In the early days of rhythm and blues radio, some 40 years ago, disc jockeys were called "personalities" for a reason. Dig this sign-off:

"The white rug is down and I'm gettin' ready to split. You be cool till I get back in with you tigers tomorrow. Growwwl."

That was a signature of Jockey Jack Gibson, described by Nelson George in "The Death of Rhythm & Blues" as one of the "flashy pioneers" of black radio. When Spike Lee wanted to throw some "old-time lingo" into his film "Do the Right Thing," he drew on Gibson. ("That's the truth, Ruth" was one of Jockey Jack's catch phrases.)

Now, at age 71, Gibson is better known as Jack the Rapper, publisher of a weekly black-music tip sheet of the same name and organizer of a huge annual record industry convention called the Family Affair.

Gibson was the subject of a tribute last night at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel. Record producer Quincy Jones and Motown founder Berry Gordy were the co-hosts; comedian Sinbad served as master of ceremonies; singers Melba Moore and Meli'sa Morgan, rapper Queen Latifah and jazz musician Lonnie Liston Smith performed.

"I can never forget the help he gave to me and all the Motown artists," Gordy said before the tribute. Around 1960, while he was a powerful deejay in Cincinnati, Gibson provided exposure for young Motown artists like the Supremes. "He treated us like big people, even though he was big and we were small," Gordy said. Gordy wound up hiring Gibson in 1962 as the label's first national promotions director.

Last night's tribute also served as the inaugural fund-raiser for the Jack the Rapper Back to the Community Foundation, which will provide grants to black radio stations for community service projects. The Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, designed for students of historically black colleges, also shared the proceeds from the gala. With tickets at $200 to $500 a person, and a crowd of about 700, organizers hoped to bring in $200,000.

Cathy Hughes, owner of Washington radio stations WOL and WMMJ, was in attendance. Gibson "was one of the first voices in the nation saying that because black folks are making the music and making money for record companies, black folks should own record companies and own radio stations," she said. "That was quite a radical concept in the '40s and '50s. But he has said it from day one."

Gibson, a loquacious showman with silver eyebrows, a bald tan pate and a wide smile, made his way from table to table early in the evening, greeting old industry friends.

On stage, Sinbad kidded him about the old-fashioned jiving style of his weekly tip sheet -- "I've got to go to my grandpa to find out what the hell Jack's trying to say." But Gordy attested to its continuing influence by mentioning Melba Moore's recent recording of the spiritual "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as "The Negro National Anthem."

"Many stations said, 'Well, it's great, but it's not commercial. It doesn't fit into our format,' " Gordy said. For four weeks in a row, Gibson berated black radio programmers on the cover of Jack the Rapper. "He went on and on and on and on," Gordy said. "He raised the consciousness of black radio. Now, it's a hit, thanks to Jack."

Gibson was presented with a series of honorary proclamations, including one from President Bush. When CBS Records Vice President LeBaron Taylor got to a proclamation from D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, there came a wave of titters in the audience. Taylor said, "There's something about being innocent until proven guilty," to which people applauded.

Yesterday morning, the energetic Gibson visited four local radio stations -- WKYS, WHUR, WPGC and WOL. Donnie Simpson extended his WKYS show 25 minutes to accommodate Jack the Rapper. "I'm like an old sailor," Gibson explained. "Even though I'm retired from the microphone, if you show me a microphone I'm ready to go to work, like a sailor ready to go rowing or whatever."

After all that, he held court for 30 minutes during an afternoon press conference at the Willard, recounting tales about the early days of black radio. Gibson's was the first voice to go out over WERD in Atlanta -- the nation's first black-owned radio station -- in October 1949. The key to being a successful deejay, he said, was "becoming very involved in the black community."

"The chief of police in Atlanta, Georgia, would call me if there was a disturbance anywhere in the black community," said Gibson. "He would call me and say, 'Jack, I got a problem in Buttermilk Bottom. You better tell your people to cool down, because we may have to bring the dogs in and the hose.'

"And I'd flip my switch and say, 'Hey, what y'all doing over there in Buttermilk Bottom? You're acting up. If you don't stop, the Man's coming in there and going to whip some heads. As soon as my show is over, I'm gonna be over there and we're gonna settle this thing.' That's just the way I'd talk.

"So when I got off the air, I'd hit the turf and go in and mediate the situation," he said. "Then they would have pig foot and some butter beans and rice and some corn bread, and I'd go in Miss Jones's house and eat 'em right there. I became a part of the community. They knew that if they wanted anything, they could call on Jockey Jack. And that was the strength of personalities in black radio when it first started."

Gibson also told of that station's unique relationship with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the infancy of the civil rights movement.

"The SCLC's office was right below WERD, and Dr. King's office was right below the studio," he said. "And when we were on the air and would hear 'thump, thump, thump' on the ceiling {below}, we'd know that Dr. King or one of his lieutenants wanted to deliver a message. And WERD, being black-owned and black-operated, was loose enough to let anybody come in and make announcements to the community.

"So you'd hear the 'thump, thump,' and you'd say, 'We interrupt this program for a brief moment for some words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the SCLC.' And by that time," Gibson said, smiling, using a microphone wire to demonstrate, "we were lowering the microphone out the window."