I scampered down the steps of the hulking GMC® school bus after another boring 45-minute ride from Hatley past vast farmland, shacks, and stately brick houses. Then, anxious to see what Momma had cooked for supper before I went about my chores, I ran into the hall and toward the kitchen.
Instead, I found her in their bedroom sweeping the floor around the old dresser with her long-handled corn straw broom toward the hearth. As I was giving Momma a hug, something caught my eye. The bread box-sized object sitting on Momma and Daddy’s dresser was a beautiful old Silvertone radio powered by a dry cell battery of about the same size.
This hand-me-down radio (circa 1947) would be my lifeline to the outside world of music — my dreams would flourish as the waves streamed through the air at the speed of light — the sound reverberating from its cloth-covered speaker.
We had gotten our first radio around 1958 when most of my friends were getting their first TV, and I was ecstatic. But unfortunately, after turning the power knob on, I had to wait about 30 seconds for the tubes to warm up, wondering each time if the old radio would come to life. But when she finally did, well.
The nighttime reception was especially clear, and I had some excellent choices. The old Silvertone easily picked up signals from WSM in Nashville, WCKY in Cincinnati, WLS in Chicago, and others. The latter station went on air in 1924 and was initially owned by Sears Roebuck & Co; the call letters stood for World’s Largest Store.
I loved the music of Chuck Berry, Nat “King” Cole, The Platters, Pat Boone, Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Sonny James, Sam Cooke, and eventually, Elvis. Often when I was listening to that great music, “You’re going to run down the [very expensive] battery,” Momma kept reminding me to “turn it off.”
As for Momma, she listened to Gospel music, preaching, and occasionally to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM. Momma had moved on to another church after Bro. Earwood left Rocky Springs. On Sunday mornings, she listened to the Pastor of our new church, Brother Sidney McLeod, on WAMY in Amory. She heard him preach again in person later in the day at Hatley Missionary Baptist Church, where we had been members for a couple of years.
The Reverend knew I was interested in radio, and Bro. McLeod surprised me one day with an invitation to go with him to WAMY for one of his live broadcasts.
Finally, I was inside a radio station! Bro. McLeod entered the small live broadcast studio, adjusted the large rectangular RCA® mic, cleared his throat, and waited for the hand signal from the man in the control room. The on-air light illuminated, and Bro. McLeod wasted little time getting into the character of a Southern Soul-Saving Preacher, which he was.
But my interests lay with the young man in the control room. By noon, after a Sunday morning of religious programming, he would be playing Rock ‘n’ Roll the rest of the day. The Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin, Rickey Nelson, Paul Anka, and Elvis, who was tearing up the charts with Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Jailhouse Rock, and All Shook Up. The latter would become #1 on the Pop, Country, and Rhythm & Blues charts!
And what was I doing? Washing and cleaning out school buses at $1.50 each at the County Shop, where my brother was a mechanic; it was my first paying job outside of picking cotton.
But I was able to listen to WAMY while working. I critiqued the announcers and began talking over them, introducing the songs myself, “It’s 92 degrees in Amory at two-thirty-five on WAMY.” I accentuated and enunciated W-A-M-Y ad nauseam. People who overheard me would shake their heads and smile, while others gave me a thumbs-up.
The days ticked by slowly, the weeks dragged, and the months seemed like forever. After all, I was in the Deep South, a region not known for being fast-paced. And I was one of those anxious and ambitious boys, unfit for the tempo of country life.
Now there were The Browns, The McGuire Sisters, The Drifters, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and Brenda Lee. Elvis was commanding millions of fans, entertaining them with Are You Lonesome Tonight? and Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear.
I was becoming a teenager during the birth of a musical revolution: The infancy of Rock ‘n’ Roll with Elvis and other major artists, soon to be followed by the Beatles and the British Invasion. I was witnessing nothing less than a musical explosion for the ages, and it forever changed the beat of young Americans’ hearts, especially mine.
My older brother, Dale, was empathetic to my dream of becoming a DJ, and he offered me a ride to town one day in his 1937 Chevy. I jumped at the chance, and I was ready to execute my plan. He drove me to Main Street in Amory, population 5,280.
WAMY was a daytime station (licensed to operate from sun-up to sun-down only), and naturally, I knew the Sign-Off time. Dale stayed in the car nearby while I waited for the announcer at the bottom of the stairs by the glass door, lettered “WAMY” in a three-inch bold-gold script.
The DJ seemed to be in a rush as he stepped onto the sidewalk, put his Thermos® under his arm, and began locking the door. He looked to be about 25. I was 14. I resisted the urge to tell him I thought he was a great DJ and that I was a big fan, and so on.
Instead, I got right to the point. I looked up at him and said, “What does a fellow need to do to get a job here, an announcing job like yours?”
“Well,” he said, without hesitation or bothering to stop, “First, you need to go to college and get a good education and start from there.” My jaw dropped. As his car faded in the distance — so did my dreams.
What, I thought, are you kidding? We’re in the Deep South, one of the poorest states in the country, in about the smallest town that could support a radio station, and I need a college degree. I’m in the ninth grade, and I’ve never even known anyone who’s gone to college! He had given me the worst possible answer.
It was a long ride home.
That night, I watched Dale cup his hand around the chimney and blow out the kerosene lamp while I positioned the porcelain chamber at the foot of the iron bedstead.
Dale squatted at the fireplace stoking the coals, hoping for an all-night burn, while I stripped down to my long handles and climbed onto the right side of the bed next to the pale blue wall.
A New Haven Seven Day striking clock rested in the middle of the mantel. I followed the pendulum in the dim firelight, trying to get my eyes to sleep, but instead, I began quizzing Dale as I often did. Where would he live if it could be anywhere? What would he do if it could be anything? But he recognized the questions to be my own.
Dale already knew my dreams, but he listened again anyway. He already knew what I wanted — to get the hell out of here.
The next morning I awoke tired and cold, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and knelt down to help Dale get the fire going. I grabbed yesterday’s clothes from the nail on the wall, pulled them on, slipped on my shoes, headed out the door, turned left into the chilly hallway, hurried to the outhouse, and sat down on the cold, rough plank. Then, on the back porch, I dipped from the bucket, washed my hands, and splashed some water on my face.
After skipping my chores, breakfast, and brushing my teeth, I walked across the road to await the school bus, about to waste another 45 minutes of my life riding to Hatley school.
Understandably, I was down, but there was too much at stake to be out. Time dragged, but when I could get a chance and a ride, I would visit WAMY when the DJ I had asked about a job with was not on-air.
Within a few months, I had delivered enough coffee and doughnuts and pestered enough people that I had the name and address of the person responsible for the hiring decisions. He was at WAMY’s sister station in West Point, a town about an hour’s drive south of Amory.
My cousin, a high school graduate and owner of a typewriter, helped me with the letter I sent to the manager in West Point asking for a job at WAMY.
Momma and Daddy had warned me not to get my hopes up, and the weeks dragged on.
I was cutting bushes with Daddy in the lower pasture, a good hike from the house, when Momma delivered a letter addressed to me, postmarked West Point, Mississippi. I dropped my Kaiser blade, wiped off some sweat, grabbed the envelope, and tore into it with my right index finger.
Momma and Daddy stood nearby, looking for my expression as I read the letter that could change my life.
He was sorry to have taken so long to respond and thanked me for my interest and so on. But considering my very young age and no experience, he said there was nothing he could do to help me with my dream of becoming a DJ. I needed experience and more age. At least he didn’t say I had to have a college degree.
“Well,” Daddy said, “you’re pretty good around the farm, and you and Dale can run it one day. Besides, your Momma and I don’t want you leaving home anyhow.”
Oh, wonderful, I thought, I can still be a farmer. Why do you think I’m trying to get out of here? And I don’t need to leave home to work at WAMY. So for the remainder of the day, I cut twice as many bushes as Daddy.
Yeah, I’m really good around the farm (especially when I’m angry about farming).