There was a time when the radio disc jockey was a true celebrity. It was a status that was earned and deserved. One of those stars in St. Louis was Gil Newsome. But it was his work prior to becoming a DJ that made him stand out from the crowd.
As a college student vacationing in Newport News, Va., he got a radio job from a station manager impressed by Gil’s voice. He took an offer in Richmond, Va., because they offered him more money - a whopping $15 a week. He moved up to Cincinnati, then Philadelphia and then to the big time.
In the 1940s, Newsome worked as a fill-in announcer for the Glenn Miller Band on the “Chesterfield Time” radio broadcast on CBS. The gig was enough to get Newsome noticed by some of the big guys in programming, and he was hired as the first master of ceremonies for “Coca Cola’s Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands,” a national broadcasting job he held for four years.
The program traveled to military installations around the U.S. during World War II and did remote big band broadcasts in front of the troops. John Dunning, writing in his “Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio,” quotes a typical announcer’s script for the program: “As Charlie Spivak signs his musical signature in Coca-Cola’s guest register, it’s been night number 731 for the Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands, and we’ve marched 896,415 Spotlight miles.”
Gil Newsome hit St. Louis in 1945, taking a DJ job at KWK, and he became one of the hardest-working personalities in the market. Stella Pollack, writing in the May 1950 issue of “Prom” magazine, noted, “His work doesn’t end when he gives that familiar sign-off at the end of a radio show; it’s just beginning!
“From the station he’s off to emcee a youth program, officially open a new teen town, appear at a high school or at a church. In the past five years Gil has made over a thousand public appearances for his favorite fans, the teenagers of this area! Get paid for it? Not exactly - Gil says it’s so much fun he’s more than well-paid.”
Gil Newsome’s first contract at KWK was for one year. He stayed at the station for 16 years. In 1946, Newsome began a Saturday morning show called the “Teen Thirty O’Clock Club.” Originating from the KWK studios at the Chase Hotel, the record show gave the teenage members of the studio audience a chance to win record albums by giving the correct answers to questions on the air.
Soon the crowds of teens exceeded the studio capacity and the show was moved to the big auditorium at St. Louis House at Jefferson and Lafayette, where over 1,000 audience members could be accommodated.
Over his years at KWK, Gil Newsome became the voice of St. Louis teenagers. He was honored by the Mound City Press Club (The area’s “Negro Press”) for furthering teenage race relations and received dozens of letters of praise from high school principals, civic leaders and parents, praising him for all his work with kids.
His programs were a regular stop for the top entertainers of the day: Bob Hope, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, Stan Kenton, Johnny Desmond, Billy Williams and Bill Haley and the Comets. Often he’d treat them to one of his wife’s home-cooked meals afterward.
Just how good was Newsome? He was ranked among the nation’s top 30 DJs for the movie “Disc Jockey,” was voted the top disc jockey in the country in “Variety” magazine, and later was written up in the book “The Deejays” by Arnold Passman. In 1951 he was paid a salary of $35,000 a year.
In 1961, Gil Newsome left KWK for an announcer’s job at KSD, making a logical musical progression to an adult audience, many of whom had grown up with him. He died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 49.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 7/2006)