Mitchell: Herb Kent ‘The Cool Gent’ left amazing legacy

SHARE Mitchell: Herb Kent ‘The Cool Gent’ left amazing legacy
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Radio personality Herb Kent, pictured in 2009. | Photo by Ken Bedford

Follow @MaryMitchellCSTWe all have to go, but few of us will get to leave on our own terms.

I don’t know if Herb Kent had a vision of his exit, but I can’t imagine it would have been any different than what actually happened.

The legendary DJ got up, went to work at his Saturday radio gig, came home and passed away hours after hosting his final radio show.

He was 88 years old.

The White House released a statement on Kent’s passing that was to be read on V-103 on Wednesday evening: “For more than half of the time the radio has been around, you could hear Herb Kent’s voice on one. . . . I was honored to be a guest on his show for a couple of his famous ‘Battle of the Best’ segments. . . . A kid from the projects with a voice that would project across a city and a nation — that’s the American dream. He was one of the good guys, and we’ll miss him,” President Barack Obama said in a written statement.

OPINION

Follow @MaryMitchellCSTThough his career spanned seven decades, Kent never became irrelevant. Up until the end, he was everywhere — concerts, stepping parties, line dances — keeping the music going at city functions, private events, and, of course, on the radio.

I once asked him how he was able to keep working (I never mentioned the world “aging” or “elderly,” after all, you don’t bring up the “O” word to a man who sports a long ponytail and a cowboy hat). He told me it wasn’t work. He absolutely loved what he did.

I was 14 years old when I first heard his voice.

My father had scraped up money to buy one transistor radio as a birthday present that I had to share with my twin sister.

Before then, we could only get the white stations on our organ-sized radio someone gave to my father.

When the announcement came in 1963 that Herb Kent was going to be on WVON, it was the beginning of a new era for radio listeners.

Black people would actually be able to listen to the R&B, the blues, and doo-wop songs that Kent made immortal as golden “dusties,” on the radio.

He used his popular radio program to boost the opportunities of deserving young black artists like Curtis Mayfield, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson.

He also assisted local civil rights leaders by using his segment to raise awareness about important political issues.

As one of the original members of the WVON Good Guys — a group that included Franklin McCarthy, E. Rodney Jones, Wesley South and Pervis Spann — Kent helped lay the foundation for black radio that endures to this day.

His career spanned three generations, which means my children and grandchildren are nearly as familiar with Herb Kent the “Cool Gent,” as I am.

“This is a man who gave his life to the field of broadcasting. When you talk about his contribution to radio, you can’t limit it to just his work at WVON or V-103,” said Melody Spann-Cooper, CEO of Midway Broadcasting and president of WVON.

“He joined the ranks of iconic broadcasters in Chicago: Jack Brickhouse, Wally Phillips and other individuals who just surpassed any place they worked. You know them for the excellence they delivered. There will never be another Herb Kent,” she said.

Kent had the gifts of innovation and persuasion, and he created imaginary characters that could have been precursors to the wildly popular Pokémon Go craze.

For instance, when Kent came up with the fictitious “Wahoo” man, people started seeing this imaginary character in the trees throughout the city.

In a Facebook page post from 2010, a commenter who attended Bass Elementary School in Englewood in the mid-1960s said, “Everyone was scared of the Wahoo Man, and all the kids knew of the mysterious man.”

In a statement from City Hall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called Kent an “incredible talent,” with an “infectious passion for music and unique ability to uplift.”

“Herb was among the greatest radio personalities in the history of the medium, and he was eager to mentor the next generation,” Emanuel said in a statement.

“His passion for radio and work ethic was second-to-none,” said Matt Scarano, regional president for iHeartMedia Chicago.

If there’s dancing in heaven, we know who will be spinning the tunes.

Tweets by @MaryMitchellCST

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