Jimmy Kilgo, who found local fame in the ’60s as the host of a popular music and dance TV show that became known as Charlotte’s answer to “American Bandstand,” died Saturday evening after a years-long battle with melanoma. He was 87.
Though he spent the second half of his life almost entirely out of the public eye — selling business forms for Jordan Graphics, from the mid-’70s until 1994, when he retired — Kilgo remained beloved by longtime Charlotteans as the pioneering WSOC-TV personality who filled its old studio with hot local music acts, dancing teenagers and his warm Southern drawl.
“Kilgo’s Kanteen” aired Saturdays at noon from 1957 to 1970, and, close to a half-century later, it’s far from forgotten.
“I don’t think a week goes by that somebody doesn’t come up to me and ask me if I was the ‘Kilgo’s Kanteen’ guy,” said John Kilgo, Jimmy Kilgo’s younger brother, who at 82 still works as a sports broadcaster with Charlotte’s WFNZ. “After all those years, I still get it. They say, ‘Well, we danced on his show,’ or, ‘We grew up with that.’ It’s just amazing that it’s had such a lasting effect.”
Jimmy Kilgo spent almost his entire life in Charlotte. Born Nov. 21, 1930, to James and Ruth Kilgo in Mobile, Ala., where his father was circulation manager for the local newspaper, he was a toddler when the Charlotte News hired Jimmy Sr. for the same job.
The Kilgos lived in the Elizabeth neighborhood, right around the corner from Independence Park, where Jimmy Jr. often played football. Beginning at age 14, he worked as a soda jerk at the old Spoon’s Ice Cream parlor on Hawthorne Lane. (That’s where he said he started smoking, during World War II, according to his daughter Jann Kilgo: “People were so desperate for cigarettes, and he worked at a place that had them. So he just had to see what they were about.” He quit after 10 years, she said.)
Jimmy Kilgo graduated from Central High School (which was housed in a building that became the nucleus of Central Piedmont Community College’s downtown campus). Then, after attending Charlotte College (now UNC Charlotte), he got his degree in 1952 from UNC Chapel Hill.
While in Chapel Hill, he met and married Wilma Dean, with whom he had four children: daughters Linda Jo and Janice (Jann), and sons James and John.
Straight out of school, Kilgo produced and hosted a late-night rock ‘n’ roll request show called “Kilgo’s Korner” for WIST-AM, Charlotte’s first independent radio station and first Top 40 station. It was a smash hit with local youth just discovering rock ‘n’ roll.
“Their studio was at a big building on Tryon Street known as the Liberty Life Building,” John Kilgo said, “and on Friday night, just about every high school kid that could squeeze in that place — hundreds of them — would come up there and just look through the studio glass and watch him do his show.”
Soon, the station tapped Jimmy Kilgo to run a weekday after-school rock ‘n’ roll dance and interview show out of the Hawthorne Recreation Center. They named it “Kilgo’s Kanteen.”
He gave it up to try his hand at TV, taking an on-camera job at a Winston-Salem station, but quickly returned south and helped usher WSOC-TV onto the airwaves in 1956. Kilgo started there with a news and variety show; the following year he successfully re-fashioned “Kilgo’s Kanteen” for television, and it caught fire quickly.
Within a year, it had become an institution with young people in Charlotte, with the Observer calling him “the man a whole city has a crush on” in 1958.
“It was his connection, Jimmy’s connection to the audience,” said longtime WCNC forecaster Larry Sprinkle, who remembers watching the show as a high schooler in Rutherford County. “Even though he was older, he certainly related well to the teens, and to the young adults. ... And he related well to the music, he knew the music, and he brought in all of the local bands. He gave these local bands an opportunity to be showcased on television, and really helped a lot of their careers.”
Kilgo had a particular affinity for beach music, and helped give rise to the genre by featuring Carolina acts including The Embers, The Swinging Medallions and General Johnson.
In the midst of the civil rights movement, said his daughter Jann, Kilgo noted that one-fourth of Charlotte’s population was African-American. He became meticulous about making sure one-fourth of his studio audience was African-American students, she said, and also featured diverse acts, including — perhaps most notably — doo-wop/R&B group Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs.
After Jimmy Kilgo left WSOC in 1970, he spent three years at Big WAYS Radio. In the mid-’70s, he also hosted the Saturday and Sunday afternoon matinee movie presentations on the old WRET station (which became WCNC). He moved on from broadcasting in 1976 and took up with Jordan Graphics full-time.
But he left an indelible mark.
“When you think about Charlotte television, he comes from a time when locally produced programs were so important, and he’s one of the guys who started that. I mean, he was an innovator in local television,” said Sprinkle, who said Kilgo personally tapped him as his replacement on WRET in 1976. “He endeared himself to thousands and thousands of people who just felt like he was a good friend .”
After retiring in 1994, Kilgo enjoyed trips to the beach with his wife, Wilma, and golf with his buddies, but mostly stayed out of public view until 2013, when the Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame inducted him for his commitment to the genre while hosting “Kilgo’s Kanteen.”
“That was huge for him,” Jann Kilgo said. “It was kind of a validation of all that he’s done.”
As for the comparisons to “American Bandstand” and Dick Clark?
"I can tell you what he would say about Dick Clark, what I heard over and over," Jann Kilgo said, laughing. "He said, 'I started this dance thing ... and then he took my idea.' "
A memorial service for Jimmy Kilgo will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Hawthorne Lane United Methodist Church, 501 Hawthorne Lane.