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Cleveland, Ohio radio personality from 1948 to 1958 and the first black disc jockey of the city.

William B. (Bill) Hawkins was born in Birmingham, Alabama on April 26th, 1909. The son of a Baptist minister, he came north to Indiana with his family at an early age and attended public schools and Butler College in Indianapolis. He also later attended Indiana University.

He married Blanche Hall in 1931 and they resided in Indianapolis and Chicago, before moving to Cleveland, Ohio in 1936.

Before his radio days, Hawkins is said to have organized vaudeville shows that appeared in hospitals, children’s homes and senior citizen residencies. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

In addition, Hawkins had a career as a Pullman Porter and dining car waiter with the New York Central Railroad Company that began in the late nineteen thirties. During his time with the railroad, he worked on the famous “Twentieth Century Limited” and “Mercury” lines that ran between New York and Chicago.

Along his travels, Hawkins was exposed to the world of black disc jockeys in various urban settings, but especially in Chicago. There he heard such well known luminaries as Jockey Jack Gibson, Al Benson and Jack L. Cooper, the first black disc jockey in America (who started his career in 1929). While in Chicago, he also studied at the Chicago School of Radio Technique.

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When he started his radio career in 1948, Bill Hawkins became the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, Ohio. He no doubt brought with him the style of the “Personality DJs” that he had experienced. These radio personalities were known as much for there presentational style and delivery as for the music they played.

They would often use rhyme for dramatic effect and Hawkins became a master of the technique. An example of his style would be…”Hey Cleveland…all you hep cats and chicks gather round, it’s time to dig the sounds of the man with the plan. This is Walkin’ and Talkin’ Bill Hawkins, walkin’ my walk and talkin’ my talk, back on the scene with my record machine. I’m gonna put more dip in your hip, more slide in your glide and make sure you know how to ride”.

He adopted the radio name, “Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins” and became very popular in the Cleveland metropolitan area as well as nearby communities such as Akron, Ohio. He started out doing gospel programs, but he became so popular for his R&B and Jazz shows, that he would sometimes broadcast different programs from separate radio stations in the same day.

Over the course of Hawkins radio career, he would work with Cleveland stations WJW, WHK, WDOK,WalkinTalkinphoto17.png WABQ and WSRS, which later became WJMO. WABQ and WJMO were the first two stations in Cleveland to be programmed entirely for an African-American audience and the contribution of Bill Hawkins was a major factor in their establishment.

He was also working for WJW at the time of Alan Freed’s arrival to the Cleveland radio scene in 1951 and is said to have been a major influence on Freed’s dj style and musical taste. It was an exciting time for radio, when “rhythm and blues” was being introduced to white audiences in large doses and marketed for the first time as “rock and roll”..

He was also famous for broadcasting live from the front window of a record shop of which he owned during the fifties. The store known as “Bill Hawkins Record Studio”, which was located on 105th st. between Cedar and Carnegie Avenues, became a staple of the black community.

He would simultaneously entertain the audience on the air with his audience on the street, playing the popular hits of the day while holding court with his charismatic presence and poetic banter.

The record shop also served as an important stopover for many celebrated recording artists during WalkinTalkinphoto15.pngthat time, who would have been in the midst of promoting their records and concert tours.

He hosted a cavalcade of stars from that record shop window that included Dinah Washington, Earl Bostic, Charles Brown, Mary Lou Williams, Laverne Baker, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Ruth Brown, Sam Cooke, The Drifters, The Dominoes, Erskine Hawkins (his first cousin) and many, many more.

In addition, the record shop housed his record label, Hawk Records. He recorded several local groups during the fifties, including Kitty Kaye & The Kats and Nate Spencer & his orchestra featuring the singer, Allen Thomas. And he was also known to have managed several recording artists including the Womack Brothers (singer Bobby Womack was one of them).

Bill Hawkins used his popularity and distinctive style to not only introduce records, but also to sell products. He had many sponsors and his ability to create market appeal can not be over-estimated. In fact, this ability was crucial in gaining access to the variety of radio stations in which he worked.

WalkinTalkinphoto13.pngHe would buy time from the radio stations to sell back to sponsors for a profit and he was so successful, that at one time he had the highest Hooper rating of any disc jockey in Cleveland (the Hooper Rating was a rating system used then for advertising). He was known as “the disc jockey with the super hooper”.

His first sponsor was Hot Sauce Williams Barbecue and he created an advertising campaign for them that proved to be a model for his typically successful future campaigns. In is commercial, he would say “Hot Sauce Williams…the only barbecue in town that can turn you around and make you chew on the bone long after the meat is gone”.

Hawkins also used his air-time to deal with community affairs and was often called upon to relate important information to his radio audience that was relevant to the black community. And in that regard, he was also often asked to appear in-person at community events as an MC or moderator or to do a remote broadcast to bolster attendance through his popularity.

At the height of his radio career, Hawkins was also a much-in-demand MC for concerts (some of WalkinTalkinphoto14.pngwhich he organized), nite-clubs, cabarets and private parties. He also organized talent shows all over the city and did much to create a supportive environment for showcasing young talent.

Hawkins was a regular on the Cleveland airwaves until 1958, when he was injured in an auto accident and suffered a jaw injury that affected his speech. Although he would make a couple of brief comebacks in subsequent years, he never returned to the stature of his heyday.

After leaving radio, he worked in several different professional capacities including sales, as a housing inspector for the city of Cleveland, for the Cuyahoga County Commissioners Office and for the Urban League.

Due to poor health, he retired in the early seventies and died on March 6, 1975 after a prolonged illness of multiple complications.

Bill Hawkins was a genuine pioneer in black radio, who opened the door for many who have followed. His legacy lives on.  

 


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