On Saturday night, October 22, 2016, the majority of the city was totally focused on the Cubs’ game. Unfortunately, while that was happening, we lost the best disk jockey that ever lived and graced the airwaves of Chicago – Herbert Rogers Kent. He was 88 years old, just recently celebrating a birthday earlier in the month. Although it’s been a while since I wrote a tribute blog, I could not let this event pass without paying my respects to one who got me through so many evenings with his radio shows and events, ever since the WVON days.
There was a Terry’s store in the 63rd & Halsted shopping district. That’s where I bought my transistor radios and 9-volt batteries periodically; real cheap, $5.99 radios, small enough to fit in your pocket, usually Zenith or Motorola. I was probably in 4th or 5th grade at the time, an autonomous child. Why was it important for me to have a small radio available? Because when I was in the bed allegedly going to sleep, it was my way to listen to Herb Kent’s show until he went off the air at 11 pm. Of course, there were headphones [not as fancy as those today] that kept my mother from hearing any noise after 9 pm. It was perfect. And besides the music lesson I got at home, being in a household that had every genre available for me to play when I wanted, this lesson was continued listening to Herb’s soothing voice before I went to sleep every night.
I seem to recall hearing that Herb’s early career path included time on the air at the same station as Yvonne Daniels and Sid McCoy. Maybe my parents were listening to them; I remember call letters, but not the shows. WCFL, WYNR, and there’s one more. Herb’s age puts him right in the middle of these forerunners, the early-to-mid 60s lineup of Chicago stations, evolving into pure soul and/or jazz, like WBEE. I missed Sid, but remember Yvonne Daniels well on WSDM-FM. I even loaned her my ‘Poinciana’ album by Ahmad Jamal [i.e., ‘Live at the Pershing’] in the 80s, because she’d lost hers. But I digress.
The words ‘encyclopedic knowledge’ has probably been used ad infinitum since his demise, but there’s no other way to describe Herb’s extreme mastery of the history of Black Music in America. I could listen to his stories of various musicians that crossed his path forever. Moreover, it was his contributions by helping artists get airplay who might not otherwise have done so, or letting them appear in front of audiences that they couldn’t get at that moment, which pushed the music inexorably forward. No one did it better.
We would see him at the Regal, another place my family frequented, along w/other WVON air personalities. And then, there were the Motown Revues, or the Stax Revues, or the Philly [just starting] Revues. He appeared at the James Brown concerts at the Amphitheatre, the only place large enough to hold the crowds. Herb was always around, promoting, encouraging, and being his normally wonderful self.
During the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, Herb was always in the forefront, using his airtime as a platform to exhort the people into being peaceful when it was necessary, or to take action when it was necessary. When Dr. King was killed in ’68, he and the entire roster at WVON all used their shows to try to quell the riots that decimated 63rd and Halsted, and later Roosevelt Road on the west side.
As the years passed, Herb was always involved in the best sets happening every weekend. There was Dingbats, High Chaparral, the Times Square, Club Rum Boogie, the Green Bunny, Grand Ballroom, the skating rinks, and so many more. In many cases, I missed some because I didn’t want to run into my older sisters! You know what a drag that can be; we party strategically, right? But to the extent that I could, I was out there every weekend.
Much later, there was the 50 Yard Line and other establishments. Even though the ‘party phase’ had ended for me, Herb was still available every weekend on the radio; background music by which we cook Sunday dinner.
There are no accolades that I can give which haven’t already been uttered on this brother’s behalf. His students and colleagues at Chicago State and Kennedy-King [wasn’t he instrumental in setting up the broadcasting specs on Wentworth?] are reminiscing about him right now. The far-reaching effect that Herb Kent had on ordinary Chicagoans who were just hooked on his broadcasts is beyond measure. The Guinness World Record he received for being continually on the air for 65 years [in 2009] is a testament to his genius. He lasted on the air for so long because he loved what he did and the recipients of that love gave it right back. Now, here we are 7 years later, and Herb was still on the air until his last day on earth.
And finally, this YouTube video shows Herb’s sense of humor, in 4 1/2 minutes. Rest in peace, Herbert Rogers Kent. You couldn’t have done it any better.