Legendary WVON-AM disc jockey Pervis Spann, who helped build a Black radio powerhouse in Chicago, died Monday at 89 at his South Side home from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Spann’s melodious voice and catchphrase on the overnight shift — “Pervis Spann, the BLUES man” — helped countless fans, workers and college students get through all-nighters by listening to their transistor radios.
The native of Itta Bena, Mississippi, “went very quickly from being a sharecropper to a shareholder,” said his daughter Melody Spann Cooper, chair and chief executive officer of Midway Broadcasting Corporation, which owns WVON.
His broadcast career lasted more than 60 years. He was hired at WVON by Leonard Chess, co-founder of Chess Records, who bought the station in 1963, according to Shawnelle Richie, speaking for the Spann family.
He became known as one of WVON’s “Good Guys” — a group of star DJs that included the late Herb Kent.
Mr. Spann — who also worked as a concert promoter — was credited with boosting the careers early on of Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and the Jackson 5.
Mr. Spann “was the one who named Aretha Franklin the ‘Queen of Soul,’ ” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
“My dad knew she was going to be a force of nature,” his daughter once told WLS-TV. At the Regal Theater in the 1960s, “he actually crowned her the ‘Queen of Soul,’ and the rest is history.”
Growing up at their home, she said, “It was nothing to wake up, and B.B. King would be here or Johnnie Taylor.”
In the early ’60s, Mr. Spann and another of the “Good Guys,” E. Rodney Jones, helped buy the Burning Spear nightclub at 55th and State streets, where the Jackson 5 won their first major talent show, his daughter said.
Jackson called him “a conduit who came to Chicago shining the light on the talents of such greats as B.B. King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Golden ‘Big’ Wheeler. The blues became more prevalent because of Pervis Spann. He was the promoter of our culture, an astute businessman and an asset to our organization. WVON put us all on the map.”
In a 2013 tribute to the “Good Guys” and WVON’s then-50 years of broadcasting, U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., said, “These personalities became so informational and influential that, during the riots after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, they called for calm and peace, and people began to listen to them.”
Davis said WVON helped swing crucial votes to Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman in the U.S. Senate, and President Barack Obama.
Mr. Spann also bought radio stations in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Florida, and Memphis.
In a 2013 Chicago Sun-Times interview, he said: “I am the first Black American that built a 50,000-watt radio station on United States soil. And I built it in Memphis. . . This was in the 1980s. I could listen to my station in Memphis riding up and down the Dan Ryan Expressway.”
After Chess died in 1969, WVON went through a series of ownership changes. Mr. Spann and fellow “Good Guy” DJ Wesley South formed Midway Broadcasting Corporation in 1979 to run the station.
Growing up in Mississippi, Mr. Spann was picking cotton before he was 10 years old, according to an oral history done for the website the HistoryMakers. By 15 or so, he was managing a Black theater in Itta Bena. Later, he followed his steelworker-father James Henry Spann to Indiana, where he worked construction for Youngstown Sheet and Tube in East Chicago, he said in the interview.
During the Korean war era, he served stateside in the Army.
He made two unsuccessful stabs at public office — in 1991, when he ran in Chicago’s Republican mayoral primary, and in 1999, when he ran for the Chicago City Council in the 18th ward. For that campaign, James Brown came to the South Side to stump for him, telling the DJ’s supporters “I Feel Good” about the endorsement.
Melody Spann Cooper said of her father: “He wanted us to be educated. He felt there was no ceiling to what we could become or what we could be. He was a workaholic. He never drank. He never smoked.
“He was such a good father that any guy who I ever dated, if he was not up to par, I just couldn’t be with him,” she said. “He used to teach us, ‘There’s no big me’s and little you’s. You want to treat the prisoner like the president.’ ”
Mr. Spann is also survived by his wife of 67 years Lovie, his son Darrell, who was his caretaker, and daughters Latrice Levitt and Chanté Spann. Funeral arrangements are pending.