He knew Chicago. He knew dusties. And he had a great voice.
Generations of families tuned their radios to Herb Kent, “The Cool Gent,” the legendary radio DJ with a soothing style who helped launch the musical careers of greats such as The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson and others. His own resume spanned decades, beginning in the 1940s and lasting all the way up to Saturday morning, when he hosted his final broadcast on V103.
Kent died later Saturday night, the radio station announced. He was 88. Memorial arrangements were pending Sunday.
The South Side native who grew up in the Ida B. Wells housing project has been described as a “crossover pioneer” and one of the most important figures in Chicago radio history. Between 1962 and 1970 he was the star of stars at WVON-AM, devoting 15 minutes of every show to his “Stay in the Schools” campaign and developing a huge following in the black community.
His colleagues at V103 described Kent as “an iconic talent, who for nearly 70 years entertained millions of listeners in Chicagoland and around the world. His passion for radio and work ethic was second-to-none as Herb worked to the very end, by hosting what unexpectedly was his final V103 broadcast on Saturday morning.”
Chicago rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith called Kent “the old-school, intergenerational voice for what is musically good.”
“It’s our moment now to take his example, learn from his life and teach [young people],” Smith said. “I am not sad today; I am excited that the voice of music in Chicago has now become immortalized. Herb was someone to be learned from. He was a classy man. It’s about the way he carried himself. If more young people, if we all carried ourselves in a way that’s classy, that inspires people to listen to us, we could get so much more done.”
Chaz Ebert, the widow of the late Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, said she will miss seeing Kent in his cowboy hat, adding: “You don’t see too many black cowboys around here in the city.”
“His radio show — the music, his announcements about the community, politics, civil rights, and his admonishments to young people about how to behave — was so much a part of my growing up years in Chicago, that he felt like a godfather to the African-American community,” Ebert said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Kent “gave so much and meant so much to the people of Chicago.”
Gordon Frierson, a retired Cook County cop, said he met Kent in the 1960s when Kent became an honorary member of a social club for law enforcement known as the 357’s. Kent had a way about him that Frierson could only describe as “Herb being Herb” — but it helped the DJ connect with listeners young and old.
Kent “went through generations of families,” said Bill “Chico” Freeman, another member of the 357’s. “People — Saturday morning — listening to him [while] cutting their grass, barbecuing.”
Freeman, also a DJ, described Kent as his “best friend” and mentor. On nights when Kent would DJ at Barbara’s Peppermint Lounge at Harrison and Kedzie, Freeman said it wasn’t unusual for musical greats like Chaka Khan or B.B. King to pop in.
“Herb Kent was more than a radio legend,” said Jackie Taylor, founder and CEO of the Black Ensemble Theater Chicago. “He was a brilliant and innovative genius who understood how to communicate to each and every generation that he lived through. His accomplishments were vast — he was more than just a man — he was and will always be a shining star — who taught us how to passionately love and love what we do — to the very end.”
Kent was inducted into the Chicago-based Radio Hall of Fame in 1995. At the time, he told the Chicago Sun-Times he built radio equipment out of surplus World War II parts as a teenager.
“I made my own microphones,” Kent said. “I’d go in the closet and talk in them. You could take a small [war surplus] loudspeaker, reverse the wires, hook them in a radio’s input tubes and the speaker would become a microphone. So when other guys were out Saturday night, going to hotels and smoking pot, I was at home working on that or sitting on the couch, reading. They said I was crazy. Perhaps I was.”
Kent got his start in radio hosting a classical music program for WBEZ. In the late 1940s, he played records at WGRY/Gary and acted in radio dramas for WMAQ. Between 1955 and 1960, Kent developed a show on WBEE/Chicago devoted to a format he called “dusty records.”
Over the years, he also developed characters like “Wahoo Man,” “Gym Shoe Creeper” and the “Electric Crazy People.” His guests included Barack Obama, who was twice a guest on Kent’s “Battle of the Bands” segment on V-103 before he became president.
Off air, Kent was deeply involved in the community and active in the civil rights movement. He and other DJs would hand-deliver Christmas baskets to South and West side churches and schools.
“We were instrumental,” Kent told the Sun-Times in 1995. “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.
“We were heroes. And people hung on to our every word.”
Contributing: Miriam Dinunzio