Tuesday, July 18, 2000

Douglas 'Jocko' Henderson, 82; a pioneering radio personality

By Rashod D. Ollison

He was neither the imitator nor the duplicator, but the originator. The "Ace from Outer Space," Douglas "Jocko" Henderson, pioneering radio personality, died Saturday evening at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. He was 82.

Mr. Henderson, known for his class, elegance and rhyming patter on-air, started his career in his native Baltimore at WSID-AM in 1952. Seven months later, in 1953, he accepted an offer from WHAT-AM (1340) in Philadelphia and took on the name "Jocko."

It was here that he began rhyming everything he said in a style that would later influence countless other disc jockeys, as well as the rap music genre. Less than a year later, he moved up the Philadelphia dial to WDAS AM-FM, where he remained well into the '60s.

"I had the utmost respect for him as a person and talent," said WDAS radio personality Joe "Butter" Tamburro. "He had the smoothness and grace of any great broadcaster I've ever met."

When he was a teenager, Tamburro, a South Philadelphia native and 36-year radio veteran, said, he met Mr. Henderson for the first time.

"Jocko was so special, you know," Tamburro said with almost worshipful reverence. "I ran into him on 52d Street. I had to be 16 years old at the time, and there he was. His greatest legacy, I believe, was his warmth. Even a basic hello was so special."

Jerry "The Geator" Blavat, respected DJ and host of The Geator Gold Radio Network, said Mr. Henderson had inspired him to pursue a career in radio.

"We were friends for 46 years," Blavat said on his cellular phone en route to New York. "He was there for my first baby's christening. He was my mentor, the epitome of a classy black radio personality."

Before he became "The Geator," Blavat worked in record promotion, where he met Mr. Henderson.

"I used to bring him, along with new records, these chocolate-covered frozen bananas on a stick," Blavat said. "He loved them. I believe if he had been white, if he had done format radio at that time, he would have been a big national star."

Mr. Henderson's father, an educator, expected his son to follow the same career path. Although he chose another, Henderson never forgot the importance of education, particularly for young people. After making a run for Congress in the Second District in 1978, he spent much of his time promoting his "Get Ready" program to school districts around the country. Henderson used recordings of himself teaching children everything from multiplication tables to American history with rap lyrics.

"Jocko was in the schools in the '50s, telling the students the importance of speaking properly," said filmmaker Robert Woodard, whose new documentary Legends of the Airwaves traces the impact of Mr. Henderson and other radio personalities.

"The film captures what the people felt for these guys," Woodard said. "We have to study what personalities like Jocko did, how they were able to magically bring people together with music."

During his peak years, when he wasn't on the air, Mr. Henderson hosted shows at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and at Loew's State, Broadway's first rock-and-roll review.

His Rocket Ship Show at the Apollo was something of a legend. Suspended from the ceiling by wires, he would swing onto the stage on a rocket accompanied by smoke, rhyming and rapping to the audience.

At one time, he had daily two-hour taped shows for stations in Boston, New York, St. Louis and Detroit and a three-hour program for a Miami station, in addition to his Philadelphia show. After two years of that exhaustive routine, he left radio to concentrate on a TV show, Jocko's Rocket Ship Show, on WNTA New York. It lasted for about a year.

Although he blazed trails for such radio luminaries as Tom "The Fly Jock" Joyner as well as his own son, WDAS DJ Douglas Henderson Jr., Jocko also was known for his love of life.

"He was an all-round nice guy," Woodard said. "The man had the ability to speak so clearly. His speech and diction was superb. He was so suave. He was Mr. Debonaire."

Survivors include his wife, Jane, and their son. Funeral arrangements were pending.

Rashod D. Ollison's e-mail address is rolliso@phillynews.com