Hunter Hancock and Dewey Phillips Bring R&B to the Airwaves

Essential Question

How did Dewey Phillips and Hunter Hancock help bring Rhythm and Blues music to mixed race audiences?


Throughout much of the 20th century, African Americans engaged in the “Great Migration” moved from the rural South to points north, often urban centers. Their presence in cities from Memphis to Chicago and New York would have a profound impact on American culture in general, and on radio programming in particular.

African-American audiences were eager to hear music performed by African-American artists, particularly the new Rhythm and Blues sounds that had begun to emerge from earlier Blues and Jazz styles. In 1949, WDIA in Memphis hired a team of African-American disc jockeys and began gearing programming entirely toward African-American audiences, with R&B and Blues at its heart. In some cases, it was white disc jockeys who championed this music, playing it on radio stations that would bring together black and white audiences.

This lesson will focus on two of those DJs: Memphis’s Dewey Phillips, whose popular show “Red Hot and Blue” frequently featured music by African-American artists, and Los Angeles’s Hunter Hancock, widely regarded as the first DJ in the western part of the country to regularly play R&B on the air. Reaching both black and white audiences, these pioneering DJs played an integral role in bringing African-American music into the mainstream, a process that lay at the heart of the soon-to-come Rock and Roll revolution.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The cultural impact on 20th century American life of the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities
    • The growing desire of radio stations to market programming to the new urban African-American population
    • The pioneering role of disc jockeys Dewey Phillips (Memphis) and Hunter Hancock (Los Angeles) in playing Rhythm and Blues on the radio
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Use a variety of sources to write an original script for a radio broadcast
    • Common Core: Students will read, listen to and watch a variety of sources to gather information and draw historical and thematic connections (CCSS Reading 1; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Writing 8)
    • Common Core: Students will create a radio broadcast making strategic use of audio clips and other information to enhance their presentation (CCSS Writing 3; CCSS Speaking and Listening 4; CCSS Speaking and Listening 5)