Herb Kent, legendary Chicago radio personality, dies at 88
A Message from Wayfair
Chicago radio legend Herb Kent, the longest-running DJ in the history of radio and a fixture on local airwaves for more than 70 years, died Saturday. He was 88.
Kent's death was announced Sunday by executives at V103, where Kent worked for the past three decades. Also known as "The Cool Gent," "King of the Dusties" and the "Mayor of Bronzeville," Kent did his final radio broadcast Saturday morning.
"No words can express our great sense of loss," Matt Scarano, region president of iHeartMedia Chicago, said in a statement. "Herb was 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.
"We are so thankful for the privilege of working alongside such an historic figure as Herb Kent for the past 27 years. Our thoughts and prayers are with Herb's family, friends and loved ones."
Herbert Rogers Kent was born Oct. 5, 1928, at Cook County Hospital, now Stroger Hospital. Kent noted in his memoir that he arrived the same year as poet Maya Angelou, singer Fats Domino, actors Adam West and Shirley Temple, as well as Mickey Mouse, Rice Krispies, Louisiana Hot Sauce and penicillin.
"Some people joke that 'in the beginning, God created Herb Kent,' but hey, I'm not that old," Kent wrote.
Kent grew up an only child in the Ida B. Wells housing project in Bronzeville and showed an early fascination with radio, building makeshift devices out of toilet paper inserts, crystals, wires and earphones, he said in a 2015 interview with the Soul Train website.
Kent got his start in radio while still a student at Hyde Park High School. In 1944, at 16, he hosted a classical music program for WBEZ, according to a profile in the National Radio Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1995.
Early on, he often recalled, a white professor told him he had a great voice but never would succeed in the business "because you're a Negro."
"That was my signal to make a difference and from that day forward, I pushed harder and eventually landed an on-air paid job," he told SoulTrain.com.
He spun records at WGRY in Gary, making $35 a week, while also acting in radio dramas for NBC affiliate WMAQ.
Through the 1950s, Kent worked at WGES, Chicago's largest black radio station, then at WBEE where he coined the phrase "dusty records" or "dusties."
He then worked at WJOB in Hammond and WHFC in Chicago, according to the profile.
Kent spent several years at WVON-AM 1690 as one of the station's original DJs, which he called the "apex" of his career. The station, whose name originally stood for "Voice of the Negro," enjoyed enormous popularity in the broadcasting world and became a fixture in Chicago's black community. Kent, alongside Franklin McCarthy, E. Rodney Jones, Wesley South and Pervis Spann, comprised the first core group of WVON personalities, known as "The Good Guys."
He often is credited for helping launch the careers of The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield and Minnie Riperton. He mentored "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius when the television personality first got started in broadcasting.
WVON celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013. Kent told the Tribune about how the station grew beyond music to become an influential resource in black politics and social issues in Chicago.
"So in the confusion and everything, I think the talk radio thing was born here at WVON," Kent said. "We needed a black talk-radio station, because they got into all kinds of things. Race riots, racism, food stamps, poverty, civil rights — from a black point of view, which we never had before. Just absolutely phenomenal. Because the white radio stations never gave us that much time. I'm sure they were fair, but it was always a white talk show, not completely black like this.
"It meant everything: a way to air your views. Politics. Helped different black politicians get elected. Really an educational outlet for black people, and also an educational outlet for white people, to let them know what black people are like. I'm sure this will go down as one of the great black talk stations of all time, just as it was one of the great music stations. Without it, we wouldn't have hardly any voice at all."
Kent joined V103, then known as WVAZ, in 1988. In all, he worked as a DJ for 11 different stations, amassing high ratings the entire way.
"I think my success has had much to do with the way I appeal to my listeners as well as how I tap into the vein of what I call Cool School music," he wrote in his book. "It doesn't matter if it's old school or new school — there's a certain quality to some music that just makes it good, makes it timeless, makes it … Cool School."
Cool he was, with a fondness for Cadillacs and rocking his trademark mustache and cowboy hat.
"I'm so cool, I'm froze in my clothes!" he was often quoted as saying.
In the mid-1990s, Kent briefly hosted his own dance show on ABC 7 called "Steppin' at Club 7."
He released his no-holds-barred autobiography in 2009, titled: "The Cool Gent: The Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent." Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley wrote the foreword.
The subtitle, Kent wrote, was owing to his fast and colorful lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, women and wild parties. Not to mention the more blase experiences of visiting soul legend James Brown in prison, shadow boxing with Muhammad Ali and sleeping in an empty casket — "an overrated experience" he recalled.
"And you don't live for more than eighty years without almost getting close to meeting your Maker at least a few times, I think," he wrote. "Some of my nine lives have been rather funny, some mystical, some dark and anguished. And the fact is, by all accounts, I could just as easily be dead right now as sitting in a radio booth still broadcasting or writing a book."
Kent was inducted into the national Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in August, in a class that also included Prince, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Dionne Warwick and Jimi Hendrix. He also taught broadcasting and communications at Chicago State University on the Far South Side.
"Herb was our radio superhero," said Derrick Brown, director of urban programming iHeartMedia Chicago. "While I'm incredibly sad, I hold so much joy remembering the fun times we've had with him and the smiles he brought to our faces. Herb will hold an eternal place in our hearts."
Kent celebrated his 88th birthday earlier this month and posted a message to his blog commemorating the occasion.
"Thank you to all my fans for the birthday wishes, each of you made my day special. I can dig it!"
Information on services and survivors was not immediately available.