I got a call from the son [Joseph] expressing a desire to get Jack’s book out. Then I heard from the daughter [Jill]. Though I knew it’s not a good idea to put out two books in the same year, I also knew while I had everyone on the same page, I needed to get the book out. We already sold out of the first pressing. Every city I go to, people truly love and remember this man.
Galloway: Beyond milestones like co-establishing the first Black radio station in America, WERD-AM in Atlanta, and interviewing both MLK and Malcolm X, his reminiscences of a unified Black music/radio industry are priceless.
Smith: One of the greatest things he did during his “Family Affairs” was invite all of the old-timers, recognize them with awards and make sure their history was told. He wanted to bridge that gap to make sure youngsters knew who opened the doors for them. When Hip Hop was on the rise, he insisted he had to include the rappers because that was the direction the music was going. Even after someone was shot at his convention, he stuck to that principle. He said, “How am I going to say I represent Black music then segregate it?”
Galloway: I appreciate how your writing keeps things moving through eight decades. What was the editing process like?
Smith: We had a couple of stories people objected to. Toward the end, Jack was a little bitter. Once you’re not the go-to guy anymore, all of a sudden people lose your number. He was upset when Sinbad had promised to put him on his TV show but couldn’t do it. [His daughter] Jill told me to add an editor’s note to say that Sinbad was with “daddy” on the day he died so they’d made-up after he told me that story.
Tom Joyner is another radio guy he mentored but there was a rift between them. I asked Jack, “Do you really want to burn bridges by telling on these people?” He said, “I told on myself so I’m tellin’ on everybody else. Don’t change anything!” Before the book went to print, I wrote Tom a long letter and asked if he wanted to share his side of the story. He never responded. Then the book came out and he emailed Jill saying “none of what Jack said was true.” I gave him an opportunity. There was nothing I could do once it was out.
Personally, I have nothing but respect for Tom Joyner. In a number of interviews people have asked me, “Who do you think is carrying on Jack’s tradition? In the book when you read all the charitable things that Jack did, Tom has taken that to new heights with this scholarships and foundations. Jack would be proud of that.
Galloway: Share a special memory of the time you spent with Jack.
Smith: After he read my final draft, he said, “You think they’ll make a movie about me? I already know who I want to play me! When I’m young and dashing, writing policy in Chicago and being the first Black guy on the radio, I want Mario Van Peebles. Then when I’m older having the ‘Family Affairs,’ Melvin Van Peebles can play me!”
The night I got the call from Jack’s wife that he passed, I tossed and turned before I finally drifted off. Suddenly, I heard Jack’s voice in my sleep. He was talkin’ `bout, “Yeah, when we were back at the Lord Calvert with Dinah Washington and Nat King Cole…” I ran into the living room, heart pounding, thoroughly expecting to see him standing there. I looked down…and my cat was lying on top of the foot pedal of my transcribing machine! For a minute and a half, though, I thought I was getting a visitation from the beyond! I looked up at the ceiling and said, “O.K., Jack, man. I know you had something to do with that!”
When we were working on the book, Jack was living in Las Vegas and was able to get back on the air. He was so happy…back in his element and sounding like he was 30 again. He was going through his treatments for cancer then, too, but I gotta tell you, when he passed away, he was a happy man. He had told his story and made me promise to get it out. When I got the first box and pulled a book out, it felt like he was right there looking over my shoulder. “See there, we did it, baby!”