Ray Henderson takes a bow

Former disc jockey's influential life is honored at MLK prayer breakfast.

ablythe@newsobserver.comJanuary 17, 2012 

  • Ray Henderson was one of several popular disc jockeys heard on Raleigh's WLLE-AM during the 1960s. Others included Daddy O on the Radio; Big Bill Haywood; Brother James Thomas; Prince Ike Behind the Mike; Jimmy Johnson of JJ's House Party; and Sweet Bob Rogers.

Ray Henderson left the Triangle nearly a half-century ago for Detroit to build on his success as a star of black community radio.

But the passage of time has not made the 70-year-old Raleigh native any less of a supernova in his home state.

The retired radio personality, known on the air waves as Dr. Jocko, was honored Monday at the 32nd annual Martin Luther King Triangle Interfaith Prayer Breakfast. Fans lined up to see him in the hotel lobby the night before.

At the Angus Barn, a Raleigh restaurant that draws power players in politics and business, admirers had him pose for a photograph that would hang on the wall there.

During his brief stay, his hotel room phone rang many times with supporters who did not want to miss an opportunity to catch up with a man who has stories to tell about black community radio, Motown Records, Detroit TV and travels with James Brown, when the Godfather of Soul was at the height of his career.

Henderson worked at WLLE-570 AM in Raleigh in the early 1960s when black radio hosts were the community's griots, of a sort. They were the go-to voices for current events and the music of the moment. They put the day's issues into familiar context and helped catapult many musicians beyond their first big break.

Henderson, an alumnus of J.W. Ligon High School in Raleigh and St. Augustine's College, was an advocate of non-violent change during the civil rights movement.

During tense times of racial strife, he promoted calm on the streets, favoring conversation over confrontation.

"I did what I felt was right," Henderson said Monday. "I didn't believe the violence would solve anything."

Henderson says he fell into radio and the entertainment business by virtue of a conversation he had on the night of his high school graduation.

'Dr. Jocko' is born

The late J.D. Lewis, a local broadcasting standout whose career spanned four decades, was the host of "Teenage Frolics," a dance program aired by Capitol Broadcasting, the parent company of WRAL, in 1959 when Henderson was on the cusp of adulthood.

"I told him when I grow up I want to be like you," Henderson said.

The next day, Lewis took Henderson to Capitol Broadcasting and introduced him to the right people. A radio career was launched.

"I'd never been in a radio station in my life," Henderson said.

The eager new hire soaked up all he could about the business. In 1962 he landed at WLLE-AM in Raleigh, which drew listeners from as far as Wallace and Rose Hill in the east and Walkertown to the west.

Henderson modeled his "Dr. Jocko" on-air personality after Jocko Henderson, a popular disc jockey in Philadelphia, and "Dr. Jive," an on-air personality at a Durham station.

He was active in the community, visiting schools, serving as a master of ceremonies for dances and other events while using his radio platform to build bridges between the races.

In 1965, Henderson had an opportunity to move from the North Carolina radio market, which was no larger than 50th in the country at the time, to Detroit, the fifth-largest market.

Henderson, who keeps up with some of the goings-on in Wake County through a brother, said he was humbled to be recognized Monday as a Triangle icon. On the dais at the Sheraton Imperial in Research Triangle Park were Gov. Bev Perdue, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, mayors from Raleigh, Durham and Garner and many religious, community and business leaders.

"I'm trying to decide which is the greatest honor," Henderson said after the ceremony. "Being recognized on this day or the birth of my son."

Thad Woodard, president of the N.C. Bankers Association, introduced Henderson.

"He's a tremendously popular person," Woodard said. "He was huge when he was here."

The station has changed many times since Henderson's reign there. The call letters and R&B format were changed in 1997, when a Kentucky broadcasting company bought it and began airing religious talk.

"Black radio, I think, is short-lived," Henderson said. "It was personality-driven."

Radio different today

Today's radio, Henderson said, is more homogenous, geared toward a national market with many hosts reading from "three-by-five cards." Such shows, Henderson laments, mean communities are left ill-informed about what's happening in their neighborhoods and towns.

"Now you can be stuck in a traffic jam and no one's told you there's a wreck," Henderson said.

These days, Henderson said he listens to radio for one hour a week - sports talk as he drives to and from the grocery store.

Retirement, he says, suits him. He watches sports and TV and takes a nap every day at 2 p.m.

His advice for anyone considering a career in radio?

"Remember that there are many facets of broadcast," Henderson said. "Don't just look for the glamour parts. Learn the behind-the-scenes parts. If you know technology, sales and management, that's going to take you far."

News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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