August 18, 2012 10:24:14 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
The recent effort to alter the name of Catfish Alley has generated a lot of conversation about a part of town many Columbians have cherished memories.
Take Rusty Wallace, a high school classmate who lives in Memphis. I haven't heard from Rusty in years. That is until last week's column about the Alley and Dr. E.J. Stringer.
For as long as I can remember Rusty has been involved in some form of radio. Long ago, when we were kids, he was broadcasting via his own frequency from the attic of Wisteria Place, his grandparents' antebellum home. It was not uncommon to tune into Rusty's "station" (1500 AM) and hear him in the middle of a drum solo.
Rusty's first paying radio gig was at WACR, located on Catfish Alley above what is now the Front Door/Back Door restaurants.
The year was 1966 and this was a time when most small towns had an AM radio station or two that offered distinctly local programming. WACR was a prime example.
Here's Rusty's email:
I had some very fond experiences working at WACR on Catfish Alley and your article really brought back memories. In junior high and high school I worked every weekend there. It was an interesting place. I would put on MacArthur Park (7 minutes and 20 seconds in length) and run over to the black-owned drug store (Fourth Street Drug Store) across the street and get an ice cream cone. They had some of the best ice cream you could find and it really hit the spot.
I would look out the window, and if it looked as if they were very busy, I would put on "Hey Jude" (8 minutes and 32 seconds). This record was also known as the Bathroom LP and was hung on its own nail in the control room to be quickly reached when needed.
Those of us who worked there will always remember the creaking floors and talk of a ghost in the building from the days when it was a funeral home. There was a sink in the control room, which was said to be the embalming room. Never knew if that was true, but it made a great story.
Also remember Jimmy and Eva Eatherton (owners of the station) and Mr. 5-by-5 (the Eathertons' son). A great bunch of people and glad I had a chance to know them. Mr. E always wore a suit and white shirt and would greet you with a firm hand shake and a "How you doing, pal?"
Over the many years I knew him, I could count on one hand the times I saw him not in the suit.
They made a great team as he was very likable and sales was his thing. Eva was in the business of running the station. It took both of them to make the place work. Even though they were competitors, Mr. E had a great amount of respect for your Dad (who owned the competing AM station, WCBI). I heard nothing but praise and respect. He did work for many years at WCBI before buying WACR.
I wrote Rusty back sharing my fond WACR memories of Bo Dixon, who hosted a wildly popular Sunday morning gospel show on the station. Bo drove up Sunday mornings from Brooksville to do his show. He made up his own commercials, which were the most entertaining part of the show: "Throw away your skillet and break your plate and go right on down to Betty's Cafe for some of the best food you ever put in your mouth ... Jot it down, Bo Dixon speaking from downtown Brooksville, where you can't get lost to save your soul."
Bo would make some sort of coughing noise with his throat to provide added emphasis. He kept everyone smiling in the studio, and I imagine listeners at home responded the same way. Often Bo would be accompanied by four or five rough looking country boys with sweet voices who called themselves "The Happy Band." They had no instruments, but one of their members could make the sound of a bass. There was a preacher who came on after Bo who screamed and seemed to writhe in agony for 30 minutes. The Sunday morning ministers paid the d.j. on duty cash for their air time, a dollar a minute.
Here's Rusty's response to my mention of Bo.
Bo Dixon brings back the memories. He would bring in different (gospel) groups every week. He had sponsors that would help pay for the time. These businesses were in the smaller towns of the surrounding counties. Towns like Macon, Crawford, Brooksville, and Bigbee Valley. Most of his advertisers were small stores in these towns.
Bo really put on a very organized show. No dead air and lots of advertising. We had singing groups all Sunday morning from 0700 to 1100. Only one 15-minute show was on tape and much of the time it was also live.
The shows were all paid in cash, and I collected the money for the shows. It's too bad we did not record these Sunday morning shows. This was local radio at its best. At the time we did not give it much thought, but now would give anything to have copies of these shows.
Long gone are those stations and the likes of Bo Dixon. Today so much radio is hardly more than Muzak programmed by some distant corporate entity.
Rusty's memories are only part of the history of that small-town radio station, itself but a chapter in the rich history of Catfish Alley.
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.