Doing background research for this documentary has provided some colorful insights about popular culture 50 years ago. Today we learned about Jack the Cat.
Jack the Cat (his real name was Ken Elliot) was a World War II radio operator stationed in Okinawa who went on to become a DJ for New Orleans radio station WWEZ. Unlike stations affiliated with networks, “independent” stations like WWEZ couldn’t afford soap operas, quiz shows and radio dramas, according to the 1986 book Up From the Cradle of Jazz by Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, and Tad Jones. (The book was updated and republished last month.) “The independents saw music as an inexpensive alternative for attracting audiences wanting blues, R&B, country and western.”
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Jack the Cat became an overnight sensation. The show began each night with Elliot saying, “This is Jack the Cat”—broken by a music riff, dum dee dumm—”All right you cats and kittens, put on your jivin’ mittens!”
Elliot married Ann Bodenheimer, a secretary at the station, and the duo became a big hit on the duo-hop circuit run by Jim Russell. As Ann’s popularity grew, she became cohost of Ken’s show “The House that Jack Built.” As the counterpart of Jack the Cat, Ann became Jacqueline the Kitten. The show came on weeknights from eight to ten, and oddly enough, originated from their living room in suburban Harahan. The Elliots had three young sons, Mark, Keith, and Ricky; the home broadcasts became a mildly chaotic family affair, something like the atmosphere on the “Ozzie and Harriet” television show, with Jack and Jacqueline conversing with the kids between records and occasionally sibling quarrels erupting the in the background.
WWOZ deejay Duke Degas recalls, “Jack the Cat used to come on at night, saying, ‘This is Jack the Cat, sayin’ where y’at, from the house that Jack built, right on the banks of the muddy Mississippi.’ And you can drive down lovers’ lane on Saturday night behind the Coast Guard station off the seawall by Lake Pontchartrain, and all these couples were parked in their cars, and every car had on Jack the Cat.”
Sadly, Elliot died of a heart attack in 1969. By then the couple had divorced and the British Invasion had driven R&B DJs off the air. But we will always be grateful to Jack the Cat for getting the Hawketts to record the R&B classic “Mardi Gras Mambo.” You can hear the song here. (Click on “Play All.”)