*How are you?” said the soothing voice at the start of his very popular Sunday Classics show on WBLS-FM. “This is Hal Jackson, the host that loves you the most, welcoming you to ‘The House That Jack Built.’ We’re rolling out the musical carpet, and we’ll be spinning a few just for you. So come on in, sit back, relax and enjoy your favorite recording stars from here to Mars.”
This is how many households spent their weekend, listening to the golden tone of pioneering radio host Harold “Hal” Jackson on WBLS-FM from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. that he co-hosted with his wife Debi B. If you look up the word iconic in the dictionary, it says, “relating to or characteristic of somebody or something admired as an icon. Mr. Jackson’s fame has grown to iconic proportions.
The veteran musicologist was a role model to many up and coming radio personalities; as well as many budding journalists — including yours truly. He was always bigger than life to me and I always called him Mr. Jackson. As I wouldn’t call his Inner City Broadcasting co-partner, the Honorable Percy E. Sutton, “Percy,” who started my career off in journalism, and wouldn’t call President Barack Obama “Barack,” I found it hard in calling him “Hal.” He would always joke with me. “Don’t make me feel old, Audrey. My name is Hal to you.” I would answer, “Yes, Mr. Jackson.”
Many of the famed guests who attended his last big birthday bash celebrating his 97th birthday at Battery Park also called him “Mr. Jackson.” The party was hosted by Mr. Jackson’s loving wife of 23 years, Debi B., and featured many tributes and special performances by many who looked up to him and used him as a sounding board including Stevie Wonder who led a soulful jam session featuring Valerie Simpson, Me’lisa Morgan, Melba Moore, Blue Magic’s Ted Mills and The Manhattan’s Gerald Alston, to name a few. Jeff Foxx also provided entertainment for the commemorative birthday bash. Wonder remembered joining forces with Mr. Jackson to honor the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by making his birthday a national holiday.
Mr. Jackson was visibly emotional at his 97th birthday celebration and told magazine editor Cynthia Horner whose firm, Cinnamon CHIPS, served as a publicity arm for The youth Development Foundation (YDF), sponsors of Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens International.
“Cognizant of the need to give young people exposure, he founded the first talent competition for young people of color, Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens International. The competition provided an important launching pad for such talented performers as Sheryl Lee Ralph, Vanessa Williams, Jada Pinkett (Smith), Michelle Thomas, CeCe Peniston, Allison Williams, and Me’lisa Morgan, all of whom went on to great heights in the fields of music, television and film,” said Horner. “Out of his own pocket, Mr. Jackson awarded approximately $2 million dollars in college scholarships to the competition’s winners and runners up for 40 years,” Horner added.
Mr. Jackson thanked everyone for attending the party and expressed how blessed he was. “I feel this is a great honor and privilege to have worked in broadcasting for 73 years and that I am very lucky to have had my health to hold up all of these years,” he said. “In those years you learn to help different people in different cities. I am lucky and blessed for the strength that I have so that I can help others. Thank God I have been blessed. I will pass this legacy on to the next generation.” And so he did.
There was a twinkle in his eyes and a broad smile on his face as he blew out the candles on his special cake. He looked like a man who was at peace. A look that only a legend can have; of a man who came, saw and conquered. Mr. Jackson saw it done a lot of ways; but He did it His way.
“He reminds me of why I got into radio,” stated WBLS program director Skip Dillard. “He’s a musicologist, believes in radio’s power to inform and serve the community.” Little did anyone think that this would be the last time they would be able to celebrate his birthday with him as he died on Thursday, May 24, 2012 from congenital heart disease.
The world’s longest living on-air personality accomplished many firsts in his lifetime including being the one to break the color barrier at several radio stations and the first minority inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame. He was one the giants in radio, with a career spanning more than seven decades. “Hal was the constant voice of Black America,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said. “From M.L.K. to a black president, he literally was the one who connected those dots.”
The wake was Wednesday (05-30) from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. It will be held at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home, Madison Avenue and 81st Street, New York City. Mr. Jackson’s funeral is today, Thursday, 11 a.m. at the Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive and 121st Street. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations made to: Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens International/Youth Development Foundation, 1230 Park Avenue, PH-A, New York, New York. (Exclusive photos by another friend, KENTHEPHOTOGRAPHER)
Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.