Macon DJ who helped launch Otis Redding, James Brown, Little Richard, dies at age 88

Hamp Swain, at his home in Macon in 2008, played a pivotal role in helping launch James Brown’s career when he played the singer’s first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” on the air at radio station WIBB.
Hamp Swain, at his home in Macon in 2008, played a pivotal role in helping launch James Brown’s career when he played the singer’s first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” on the air at radio station WIBB.

Legendary Macon disc jockey "King Bee" Hamp Swain died Tuesday night at age 88.

Swain, who was the first black disc jockey in the city, began broadcasting at WBML-AM in 1954.

His familiar voice has gone silent, but his influence will reverberate through history, living on in the timeless music he shared with listeners, the musicians he put in the spotlight and the lives he touched.

While spinning records, the Macon native helped launch the careers of such greats as James Brown, Otis Redding Jr. and Little Richard.

Before Swain became one of Macon radio's most famous personalities, his band the Hamptones played across the Southeast. He gave voice to Richard Penniman, the lead singer of the band.

Penniman, famously known as Little Richard, got a call early Wednesday from his cousin in Macon who shared the news of Swain's passing.

"Hamp is gone," Penniman told The Telegraph on the phone from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. "Old Hamp Swain, my buddy. He gave me my first job as a vocalist."

The two were "like family," playing saxophone together in high school. Swain's mother served as the Avon lady in their Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

Penniman, who will be 86 this year, was about two years younger than Swain.

"I'm blessed. I'm still here," he said.

Just a few months ago, the old friends talked on the phone.

"He wasn't sick then. God bless his soul," Penniman said. "He's a good man, and Jesus loves him."

Macon radio historian Ben Sandifer said Penniman credits Swain for his stardom.

"He told me if it hadn't been for Hamp Swain, there wouldn't have been a Little Richard. And when the 'architect of rock and roll' says that, that's pretty striking," Sandifer said.

Swain was the first to play Brown's "Please, Please, Please" on the radio. And when Swain hosted the Teenage Party, Redding routinely won the talent competition.

"I grew up listening to Hamp Swain," Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said Wednesday morning. "Back in the day, all we had was AM radio."

Swain died of natural causes at Medical Center, Navicent Health, Jones said.

Macon businessman Alex Habersham said Swain, who owned Fifth Street Records, was a mentor to him as he opened Habersham Records.

"Hamp Swain meant a lot to this community from a lot of perspectives," Habersham said. "Not only was he a highly respected and adored radio jockey, but he was also a businessman and a musician."

Habersham remembers hearing Swain play the saxophone a few years ago during worship at St. Luke's Baptist Church in Macon.

In 2008, Swain was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

At the time, Music Hall of Fame Director Lisa Love said: "As King Bee, he truly was a king among men during an era when radio was such an important and influential part of many peoples' lives. ... He has contributed so much to this community and its reputation as a music city, and I'm thrilled to see him honored and recognized."

In 1957, Swain joined WIBB-AM and became part of Macon's DJ triumvirate with Ray "Satellite Papa" Brown and Charles "Big Saul" Green.

He enjoyed Motown's heyday and meeting some of its biggest stars.

"It was a fun time in my life," he told The Telegraph 10 years ago. "I met many great artists from the day ... people like The Supremes, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye. ... I cherish those memories."

One of Swain's most unforgettable moments as a DJ had nothing to do with music.

"I had the chance to interview (boxing great) Joe Louis, and that was a big thing for me," he said in the 2008 interview. "I had heard Joe's fights on the radio when I was growing up, and he was kind of a hero to me."

Habersham said Swain carried himself in a way that commanded respect.

"He was an icon, really, in the community," he said. "He definitely left a legacy that should and could be imitated."

Sandifer said Swain was in touch with his audience and was largely responsible for keeping the peace during turbulent times after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"He got on the air and said the riots and other stuff going on was not the way to handle that," Sandifer said. "He had an incredible voice. He was a great broadcaster in terms of knowing his audience and knowing how to communicate."

Sandifer is sure Swain could have worked in radio anywhere he chose, but Macon was home.

"He wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, and that's Macon's blessing."

Hutchings Funeral Home has charge of Swain's arrangements, Jones said.

Information from The Telegraph archives contributed to this report.

Otis Redding III reflects on his famous father and the family's work to keep his legacy alive, including a tribute Jan. 25, 2018 at the Apollo Theatre.