It was my last show in Tupelo, spinning King Of the Road on turntable two, I had no plan, nowhere to go, I hadn’t even sent out any audition tapes.
I picked up one of the phone lines, expecting a preteen girl wanting to hear Herman’s Hermits, but it was a male caller. The man identified himself as a Program Director (PD) in Wilmington, North Carolina. North what? They had an immediate opening; did I know anyone at WTUP who might be interested?
Okay, very funny, this had to be a practical joker or a man hitting on me. But I really didn’t think any Jocks at WTUP would have someone prank me and my audience didn’t know it was my last night on the air.
But the PD calling was on the air at the time, covering the shift that needed filling. He asked me to hold. I heard him announce the end of California Girls and, while giving the weather said something like, in case you’re going to the beach. Beach? Yes. Wilmington was a short ride from two popular beaches, Carolina and Wrightsville (Think: Wright Bros). Never seen the ocean before.
I surprised myself by negotiating with him on salary and an airline ticket to get there, and I didn’t tell him I was on my last shift. I would have taken my first two jobs for anything they offered, and although I’d just turned eighteen, I had gained some confidence in being able to deal with the realities or trying to make a living. No more free rent and car.
I was headed to a city about four times the size of Tupelo at more than double my salary. I would be making my first airplane flight — for free.
The last couple of songs I played for the good people of Tupelo, That’s Alright and another Elvis song from Haram Scarum few had probably heard, Go East, Young Man.
Momma, of course, didn’t want me to go. And although I hadn’t lived at home full-time for a couple of years, Momma certainly was not happy for me moving so far away. I had no reservations whatsoever.
My brother Dale picked me up in his new 1965 Chrysler Newport coupe. On the radio, I’m Henry (the) VIII, I Am, by Herman Hermits played. I was so sick of that song, I must have taken a hundred requests from preteen girls. By the time an avid radio listener has heard a song ten times, the DJ has played it twenty.
Dale was excited for me, knowing I was on the way to fulfilling my dream. We silenced the radio and talked as we rolled past harvested cotton and corn fields, vast dusty farmland, baled hay . . . cattle and silos. Shacks, trailers, and brick houses dotted the landscape through towns like Verona, Cotton Gin Hill, Nettleton, Union, and Shiloh. In forty-five minutes were at the small Tupelo Regional.
It was early Fall 1965, clear and cool, and after checking one suitcase, I skipped up the temporary ramp where I was greeted by an attractive flight attendant who directed me to a seat. I don’t remember any safety briefing. The fuselage creaked on the Piedmont prop-driven thirty-passenger relic, and her engine’s coughed and sputtered as we rolled toward takeoff for the 614 nautical mile flight east.
On my first flight, looking out the windows, I was amazed at how the farmland was precisely outlined, captivating even. I thought of my days working in fields like those — the hot sun bearing down on me all day. I wondered why we had lived so poorly, had it really been necessary. With modern conveniences, Momma’s life would have been so much easier.
As we flew through clouds and over the farms I could no longer see, finally, I realized I was out of Mississippi, and on my way to the good life “in the big city,” in a state far away.
Heading toward the Coastal city on the banks of the Atlantic, I quit counting after we made about eight stops. At the Wilmington-New Hanover Airport (ILM), the plane bounced down to another rough landing. The passengers applauded the final touchdown — relieved the flight was finally over.
During the long flight, I sat most of the trip next to an attractive woman about ten years my senior. Naturally, I told her about my new and exciting job as a Top-40 Dee Jay. I was so excited and impressed with myself, I foolishly tried to give her a kiss just before we touched down. No airport police were called.
The PD met me at the airport, took me by the station briefly, and put me up in a nice local hotel. I was impressed, we were off to a good start.
After covering the seven to midnight shift for a couple of weeks, I was moved to the 10am-3pm shift. That was a quick move-up. WHSL, Whistle Radio, Top-40 Format, great jingles, 10-thousand watts, 24hrs a day operating on 1490Khz. Best of all, we were the number one station in the market, had the most listeners.
Out of five stations surveyed in our listening area, we enjoyed a 47 share during prime time. A 47 share is unheard of in a city our size (50,000 plus). Our PD said we were going to keep it that way.
How, why? WPLO, Atlanta was one of the 20 or so leading stations in the Country. We had its former extremely popular DJ Steve Reno doing morning drive 6am-10am, a stations prime-time. The theory: the station you’re listening to early in the AM, is the one you will continue with the rest of day/night.
What was Steve doing here well out of the Top-50 market segment? He was well paid (an educated guess-$500 a week) and had a major part in building a station to number One, good for his resume.
I was pretty happy with $125 a week.* Why was I, a just turned 18-year-old with little experience, following him? My show was the lead-in to Afternoon Drive, the second most important slot, with people commuting in their cars, hopefully listening to the radio.
I was spinning Wolly Bully–Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs; For Your Love–The Yardbirds; Go Now–The Moody Blues; Puppet On A String by Elvis and all the great hits of 1965.
In any 15-minute period, WHSL had about as many listeners as the other four stations combined! An estimated 20,000 potential shoppers were listening to us and hearing our commercials. We could and did charge advertisers twice the rate for our commercials as the other stations. Forty dollars for a one-minute ad in prime-time, if I remember correctly. Back in Amory, it was three or four dollars.
I was renting a nice room, ate all my meals out, had a steak every other day, and was getting around in my very own 1959 baby blue Cadillac. With those incredible tail fins, it was arguably one of the most recognizable and pretty cars of the 50s and 60s.
There were scores of pretty girls to date, too. Cigarettes were 22 cents a pack, and Wilmington had lots of liquor stores (not that I was using them, but it was something new to me).
Life was so fantastic, it could have ended right there.
If a decent looking popular Top-40 DJ with a Cadillac can’t score, something is amiss. I’m guessing my readers aren’t interested in the specifics of any sexual escapades I might have had. Most of the time, I was dating just one girl. I know, a real gentleman me. During this period, I would also meet my future wife.
A refresher from Chapter Seven; One of the two things that came easy for me was falling in love. She was at another girl’s house when I first saw her, short blond hair, tall and slender, mysterious persona and shy. No, it would not be one of those “love at first sight” sort of things, but I was definitely intrigued.
We soon began dating but understandably (well to guys anyway) I keep my semi-steady girl Mary, too. I led both Marty (pseudonym) and Mary to believe that we were in a serious relationship, bordering on love.
*From my first paycheck, I sent Momma 100 dollars.