"I'm the Daddy of the Dee-Jays"

drawing of black workers in striped costumes

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 3, "Painting South." Find more from that issue here.

SUFFOLK, VA — The radio station manager told him, "Look, talk about Florsheim Shoes. Hofheimer's shoe stores has 'em."

So Jack Holmes, Virginia's first black disc jockey, told his listeners how good the footwear was. "Except," he recalls, "I called it 'Florshim.'"

The station manager's fury subsided after the store called. "'Don't yell at him,'" Holmes mimics the shoe merchant's enthusiasm. "'I just had to hire three more salesmen!'

"They told me I didn't have a radio voice, but that I came through like Arthur Godfrey," continues Holmes, a radio personality since 1947. His voice has sold enough products to fill the Yellow Pages.

At 72, "Daddy Jack" is southeastern Virginia's oldest on-air personality. But neither his voice nor his personality shows any sign of winding down. He's still in good shape, too — up at 3:30 a.m. and on the air from 5 to 9 at WRAP — where Holmes has done weather and sports for 25 years.

Holmes started in radio at WLOW in Norfolk, where he served in the Navy two years. The station was looking for someone to host a children's show. Several men, handsomely dressed, waited to audition. Along came Holmes, a bit ragged after driving his laundry truck for 10 hours.

"Reach, yes, reach for Sweet Peach Snuff," he ad-libbed. "Sweet Peach Snuff, do your stuff." He got the job. Holmes entertained the youngsters so well that the 15-minute spot soon became a half-hour program, and ultimately was extended to two hours. Later, he switched to spinning records, becoming Virginia's first black disc jockey.

He was known simply as Jack Holmes then. When he went up to 315 pounds, he was nicknamed "Jolly" Jack Holmes. He followed doctor's orders to lose 100 pounds; it took him three years. Now the patriarch dee-jay of Tidewater, Virginia, is the respected "Daddy" Jack Holmes.

Over the years there have been many changes. "In the early days they gave you a product, told you its name, its price, and where to get it. You filled in the rest. Now, it's all written down," he laments.

Back then, he played Nat "King" Cole, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Jordan. Eventually, rock and roll replaced jazz and swing. Holmes, an easy-going gentleman, played it, but says he didn't like "its wild beat" and "suggestive lyrics." Now he spins only gospel tunes.

Ironically, Holmes doesn't own a record player. Two gold records, however, adorn the home he shares with his wife Alice. One, "The Payback," is from James Brown; the other is Luther Ingram's "I Don't Want to Do Right." Holmes says proudly, "They gave them to me for helping them by playing their records."

He has had several other prestigious friends over the years: Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and all the Platters. "I was the only black on the radio, so it wasn't hard to meet them. And WLOW was the only black station in Virginia," says Holmes.

For a while, Holmes was a singer himself, on the road in the 1940s with white bands. "I went through all that going-in-the-back-door stuff," he recalls casually. "The rest of the band would stay in one place; I'd be in another. I didn't think much about it then. I just rolled with the punches." He went on to perform with the big bands of Claude Hopkins and Erskine Hawkins. Earlier he had sung his way through college. Now he sings with the Suffolk Community Male Chorus.

Holmes also experienced racism as a dee-jay in the '50s. "There were lots of phone calls — threats, sarcastic remarks, people telling me to get off the air," he remembers. "The police had to escort me. But while I was broadcasting I'd forget about it. I got wrapped up in the music."

Things have mellowed now: Holmes says most of his co-workers and fans have been supportive. He's proud of his endurance, and for him, the end is not in sight. "Dee-jays have come and gone," he observes. "I'm the oldest; I'm the daddy of all the jocks."