Nathanial Dowd Gaston Williams (Oct. 19, 1907 – October 27, 1983) was born on Beale Street— a true Memphian! He held degrees from Columbia and Northwestern and was the editor for the New York State Contender and a writer for the Memphis World and the Memphis Tri-State Defender. For 42 years, he taught at Booker T. Washington High School. He also edited the school’s newspaper, taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir, led a Boy Scout troop and co-ordinated the annual Tri-State fair. Nat D. Williams was also emcee, along with Rufus Thomas, of amateur night at the Palace Theater (Memphis’ answer to Harlem’s Apollo Theater). Somehow, he also found time for his wife and two kids.

In 1947, the white owners of WDIA, John Pepper and Dick Ferguson, put their radio station on the air from studios on Union Avenue, with a format of pop, country and western, and light classical music. By 1948, the radio station was on the verge of bankruptcy and faring so poorly that these two men did something desperate and unheard of in a strictly segregated Southern society— they hired the first openly black radio announcer. Nat D. Williams’ Tan-Town Jamboree was first broadcast at 4:00 p.m. on October 25, 1948. Little did the owners know of the untapped power of the underserved and unrecognized African-American community.

In the next year, with only partial black programming, the station raised its rank to number two in the Memphis market. Bomb threats were called in to the station, but the wild success of Williams’ program convinced the owners to make WDIA America’s first black radio station with an all African-American on-air staff programming black music all day long. It became Memphis’ top radio station and the first to gross a million dollars in a year. The station increased its signal from 250 watts to 50,000 watts and broadcast from the bootheel of Missouri to the Mississippi Gulf coast. Representatives from stations in other cities studied WDIA’s success, like WERD in Atlanta, which became the first black owned radio station in October of 1949.


Nat D. Williams brought along his friend, Rufus Thomas, and they, in turn, brought to the station their familiarity with Beale Street and its talent. B.B. King began his career on the station— promoting the cure-all elixir, Pepticon, and recording his first single at the station during off hours. Rosco Gordon, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Johnny Ace made some of their first recordings at the radio station. The station was the first to expose the talents of Little Milton and Junior Parker, gospel groups like the Spirit of Memphis and the Southern Wonders, and future Stax Records stars Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes.

One of the program directors, David Mattis, started the Duke record label and recorded much of the station’s talent. He later sold Duke to Don Robey in Houston. Disc jockeys like A. C. “Moohah” Williams, a biology teacher at Manassas High School, or former blues singer, Reverend Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, became familiar voices over the airwaves throughout the community and much of the Mid-South— along with Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert, Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade, and Robert “Honeyboy” Thomas. WDIA became an integral part of the Memphis community raising charity funds for needy children with its Goodwill and Starlight Revues.

youtube: ‪Rufus Thomas on WDIA‬

After the decline of Beale Street, WDIA became the single most empowering force for African-Americans in Memphis and beyond. It’s influence on musicians, including a Tupelo, Mississippi-bound Elvis Presley, is incalculable. It was sold by its original owners in 1957, but the radio station later played a large part in the renovation of Beale Street, the Stax museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. Clear Channel Communications bought WDIA in 1996.

youtube: ‪Pink Pussycat Wine‬

Nat D. Williams died of a stroke on October 27, 1983. Dale Patterson wrote that Williams would sign on to his program in this fashion:

“Well, yes-siree, it’s Nat Dee on the Jamboree, coming at thee on seventy-three (on the dial), WDIA. Now, whatchubet.” That was followed by a huge, full-bellied laugh and 90 minutes of the best rhythm-and-blues music around.

image credits: Robert A. Coleman Archives; WDIA; Michael Ochs Archives; WDIA

Comments
  1. Please do not leave out Memphian and Pioneer in Radio, Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg who started at WDIA and historically went on to be the first woman to own her own Stand Alone AM Radio Station in the country.. She had the Homemaker’s Show after Willa Monroe and went on with Honeymoon Garner to co-host and host several shows on the station. She is also in the DJ Exhibition in the Rock and Roll hall of Fame, 2006 Honoree in the Paley Center/Museum of Television and Radio’s 3 year Intitiative,”She Made It”, Smithsonian Institute, and recently mentioned several times in the musical MOTOWN on Broadway for her charismatic profile as an activist and peace-maker when she boldly took to the airwaves “quelling the Rebellion of ’67” on WJLB, addressing the un-rest in the city setting the example for others like Petey Green. On June 26, 2014, The Queen was acknowledged posthumously at the House of Representatives in Harrisburg, PA . presented by Representative Gainey to adopt a Resolution in her honor for her contribution in the Radio industry and citing her as a mover and shaker for civil rights. The Great Communicator. The Resolution received a unanimously vote. Martha Jean “The Queen” was married/divorced trumpeter arranger and orchestra leader, Luther Steinberg, )the brother of the first bassist for Booker T and the MGs, Lewie Steinberg). From Memphis to Motown. Martha Jean promises to be an even more discovered treasure in the near future.

    • Thank you, Diane Steinberg-Lewis, for pointing out the contributions of Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg and her inestimable contributions she made to the Memphis music scene, as did so many of the Steinbergs. “The Queen,” along with “Moohah” Williams, “Gatemouth” Moore, “Hot Rod” Hulbert, Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade, and “Honeyboy” Thomas, transformed the airwaves of Memphis and beyond. The Beale Street Brass Note for the whole Steinberg Family states:

      Martha Jean Steinberg started as a DJ with WDIA in 1954. She went on to DJ in Detroit and to become the first black woman to own a radio station. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

      Memphis and Detroit are certainly indebted to her. Much respect!

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