Thursday, December 16, 2010

The First Black Radio Announcer (Part 4)

It always seems to be worthwhile to research an early black DJ. According to Ebony magazine in 1948 there were only 16 black DJs on air. (Their count was low but the point is valid) Van Douglas was one of them. My first encounter with his name in print was in Billboard magazine October 1948. There was a single line in the VOX JOX column: "Van Douglas, 1500 WJBK-AM, Detroit, subject of the new Alben Disk. Stampede with Van by Andy Johnson and his Peppermint Stocks."  I have found that record in a few catalogs. It was a 78,  with the A and B sides as Stampede With Van / Mood By Midnight. It was Alben records #101.  It was almost certainly their first release.  The record is more collectible for the the sax player Floyd "Candy" Johnson on deck.
His real name was Howard D. Morison.  he was born in Virginia and moved to Detroit in the 1930s to attend Wayne State University. His radio career mainly concerns three Michigan area radio stations: WJBK-AM, WJLB-AM, and 800 CKLW-AM. Between the three of them he was in broadcasting for 59 years. For the most part in the 1940s he was the only black DJ on any of these stations, with the exception of  WJLB who hired Ed Baker after he left. Nelson George called this era "The Dawn of Urban radio." His first radio gig was at 1400 WMBC-AM in 1935. It was a gospel station and it's how he learned his chops.1400 is now WDTK-AM. Here's the tricky part that confuses people. In 1939, WMBC's calls were changed to WJLB-AM by the new station owner John Lord Booth. So yes he was at WMBC-AM and WJLB-AM. but only because they were the same station. Van Douglas' brokered program was allowed to continue on the cash-strapped independent station.

I have some trouble figuring out the 59 years. If he began in 1935 and worked for 59 years then he was still on air in 1994?   at the very least those years were not continuous. A September 1948 issue of Billboard notes that after a month-long absence Van Douglas was back on air at WJBK with a one hour nightly slot at 11:00 PM. In November of that same year it also noted that was hosting a religious program on alternate weekends at WJBK. It also said he was formerly with WJBK.But that should not be construed as to undermine his importance. He was as big as could be for a black man on the radio he even made appearances at the Duke Theater a black movie house and sometimes appeared at dances alongside white DJs. One contemporary reference claimed that it made the event notable as it was now "integrated."

For the life of me I cant find when he was on CKLW, I assume it's later in his career and do note that for a time under Music Director Rosalie Trombley in the 1960s it was playing a lot of Motown. I have no attribution but everyone says it was called "the blackest white station in America."  I'd like to think he had a home there in that era having already been the cities racial trailblazer. After his death his wife Conchita Morison donated his papers and record collection to Michigan State University. It includes a huge pile of collection of gospel, jazz, blues and swing but more importantly radio advertisements, scripts, program announcements, program schedules... One can only hope it'll one day be in their online collection as well.