CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Charlotte radio legend, Hattie “Chatty Hatty” Leeper had a career that spanned several decades. As the first Black woman DJ in the city, she is the local trailblazer we are highlighting in this week’s Black History Month Spotlight.
“It’s amazing the walk that I’ve gone through,” she said. “And I look back sometimes and say, ‘Golly, I was a hard working child in show business!’ – and [I] loved every bit of it.”
"Chatty Hatty" has led a life many only dream of having. “See I did everything,” she said. “Two and three things at one time. And I also would write music, produce, manage artists. I did bookings. I did it all.”
She started her career in radio at 14 in 1951. A popular DJ at the time heard her speak and offered her an internship. Still in high school, the young girl with the velvety voice said many were shocked once they put a face with her voice.
“When they started seeing me come out when I was about 17 or 18, they’d say ‘Lord, I’m going to tell you something girl - I thought you were white’,” she laughingly recalled.
“I said,’ Why?’ They said, ‘the way you talk on the airwaves.’ That was the funniest thing and I would say no, ‘I’m black and proud!’
Young Hattie was also completely unaware she was making history at WGIV, the city’s number one radio station at the time.
“I had no idea that the road I was traveling and the bridge I was bringing people across. I didn’t have a clue that that was going to stick and that it would ever become history,” she said.
Especially since her parents weren’t thrilled with her career choice. “My family always said, ‘oh you got to teach school’,” she said.
Though she would eventually teach - she was one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ first substitute teachers - and even opened her own school, radio remained her first love.
“You can't look for something to come to you on a silver platter and say here it is, you know,” said Leeper. “If you wanna be this or wanna be that you have to earn it. I would answer phones at the station. I would have a sign I made to put up when you turn your mic on. I'd have on-air so people knew not to walk in there when the mic was open. I did those little things.”
Her willingness to jump in wherever needed and her eagerness to learn, eventually paid off. “One Saturday they told me, say we’re gonna let you make a tape of your voice,” she remembered. “I burned that thing up [and said] this is WGIV Charlotte NC, 1600 top of the dial where listening is always worth your while!"
From then on, the trailblazer knew no limits and her radio career would take her well beyond the city limits.
“I would go to New York to Broadway; to a lot of the sessions on Benny King, Aretha,” she said. “I’d go to Detroit - Marvin Gaye. Mary Wells. I would go to New York when they were gonna record Patti Labelle. They would call and say look we’re gonna need you to come up and write liner notes.”
She even sang background on Aretha Franklin’s massive hit, “Respect” while in New York to write the album liner notes.
But back home in the South, the harsh realities of racism remained. It’s why whenever Black artists came to town, she and her husband opened their home so some of Motown’s biggest names had a place to say and knew they’d get a good meal, too.
“Michael [Jackson], Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, the list just goes on and on and on of those artists that have lived at Chatty Hatty’s house,” she said. “My husband was a barber and he processed hair so all the guys, Sam Cooke; all of them that had those waves so they would go to his shop and he would hook up and getting looking good for the stage.”
Despite WGIV being ahead of the curve by having both black and white radio personalities, they were daily reminders about what being Black meant.
“We were sending all the business to these places by talking about their menus and good food and grade A –and [at] the same time we were Black,” she said. “We would have to go to the back and eat. They had a little place with a little on bench back there.”
It's why she's thrilled to see so much diversity in radio - and TV today and told me, “it makes my heart so happy to see our beautiful women on color on the air. It's just a joy! I just sit and enjoy my retirement oh boy I'm glad to see this. We didn't have that. All you had was just a few black males but no females like you have now.”
While she has retired from the airwaves - don’t think Chatty Hatty has slowed down. “I haven’t stopped you know. High heel sneakers on - baby I’m doing it!”
Doing it indeed. She still speaks to students, at churches and even has an exercise class she goes two twice a week.
Thank you, Chatty Hatty. Because of you – so many others can.