It didn’t take long for word of Luther Masingill’s death to spread throughout his beloved hometown on Monday. Within 24 hours, the King of Morning Radio was memorialized on every media outlet, in every restaurant, and every living room. He was that well-known, and that well-loved.
In recent years, as Luther won numerous awards and honors for his 73-year broadcasting career, and his countless acts of kindness, our local household name went nationwide. News outlets from CBS to Al Jazeera (no kidding) visited his humble studio on South Broad Street and beamed his life story on their networks. After a few years of prodding the Associated Press and other major news services also profiled our world-record-holding announcer.
(Our Celebration of Luther’s Life, which was held Thursday October 23 at Engel Stadium, can be seen in its entirety here. I have posted my own tribute from the celebration in two parts on YouTube:
At least two major national outlets have saluted Luther’s incredible life and career. Listeners of NPR’s popular “All Things Considered” heard this interview Wednesday night.
On Monday, Sirius XM host Phlash Phelps repeated his interview with Luther on his 92nd birthday last March. Phlash is Sirius XM’s amazing morning host on Channel 6, and he has long been one of Luther’s biggest fans. He too, is a radio “lifer,” and appreciates Luther’s unprecedented longevity record more than most.
Wednesday, Phlash asked me to be on his show, to talk about Luther’s life, and to invite folks to the Celebration on Thursday. I’m always honored to share Luther’s story, and I want to thank Phlash for letting me show some love to Luther to a sizable audience among Sirius XM’s 27 million subscribers.
Here’s a YouTube version of the interview, including some classic Luther photos, and it ends with one of those great songs that Luther loved to play on the radio. Please share with Luther fans, near and far:
On October 20, 2014, we lost Luther Masingill, at the age of 92. He will no longer speak into the WDEF microphone, attempting to find some lost dogs. He was on the same time, same station since 1940. When you see a list of records that will never be broken (like Cal Ripken’s consecutive game streak and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), Luther’s longevity should rank at the very top. That’s why Sirius XM’s Phlash Phelps devoted a portion of his show earlier this year to Luther, just before his 92nd birthday. This interview, which you can hear below, was heard by a big chunk of satellite radio’s 26 million listeners nationwide:
Take it from me, or anyone else who’s ever worked on radio or television. An announcing career, to put it kindly, is not one where many folks get a gold watch for 25 years of continuous service. Deejays come and go, and frequently come again. Chattanooga, being a mid-sized city, has long been considered a stepping stone to Nashville, Atlanta, or even network fame. You rarely start in Chattanooga (you hone your skills in smaller towns like South Pittsburg, Dalton, or Fort Payne), and you sure don’t finish here. Generally, if you haven’t hit the big time by the time you’re middle-aged, you start selling real estate, you get a job at the post office, or start your own business. You can’t be a Chattanooga radio announcer forever. Unless….you’re Luther.
Let’s put this in perspective. When Luther uttered his first words on WDEF, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his second term. Some veterans of the Civil War were still alive. There was no such thing as cake mix, an electric blanket or an atomic bomb. Hitler ruled Germany, and Churchill was Britain’s Prime Minister. Gasoline was 18 cents a gallon, and it cost three pennies to mail a letter.
Each year, I attend a reunion of local radio deejays, past and present. Sometimes we ask them to name the stations for which they’ve worked, which can be a lengthy chore for some. Last year, when it was Luther’s turn, I fed him a straight line. “Luther,” I said, “you’ve done radio for more than seventy years. How many stations have you worked for?” With impeccable timing, he paused, started looking at his fingers as if to begin counting, looked up and said simply, “One,” to great laughter of course.
A few years ago, I asked him the question people often ask me. When I’ve touted Luther to out-of-towners, or to newcomers to Chattanooga, they’ll ask, “If he’s so good, why didn’t he ever make it to the big time?” You see, Chattanooga may seem like a big deal to those of us who live here, but the big-city folk are not impressed. We don’t have big-league sports, we don’t have 16-lane highways and we’re not swarming with celebrities. So, if you haven’t worked your way out of our scenic little town, you can’t be very good, so they say.
After a little prodding, Luther admitted that during his heyday in the 1950s and 60s, he could have gone just about anywhere. As television gradually connected our nation from coast to coast, Easterners became infatuated with Southern-style entertainers. Suddenly, New York-type stars like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Groucho Marx were giving way to comics and singers with a Southern flavor: Dinah Shore, Andy Griffith, Jimmy Dean, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Pat Boone were all near the top of the TV ratings and record charts. Big market radio stations took notice. “Hmmm,” they said. “These Southerners are taking the nation by storm. Maybe we should hire a down-home deejay to do our morning show.” When they saw Luther’s eye-popping ratings, they tracked him down.
I mean, this is the guy who made an entire city pull over to the side of the road one morning. As heavy snow began to fall, Luther helpfully advised his listeners to let some air out of their tires to gain more traction. As witnesses would later describe, main arteries like McCallie Avenue came to a standstill as everyone stopped, got out of their car and began deflating their tires. Can you imagine anyone, in any broadcast medium, having that sort of influence today?
Yet despite the offers from New York, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, Luther chose to stay put. His family was here, and he always appreciated WDEF for giving an unproven high school senior a job on the radio, which was beyond his wildest dreams. When he applied, all he wanted to do was answer the phone and take requests for the older guys. Owner Joe Engel asked him to try out for an announcer’s job, and gave him a commercial script to read. Young Luther mispronounced one word (“salon” became “saloon”) but those golden pipes landed him the station’s prime position. By the way, if the 73-year radio gig isn’t impressive enough, consider this: he was also on WDEF Channel 12 every day since it signed on, sixty years last April. No one else did that, either.
Every time I saw or heard Luther, I cherished the moment. This much is certain: there will never be another one like him, anywhere in the world. If you’re lucky enough to be a Chattanoogan, you can say with hometown pride, “He belonged to us.”
I have posted my tribute to Luther from the Celebration of Life program at Engel Stadium on October 23rd. They are in two parts: Here is part 1:
Here is part 2:
To watch the celebration program in its entirety, click here.
Here are the tribute stories from WRCB on October 20:
Cleveland High School has produced some amazing lip dub videos in recent years, under the supervision of their great broadcasting teacher, Jon Souders. Every year, I say, “How will they top that?”
Well, they’ve done it. Their latest, “Be True To Your School,” is their entry in the Macy’s Lip Dub Challenge, which could earn the school $25,000 in prize money. The video has to be one continuous take, which is hard enough in itself. When I saw this one, which lasts about six minutes, I was blown away. How’d they do it? There are two key ingredients: a drone camera, and lots of talent, both behind and in front of the camera.
Take a look, enjoy, and join me in wishing Cleveland High much success when the winners are announced at the end of October.
It was early in the afternoon Friday, August 23, 1991. I was in the Channel 3 newsroom waiting for something to happen. Photographer Glen Wagner and I had seen a couple of story ideas come and go that day. Some people didn’t call back, and those who did were too busy to meet with me. Fridays can be like that. But I have a newscast to fill….
Suddenly, the phone rang. Was it a heavenly voice on the other end, granting my wish for a little nugget of news? No. It was just my old radio buddy Dex.
My friend Dex
At the time, he was managing the Gardens restaurant at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. “Dave, you’ll never guess who’s eating a cheeseburger about twenty feet away from me,” Dex said. “You’re right,” I said. “Who is it?”
“You’re not gonna believe this, but President Jimmy Carter, his wife Rosalynn, and their grandkids are here having lunch, and then they’re gonna get on the box cars,” Dex said. He capped it off with, “And you’re the only person I’m telling.”
“Glen!” I yelled, “grab your camera, we’ve got a president at the Choo Choo!” Glen, a good-natured guy, didn’t ask questions, he just grabbed the camera, and we took off. As we got in the car, I told him about Dex’s confidential tip. “Does President Carter know we’re coming?” he asked. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I guess we’ll surprise him.”
When we got to the Choo Choo, there was nothing out of the ordinary. “Gee, I hope we didn’t miss him,” Glen said. There was no limo, no beefy Secret Service agents staring us down. A few scattered tourists were roaming the grounds. We carried the camera and tripod to the restaurant area. We didn’t want to barge in, so we took a quick look through the window. There they were! The First Family, ten years removed from the White House, enjoying a quiet lunch with the grandkids. “Glen!” I said. “Go ahead and set up your camera, this may be all we get!” He dutifully aimed through the glass, and Mrs. Carter spotted us. I’m not a lip-reader, but she said something to her husband, like, “How nice! A couple of delightful local news people found out we’re here on vacation! What a pleasant surprise!” Or maybe that’s not exactly what she said. Anyway, Mr. Carter turned around, looked through the window, and looked me right in the eye.
Pres. Jimmy Carter, not particularly happy to see me.
He quickly turned back to his wife with that “busted” look on his face. Sensing his disappointment, I said, “I’ll tell you what, Glen. Let’s give ‘em time to eat, and do their sightseeing, and then I’ll ask him to do an interview.” It turns out there were a couple of Secret Service guys who politely requested we give the President “a little space.” Fearing a headline of “Alleged news guy ruins Presidential vacation,” I gladly consented.
Glen and I waited, and our persistence was rewarded. About a half-hour after finishing their meal, the Carter family had apparently wrapped up their tour of the complex. The cute grandchildren had hopped on and off every box car in sight, so I said to Glen, “Here’s our chance!”
I walked up to Mr. Carter, shook his hand, and introduced myself. “Mr. President,” I said, “I really hate to bother folks when they’re on vacation…” He stopped me in mid-sentence, flashed that peanut-eating grin, and said, “It must not bother you too much.” I laughed awkwardly. (Was he kidding? Or did I just play Fail to the Chief?), I plodded on. “If you can spare a minute for a quick interview…” He stopped me again. “As long as it’s quick, we’re ready to go.” I can take a subtle hint. Fortunately, Glen worked fast, and we were ready to roll.
After that rough start, he couldn’t have been any nicer. I had my questions ready. Could there be a female presidential candidate in 1992? Absolutely, he said. There were several qualified women, and he fully expected one to be elected in his lifetime (he just turned 90 last week, it still could happen). Did he expect a big-name politician to win the ’92 Democratic nomination (Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Jerry Brown and Mario Cuomo were front-runners), or would it be a relative unknown, as he had been in 1976? He said the election was still 15 months away, and there was plenty of time for a lesser-known candidate to emerge (It turned out to be an obscure southern governor named Bill Clinton. Whatever happened to him?)
As you’ll see in the story below, he also commented on his knowledge of downtown Chattanooga, the railroads, and even the quality of his lunch. He didn’t seem too annoyed as we parted company, and I had my exclusive interview for the 6:00 news.
Mr. Carter returned to the area recently, to campaign for his grandson Jason, a candidate for governor of Georgia. When I heard he was coming, I called Dex. “I just wanted to thank you again for tipping me off when Jimmy Carter came to the Choo Choo,” I said. “Yeah, I’ll never forget that day,” Dex said. “I told the staff to take good care of him and his family, and after a while, I went to the bathroom. There was somebody in the next stall, and I later realized it was him. That was the first time I met a sitting president.”
As many Usher fans know, the singer was born and raised in Chattanooga before he moved to Atlanta as a teen, seeking stardom. Well, he found it, but before he left Chattanooga, he was on my “Live at Noon” show a few times with his group Nu Beginning. Managed by Darryl Wheeler, the youthful quintet had a smooth sound and slick dance moves. Here’s a video clip from 1991. Usher is wearing an orange shirt and blue shorts, and does some vocalizing, although Adrian Johnson is lead singer on this song, “Keep Dreamin.” Usher turns 36 today (October 14), so here’s a flashback to his early days in Chattanooga:
“Sweet Caroline” may have been the first 45 I ever bought. It was one of the first, for sure. I’ve always liked Neil Diamond, and every few years he puts out a new album. He has a new one coming out next week, called “Melody Road.” This song, “Something Blue,” (not to be confused with “Song Sung Blue”) is a standout. Plus, the video is full of puppies. Click and watch, this 73-year-old guy, he’s still got it.
Confession time: I may have done the worst marriage proposal ever. Back in the spring of 1983, I finally figured out that Cindy was the one. So what did I do? One night with the Braves blaring in the background, I said, “Hey, be thinking about September 10. I think that would be a good time for us to get married.”
Because, I really did think that. Softball season would be over by then. Incredibly, and inexplicably, she said yes. And she has never let me live down that epic fail of a proposal.
Now, if I had to do it all over again, I would have done it like this:
What can I say, but wow! Bret set up his big-time proposal with the help of a TV network promoting a new show. So it’s safe to say most of us guys would never have the resources to do a full city-street “flash mob” lip-dub. But it is a cool story. Bret used his network connections to fly Jovan’s family and friends from Chicago to LA (where she had recently moved to be closer to him).
The result is a great video, sure to be shared, and viewed by millions. You’re one of the first. Share, and enjoy!
Update: US-101 morning personality Bearman (Benjamin Martin) passed away Thursday night October 16, 2014 from injuries he received from a fall, after a lengthy battle with liver disease. The article below was originally posted October 9, and has been edited after his passing.
I admire people who win, especially those who win with class. In sports, I like the team that wins, shakes hands, and says, “Now let’s get back to work so we can keep on winning.” No bragging, no grandstanding, just a commitment to be good enough to win the next game.
Bearman and Ken Hicks
That’s why I like these guys so much. Ken Hicks and Bearman were about to begin their 20th year as the morning team on Chattanooga’s US-101, when Bearman became ill in the summer of 2014. In 1995, they quickly rose to the top of the ratings, and stayed there. Folks, that isn’t easy, but they sure made it sound that way.
Ken credits their success to their similar backgrounds and beliefs. He’s a Georgia boy, and his partner grew up in Alabama. Bearman (Ben Martin) loved nothing more than meeting listeners, and hearing their stories, while Ken spends most weekends in churches, singing bass for his gospel quartet Testimony. He says they’ve lost track of how many listeners they’ve met in person, but it’s way up into the thousands. “It’s the best part of the job,” Ken says.
Twenty years ago, neither knew their names would soon be joined together in Chattanooga radio history, but Ken says they both felt blessed by their partnership. “Back in 1995, station manager Sammy George, who is a radio genius, was making some changes,” Ken said. “I had been doing my Sunday morning show (The Gospel Road) on US-101 for 11 years, and Bear had worked at the station for 8 years. One night Sammy told us to start doing mornings the next day, and that’s how it’s been ever since.” Sammy George also remembers. “I’m certainly not a genius but I was keenly aware of the chemistry between two great guys, and how it could translate on the radio and to the audience.”
Ken said, “We were truly able to finish each other’s sentences. You develop that relationship when you spend the first few hours of the day with the same person for 20 years.”
There were no infighting, no ego clashes. “It wasn’t about us,” Ken said. “We figured that out early on. Our listeners are much more comical than we are. We put ‘em on the air, and they carry the show. We just sat back and laughed. How cool is that?”
Listeners also loved their “Rollin’ Radio Show,” which is what they called their remote broadcasts. “We had so much fun out meeting people. I mean, people would bring lawn chairs when we were out doing remotes. Think about that. People pulled up a chair to watch two guys talk on the radio!”
After almost 20 years of waking up the Tennessee Valley, Ken and Bear were inseparable in the minds of many. “I’ll be at the store with my wife,” Ken says, “and people would come up and ask me where Bearman is. I just told ‘em he’s waiting out in the truck. I guess they thought we’re together 24/7!”
Ken Hicks, Bearman, and Daniel Wyatt
In 2009, the team welcomed a third member, Daniel Wyatt, who came from a station in Birmingham. Daniel brings humor and energy to the show, and also handles the station’s web content and social media. “He fit in from day one,” Ken said. “He gets it. He has a good radio background, and he has added a lot to our show.”
Daniel has carried more of the load recently, during Bearman’s illness. For several months, Bear dealt with liver problems and was unable to work. He passed away October 16th at the age of 61, surrounded by friends and family. Ken said, “He was a big part of everybody’s morning, and we all miss him, just like the listeners do. We want to make him proud.”
Bearman was born in Kinston, Alabama in 1953, and started his radio career in 1978 in Opp, Alabama. He loved being with his family, always bragged on his children, and was a fan of karate, “The Andy Griffith Show” and of course, country music. He was a resident of Flintstone, Georgia.
US-101′s success was built on community involvement, and Ken says Bear was always been in the middle of it. “People don’t know this, but I want you to know. Bear paid people’s power bills, he put them in apartments, he bought them groceries. Folks called in with serious problems. Bear asked them what they needed, and after we went off the air, I would see him calling them back, figuring out a way to help them. He did that kind of thing all the time.”
(Personal note: Ken is too modest to admit this, but he also performs many random acts of kindness. The US-101 staff is legendary for their support of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, raising millions of dollars for the facility, and befriending many families along the way.)
So to sum it up, what’s the recipe? How did these “good old boys” manage to stay on top of the highly competitive morning radio battle for so long? “It’s simple,” Ken said. “We just do old-school radio. It’s fun, not fake or phony. We’re blessed with some good Christian raising, and we do a clean morning show that everybody can listen to. That’s been our goal since the beginning.”
It won’t be easy carrying on without Bearman. But Ken and Daniel say his spirit will live on, and his influence will continue to be a big part of Chattanooga mornings.
Saturday, the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame paid tribute to Bearman at its board meeting in Chattanooga. Board member Garry Mac is seen in this video offering a prayer:
The celebration of life service for Bearman was just what he would have wanted. Funny, touching stories from his partners Ken and Daniel, and a great message from his friend and pastor, Tony Kelly of Cross Connection Church in Chickamauga. Ken concluded his remarks by saying, “From now on, when people ask me where Bearman is, I’ll tell them. He’s in my heart. He’s in your heart. I know he has a home in Heaven, and I’ll see him again someday.”
What did we do before YouTube? Some bright person, with an ample supply of time and talent, has combined the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” with the cartoon stylings of the “Peanuts” gang. This may be why Al Gore and his friends invented the Internet. Enjoy!
After a near-overdose of bad news this week (idiots sabotaging the Ironman route with oil and tacks, meth labs discovered, all sorts of alleged rapes, beatings and burglaries, Ebola in the US, a Secret Service that isn’t very secret or serviceable, and I could go on), how about something good? Can you handle it?
Lenell Roberts, the secretary at Tyner Middle Academy called me and said, “David, you need to come over. Our principal, Mark Smith is doing wonderful things here. Every morning, he shakes 500 hands, greeting every child, letting them know he’s glad they’re here. And once a week, he asks them to dress for success. They wear ties, and their best clothes. If they don’t have good clothes, we try to find them some, and we’ve had churches make donations. You ought to put this on the news.”
Done! (I’ll ask you to click the link in a minute…just read on a bit more.)
Principal Smith and his assistant principal, Travis Miller are in the middle of a Tyner turnaround. Too many (80%) of the students who enter sixth grade are not proficient readers. Many come from homes and families that are unable to offer much in the way of early education. In years past, they tell me, their school sent too many non-proficient 8th graders across the street to high school without the basic skills they needed to eventually graduate. So they didn’t.
The result: dropouts galore. Students who had been “socially promoted” to save themselves the embarrassment of being a 16-year-old 9th grader. Mark Smith and his team are doing everything they can to keep that from happening at the new Tyner Middle. Or as he puts it more bluntly, “We’re not going to send a child to high school unless he or she is prepared to succeed in high school.” Read that last sentence again. Mark Smith said it like he meant it. He’s tired of seeing history repeat itself. Teens on the streets, with no education, up to no good. Blame it on whoever you wish. All I know is, Tyner Middle’s principals and teachers are working their butts off, putting in extra time, and giving students extra attention, to get it right.
Principal Mark Smith giving out a tie
There’s no windfall of money pouring into his school, but there’s a fountain bubbling over with enthusiasm. It’s a joy for me to see a diverse group of students, in that important middle school age group, wearing ties, their Sunday best, and big smiles. I know what you’re thinking, and it’s the same question I asked: “What about kids who come from families that can’t afford nice clothes?” You can do what I did: donate a tie, or a gift card, or something nice a child could wear. It’s a cool thing watching a sixth grader learn to tie a tie (a skill I didn’t grasp until much, much later in life).
So, you can ride the bad news train, or embrace something special. Here’s that link I was talking about. Click and watch, but fair warning: the ending will make you “Happy.”