Itâ€™s not surprising that the authorâ€™s voice playing in our head while reading The Cool Gent (Lawrence Hill Books, $24.95) is a familiar one. With the exception of a few months in the 1970s, Kent has been a constant presence on local radio for a staggering 65 years, including his popular weekend dusties shows and a 15-year stint (starting in 1962) as one of WVONâ€™s legendary â€œGood Guys,â€ the most influential group of black DJs in the mediumâ€™s history. As the radio veteran-turned-author presents colorful anecdotes, music trivia and his broadcasting philosophy in an informal, conversational tone (with the help of journalist David Smallwood), itâ€™s impossible not to hear Kentâ€™s mellifluous vocal tones in your head.
Which makes it particularly jolting when the book shifts to a voice Kentâ€™s fans have never heard before. Sandwiched between tales of his broadcast days, related in his signature ultra-cool manner, is a devastating account of the five months after WVON fired him when, without a radio shift as a stabilizing element, the cocaine and alcohol that had been an integral part of his swinging â€™70s experience took over. Though he doesnâ€™t downplay the appeal of the wild lifestyle he led in his heyday (when celebrity status opened doors for sexual exploits, big cars and mountains of cocaine), Kent recounts the bad times in powerfully explicit, humbling detail.
â€œIt was the most vivid part of my life,â€ Kent recalls. â€œYou can push it to the back of your mind, but it was so degrading and traumatic that no matter how much you are trying to forget, itâ€™s just there.â€
Depressed and suicidal, his skinny frame wasting away to skeletal, the out-of-work DJ saw his house and car both literally explode and his possessions reduced to a couple of suits and a grocery bag of 45s. Though a later stint in rehab cleaned him up, he survived that dark period in part by returning to radio (buying brokered time on an obscure station, which he parlayed into huge ratings). But mostly his redemption came from a realization that Herb Kent, who had been run over by a car as a child, and who had provoked drug-induced fistfights with Chicago cops and lived to tell about it, was a survivor.
His rebirth resonates so profoundly because heâ€™s also a trendsetter. Though his radio personality stands as his greatest creation, over the years his innovations have transcended his over-the-airwaves activities. At WVON, he assembled a sketch comedy troupe, and created urban guerilla theater with his infamous Wahoo Man, a sore-covered ghetto bogeyman who jumped out of caskets at nightclubs and high schools. These routines had a profound influence on black Chicago comedians, including Bernie Mac and Tim Reid (who based his WKRP in Cincinnati character Venus Flytrap on Kent). His involvement with Southern Illinois Universityâ€™s Kappa Karnival helped pave the way for black college festivals like Atlantaâ€™s Freaknic. Kent even created a cross-city bike ride that preceded Critical Mass. But with The Cool Gent, the Mayor of Bronzeville hopes to create a more lasting legacy.
â€œHopefully somebody who is in the same place that I was is going to read this, and it just might motivate them to get cleaned up,â€ he says. â€œYou can continue, but the only place youâ€™ll end up if you do that is six feet under.â€
The Cool Gent is out February 1.
Down the dial – Time Out Chicago.