By Robert Walker
Lee harkens back to the “hey-days” of radio prior to the internet’s arrival, when people knew the voice first before the face. He had the distinction of being an integral part of the community affairs department for WBLS where getting out to the many entertainment and charity events as the station’s “good-will” ambassador meant that many listeners also knew his face even more so than other radio personalities, because of his constant presence.
This is something that Bob knew early on in his career, that he wanted to be a part of a station that had a real sense of community and care for those who regularly tuned into the station. And It was something about being able to “give back” through the many charitable events the station gave or participated with, that fueled Lee’s passion for radio beyond the love of music.
Today, some 40 years later, that is what still fuels his passion as Bob Lee’s name and stature has allowed him to be the media personality at large with his continued work at WBLS, his own cable talk show, hosting or being the M.C. at various expos such as Circle of Sisters, at Harlem Week, and at the Apollo Theater, as well as a range of other media outlets from acting in small roles in movies, television, commercials, and as an author of several non-fiction books.
I spoke with Bob recently about his illustrious career and his tireless work to give back’
Robert Walker: Thanks for taking this time to chat with me and letting our readers learn more about you and your life’s work Bob. You are one of New York’s most recognizable on-air personalities as radio show host and Community Affairs Director for WBLS Radio, one of the largest African-American owned commercial radio stations in the country. How long have you been with WBLS and tell us what it has meant to you working with a station that really has set the tone for how many commercial radio stations operate in serving largely Urban communities around the country?
Bob Lee: Well, I have been with the station since 1980. I did an internship under Frankie Crocker. I also worked with Hal Jackson and Vaughn Harper. I did the weekend edition of “The Quiet Storm” under Vaughn Harper. I worked a lot in the community, with several radio stations, starting with ‘BLS, and then I went over to 99X, WXLO which turned into 98.7 KISS FM. Just really getting my feet wet and exploring the New York radio market.
Then I got a call from WBLS asking me to come back to work with this young radio personality named, “Mr. Magic” and with their radio station promotional band, and that led to us doing events all over the city for WBLS and WLIB.
I think, because we are in the #1 radio market in the world, being in New York City, a lot of radio stations looked up to WBLS. You could travel to cities around the country, like take I-95 all the way South to Florida, and people would tell me that they recorded our show, or that someone sent them a tape of the shows. And so, as I traveled and would tune into radio stations, they all were emulating our programs on ‘BLS.
Of course, today, you can tune into internet or satellite radio and listen to WBLS radio directly all the way across the country. So, yes – WBLS is the “flagship” radio station that mostly all urban radio stations took their cue from. We set the pace and the tone for everyone else.
RW: So, when you say you traveled with Mr. Magic in the early days as part of the promotional band, are you originally a musician or singer that got into radio?
BL: No – I was part of the road crew that would set up the bands and the drummer for the station, wherever they had a show in the city to promote the station. Now, I always loved bands, probably could have gone that route. I always wanted to play the bass guitar. In fact, just last year at the New York City Marathon, Jeff Fox handed me a bass guitar and said, “here, just go through the motions of playing”. I knew how to go through the motions without a guitar in my hands, but here I was on a stage fulfilling my fantasy as a professional bass guitarist! (Big Laugh).
RW: Who were some of the radio personalities you listened to a kid coming up? Who would you say has had the biggest impact on your career in radio? And did you grow up in New York?
BL: I am a New Yorker. I grew up in Long Island, Queens – in Queensbridge, one of the largest housing projects in the nation. In my first book, “7 Ways to Make the Grade”, I talk about my time there. The radio stations we listened to back then were WABC, and shows like the MCA Good Guys with their (Bob goes into his radio announcer voice) “Super music 16 – WWRL where we celebrate the rhythms of life!” – radio sayings like that (he says with a chuckle).
Guys like, Gary Byrd, Frankie Crocker, Jerry Bledsoe, Jeff Troy, Hank Span – Hank Span used to say, “Brotherman from this motherland, Sister too, if you can, be nice to somebody short, you never know when someone short has to be nice to you! Standby for my main man, Bobby Jay! I am in the wind New York…Later!” (We both have a good laugh).
That was at WWRL in nearby Woodside, Queens on AM Radio. AM Radio is what we listened to in those days! And whenever these voices would appear at a local event, like Hal Jackson who’d have on his jean pants tucked into his boots, and a jean jacket – it was like seeing radio royalty. The voices you grew up with, personified on a stage right there for you to see. That was so cool to me, and I said, wow – that’s what I’d like to do. I think I can do that!
Gary Byrd was my earliest influence, and then later, by the time I arrived at the radio station realizing this is a career path I wanted to take on, it was Hal Jackson, Frankie Crocker, and guys like Gerry Bledsoe and Vaughn Harper.
RW: Tell us what your roles at WBLS entail in terms of your daily activities?
BL: Well, from my earliest days, I wanted to be involved with radio because I love the community it serves, and I always was attracted to ways to have community interaction with the people, our listeners. In fact, that was one of the mandates I was hired for, was to bring the people and the station together as the Community Affairs Liaison.
See, we were pretty much just an on-air station back then, and when WBLS decided that we were going to be on the ground at events, I was the guy to help make that interaction occur. And so through the years, we stayed connected with as many of the community events all over the city, such as the Martin Luther King Concert Series; Harlem Week; Summer Stage events; and so many others. And we maintain going to the schools. I have been to just about every school throughout the “tri-state” area, at least once.
I started the “On Time” program going back many years ago with Mr. Magic – I even ran into Kurtis Blow recently who said he remembers going to various schools with us – so, that tells you how far back we started this work, going back to the early days of rap music. This was our way to encourage kids to go to school, stay in school, and be there when they are supposed to be in class. That is something we still maintain all of these years later. From Ken Webb back then to Steve Harvey today, I am still visiting the schools.
RW: Of course, NYC, and WBLS, has been home to some awesome on-air talent over the years, many you have already mentioned from Vaughn Harper and Frankie Crocker, and I would be remiss to not mention the Chairman Of The Board, and Co-Founder of Inner City Broadcasting, Percy Sutton. Did you know each of these gentlemen and what do you remember the most about them and their impact on WBLS and Radio in general?
BL: They meant the world to me, I mean those guys were the real professionals in radio, and whenever you are aspiring to a professional career, you have to learn how to do as those pros did, and follow in the footsteps of those who paved the way and set the standards. These were the people you would look to polish up your act.
You know, I talk to young people all of the time that when you copy someone you admire and who is a professional, it pays off for your success. And whenever I would get a negative response about copying someone else, I tell them that you have your own unique personality that will allow you to achieve your own success and destiny in your craft, you just use what successful people did before you as a guide.
Percy Sutton was, of course, the businessman who joined forces with Mr. Radio, Hal Jackson, to acquire first WLIB and then WBLS. They were both great guys and great role models. A lot of the people involved back then like Mayor, David Dinkins, Roberta Flack, Roscoe Lee Brown, they all teamed up with Hal and Percy, got a loan from Chemical Bank, and Inner City Broadcasting was born.
RW: You are of course a Personality at Large, especially in NYC where you also have a Cable Talk Show – “One”; you also hosts live music shows at Harlem Summer Stage and at the world famous Apollo Theater, I even see where you have done some acting in the short film, Paris Blues In Harlem co-starring with great talent, including the late Charles Weldon and the movie’s creator, Nadhege Ptah. How did doing television and acting in movies come along?
BL: Yes, I do a show called Open on Bronxnet TV which is seen all over the world. It’s a whole lot of fun to do and it comes on each and every night right after the quiet storm airs on WBLS, and I regularly M.C. shows across New York from the Apollo Theater, Circle of Sisters, and Harlem Week.
How the film short, Paris Blues In Harlem, came about – I had Nadhege Ptah on my talk show and after the interview, I said to her (jokingly), you know I am SAG/AFTRA actor. She was like, Oh – wow, you are? Great.
I get a call from her two weeks later saying she’d like for me to play a role in the film. What a great honor to get to work with the late Charles Weldon, and with Tonya Pinkins, Arthur French, Michele Baldwin. But you know, I have been doing small roles in films and on TV for years now.
I was in Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ as one of the cops in the riot gear. You couldn’t see my face and I got wet all night as the scene called for water hoses during that film’s riot scene. I had to change clothes at least 3 or 4 times that night while shooting that scene (Big Laugh), but I was in that movie.
I was in that Shaft movie with Samuel L. Jackson. I was an inmate with Jeffrey Wright’s character, “Peoples”. Now that’s a serious actor…all business, but a great guy. They wanted me to come back the next day, but I couldn’t because I had another commitment with one of our radio sponsors, and I could mess that up, so they had to re-shoot that whole jail scene (he says with a humorous sigh).
I was in a film with Harrison Ford who was so much more relaxed, you know, in between takes, he wouldn’t just stay in his trailer, he’d come out and mix it up with the fellow actors and crew. He made everyone feel so comfortable around him. If I were a movie star, that’s how I would do it. Have fun with it. I have done many of the cop drama series, like ‘Law & Order’, where I have played a cop, a lawyer. Just really got a lot “extra” work, while maintaining my schedule at WBLS.
I have done commercials and many voice over jobs for companies, so – I have done some things in that vein. (He says with a chuckle).
RW: You are also very involved with charitable work. Who are some of the organizations you work with and support? And, please share their websites where our readers can log onto and support as well.
BL: Yes. I have a passion for helping others get what they need out of life. That’s a paycheck for me not in cash, but knowing I helped others to prosper is what’s close to my heart.
Early on I started work with a young man by the name of Hank Carter who deals with the Wheelchairs Charity, Incorporated, and Hank has raised millions of dollars over the years. Coming up, he is involved with buying buses to help people bound to wheel chairs, but who want to just be treated with human dignity, to be able to get around with this bus service. I have been working with Hank and this service for a very long time, and will continue to do so.
When I came up with the WBLS On-Time program, I would visit the kids in school and would always put them on the air, ask them to say their names and say what they wanted to do when they graduated. And you know what, more times than not, when they say it to 3 or 4 million people listening in, they really try to follow their dreams.
So now, I get adults who come up to me to thank me and say, I remember you had me on the air talking about what I wanted to become, and I did just that. I say to them, how old were you then? They respond with 13 or 14 years old; and I would reply, well now we are the same age, and it always gets a great laugh, but I see the appreciation in them, and that does my heart good, to see that.
You know, I knew that I wanted to extend this On-Time program and start a foundation. I remember taking a shower one day and having this epiphany while running through some titles, and there it was – the Make The Grade foundation. Man, I came running out of the shower dripping water everywhere, slippin’ and slidin’ everywhere because I was so excited. Wrote that name down on a paper that I still have, all smeared from the water (Big chuckle).
You know, it really does take a village to raise a family, and our Make The Grade Foundation consists of several components that includes a collaboration between, parents, teachers, students, community, clergy with financial literacy and health care involved in the mix.
So when I wrote the first book with those components, the book was aptly titled, 7 Ways To Make The Grade: A Living Guide to Your Community’s Success: Parents, Teachers, Students, Community, Clergy, Health & Financial Literacy.
That book is part autobiographical, inspirational, and a motivational book that people are still buying today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and on iTunes.
That was the 1st of 4 books. The second book is Your Daily Dose of Quotes & Anecdotes: Featuring WORDS of WISDOM to Help You MAKE the GRADE. I started reading the quotes from the book on the air for inspiration. But, I started to run out of quotes from the book, and that led me to the third book, Your Daily Dose of Quotes…Part 2.
Well, it occurred to me that while providing these wonderful quotes as inspiration, we should be telling who the people were we were quoting from – we should be telling their stories. Who were they?
You know, Ann Tripp and I would go around to schools during Black History Month and talk about these great historical figures, and that’s what led me to this 4th book. But, of course, there are so many great historical figures that go beyond just one month of identifying who these historical figures are.
So the title of the 4th book, just released People to Know in Black History & Beyond: Recognizing the Heroes and Sheroes Who Make the Grade. The Beyond relates to our belief that these people should be recognized and learned about beyond just the one month in February. They are role models for us in our daily lives.
And Beyond is also the recognition of Black Heroes and Sheroes, beyond African Americans. There were many white people who sacrificed themselves and livelihood for the liberation and wellbeing of blacks, on the Underground Railroad, during the Civil Rights movement and throughout this country’s history. We want our youth to know that as well.
And of course, the teachings of Gandhi, whom Dr. Martin Luther King respected, and more recently, Malala Yousafzai, who defied the Taliban as a young girl in Pakistan and demanded that girls be allowed to receive an education. For her activism, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012. Not only did she survive, but she also went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
All heroes Beyond the scope of Black History during one month that fits well for our mission at Making The Grade Foundation.
RW: How can people reading this interview find out more about your Make The Grade Foundation in support?
BL: Make the Grade can be found on social media at www.makethegrade.org, or email us at: Makethegrade4U@gmail.com. And the books can be purchased on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble; on iTunes and you can download them on your Kindle.
RW: I always close out my interviews with this question: If you were asked to give the commencement speech for the graduating class of 2019 at New York University, what would your message be to the hundreds of young graduates facing their new adventure as adults?
BL: I would motivate them to be inspired to always keep reaching to that next level. This is something I actually have a speech about. For continued success, you must continue to prepare, to be prepared for the opportunities you seek and that will come.
RW: Finally Bob, when it is all said and done, what would you want to be written on your epitaph. How do you want people to remember you?
BL: It’s funny you ask that because that is exactly what I asked an 85-year-old successful man in an interview I did recently. He paused, and then he started to tear up because usually, you associate that kind of question with being at the end… you are on your way out.
I thought about it and began to empathize about the question (we both chuckle a bit), but his answer was, I want to be remembered and recognized for having done God’s work. And you know, I think that is exactly how I’d like to be remembered, and that I always worked to help others get what they needed out of life. That’s what makes me happy.
RW: Thank you, Bob Lee. This has been great fun for me as I have followed your on-air career for years! We look forward to many more years of your books, community service and you being on WBLS.
Photo credit: Bob Lee via Getty Images.
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