Herb Kent was the Cool Gent. That was his title but it was also his life. He was the ultimate deejay and has died at 88 years old.
All of my life I have listened to Herb Kent. I don’t know what it is not to listen to him on air. He was a legend in his own life. He was one of the legendary set of deejays known as the Good Guys at WVON in the 1960s and ’70s. Herb was on the air consecutively longer than any other announcer in radio history, an achievement for which he was honored by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2009. He served at the microphone for 72 years, from 1944 to 2016, and he died like he wanted, after the show.
The press release from V103 said, “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 (October 22, 2016).” He was the master of the “dusties,” old school music, it is sometimes labeled. He kept that music alive simply by playing it and telling the stories of the artists.
All of my life I have listened to Herb Kent. I don’t know what it is not to listen to him on the air.
When Herb was at WVON, Motown came to Chicago to get their music played. There was no Pandora or Itunes then and it was a challenge to have Black music played on the radio. Herb made many stars. He had so many stories about the artists and was often the MC of the show. I am talking about Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Jerry Butler, Stevie Wonder, The Impressions, Mary Wells, James Brown, Jackie Wilson and even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the top deejay and he could make or break. And he did, mostly made the stars of the day.
Herb was a good guy. He was a jokester, full of fun all the time. Few knew that he was very sensitive. In 1996, in honor of his having been on the air for 50 years, NDIGO profiled Herb and his pictures were the coolest.
The editor of NDIGO, David Smallwood, was Herb’s biographer. As David was writing the book, The Cool Gent: The Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent in 2009, his research showed that Herb was the longest reigning person on radio. David did the work to place Herb in the Guinness Book of World Records. After listening throughout the years to Herb’s stories, I asked him to write a column in 1999 for N’DIGO and he did for about five years, called “Tales from the Kool School.”
It was fun to be in the studio with Herb because you never knew what would happen. He was a prankster. He was always current. I used to call him “Digital Daddy” rather than Herbie Baby, because he had all of the music on the computer and could just pull it up. If you were ever a guest on his program on Sundays, you participated with him in the “Battle of the Best,” where Herb took two artists and competed with his guest to see who was the best.
The listeners called in to vote for their favorite. Herb would play the music and tell stories about the artists. He was a walking encyclopedia and he cheated. He had books about the music. The last time I did the show I was for Aretha Franklin and he had another artist. He told me Aretha was in love with him, but really just wanted him for his body. Herb stop it, I said. He said, I am serious. Her husband showed up at my door telling me to leave her alone. I later verified that the story was true. Herb would said all the women loved him.
Herb supported every worthy community cause in Chicago. He was always present. His voice was magic, black velvet. He overcame cancer, which he contracted at age 60. He was no angel; he overcame addictive issues. He was always a classy guy. I loved his cowboy hat with his tuxedo. So cool.
There is not a black deejay in this town that has not had a Herb Kent experience or teachable moment. He was always encouraging and helpful to anyone in radio media. He was the master and he knew it and he shared it. He taught at Chicago State University to groom another generation.
His teaching was important to him because a professor had told him when he was in college in the 1940s and considering broadcasting as a career, that he wouldn’t go far in radio because he had a great voice but that he was “a Negro.” Blacks didn’t have many opportunities in the field at that time.
Herb told the professor, “Man, just give me my grade,” which was an A, and he went on to become the first Black announcer inducted into the Broadcast Museum’s Radio Hall of Fame. He was also just recently put into the National R&B Hall of Fame and has a street in Chicago named after him.
I, along with so many others, loved Herb Kent. To remember him, perhaps we should have the world’s largest and best steppers set in his honor. Herbie Baby was the coolest gent and Chicago radio will never be the same.
Below are final arrangements.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 28th
2:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Robey Park Manor Funeral Home
2510 Chicago Road
Chicago Heights, Illinois 60411
WAKE & HOMEGOING SERVICE
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 29th
9:00 AM — Wake
10:00 AM – Service
House of Hope
752 East 114th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60628