Several years ago I was in the WVON-AM south side office of Pervis "The Blues Man" Spann when he called his rhythm and blues singing friend Bobby "Blue" Bland on speaker phone.
"Spann was the man!," Bland declared from East Memphis, Tenn. "He played everybody--blues, soul, rhythm and blues. He had a radio station WXSS-AM, 1030 in Memphis that gave competition to the stations around here."
Spann looked around his dusty office. He did not smile.
He looked foreword as he always did and said, "I am the first black American that built a 50,000-watt radio station on United States soil. And I built it in Memphis. It was like having twin boys (with WVON). This was in the 1980s. I could listen to my station in Memphis riding up and down the Dan Ryan expressway.
"Then I'd ride all over my native Mississippi listening to my station (He was born in rural Itta Bena, Miss.). Made me feel good. That's the reason, Bobby Bland, I didn't have no girl friends..........."
.......Pervis Spann is now 80. He is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, but is expected to make a short appearance when the historic WVON ("Voice of the Negro") celebrates it's 50th anniversary at The IMPACT 50" Grand Gala at 8 p.m. April 6 at the Chicago Theater, 175 N. State ($100-$500). Six-tme Grammy winner Toni Braxton headlines, supported by King High School Marching Band and a chronological dance routine choreographed by Andrea Kelly, former wife of R&B singer R. Kelly.
Here's some vintage Spann for your soul. Be patient. The blues man comes in at the end of the track:
Audio of Pervis Spann Live
Good Guy Moses "Lucky" Cordell joined WVON in 1965 and worked his way up to station general manager. "We had from 8 to 80 back then," said Cordell, 84. Herb Kent had the kids, Pervis had the adults and we were in between."
Spann's daughter Melody Spann-Cooper is now president of WVON-AM. She has worked in every department at WVON including sales, traffic, programming and answering phones for her father's Saturday night show.
WVON is the city's only black owned and operated radio station.
"Urban heritage stations don't survive,' Spann-Cooper said last week during a conversation at WVON studios, 1000 E. 87th St. in Chicago. "All you have left is WVON and WDIA in Memphis, which is actually older than us. Black people were coming into civil rights when WVON came on (in 1963) and moved into an area of black power. As the country progressed you had more of an influx of music and more conglomerates buying stations."
WVON is managed by Midway Broadcasting Corporation, which was formed in 1979 by Pervis Spann and the station's evening talk show host Wesley South. (After the 1969 death of Leonard Chess the Chess family sold the station to Palmer House heir Potter Palmer and George Gillette of shaving cream fame.) Even present day print moguls Gannett took a shot at owning WVON in 1977.
Community came first in the early days of WVON.
The still-active Herb "The Cool Gent" Kent, E. Rodney Jones, "Butterball" Bill Crane and other "Good Guy" personalities hand-delivered Christmas baskets to South and West side churches and schools. They were purchased from the proceeds of WVON Christmas albums decorated with "Good Guy" pictures.
In an interview before his 1995 induction into the Radio Hall of Fame Kent told me, "We raised money for bona fide black power agencies. We raised money for Rev. Jesse Jackson's Breadbasket and Operation PUSH. We raised money for H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, all these people. W were heroes.
"And people hung on to our every word."
There was also a deeper connection between the on air personalities and the talent.
"I'd come downstairs and Al Green would be at my house," Spann-Cooper said. "Johnnie Taylor. Berry Gordy would send his records to WVON first because he knew if it was a hit in Chicago it would be a hit all over the country." Spann-Cooper recalled that Diana Ross was a guest host for a week at WVON.
Cordell added, "When Jesse Jackson came to Chicago he was the country preacher. He had no church. Rodney Jones brought him to our attention. We had meetings with him. We were impressed with the way he talked. We got behind him and we promoted him. Without a 'VON, there would not be a Jesse Jackson as we know today.
Current morning host Matt McGill added, "As a kid I remember hearing Rev. Jackson's voice on WVON and Operation Breadbasket as it originally was. And when you think about some of the phrases we associate with Rev. Jackson so much, "I Am Somebody.' You heard that again over and over again on WVON.
"In the late 1960s you had gang activity going on with the Blackstone Rangers and all that. The city had a department called the Commission on Youth Welfare. It was planted in the heart of Englewood. My father (Winston McGilll, president of the 3rd Ward Democratic Party) reached out to the kids in Englewood who were being influenced by gangs. He reached out to some of the churches. In this moment of black independence, it was critical the community was not losing young people to the temptation of joining street gangs. Because the street gangs were able to persuade young people that they meant black independence: 'We are self determined, nobody is going to tell us how to live in our communities.' My father had an opportunity to meet and work with (late World Heavyweight Champion) Ezzard Charles, who also worked with the Commission on Youth Welfare. My father had an instinctive feel on what community was all about. I picked up on that." Future Mayor Harold Washington was often a guest host on WVON.
Just a few weeks ago Cooper-Spann spoke at a BMO Harris Black History Project event.
"I asked a question that threw people off," she said. "I said when you talk about chicken in the corporate world of Harris, what would be the first place you think about?"
The group answered with Kentucky Fried Chicken.
She continued, "When you think about it on the south side and west side of Chicago, they're going to say Harold's. That is our own voice. That is authentically ours. It doesn't make anything else bad.
"But I still find value in this."
More Audio of Pervis Spann Live