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.
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.
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