When 80-year-old broadcaster and writer Tex Stephens died on Saturday, March 23, the New Orleans music community lost a distinguished and legendary voice. As one of the first African-American disc jockeys in the Crescent City, Stephens was instrumental in bringing groundbreaking New Orleans R&B to a wide audience.
"Those were the good old days when we could play those records," Stephens told John Sinclair in a 1999 Gambit Weekly interview. "I'll never forget when I put Roy Brown on the air -- 'Good Rockin' Tonight.' Boy, this city jumped like something else."
Stephens started working as a disc jockey for WJBW in 1948, broadcasting from the Gladstone Hotel on Dryades Street. WJBW was an all-white radio station, and Stephens had to do remote broadcasts of his show since the station was segregated. At that time, he also wrote about New Orleans musicians for Louisiana Weekly and the Informer-Sentinel newspapers. When I interviewed Fats Domino in 1999, Stephens dropped by and remembered their early friendship. "I've been around since you were 17 years old," Stephens said to Domino. "When I was at the Informer, I was the first to write about you."
Stephens' superb musical taste was evident in the records he played. "When I started, you could play anything you wanted," Stephens told Sinclair. "I started playing jazz and blues. I didn't only play Count Basie and the Duke, I played any jazz musician at that particular time ... And I got my own records; see I was playing old 78s, because the 45s and 33s wasn't even on the market at that time."
WMRY radio saw and heard the cultural impact of Stephens' broadcasts, and hired him away from WJBW. Along with fellow pioneer African-American disc jockeys like Ernie the Whip and Vernon "Dr. Daddy-O" Winslow, Stephens introduced his listeners to the likes of Ray Charles, Professor Longhair, Tommy Ridgley, and countless other R&B and jazz artists. In an era when radio was still the dominant broadcast medium, Stephens and his peers' playlists had a profound effect on record sales, and their efforts and growing popularity earned them recognition in the esteemed trade publication Billboard -- paving the way for a profound and new acceptance of African-American broadcasters and musicians on popular radio.
With his genial personality, Stephens' talents were tapped by other New Orleans institutions and broadcast mediums. He was a longtime member of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and in 1949 he was chosen as Louis Armstrong's escort for Armstrong's reign as King of Zulu. In the '60s, he worked in television as a high school sports announcer, and he was a stage announcer at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Stephens got his nickname for his fondness for Stetson hats, which he started wearing after trips to Texas as a teenager. "I used to come back with a big cowboy hat," Stephens told Sinclair. "I think I've been 6 feet tall ever since I was 14, 15 years of age, and having that big hat on, they started calling me Tex. My real name is George Joseph Herman Stephens, but who's gonna remember that? You gonna forget that, but you won't forget Tex Stephens."
He was right, in so many ways. And Stephens' unforgettable voice will live on posthumously; he taped 15 historical narratives for the interactive components of the Robert Nims Jazz Walk of Fame in Algiers, which features Stephens' voice-overs (on Bruce Raeburn-written narratives) for figures such as Danny Barker, Louis Armstrong, Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and Buddy Bolden. The Walk of Fame is tentatively scheduled to open by the end of 2002.
Another New Orleans radio fixture -- 90.7 WWOZ FM -- kicks off its spring fund drive on March 7. The fund drive runs through March 20, and this drive's theme is "Ticket to Jazz Fest." Any listener who pledges at the $40 minimum or above will receive a ticket to Jazz Fest, good for Thursday, May 2. To pledge, call the WWOZ studio line at 568-1234.
Congratulations to New Orleans' Chris Thomas King, who snagged three Grammy awards -- including Album of the Year -- for his participation in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Lake Charles native Lucinda Williams won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for her Essence album cut "Get Right With God," and Harry Connick Jr. won the Traditional Pop Album award for Songs I Heard.
Connick was the only Louisiana musician to perform at the star-studded closing ceremonies of the Olympics, but one local band snagged what's probably the biggest payday of its career, thanks to an Olympics-related ad campaign from McDonald's. Better Than Ezra's "Extra Ordinary" was licensed from the fast food giant for a new commercial, which aired frequently throughout coverage of the Winter Games. That'll buy Kevin Griffin and company a lot of Happy Meals.
- Cheryl Gerber
- 'I'll never forget when I put Roy Brown on the air -- "Good Rockin' Tonight." Boy, this city jumped like something else.' -- late disc jockey Tex Stephens, pictured in 1999.