Heard Monday’s, Wednesday and Saturday nights from 6pm to 10pm Pacific Time on WHIP Blues Radio.
Smokestack Lightnin’ is a syndicated radio program that currently appears weekly on WUCF FM 89.9MHz in Orlando, Florida and on the worldwide web at URLhttp://www.smokestacklightnin.com. The program is comprised of new and reissued Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk , Blues/Rock, Gospel and Zydeco/Blues music in the ratio of approximately 80% new and 20% reissued. The new music is very contemporary. Smokestack Lightnin’ is serviced by hundreds of record companies and independent blues artists from all around the world, receiving as many as ten new releases per week. The producers pride themselves in presenting to the listener the “very best and the very newest Blues in the world”.
Those unfamiliar with Soul/Blues music, which is what the producers call the general format, may be under the impression that it is a small niche. This is not true. The many forms of music, the roots of which are firmly planted in the Blues, is quite large with a massive following. If one were to add together the Blues, R&B, Soul, Funk and Blues/Rock sections in most record stores, it would comprise more than 30% of the store’s display space. Smokestack Lightnin’ does not include Rap, but does include current adult oriented Soul and R&B in modest quantities. The program endeavors to feature the many forms of Soul/Blues that are not included in other radio formats.
The story of Smokestack Lightnin’ and how it came into existence is an interesting one. Two of the show’s originators, Marvin Rooks and Tommy Thompson, grew up in North Florida in the 1950’s during the advent of the Rock & Roll Era. There was no FM radio in those days, and local AM stations either went off the air or powered down significantly at night. Nighttime AM radio was dominated by regional 50,000 watt giants like WLAC in Nashville, For a complete history of WLAC, click here. Tennessee. Atmospheric conditions dictated that WLAC was the best signal for the North Florida area. In fact this was the case with most of the Eastern U.S. WLAC was a very unusual station. From 6PM to 6AM daily WLAC broadcast exclusively the Blues and R&B. At a time when Black artists were having a difficult time being accepted on many stations, this innovative station chose to honor this uniquely American musical art form to the exclusion of all others! Pat Boone had no chance of ever hearing his lame cover of Tutti Frutti played on WLAC! In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, the Prime Time DJ’s on WLAC, John R. and Hoss Allen ( the Hoss Man ) were heard literally by millions of teenagers from Maine to Miami every night. Their hip, low key delivery was perfect for the moody nighttime hours and fit the sultry mood of the music to a tee. Even these pioneering personalities themselves had no idea the enormous impact they were having on teenagers all over the Eastern Seaboard, and Marvin and Tommy were no exception. Both grew up listening to WLAC nightly with an abiding love for the Blues.
WLAC’s influence on popular music became so great by the Mid 60’s that many experts have credited the station with launching the Soul music explosion of that era that turned the Blues and R&B into mainstream American music. But tragically, FM radio quickly became the dominant medium for music programming on the radio, and in the Mid 1970’s WLAC abandoned its evening music format in favor of talk radio. Blues junkies like Marvin and Tommy were sadly left with no way to keep up with their music of choice, The Blues! The third partner in Smokestack Lightnin’, Paul Newnum , grew up on the Blues Rock of the 1970’s, but at an early age had been exposed to the compelling music of Blues pioneer Josh White. Paul, like so many youngsters of that era, was impacted by the powerful Blues/Rock of English artists like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Animals and the Yardbirds. Paul loved the music and cared enough to try to understand it. He knew that the source of the great sounds they were hearing was the Blues. The young English and American rockers of that era were also quick to credit the original Blues pioneers for having created the music. Mick Jagger actually once said that he couldn’t understand why someone would listen to the Rolling Stones’ version of a Slim Harpo classic when they could be listening to the original.
In the early 1990’s Marvin and Paul began practicing law together. Marvin has often stated that he judges his friends by the way they react to his Blues tapes, and Paul passed the test. One fateful day while enjoying a lunch break together the two were lamenting the fact that many Americans were of the apparent opinion that Bonnie Raitt invented the Blues because of her enormous popular success with the Grammy Award winning album, “Nick of Time”. With all due respect to Bonnie, the two were rightfully discouraged by the fact that the great artists who influenced her career so completely rarely, if ever, get air time or recognition on radio. They therefore conspired to try to do something about the fact that the Blues has not found a place on modern FM radio as it did in the pioneering days of WLAC on AM.
It wasn’t long before Marvin introduced Paul to Tommy, who had followed up on his love of the Blues over the years by amassing a significant collection of recorded Blues. The three conspired to develop a pilot tape and approach radio stations with the idea of a Blues oriented show that Marvin suggested be entitled “Smokestack Lightnin'” in honor of the great Blues classic by the Howlin’ Wolf . Tommy developed a 90 minute demonstration tape complete with an outlandish DJ named” the Shadowman” to try to catch the attention of a program manager somewhere. The founders knew they were on track when they approached the music director of Orlando’s leading Album Rock station. He predictably turned them down because the Blues did not fit his very tightly defined corporate format, but he begged for a copy of the tape. This is a pattern that has repeated itself many times since. It is hard to find a true music lover who does not love the Blues. It did not take long to ascertain that commercial radio was going to be difficult to convince because very tight, hit oriented musical formatting is the way music radio is currently defined. However, the first noncommercial station to hear the tape, WPRK FM ( Rollins College Radio ) in Winter Park, Florida, immediately made arrangements to put the program in its Sunday night adult alternative lineup.
Smokestack Lightnin’ began on WPRK in September 1991 and was an instant hit. Based upon feedback from listeners and the critical praise emanating from the media, the founders were convinced they were on the right track. The show was carefully developed over time by reacting to listener feedback, which was plentiful from the outset. One strategy that was pursued from the beginning was to develop strong relationships with the leading record labels of the Blues and R&B so that the show would always be on the leading edge with new music. Slowly, the number of contributing labels was increased from a few to a great many. Presently, the number of labels contributing music to Smokestack Lightnin’ has swelled to include virtually every label in the Blues worldwide! As many as ten new releases are received every week and previewed by Tommy who functions as Smokestack Lightnin’s Program Manager. Within a week of receipt, the best cuts from the new releases appear on the show. This heavy emphasis on new releases came as a direct response from listeners who want to know what’s new and how to get it.
It did not take long to figure out that the Smokestack Lightnin’ listeners were mostly adults ranging in age from about 23 ( College listeners ) through about 70, which accounts for those who were high school and college age when the Electric Blues explosion of the 1950’s and 60’s took place. Smokestack Lightnin’ listeners are evenly split between male and female, and are enthusiastically devoted to the music. In fact many are musicians themselves. There seems to be no such thing as a casual Blues fan. The most surprising thing the originators have learned is how large the audience actually is. More on that later.
By the Fall of 1993 it was apparent to the founders that Smokestack Lightnin’ had fully developed its potential on WPRK, which has a very modest signal that does not cover the entire Orlando market. It was agreed that another attempt would be made to secure a spot on commercial radio. Marvin took the initiative to head up the effort, and amazingly enough, the first station he contacted signed the show. WLOQ which is Central Florida’s leading jazz station and winner of the 1994 Gavin award agreed to a two hour Smokestack Lightnin’ special in March 1994, the purpose being to measure listener response. Very little promotion was done in advance. At 8PM on March 27, 1994 the listeners of WLOQ, who were accustomed to a fairly steady diet of the vanilla jazz of Kenny G, were assaulted with the Howlin’ Wolf doing the theme song, Smokestack Lightnin’! The telephone immediately lit up and stayed that way for two hours. No one at WLOQ could remember any programming eliciting such a response, and it was virtually all positive. For weeks after the initial special, WLOQ’s voice mail system was loaded with Smokestack fans demanding more. Needless to say, the station’s management was impressed but skeptical. After all, didn’t this fly in the face of the philosophy that a station’s format cannot be violated? Could it be possible that the Kenny G fans were really interested in the Blues, or were just a few Blues junkies overwhelming the phones? Two more specials were programmed in April and May, and both times the results were the same. In addition, the local musical press heaped accolades on WLOQ and encouraged them to put the show on full time. Despite the fact that they were programming the Blues only two hours a month, station management found that much of the public comment they were receiving was about Smokestack Lightnin’ which comprised only a little over 1% of their total programming. In June 1995, the show became a weekly feature, and the accolades continued to pour in.
The 1994 Summer Arbitron ratings proved another shock…..In only its first quarter on the air WLOQ’s Sunday evening programming shot up to a 10 share and #2 position in the market. WLOQ does not typically rise above #10 in any time slot. So what does this all prove? The prevailing corporate philosophy in radio is that you can’t make it in niche programming. The Smokestack Team believes that is probably true if the niche is Romanian folk music. However, we also believe that all music is niche music. The key question is, “how big is the niche and is it capable of producing more income for the station than another niche?”. Prior to Smokestack Lightnin’, WLOQ was producing virtually no revenue on Sunday evenings. The only spots run were bonus spots to help fill in the gaps in programming. Smokestack Lightnin’ spots regularly sold for $45+ per minute, and were primarily sold without any assistance from the WLOQ sales staff. In other words, the station earned from $400 to $1000 per month from the show with virtually no effort on the part of its sales staff. The advertisers included record stores, night clubs, auto and motorcycle dealerships, audio equipment retailers, and eating establishments to name just a few. The advertisers were interested in the show’s demographics ( 21-60+ ) and the obvious loyalty of the fans. They really listen! One record store advertiser stated that her establishment had quadrupled the size of the Blues section when Smokestack Lightnin’ went on the air. Fans brought in lists of CDs they have compiled from the program that they wanted to buy( a record retailer’s dream!).
However, as successful as Smokestack Lightnin’ was for WLOQ, the management of the station made a strategic programming change from an eclectic blend of jazz and related music forms to a totally homogenized smooth jazz format that features a consistent sound 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Smokestack Lightnin’ was cancelled despite howls of protest from the thousands of loyal fans the show has in Orlando.
In January 1995, Ilakanickel Productions, Inc., the parent company of Smokestack Lightnin’, established an all digital recording studio in Maitland, Florida and began producing and mastering the program on Digital Audio Tape ( DAT ) and then recording on CD in preparation for potential syndication. The show has also appeared briefly on WMTO in Panama City, Florida, and WZJZ in Columbus, Ohio. However, the trend in music radio today is the homogenization of play lists down into formats that appeal only to the largest number of people. Stations that feature any form of eclectic programming are becoming rare. However, Ilakanickel Productions is still actively seeking other stations around the country to take Smokestack Lightnin’. Orlando is not unique. This extraordinary success story can be recreated in any metropolitan market. Any station whose music format is adult alternative in nature or that appeals to music lovers would experience the same listener reaction to Smokestack Lightnin’ as was experienced at WLOQ.
In September, 1998, Smokestack Lightnin’ debuted on Broadcast.com, the leading music oriented site on the worldwide web at that time. Even then it was patently obvious that the internet was fast becoming the new home of niche music like Soul/Blues. Ilakanickel Productions sent broadcast.com some sample CDs of Smokestack Lightnin’ and the show went onto the web almost immediately. Using the latest in internet technology, the show was transmitted digitally from its studios in Maitland, Florida via its Internet Service Provider (ISP), World Ramp in Winter Park, Florida, directly to Broadcast.com. The show was then loaded onto a server at Broadcast.com’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas, and was available “on demand” which means listeners could access the show any time day or night on their own schedule, as opposed to having to be available at a particular time to listen to the show, as would be the case with radio. This was a great and exciting time for Smokestack Lightnin’ as we embraced a totally new technology but also learned that this new world of runaway technology was fraught with peril. In late1998 Broadcast.com was acquired by Yahoo. Yahoo had previously decided not to webcast programming over which they did not have complete control, and suspended webcasting Smokestack Lightnin’ along with numerous other independently produced programming.
The Smokestack Team does not give up easily. World Ramp did some research and figured out how to webcast the show from its own servers. In 1999 the show resumed webcasting from its own web site www.smokestacklightnin.com.
Smokestack Lightnin’ uses the Windows Media Player because it is already available on most home and workplace computers and provides excellent audio quality.
Millions of newcomers discover the magic of the worldwide web every day! Sites like Smokestacklightnin.com are very quickly becoming the home of eclectic programming like the Blues. Radio stations from all over the world broadcast over the internet, but they do so as an afterthought with no particular internet programming strategy, whereas music shows like Smokestack Lightnin’ are entirely programmed to appeal to the internet listener. In the world of the internet, an independent like Smokestack Lightnin’ has as fair a chance to find it’s listeners as do the Corporate giants of radio. Technology like Web TV is bringing the internet to the home entertainment center, and Wi-Fi technology is taking the internet everywhere and especially bringing the internet into the automobile where people are accustomed to listening to their music! This is very good news for blues lovers everywhere who have been deprived of blues programming on radio since WLAC went to the talk format!
In April 2002, WUCF Fm 89.9 FM in Orlando invited Smokestack Lightnin’ to become a part of their eclectic “Jazz and…More” format. WUCF is the broadcasting service of The University of Central Florida. The show now appears on WUCF weekly on Saturday evenings for 3 hours, and can be accessed simultaneously on the internet at WUCF.com”> www.WUCF.com. The Smokestack Team does the show in the now-world-famous Ilakanickel Production studio and then sends the show digitally to WUCF‘s programming computer. The internet show on www.smokestacklightnin.com continues, of course. The most recent weekly show can be accessed any time day or night.
Rob McKinney, who had been Smokestack Lightnin’s webmaster at World Ramp since its debut on SmokestackLightnin.com is a WUCF graduate and was a co-founder of World Ramp. As it turns out, Rob has considerable broadcasting experience and loves the Blues! He joined the Smokestack Lightnin’ broadcast team in 2002 as we debuted on WUCF, doing the show once every fourth week along with Paul, Tommy and Marvin.
In the Summer of 2007 Larry Anderson joined the Smokestack Team as our Webmaster. Prior to Larry’s joining the team, www.smokestacklightnin.com was primarily just a vehicle to get our listeners to the show. There was very little actual content there. Over a period of months Larry added our Smokestack Lightnin’ Blues Hall of Fame, an incredibly detailed Blues Profile section, a big Interview section, and much more. By late 2008 the site contained over 700 Blues Profiles which included detailed bios, pictures and sound samples of Blues performers from the most famous to the most obscure. Larry’s efforts, by increasing content dramatically, had more than tripled the number of hits on our site. He also initiated a relationship with www.Amazon.com that allowed our site visitors to find the artists and music of interest to them and then link to Amazon to buy that specific music, whether it be a hard copy of a CD or an MP3 download. In November disaster struck! Our server, which is actually located in San Francisco, was hit by a fire in a faulty surge protector. The Smokestack Lightnin’ data base of Blues Profiles was totally lost. But Larry is resilient and is rebuilding the site. It is the objective of the Smokestack Team to eventually create the most comprehensive Blues site on the internet!
The producers of Smokestack Lightnin’ call their format Adult Soul/Blues music. To describe the music as simply Blues or Soul or Rhythm & Blues does not seem to adequately describe the unique blend of music that has been employed to create this compelling program.
The Blues came into being after the turn of the century in the rural South. Black musicians took the musical heritage that had been passed to them by their ancestors, combined it with the gospel music emanating from the church and came up with a unique brand of folk music that was their very own. The rhythms and melodies of Africa have always been unique in the music world, featuring harmonies and syncopation that are emotional , compelling, and haunting. The Black musicians who toured the rural South in the early 1900s used string instruments to accompany their powerful vocalizations. Although much of the music featured lyrics about the tribulations of life and love unrelated to hard times, the music came to be called the Blues. In fact, much of the music was upbeat, lighthearted and intended for dancing. By the mid 1920’s there was a network of clubs throughout the South that featured hard whiskey and plenty of foot stomping Blues music. The clubs became so popular that the artists who played tem became famous, at first just locally, but later their reputations spread far beyond the scope of their limited travels. Names like Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Son House were known by music aficionados throughout America, but the artists themselves seemed so enigmatic that many fans outside the Deep South were not sure if they actually existed at all. However, persistent record producers searched them out, and one by one these legends were recorded.
In the late 1930’s one traveling Mississippi Blues man by the name of Robert Johnson became so well known for his guitar virtuosity and wailing vocalizations, that imitators began to spring up all over the South. One of Johnson’s fans was a young tractor driver working on the Stovall Plantation on the Mississippi Delta with the aristocratic name of McKinley Morganfield. Having mastered the slide guitar at an early age, this young genius took his childhood nickname, Muddy Waters, moved to Chicago in the early 1940s and became the leader of one of the most important revolutions in modern music history. Muddy used the electric guitar, a heavy back beat and an over-amplified harmonica to create what we now call the Electric Blues. Together with Willie Dixon, one of America’s greatest song writers, the Muddy Waters Blues Band initiated changes in the sound of the Blues that initially had much more impact on other musicians than on the public. Young, emerging musicians who heard Muddy’s band were struck with the power of the music, the rhythms and the sultry, down to earth lyrics of the songs. In a very short time, the Electric Blues became Rock & Roll. By the Mid 1950s this new breed of musicians had successfully adopted a very old form of music and had transformed it into a musical art form that would literally sweep a whole generation of American youth off its feet.
During the 1950s, Rhythm and Blues ( R&B ) which is nothing more than the Blues with a beat, literally took over the field of popular music. Rock & Roll was so influenced by R&B, that the two were often indistinguishable from one another and appeared on radio side by side. By the early 1960s, Rock & Roll had begun to lose some of its punch, reverting back to simple minded Pop songs that were prevalent on popular radio in the early 1950s. A major revolution took over Rock and Roll in the mid 1960s. Emerging British bands such as the Rolling Stones went back to their Blues roots and literally redefined what Rock music would be, except these English gentlemen openly credited their Blues forefathers for creating the music. At the same time, a modern cousin of the Blues known as Soul Music shared the airwaves with Rock and Roll. For the first time, radio stations all over America were playing the Blues. Some called it R&B, some Soul, but the fact was that the Blues had become mainstream American music! Soul singers like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and James Brown were among the largest names in popular music . Soul labels like Motown and Stax were enormously successful. The Blues had definitely arrived!
The 1970s and 1980s saw several reincarnations of the Blues. Soul music remained strong in the form of Funk. Rock bands continued to feed off the Blues for inspiration. Some of the great Rock bands like Z.Z Top found that the closer to pure Blues they stayed, the more prosperity they enjoyed. But all good things come to an end. In the late 1980s, Rap literally took over the traditional Soul and R&B field. Heavy Metal and Grunge Rock so distorted the Blues roots that most older members of the Rock & Roll generation lost interest. From the mid 1950s to the late 1980s, the audience for Rock and Soul had grown with each succeeding generation. Youngsters and adults were literally humming the same tunes. But by 1990 this phenomenon had come to an end. Adults and their children were no longer listening to the same music. The resulting fragmentation in radio programming is well documented.
Adults from the age of about twenty five to about sixty who spent their whole lives listening to Blues based Rock & Roll, and traditional Rhythm & Blues music no longer listen to Top 40 radio. These refugees from Top 40 are now searching for a place to land, which explains the rapid proliferation of new radio formats, each seeking to attract them. Many former Rock and R&B listeners have recently adopted Country and Western because it resembles, more closely than other formats, the music they have loved over the years, and it is “new music ” oriented, as opposed to the formats that rely entirely on nostalgia . Many more are still searching.
Despite the fact that no radio format exists today to promote adult oriented Soul/Blues music, the genre thrives in the clubs and record stores. Successful Blues clubs have sprung up all over the country. Successful Soul/Blues artists such as Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King play as many as 300 or more dates a year and still cannot satisfy the demand. In record stores, the combination of Blues, R&B, Soul, Funk, and Blues/Rock music constitutes roughly 30% of the display space. All this success is in spite of the lack of radio air play. It is the long-standing unsatisfied demand for this music on radio that led to the immediate and overwhelming success of “Smokestack Lightnin’ “.
It is important to distinguish between the R & B music as currently defined by Billboard and Soul/Blues music. There are a great many successful R&B artists on Top 40 ( Contemporary Hits and Urban formats ) radio today. Some currently popular R&B artists sound good to Soul/Blues fans, but they won’t listen to Top 40 radio stations because the vast majority of the programming is offensive to them. Smokestack Lightnin’ focuses on the many other more traditional Soul/Blues artists that never get air play anywhere else.
The focus market for Smokestack Lightnin’ is sophisticated music loving adults 21-70!
Just a few of the artists who are regulars on Smokestack Lightnin’ are Eric Clapton, The Original Fleetwood Mac, Ray Charles, B.B King, Bonnie Raitt, Little Milton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Robert Cray, Ruth Brown, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Savoy Brown, Joe Louis Walker, The James Harman Band, Junior Wells, Bobby Rush, Shirley Brown, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison, Robert Ward, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Dorothy Moore, The Tower of Power, Omar & the Howlers, Roomful of Blues, Albert Collins, Luther Allison, Elvin Bishop, Lowell Fulson, Phillip Walker, The Memphis Horns, Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Jimmy Dawkins, The Allman Brothers, Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, Tina Turner, Sonny Landreth , James Brown , Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke , Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Debbie Davies, Susan Tedeschi and many, many more. The Smokestack Lightnin’, archives include music by over 3500 artists who have made significant contributions to this great field of music. The music Smokestack Lightnin’ archive is imposing! In fact, at this time the producers of Smokestack Lightnin’ believe they possess the most comprehensive collection of post-war Blues, R&B, and Soul music in existence anywhere on CD. There is literally nothing of consequence in the genre that Ilakanickel Productions does not have.
From left to right: Rob McKinney, Tommy Thompson, Marvin Rooks (Marv R), Paul Newnum
Picture taken in 2007