The Rev. Morgan Babb liked to call what he broadcast over his Nashville radio station WMDB-880 AM "gumbo music in black" — a daily potpourri of every music African-American artists make, he was fond of saying, "except for gutter rap." The station he dubbed "The Big Mouth" might have broadcast only during daytime hours at 2,500 watts, but don't confuse signal with reach. In a career that spanned decades and generations, the multimedia entrepreneur, religious leader and broadcaster left a legacy of accomplishments in numerous fields across several eras.
Babb, who died Feb. 7 at 84, was an accomplished vocalist, arranger, band leader and savvy talent scout, as well as a highly respected minister who served as mentor and adviser to several future church leaders. But it was as a radio DJ and broadcaster that he made history, becoming the first African-American in Nashville to establish his own radio station.
His radio career began in the 1940s, playing "race" records and perfecting a joyous, vibrant on-air personality on radio station WHOP in Hopkinsville, Ky. — though in a bitter irony, he was driven away when his popularity prompted a mutiny by the otherwise all-white staff. Nevertheless, his radio persona there, "Happy Jack," introduced a style he would refine over decades on the Nashville airwaves, starting at WSOK (now known as WVOL-1470 AM): a strong rapport with listeners marked by empathy and community awareness. These traits — hallmarks of the nation's pioneering community-focused black radio stations, which doubled as neighborhood news services, public forums and information hubs — would be reflected during his later years as a radio station owner and minister.
Besides broadcasting, Babb's musical exploits included performing, songwriting and discovering talent. The Radio Four, a group started by his brothers which he joined in 1950, never attained the popularity of standard bearers such as the Soul Stirrers or Swan Silvertones. But they amassed a sizable following during his tenure as lead singer and arranger before he came off the gospel trail in 1956 to devote himself to family — he's survived by seven children — and to radio.
Babb was a key figure during a prolific period in Music City's emergence as a gospel and R&B recording center. He wrote the 1957 Lillian Offet hit "I Miss You So," formed the Philco Singers and Voices of Nashville groups, made solo recordings for the esteemed Music City gospel label Nashboro, and helped break stars.
"Rev. Babb influenced the gospel scene nationally during his years as an A&R scout for Nashboro Records in the '50s," gospel music historian and critic Bil Carpenter said. "Artists such as The Consolers and Edna Gallimon Cooke, who were much bigger than the Radio Four, were signed because of his lobbying, and it paid off with profits for Nashboro."
Many others came to know him in his roles as minister and radio station owner. He founded King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church on 10th Avenue North in 1965 and was a familiar figure in its pulpit right up until his final days. Babb started WMDB, his mighty "Big Mouth," in 1983, and made it both a destination for vintage and traditional black music and a center for community events and advocacy.
"He is most certainly a giant and historically iconic expression of black church culture in America, through his selfless devotion to developing and promoting gospel music," said the Rev. Enoch Fuzz, pastor of Nashville's Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church and a longtime friend, "through promoting and developing gospel singing groups, and mentoring hundreds of men who became pastors.
"He worked hard for what he had to achieve — it was not given to him. That's his advice to this generation. Don't expect people to appreciate you. You appreciate yourselves and others."
Babb's involvement in music, broadcasting and community affairs continued until his death. He recorded a 1995 album, Keep Faith, while a 1999 reissue introduced a new audience to the wonders of the Radio Four. Others benefited from various WMDB initiatives that included fundraisers, on-air prayers for the sick and shut-in, and campaigns to feed the homeless and hungry.
"As huge as his life image was, he was always among the common everyday people," Fuzz said. "There were no big or little people to him."
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