Great Memories of a Jazz DJ
Jesse “Spider” Burks was given his unique nickname by Nat “King” Cole because of his agility on the college basketball court. But when it came to his performance on the radio, his focus was straight ahead toward jazz, and that focus led to some serious confrontations with station owners and managers.
From 1947 to 1956, Spider held court on KXLW, but it wasn’t easy getting his foot in the door there. His widow, Leah Sue Burks, remembers the story of a Mr. Benton who owned a record shop on Easton Avenue. He had purchased time on KXLW and he wanted Spider to be the announcer during his half-hour show. Station owner Guy Runnion was always looking for ways to create advertising income, so he agreed. Mr. Benton’s shop saw an increase in business, and Runnion hired Burks as a disc jockey and expanded his time on the air. Burks would sell advertising to supplement his relatively meager wages.
A KXLW promotional article in a local newspaper in 1949 noted, “Spider Burks, the first* Negro discer (sic) in the St. Louis area, is a Be-bop enthusiast, even to wearing a Be-bop cap.” And a funny thing was happening to “race Radio” in St. Louis. White teenagers were tuning in.
Tony Cabanellas of St. Louis was “just a kid” back then, but he was a regular listener. He even has a clipping about Spider Burks from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat July 1, 1951, headlined “Disc Jockey is Proof A Negro Can Go Places in Radio Here.” It boasts the fact that Burks was pulling down $20,000 a year at KXLW, which would have come as no surprise to record companies. They knew that any record played on his programs would jump off the shelves of local record stores.Talk to some of these listeners today, and they’ll tell you of their fond memories of hearing Spider on the radio. His afternoon shows on KXLW were called “After School Swing Session,” “The House of Joy” and “Down in the Alley Behind My House.” You could tune to KXLW in 1955 and hear him kick off his broadcast with “Good afternoon, someone. This is your boy Spider Burks climbing into your loud speakers for another afternoon to dust the grooves and change the needle on another “House of Joy show.”
But Leah Sue Burks says it wasn’t easy. There was pressure from the station’s new owners to play some of the new music, called rhythm & blues. Things came to a head, and in 1956, Spider Burks took his jazz and bop show to KSTL. During his career, which also included on-air work at KATZ and KADI-FM, Spider did hundreds of live remotes from jazz clubs in the region.
A former business partner, Jorge Martinez, said Burks knew how to work a crowd, “He had a great radio voice and always handled himself well on the air.”
When Spider was doing a remote, you never knew what kind of audience would show up. There are literally hundreds of people around today who would sneak into the jazz clubs as underage fans to hear the likes of Getz, Bird, Chet Baker and others. And if they couldn’t get past the bouncer, they’d stay outside to listen.
Virgil Matheus, who grew up in St. Louis, said Burks “educated you. He was big on modern jazz and he explained it to the listeners. I was 14. I’d come home from school and turn on the radio and it just blew me away. It was Bop.”
From his wife’s perspective, Spider Burks’ career was a team effort. Although she wasn’t always directly involved in his work, Leah Sue Burks says “If I said I wanted to come to the station, he’d let me. I put shows together for him, typing up the song sheets. For the remote broadcasts I’d do the pre-interviews.”
Spider Burks owned interest in several clubs over his career and he was known to drive around in his big, pink Cadillac. He owned a horse farm and was dedicated to playing and promoting jazz. When that was no longer profitable to radio stations, Burks left the business and began working with inmates to ease their transition from jail into the community. Spider Burks died in September of 1974. The East St. Louis Monitor, in Burks’ obituary, called him one of the area’s sharpest dressers.
*Recent research indicates that Wiley Price, Jr. is St. Louis’ first Black DJ.