Name: Conover, Willis (1920-1996)
Willis Clark Conover, Jr. was born on December 18, 1920 in Buffalo, New York. His father, Willis C. Conover, Sr., was an officer in the U.S. Army, and the family relocated frequently. Willis Conover Jr. later reported that he had attended 25 different schools before graduating high school. As a teenager, he struck up correspondence with science fiction and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, exchanging letters for several months before Lovecraft's death. During that time, Conover also co-edited the Science-Fantasy Correspondent. He briefly attended Salisbury State Teachers College in 1938-39, and joined the staff of the campus radio station. After winning a radio announcing contest, he relocated to Cumberland, Maryland, working at WTBO, where he soon became chief announcer. There, he discovered jazz and the music of Duke Ellington, and worked with pioneering writer and actress Peg Lynch.
Conover was drafted and joined the U.S. Army in September of 1942, eventually achieving the rank of Technical Sergeant. His decision to select a better of assortment of music for a party at the Stage Door Canteen in Washington, D.C. led to part-time work at station WWDC, which became full time after his honorable discharge from the Army in February of 1946. Conover became known by the radio persona "the Gentleman Jockey," and also gained prominence as a concert promoter, building an extensive personal network with major jazz artists, many of whom he also interviewed at WWDC, including Duke Ellington. Conover helped to de-segregate the Washington, D.C. club scene by insisting that club owners admit anyone who was properly dressed for the occasion to events he promoted. During the late 1940s, he also went on tour for two weeks with the Ellington band, and did initial work for the Voice of America, along with recording U.S. Treasury broadcasts.
After the death of Stalin, word reached U.S. diplomats about a resurgence of interest in jazz in the Soviet Union. Conover was initally the weekend host for the resulting program on the Voice of America, as an initial host, Ray Michael, had already been selected, but quickly moved to weekdays as Michael pursued other commitments. Conover leveraged his personal network to interview a series of top jazz artists on the VOA in 1955 and 1956. These interviews are listed in the National Recording Registry, and include interviews with Duke Ellington, Eartha Kitt, Marian McPartland, and Dave Brubeck.
Conover's first overseas visit to Poland in June of 1959 made clear the extent of his positive reception by overseas listeners, and was the first of many visits to eastern and central Europe, the Soviet Union, and locations across Asia. Always an independent contractor in his work for VOA, he served as master of ceremonies for Newport Jazz Festivals, hosted a radio show on WCBS in New York, did voice-over work, and appeared on television. In 1969, he helped orchestrate Duke Ellington's 70th birthday celebration at the White House, where President Nixon played "Happy Birthday" on the piano for Ellington. Conover also continued to promote concerts by Bill Berry's New York Band, and at Town Hall in New York City. In 1975, he published Lovecraft at Last, chronicling his correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft four decades earlier.
His health declined by the middle of the 1980s as decades of smoking led to bouts with cancer, but he continued to broadcast at the Voice of America until shortly before his death on May 17, 1996.
Willis Conover Collection, 1930-1996.
Feustle, Maristella. “Willis Conover’s Washington.” Current Research in Jazz 8, (2016), viewed December 9, 2020.