The Crusader Newspaper Group

Pervis Spann, WVON pioneer and Chicago icon dies at 89

By Erick Johnson

Pervis Spann, who helped boost the careers of many radio personalities, disc jockeys and successful recording artists as he transformed WVON into the “Voice of the Negro” and later, the “Voice of the Nation,” died Monday, March 14. He was 89.

On its Facebook page, WVON said Spann died after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

WVON radio host Perri Small, during her morning show, announced Spann’s death and made note of his immense contributions as co-founder of the station’s parent company, Midway Broadcasting Corporation, where Spann served as President Emeritus until his death.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete as of Crusader press time Wednesday, March 16, for its print edition.

Known as the “Bluesman,” Reverend Jesse Jackson said Spann was “a promoter of our culture.”

“He was also a conduit who came to Chicago shining the light on the talents of such greats as B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Golden “Big” Wheeler,” Jackson said.

“The blues became more prevalent because of Pervis Spann. He was the promoter of our culture, an astute businessman and an asset to our organization.”

Longtime WVON Radio Host Cliff Kelley, whose birthday falls on the same day as Spann’s death, said “He created a lot of opportunities for people at the station. Many people would not have known blues without Spann.”

“He was just the kind of guy you got along with, “Kelley said. “When I tried to leave [the office], he always said Cliff before you go, I got another story.”

Spann’s broadcasting career spanned more than 60 years.

In 1968, Spann personally crowned Aretha Franklin the “Queen of Soul” at the Regal Theater in Bronzeville. That historic event transcended Spann’s status beyond radio, as recording artists across Chicago and the nation saw his potential to impact their music careers.

Spann was born on August 16, 1932, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a small town where former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry and several other blues musicians were born.

At an early age, Spann’s mother suffered a stroke. By the age of 10, Spann was picking cotton as he took care of his mother. At 14, Spann managed the Dixie Theater, a local group that employed all Black entertainers.

In 1949, Spann moved with his mother and sister to Battle Creek, Michigan. He later moved to Gary, Indiana, to work with his father, James Henry Spann, at the Sheet and Tube construction company in East Chicago.

Restless, Spann again moved, this time to San Francisco where he attended junior college before moving back to the Chicago area. Toward the end of the Korean War, Spann enlisted in the U.S. Army. After his military service Spann returned to Chicago, taking a job as a cab driver in Gary and enrolling at the Midway Television Institute on the GI Bill. In 1963, WVON radio was born as a 24-hour blues station when brothers Phil and Leonard Chess purchased it after starting Chess Records in Chicago in 1950. That same year, Spann was the second disc jockey hired by Leonard Chess.

Spann became the “all-night blues man.” He gained notoriety with an on-air 87-hour “sleepless sit-in,” raising money for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., according to the HistoryMakers, the Chicago-based, national oral database of Black achievers in America.

In the 1960s, Spann managed talented performers, including B.B. King, who was from Berclair, Mississippi, near Spann’s hometown.

As a disc jockey, Spann booked major acts, including the Jackson 5 and Aretha Franklin. He owned several South Side clubs in Chicago, including the Burning Spear at 55th and State Street, where the Jackson 5 from Gary won their first major talent show.

He was a great friend to Chicago historian and entertainment mogul Herman Roberts, who established an empire of motels, nightclubs and entertainment venues on the South Side. Roberts died last year.

Spann helped Roberts expand his outdoor nightclub shows that included Detroit native Della Reese, according to Roberts’ widow, Sonja, who now lives in Las Vegas. Sonja Roberts also said Spann helped with another club at 47th and Martin Luther King Drive that was supported by former Alderman Dorothy Tillman and the late Mayor Harold Washington.

Sonja said when her husband opened a motel and lounge in Gary, Indiana, in 1974 Spann came to visit the facility.

“They had a very good relationship,” Sonja Roberts said. “They were longtime friends.”

After Chess died in 1969, WVON went through several owners. Spann and fellow “Good Guy” DJ Wesley South formed Midway Broadcasting Corporation in 1979 and bought the station.

Spann also bought radio stations in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Florida, and Memphis.

WVON’s website notes that in 1986, WVON switched to an all-talk format. In 1999, Spann’s daughter Melody Spann Cooper became chairwoman of Midway Broadcasting Company, a position she continues to hold. In 2006, WVON switched to AM frequency.

In 1991, Spann ran for Chicago’s Republican mayoral primary. In 1999, he ran as an aldermanic candidate for the city’s 18th ward.

Spann is survived by his wife of 67 years Lovie, his son Darrell, who was his caregiver, and daughters Melody, Latrice Levitt and Chanté Spann.

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