by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the early days of Los Angeles radio, one of the first major stations to go on the airwaves was KHJ, launched in April 1922 by C.R. Kielruiff and Company. Though it has been said that the call letters were for “Kindness, Happiness and Joy,” there are other indications that the letters did not have a meaning when they were assigned.
In any case, KHJ was sold to the Los Angeles Times by the end of the year and the dominant regional newspaper’s resources and clout were put to use in heavily promoting the station, its programs, and its performers and personalities. One of these was a tenor with a good deal of presence and radio-friendly entertainment value: Charlie Wellman.
Born in July 1891 in Masonville, Iowa, a hamlet west of Dubuque, Charles Aaron Wellman was born to Amanda Smallwood and Aaron Wellman, the latter a traveling salesman for most of his career, which included a move to Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha and then Chicago in the early years of the twentieth century.
By the World War One years, Wellman was vice-president and treasurer of what appeared to be a family auto accessories manufacturing business in the Windy City. In April 1914, he married Bessie Barker and the couple had one namesake son, Charles, Jr., who later was a high-ranking officer at a local savings and loan.
Yet, Wellman also possessed a fine tenor singing voice and put that to use when he and a pianist partner, Bill Hatch, first performed in the Midwest in April 1922 for radio personality “Little Jack Little” (John Leonard.) The duo went to Los Angeles and, by early 1924, began to make waves (pardon the pun) in playing what was generally referred to as jazz, though it was more likely pop music dressed in jazz novelty elements. It was reported that, while in Chicago, Wellman was popular enough to be christened “The Prince in the Realm of Song.”
The pair received excellent coverage, admittedly in the newspaper that owned the station, and there were advertisements for them as a duo or with Wellman as a solo performer in vaudeville performances on KHJ sponsored by such well-known commercial entities as the Hellman Bank and May Company (recently renamed from Hamburger’s) department store.
Wellman and Hatch (said to play jazz in such a way as it was “pleasing to almost everyone”) were described as “jazz songsters” and “gloom destroyers,” while Wellman specifically was hailed for “a unique but esteemed position before the microphone because of his comfort in a studio and his “pleasant personality [which] creeps into his work and the result leaves little to be desired by his auditors.” It appears that he also had some management role there and in other stations during his years in radio.
The station that employed them as they made their mark in local radio was KHJ and the duo seemed to have remained a team for a couple of years before splitting up. Hatch continued working in local radio, including with a string quartet, while Wellman rose to greater popularity. By 1928, he was known in the Los Angeles “ether” scene as the “Prince of Pep,” working with groups like the Seven Peppers and the Merrymakers.
Wellman also made a few recordings, with the first session taking place in 1925 with Hatch and another being a set at the end of 1929 that heralded the New Year and featured many artists from the KHJ roster of performers. Today’s post highlights a 78 rpm phonograph record in the Homestead’s collection recorded by Wellman, with his Prince of Pep moniker and accompanied by his Seven Peppers.
The Brunswick release was recorded on 25 October 1928 and featured “You’ll Never Know” as the main tune and “One Step to Heaven” as the B-side. In those days, it didn’t take long to get a recording out to the public, as a Brunswick ad in the Los Angeles Times just before Christmas listed the Wellman sides among others and included a photo of the performer, marketing new releases for holiday gift-giving.
Although he was a well-known personality, Wellman did not appear to have a particularly lucrative career. In the 1930 census, he lived with his son and parents (Wellman’s wife died the prior year) in a $100 per month house on the corner on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
His career in radio did continue through most of the Great Depression years, though, by 1936, regular listings of his appearance on local stations ceased. In early 1938, reference was made to a comeback: “After spending some time away from the home grounds, Charlie has returned to make another bid for radio fame.” He had a 15-minute evening show on KFAC called “What Do You Think?” and there was brief mention of his “now making [a] bid as [a] writer.”
After that, however, there was nothing. In the 1940 census, Wellman and his second wife were living with his parents across from where he’d lived on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The quartet, with a pair of lodgers, lived in a place renting at $35 a month, and Wellman was working as a paper company salesman. Two years later, when he registered for the draft not long after America’s entry in World War Two, he was working for the American Microphone Company, an entirely fitting employer for someone with his background.
In early July 1944, Wellman, once so widely admired and heard in Los Angeles radio circles as the “Prince of Pep” for his effervescent personality, comfortable approach to the studio, and fine tenor vocals, died a week prior to his 53rd birthday. Remarkably, there was no obituary in the Times, which owned KHJ during many of Wellman’s best-known years in radio.
However, in a May 1936 Times column called “Radiography” an extensive list of radio firsts was attributed to Wellman. One was his signature statement, “Don’t go ‘way, folks,” which became so common later. The article stated that, “according to pretty good authority,” Wellman was the first to:
- use background music during conversation on the air
- use fade-ins and fade-outs
- broadcast the premiere of a Hollywood film
- appear as a radio personality in a movie
- broadcast a radio program from a theatre stage
- write a movie theme song
- have film starts as guests on radio programs
- have a midnight radio show
The piece ended by observing, “all in all, one might say that local radio and Charlie Wellman got off to a start together” and, noting that he was then still working in the business, it concluded, “more power to him.”