Radio broadcasters were instrumental in spreading gospel music to the masses. In honor of Black History Month, the Sentinel features a few of the L.A. faith-based deejays and radio stations that ruled the airwaves in the middle decades of the 20th century.
Rev. Clayton D. Russell – As the first Black gospel radio announcer in Los Angeles, Russell launched his broadcast on KFOX in 1938 with a 15-minute church service featuring fellow announcers Joe Adams and Forest “War” Perkins.
Russell’s program was expanded to one-hour in 1941, making him the first African American to have a long-format show in the L.A. area. He went on to produce programs on a variety of local radio stations and stayed on the air for the next 30 years.
In addition, he served as the second pastor of People’s Independent Church of Christ in L.A. from 1935 to 1953, and founded the Church of Divine Guidance in 1954, where he served until his passing in 1981.
A prominent leader in the Black community, Russell was a fiery activist during World War II. According to writer Kevin Leonard, Russell helped to form Victory Markets, a chain of cooperative grocery stores that served the rapidly expanding African American community during the war.
He also organized mass demonstrations to fight employment discrimination and worked to elect Black politicians. Russell even sought elected office himself, running for county supervisor in 1946 and for L.A. City Council in 1959. Throughout his career, Russell was a gospel music promoter, patron of the arts and community advocate.
Rev. Clarence Welch – Welch began his religious broadcasting career in 1951 on KALI. Listeners of the era turned to Welch for the best in Black gospel music and song.
His “Songs of the Cross” broadcasts also featured his choir of the same name. He is also credited with airing the historic performance of Mahalia Jackson in the late 1950s.
During his 38 years of religious broadcasting, he worked at KALI, KGER, KGFJ, KDAY and KTYM. Welch died in Los Angeles at the age of 76.
John and Vermya Phillips –In 1957, the husband and wife team of John and Vermya Phillips began their pioneering career in religious broadcasting at KTYM. Their “Moments of Decision” programs on KTYM, KFOX and KBCA exemplified longevity in gospel music broadcasting.
John’s interest in music sparked in 1946 when he filled the truck of his car with turntables and speakers and became a mobile deejay. Initially, he played all types of music at various venues, but he soon switched to a gospel-only format.
He married Vermya in 1955 and together, they inspired audiences throughout the area. In addition to broadcasting, John produced many albums featuring his wife. Vermya was also a noted recording artist, who sang on several records, both alone and with other groups, in the 1960s. She released her first gospel CD in 1978.
The Phillips were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2000 in Detroit, Michigan. John was inducted into the Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame in 2007 in Akron, Ohio.
Vermya passed away in 2004 and John continued his gospel music broadcast until failing health led him to retire in 2019.
KGFJ Radio Station – In 1939, KGFJ carried the informative programs of several other broadcast pioneers such as Charlotta Bass, publisher of the California Eagle; Mrs. A. C. Bilbrew, who was one of the first to introduce Negro spirituals to L.A. radio; along with J. Cullen Tentress and William Gillespie.
Other notable L.A. gospel announcers include Brother Joe Henderson, Brother Joseph Mathews, Milt Nixon, Jake Jacobs, Cal DuBois Tolbert, Joe White, Paul Kidd, Ruth Dickerson, Brother Prince Dixon, Reginald E. Utley, Prez Blackmon, Edna Tatum, Aundrae Russell, Nawania Lyle, Rev. Gil Fears and Kameron Greene.