Cofounder of first black radio station dies

November 23, 2006

John R. Pepper II died this week at the age of 91. When he was 32 years old, he and Bert Ferguson took failing Memphis radio station whose programs were aimed–as were all radio programs in 1947–at white listeners, and created the first station aimed at black folks.

Rufus Thomas and B.B. King became disc jockeys here, with the latter recording his first song during off-hours in one of the station’s studios. According to the WDIA history (see link below), “the first gospel disc jockey was Reverend Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, a
former blues singer. ‘My program was called ‘Prayer Time,’’ Moore
recollected, ‘and my phone would ring and I’ve had white people to say,
‘What is happening on that radio station? My maid is tearing up the

While WDIA began during times of rigorous segregation, day to day operations were a model of integration. Again, quoting from the history, “WDIA’s impact was enormous, not just in Memphis but in the whole USA.
Radio stations from other cities sent representatives to study how WDIA
worked, returning to establish African-American
stations in their own cities. WDIA began to call itself “the Mother
Station of Negroes.” In Memphis, the second black station, WLOK, opened
in 1954. WDIA was sold by its original owners in 1957, but for decades
after that, its spirit has thrived. WDIA celebrated a people who’d
known only insult, earning a prominent place in the history of American
race relations—and entertainment.”

Memphis Commercial Appeal – Memphis’ Source for News and Information: Local

Exeunt Robert Altman

November 22, 2006

nashville.jpgMovie director Robert Altman was not a Tennessean, but he had a profound effect on Nashville with his 1975 film bearing the name of Tennessee’s capital city. Nashville was endlessly discussed by film and social critics , while residents of the city–constantly testing the air to see if they were being mocked–tentatively enjoyed the attention.

Much effort was spent figuring out who was portaying whom. Henry Gibson played Haven Hamilton, an elder statesman of country music patterned on Roy Acuff. Ronee Blakley looked and sang like Loretta Lynn. The black singer portrayed by Timothy Brown more than resembled Charlie Pride.

The movie captured Nashville, country music, and, indeed, America, in a way never seen before on the big screen. Altman went on to other triumphs, but it remained his Big One. Curiously enough, Nashville marked Lily Tomlin’s first appearance in a movie, and Prairie Home Companion, Altman’s last film, also featured Tomlin, this time as part of a sister act singing country music.

Sputnik Monroe falls from orbit

November 7, 2006

“Sputnik” Monroe, aka Rock Brumbaugh, was Memphis’s most famous wrestler in the 1950s and 60s, and a most unlikely champion of civil rights.  He died at age 78 in Edgewater, Florida.

Robert Gordon’s 1995 book, It Came From Memphis, details the rise of Sputnik, who “arrived in Memphis in 1957, 220 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal,” and began “rasslin'” at the Ellis Auditorium.  This venue, like virtually every other in Memphis at that time, was segregated. A limited number of black wrestling fans sat in a small balcony called the Crows Nest at the top and to the rear of the Auditorium.

Sputnik, a white man, played to this black audience, looking to them for approval after dominating his opponents, and they responded in growing numbers, turning out in the thousands to attend his matches. The management tried to limit the numbers of black attendees, and Sputnik threatened to quit. The wrestler’s action led to the end of the Crows Nest. 

Jim Dickinson, the legendary Memphis musician and producer, is quoted in the book as saying “that really is how integration in Memphis started.”

National Public Radio’s Morning Edition did a story on Sputnik Monroe in 2001, and you can hear him describing his exploits. 

Morning Edition – Sputnik Monroe

Memphis Commercial Appeal – Memphis’ Source for News and Information: Local

"Long Black Veil” writer dies

October 30, 2006

Marijohn Wilkin, who wrote the classic “Long Black Veil,” died at the age of 86. She also wrote “One Day at a Time” and co-wrote “Waterloo.”

“Long Black Veil” tells an interesting story from a very unusual point of view. The story is about two lovers who were having a tryst while someone was killed “neath the town hall light.” The man is tried for the murder and asked if he has an alibi. He does, but doing so would reveal that his paramour is his best friend’s wife, so the accused goes to his death on the scaffold without giving up their secret. His lover wears a long black veil and visits his grave “while the night winds wail.” See the complete lyrics at the link below.

It’s a chilling story, all the more so because the song is sung from the point of view of the deceased. “Long Black Veil” has leaped the bounds of country music and has been recorded by artists as diverse as Joan Baez, Barry White, Johnny Cash, and the Kingston Trio. My favorite version is by Mick Jagger backed by the Chieftans.

Long Black Veil

Memphis Commercial Appeal – Memphis’ Source for News and Information: A La Carte

Cas Walker

October 29, 2006

For anyone growing in East Tennessee, Cas Walker was an inescapable presence. He owned a chain of grocery stores bearing his name–“shop at the sign of the shears” was his motto for cutting prices–and the income from these stores propelled him into a career as a politician, media figure, and regional embarrassment.Today’s News Sentinel tells of a new film about this singular individual. Born Orton Caswell Walker in 1903, he was universally known as “Cas,” pronounced as if his name rhymed with “razz.”

As a politician, Cas was a contrarian who opposed more things than he championed. Foreshadowing demagogues such as Rush Limbaugh, Cas rallied poor blacks and whites who were led to believe that he was on their side by being “agin” threats such as a unified Knox County and Knoxville city government.

Cas was adept in his use of media. Ignoring what we now call “mainstream media,” he got his message out through his own television show and a self-published newspaper in which he railed at his political enemies.

Monday through Friday beginning at 6:00 AM, Cas held forth on his Farm and Home Hour, where he read his own ads with poster-sized placards placed on an easel. He had guests who discussed the issues of the day–almost always people who shared his point of view.

No one wants to listen to just talk, so Cas featured country music on his show. He was the first person to put a pre-teen Dolly Parton and the Everly Brothers on the air. A longtime presence on the show was Honey Wilds, a large man who played comic songs on a ukulele. In an earlier incarnation, Honey had been one of country music’s most famous blackface acts. In Nashville’s original Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a poster of Wilds and a partner, billed as Jam-Up and Honey, was just about the only depiction of African Americans in the whole place. You can read more about Honey Wilds here: No Depression: Back Issues.

Overall, however, Cas was an embarrassment. A photo of his fisticuffs with a fellow member of the Knoxville City Council landed him on the cover of Life Magazine. He once gave a contribution or did some favor for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and required them to play an orchestral version of “Turkey in the Straw” in return. Worst of all were some of his grocery store ads. I remember billboards and TV ads in the 1970s depicting young black boys grinning and eating slices of watermelon that looked to be three feet wide. “Thumpin‘ good” ran the ditty that accompanied the television versions. I remember cringing at the impression of Knoxville that those billboards along I-40 must have conveyed to millions of travelers passing through.

Cas lived a long life, finally dying at age 96 in 1998. Most of his sins have been forgiven, and he now seems to be remembered as a colorful character who remained true to his populist beliefs.

No one has yet written the definitive book on Cas Walker. Given his influence on politics and music, it could be a most fascinating volume.

KnoxNews: Local

Rest In Peace, Johnny Apple

October 4, 2006

Legendary New York Timesman R. W. Apple Jr., AKA Johnny, died today.  He had a distinguished career as reporter and editor, yet in his final decade he turned to food and travel writing.  In his 2005 Apple’s America, he has a chapter on Nashville, and it contains some sentences that are pearls:

“The swells of Nashville live in Belle Meade, a suburb of emormous houses beneath lofty shade trees on even more enormous lawns.  Guardians of garden-club gentility, politically conservative, they do not mix much with the denim-clad country crowd, and this is more and more their city. . . .  Robert Altman got it right in Nashville, his brilliant, Chaucerian film about the princes and princesses of country music, with egos the size of cathedrals, as well as its no-hopers.”

“Its fans treat the Opry with tremendous seriousness, according it a place in their hearts alongside stock car racing and evangelical Christianity.  An Opry performance feels a little like a secular church service.  The audience is, in fact, seated in pews, not individual seats.  Everyone listened raptly and respectfully the Saturday night we were there, munching popcorn and slurping Big Drinks, with none of the hubbub of a rock concert.  Viewed from another perspective, this is vaudeville for hayseeds, with a carefully calibrated blend of corny jokes, spangly costumes, bottle blonds, and a surprising range of music–not just country and bluegress, but also honky-tonk, western, rockabilly, gospel, and quasi-Cajun.  The lyrics may be banal and the emotional range limited, but there are big voices on the stage, and the performers are unmistakably skilled.”

And so was he.
Apple’s America: The Discriminating Traveler’s Guide to 40 Great Cities
in the United States and Canada: Books: R. W. Apple

R.W. Apple, a Times Journalist in Full, Dies at 71 – New York Times