How about a little help for Officer Mark Garner?

January 24, 2015 at 4:05 am
Mark Garner

Mark Garner

I hope there’s someone in your life that you can say this about: “If I was stranded on the side of the road with an empty tank, I could call (enter name here) and he’d be here in no time!” Mark Garner is that person for me.

I met Mark more than 20 years ago, in his early days as a DARE officer.  DARE stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, and has been in many schools for years.  More recently, Mark has taught the CHAMPS (Choosing Healthy Activities and Methods Promoting Safety) in Dade County.  Police officers visit students each week, teaching them life lessons about drugs, bullying, and making good choices.  I’ve spoken at about a hundred DARE and CHAMPS graduations at schools all over the Tennessee Valley.  Mark has touched thousands of lives, mostly in Dade and Marion Counties.  As I would tell the kids at those DARE programs, Mark is your friend today, and he’ll be your friend for life.

He’s also held other law enforcement jobs during his 30-plus year career, and on top of everything, he’s a great husband and dad.  Mark and I have had some hilarious phone conversations, usually about football.  Mark’s a diehard Tennessee Vols fan, and he knows I’m an Alabama Crimson Tide guy.  When the Vols “owned” the Tide for a while, Mark let me have it.  When the Tide “turned” in the Saban era, I returned the favor.  It looks like the Vols are on the way back, and I’ll be ready for him.  We try to top each other with Tide-Vols jokes, but Mark usually has the last laugh.

I didn’t hear from Mark over the holidays, so when he called last week, I asked him what he’d been up to.  He told me quite a story.

Just before Christmas, he started having some problems with his feet.  This wasn’t unusual since Mark is a diabetic.  This time, however it was serious.  “Ever heard of MRSA?” he asked me.  I told him I I knew it wasn’t good, but really didn’t know the details.  As Mark explains it, it’s an infection caused by a strain of staph bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics.  It’s difficult to treat, has the potential to spread, and can be life-threatening.  “I’d had an ulcer in my right foot, and I was worried about that,” Mark said.  “Then out of nowhere, this infection is in my left foot, and it’s bad!”

So bad, he was rushed to the hospital where doctors immediately removed two toes and part of his foot to prevent any further spread of the infection.  “I thought that was it,” Mark said, but his troubles were just beginning.  Soon he was in unbearable pain, “the worst I could have ever imagined,” he said.  Doctors told him a partial leg amputation needed to be done immediately.  “I didn’t even have to think about it,” Mark said, “I told them whatever it takes to stop this pain, just do it, please!”

On Christmas Eve, doctors amputated his left foot and leg, just below the knee.  “Let me tell you about a great Christmas,” he said.  “My wife (Lea Ann) and daughters (Ashton and Bria) were in the hospital room with me, and the pain was gone.  That was my Christmas miracle!” Doctors said if he hadn’t agreed to the surgery so quickly, they would have lost him.  Mark said, “In just a few days, it went from a couple of toes, and what I thought was no big deal, into a life-and-death situation.  And do you know what?  Ever since the amputation, I haven’t had a bad day.  I’ve barely had to take any painkillers.  I went from terrible pain, to feeling good, almost immediately!”

Mark, Lea Ann, Bria and Ashton Garner

Mark, Lea Ann, Bria and Ashton Garner

His rehab program started at Siskin in Chattanooga, and continues at his home, where he awaits a prosthesis in March.  “They say when I get it, I’ll be as fast as ever, which isn’t saying much since I was never that fast anyway!” he said. Even better, he’s been told his prosthesis can be painted orange and white.  “I might even get it fixed up like the Big Orange checkerboard, just for you,” he told me.

He says he can’t wait to get back to work.  “(Dade County) Sheriff Ray Cross said my job is waiting for me, whenever I’m ready,” he said.  “He’s been great, all my family and friends have been so supportive.”

As Mark’s medical bills begin to mount, friends have started a fund at First Volunteer Bank (131 S. Cedar Avenue, South Pittsburg, TN 37380).  His insurance policy has a high deductible that requires twenty percent out of pocket payments.  “We’re making it a 501(c)(3),” Mark said. “I want this to be ongoing, and not just for me.  I want it to help other emergency responders when they’re hit with something like this.”

Mark said, “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me, I’m going to be fine.  I’m thankful to be here, thankful the pain is gone, and thankful for all the prayers.  God’s been good to me.”

I hope you’ll join me in pitching in to help Mark, and others like him who may need a helping hand in the future.  I love you Mark, but I have just one request.  If the Vols ever beat Bama again, don’t kick me too hard with that orange checkerboard leg, okay?


Dolly Parton: It’s Your Birthday!

January 20, 2015 at 12:42 am

Dolly Parton is celebrating her 69th birthday, so let me tell you a quick story or two.

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in the 1960s

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in the 1960s

Did you know she was once a regular performer on Chattanooga TV? No, she never lived here or worked as a full time employee like Jim Nabors, but she made the weekly trip from Nashville to the Channel 3 studio for “The Porter Wagoner Show.”  In the 1960s, before videotape became affordable, Porter took his busload of pickers and singers around the south for weekly shows on local TV stations.  Monday night they might be in Birmingham, Tuesday in Chattanooga, Wednesday in Knoxville, and so on.

During my various interviews with Channel 3 employees of that era, they recall Porter’s bus pulling up to 1214 McCallie Avenue to unload their gear.  There were tiny little “dressing rooms” in the building, used by newsmen, wrestlers, and country music stars.  They tell me that Dolly, barely five feet tall, would “carry a box about as big as she was,” which contained her gigantic wig.  Once she was in full Dolly mode, she would emerge for her solo number, usually followed by a duet with Porter.

Not long after their weekly Chattanooga visits, Porter’s sponsors (Duz Detergent, Soltice Rub, and Black Draught Laxative, to name a few) decided that taping the shows in Nashville was more affordable than those weekly bus trips.  But Dolly had certainly made a big impression with the crew at Channel 3.

Dolly and Carl Dean's wedding day, May 30, 1966 in Ringgold, GA

Dolly and Carl Dean’s wedding day, May 30, 1966 in Ringgold, GA

She has another strong connection to our area, as told to my co-anchor Cindy Sexton a few years back.  It’s a popular myth that Dolly and Carl Dean were married at the Ringgold Wedding Chapel, or the Catoosa County Courthouse.  Actually they exchanged vows at Ringgold Baptist Church on May 30, 1966.  Carl was familiar with the area from having spent part of his youth on Missionary Ridge, and Dolly learned that that couples could get their marriage license and get married the same day in Ringgold.  Plus, she said, it sounded good: Ring-gold was a good place to get hitched.  Almost 49 years later, they’re still married.  Dolly is still very much in the public eye, and Carl, as always, doesn’t get out much.

Dolly Parton, all done up

Dolly Parton, all done up

However, Dolly said that she and Carl still feel a close connection to Ringgold, and Chattanooga, and visit the area “at least once every three years, around the time of our anniversary, on Memorial Day.”  As recently as 2012, she said they returned to Ringgold, and they’ve visited nearby attractions like Lookout Mountain and the Tennessee Aquarium.  Guess what?  You may have seen Dolly in these parts, but you didn’t know it.  Here’s what she told Cindy: “They never know that we’re there.  We have a little RV camper that we travel around in. We stop and I’m not totally in my rhinestones. I put on little makeup for my husband, I usually have my own hair, just put it up in a little scrunchy or something.  You wouldn’t think about it, you just don’t see me. But if you hear me and see me up close, you know it’s me.”

So keep your eyes open if you’re visiting Ringgold, or local tourist attractions, or even the local convenience store come May 30.  That pretty little woman without the big hair and the rhinestones just might be Dolly Parton.  She might be in line ahead of you at the Kangaroo store buying some Slim Jims and a lottery ticket.  You never know!

Since everybody has a favorite Dolly song, here’s mine.  In 1974, she had a big country hit called, “Love Is Like A Butterfly” which was also played on a few top-40 stations.  I used to play it when I was a weekend deejay on WEPG in South Pittsburg.  It’s a quick little two-minute tune, and it’s as sweet as can be.  Here’s a YouTube video of her singing it live on “Hee Haw,” and if I didn’t love her enough already, I love her even more when she nervously giggles a couple of times in this performance.  Enjoy the music, and Happy Birthday Dolly!  Come see us next time you’re in town.

Watch Betty White’s birthday surprise

January 19, 2015 at 2:48 am
Betty White

Betty White

I think everybody’s a Betty White fan.  She’s funny, feisty, and just turned 93 this weekend.  She’s still working too, on various TV shows including the “Hot in Cleveland” sitcom on TV Land.  Here’s a fun video you’ll enjoy.  It seems her co-workers wanted to surprise her, so they staged a flash mob in the style of a Hawaiian dance.  Check it out!

Those Fabulous Forester Sisters: 30 great years

January 18, 2015 at 12:44 am


Thirty years ago, Warner Brothers released a song by an unknown quartet of sisters from Lookout Mountain, Georgia.  “That’s What You Do When You’re In Love” put the Forester Sisters on the map.  Radio stations across America took a chance on a new act, and listeners loved their music.

That set into motion an incredible series of events.  Kathy, June, Kim and Christy were thrilled that ONE of their songs got on the radio.  Far from an overnight success, the sisters had first sung together when they were 10, 8, 4 and 2.  Now in their 20s, they had no idea what the future would hold.  The year before, that song got passed around in Nashville, ending up at the record label.  Kim Forester recalls, “When we got a call saying “This is Warner Brothers” we thought it was a joke and hung up on them.  Thankfully, they called back!” After all those years of wishing and hoping, would they only be a one-hit wonder?

Forester Sisters fans know the answer.  The mountain girls succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  Their second single, “I Fell In Love Again Last Night” went to number-one on the country charts.  So did the one after that, and the next one too. Between 1985 and 1991, the sisters scored fourteen top-ten hits.  They were on all the awards shows, winning their fair share.  June Forester McCormick remembers their first performance at the Grand Ole Opry. “Our eyes were big, and our mouths were hanging open.  We’re meeting all these superstars, and they’re interested in our music!”

Kim said they appreciated the fame and its perks, but the travel?  It’s not what it’s cracked up to be. She said, “Your world is very small; bus, hotel room, dressing room, stage, airport.  You’re living out of suitcases, eating a lot of fast food when the buses are fueling because there’s no time to find a good restaurant.  You’re missing weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduations and holidays.  And all that flying isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds.  Once, we were going to Greece, and a storm kept us on the runway in New York for hours.  That affected all the connecting flights, and we finally got to Greece two days later, by way of Poland.  Trust me, you’re not thinking “This is the life!” when you haven’t changed clothes for days, and you’re sleeping while sitting upright on planes or in airports!”

The close-knit quartet kept their sanity by being surrounded by family.  “Husbands, kids, an aunt who was like another mother.  Our parents (C.D. “Bunk” and Vonnie Forester) would travel with us sometimes as well,” Kim said.

Along the way, they met their idols.  Among them, according to Kim, “The Oak Ridge Boys are some of the sweetest folks around, and SERIOUS pranksters!  We always enjoyed Ricky Skaggs and the Whites.  We worked a lot with George Jones.  Merle Haggard, what a singer.  We spent time with June Carter Cash, who had a lunch and antique sale at her house every year.  We loved getting together with family groups –the McGuire Sisters, the Pointer Sisters, the Everly Brothers.  We sat and talked with George Harrison and Tom Petty at one Grammy Awards party, and Madonna at another.   Some are so kind and thoughtful, like Kenny Rogers.  He asked us to fly home with him on his plane during the holidays so we’d get home before Christmas. He knew we’d never make it in time on our bus.”

Eventually, the sisters tired of touring as their children got older, and family duties beckoned.  As June put it, “I enjoyed the travel at first, but after twelve years of it, I just wanted to be in my house for more than two days at a time.” So as country music’s sound got harder and more male-oriented in the 90s, the sisters stepped back, raising kids and starting new careers.  Kathy got her doctorate and became a music teacher.  June, whose daughter Canaan was born with visual disabilities, became a teacher for the visually impaired.  Kim and Christy studied interior design, and have done quite well in that field.  In 2013, they reunited for their induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.  “An incredible honor,” said Kim.

Kim admits that what is considered country music today has little appeal to her.  “Now there’s so much emphasis on your look, instead of your sound.  You don’t have to be able to sing well anymore.  They can fix that in the studio or onstage with auto-tune.”  She remembers a conversation with the late George Jones a few years ago.  He told her, “Kim, if I was a young man today trying to get a record deal, it would never happen.”  She said, “Sadly, he was right.”


Thirty years after their big splash, they still do an occasional show, those harmonies blending beautifully.  Most of their kids are on their own now, leaving the ladies with more spare time than they used to have.  I couldn’t help but ask: could there be new recordings, and more live shows?  June said, “The kids are all about out of college now, and ready to start their lives. So, we’ll see what happens.” Kim added, “We get a lot of requests for some new music, so we’re thinking about it.  There might be a solo project for me, it’s been on the back burner.  There’s no telling what may come out of this bunch!”

I first met the Foresters on a snowy day in January 1985, at the family home on Lookout Mountain, near the New Salem community and Cloudland Canyon State Park.  Their first song was becoming a hit, and it was a pleasure to spend time with them just before they hit it big nationally, and worldwide.  Through it all, they never changed, and I’m honored to say, “I knew them when.”  Here’s an video clip from my news story about them.  Please excuse the poor audio, you may have to crank up the volume.

Here is one of their lesser-known singles, “I Got A Date,” which was released in 1992.  Kim handles the lead vocals, and I think it’s a great performance.  This song should have been a bigger hit.  Enjoy!


We’ll miss Jack Benson, one of the good guys

January 16, 2015 at 1:30 pm
Jack Benson Sr.

Jack Benson Sr.

Thursday night, I got word that an old friend had passed away, at the age of 85.  Jack Benson, Sr. was one of those guys who’s been around forever, and seemed invincible.  He had survived a few battles with skin cancer, and until recently appeared to be in good health.  But a recent illness was too much for him to overcome, and we have lost a local treasure.

I first met him during my early days in broadcasting.  He had moved up in the city school ranks, where he had started as a teacher before becoming a principal at the age of 25.  Yes, that’s not a misprint.  He was 25.  Two of the city’s largest schools, East Lake Elementary and East Side Junior High were under his leadership for seventeen years.

1963-64 photo, while Jack Benson was principal of East Side Jr. High

1963-64 photo, while Jack Benson was principal of East Side Jr. High

When he moved up to assistant superintendent, he was frequently the face of the city schools, working under superintendents who preferred to stay out of the spotlight.  Jack didn’t mind being interviewed, and was often on camera responding to good news and bad.  He never ducked an interview request, and for that I was extremely grateful.

By 1985, he was ready to retire from the city schools, and my wife Cindy played a small role in his future.  Working then as a loaned executive in the United Way campaign, she called on the city schools central office, and she and Jack became good friends.  She told him about her passion for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Chattanooga, and how much she enjoyed her time with her “little sister.”  The agency had an opening for its executive director position, and Jack said he might be interested in a career change.  Knowing his love for children, Cindy told him he would be a perfect fit and encouraged him to go for it.  For the next fifteen years he headed up Big Brothers Big Sisters, and loved every minute of it.  Whenever I saw Jack, before we got around to business, he asked about Cindy, and told me to thank her for getting him involved in that program.

In 2001, at the age of 71, he entered the third phase of his remarkable life.  He ran for City Council in District 4, representing the East Brainerd area.  He served three four-year terms before leaving office in 2013.  The City Council job is basically part-time, but Jack never treated it that way.  He maintained an office at City Hall, and that’s where he could usually be found.  He didn’t request travel expenses, rarely missed a meeting, returned every phone call, and never shied away from controversy.  Just as he had done during his school administration days, he was always available for an interview, even when he was defending an unpopular position on an issue like rezoning.  Believe me, not all officeholders are that accommodating.

A few years ago, I saw a side of Jack I had never seen before.  I was invited to attend an East Side reunion downtown.  Hundreds of people were there, many in their 60s and 70s, and Jack was the main attraction.  He was their principal back in the 1950s and 1960s, and I believe he remembered every single one of those “kids.”  Former mayor Ron Littlefield told me Thursday night that he would often go to lunch with Jack, and rarely a minute would go by without one of Jack’s former students stopping by to say hello.  He sure was proud of that.

Jack’s legacy lives on, through all those kids who grew up to become productive citizens, including the ones he mentored through Big Brothers Big Sisters.  It also lives on through his family, the children and grandchildren he loved so much.  Ron Littlefield reminded me last night about how much I loved Luther Masingill, the radio legend we lost in October.  “You know how you felt about Luther, that he was your mentor, your role model?”  “I sure do,” I replied.  “Well, Jack was my Luther,” Ron said.  “I sure will miss him.”

Jack as principal of H. Clay Evans School in 1957

Jack as principal of H. Clay Evans School in 1957

Here is my WRCB video tribute to Jack, which aired January 16, 2015:

Here is a WRCB video of a story I did on November 22, 2013, featuring Jack talking about how he informed students at East Side Jr. High about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:



20 years ago: Rep. Marilyn Lloyd steps down after 10 terms

January 15, 2015 at 12:02 am

Can you imagine a Democrat representing Tennessee’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives?  Due to some massive political shifts, and GOP-friendly redistricting in 2000, such a prospect is unlikely today.  In recent general elections, Democratic candidates have struggled to get 40 percent of the vote.

But from 1975 until 1995, Marilyn Lloyd was the District’s representative in Washington, pulling off a rare feat: she never lost an election.  In ten consecutive Congressional races, local voters sent her to the Capitol, often by lopsided margins.  In my opinion, when she decided to step down twenty years ago, the timing was right.  On a personal level, she was 65 years old and seemed tired of the political rat race.  Her elderly mother was ailing, she had recently re-married, and she wanted to spend more time with her family.

In Washington, the tide was changing.  Seeking an eleventh term would have placed her in a mid-term election during the Bill Clinton years, and Republicans were gaining ground nationwide.  Zach Wamp had almost unseated her in 1992, and he never really stopped campaigning after that.  A 1994 race would have been her toughest challenge to date, and I think she was glad to step down without a defeat.  Sure enough, Wamp went on to beat a relatively unknown Democratic opponent, and the GOP has controlled the seat ever since.

Marilyn Lloyd, 1975

Marilyn Lloyd, 1975

I’ve written before about the circumstances that led to Mrs. Lloyd’s unlikely political career.  Her husband Mort Lloyd left his TV news anchor job to give politics a try.  He easily defeated two opponents in the 3rd District Democratic primary in August 1974, and seemed to have momentum on his side to unseat GOP incumbent Lamar Baker in the November general election.

Morty, Marilyn, Mort and Mari Lloyd celebrating his election win, August 6, 1974

Morty, Marilyn, Mort and Mari Lloyd celebrating his election win, August 6, 1974

But a plane crash just days after that August primary win took his life at the age of 43.  The very next day, Democratic party leaders were tossing around names of potential replacements, with a few heavy hitters making it clear they were available.

Although the newsman’s widow had no prior political experience, she soon made it known she was willing to pick up where her husband left off.  She was 45, and a savvy businesswoman, having run the family’s radio station and aviation company.  She scored a victory over Rep. Baker in November, but some observers chalked it up to a sympathy vote.  They figured after a few months of the relentless travel the job required, this widowed mom of two young children would surely step aside and make way for a seasoned politico.

Of course, that didn’t happen.  A female member of  Congress when it was even more rare than today, she seemed determined to show that she could play hardball with the big boys.  She served under Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and finally Clinton.  Considered a conservative Democrat, she became a walking encyclopedia of  TVA, Oak Ridge, atomic energy, and foreign policy.  A battle with breast cancer almost made her decide to step down in 1988, but as her good health returned, so did her desire to serve.  She made several trips abroad, even to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.  Her personal life became more public than she would like, as she remarried, got divorced, and remarried again, often leaving constituents unsure of how to address her.  If someone seemed uncertain, she would smile and say, “Just call me Marilyn.”


I interviewed her numerous times on TV morning shows and newscasts, and she would often appear reluctant, telling me, “You know I’m not a politician.”  Then I would watch her disarm her opponents by rattling off facts and figures, or charm an angry caller with a polite answer and a smile, and I’d say to myself, “Right.  You’re not a politician.”  Over time, she became a very good one.  As she left office in 1995, I interviewed her at her home, and we had a nice conversation you can see by clicking the videos below.  One surprise: which president did she most enjoy working with?  A hint: it wasn’t a fellow Democrat.

A few years ago, I called her to gather some information about her late husband Mort for my “Chattanooga Radio and Television” book.  She gave me the basic details about his background, how he got his first local job at WDEF, and what inspired him to run for Congress (“he wasn’t happy with the way things were going in Washington.”)  But after a few questions, she said, “I can’t tell you everything, I’m writing a book of my own.”  I’m looking forward to reading that book.  She’s had a remarkable life, and I’d love to read her story.

Luther Masingill, Marilyn Lloyd, Marcia Kling and David Carroll, Nov. 2011

Luther Masingill, Marilyn Lloyd, Marcia Kling and David Carroll, Nov. 2011

Miracle Man Tommy Jett and the healing power of rock n’ roll

January 11, 2015 at 1:05 am
Tommy Jett, surrounded by radio friends at his Hall of Fame induction, May 4, 2013

Tommy Jett, surrounded by radio friends at his Hall of Fame induction, May 4, 2013

On May 4, 2013, a silver-haired man with a ring on every finger stepped up to the podium at the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame banquet. The newly inducted deejay thanked his family, his listeners, his God, and his “close personal friends.” Thankfully, he didn’t name each of them because it would have taken all night. In a career now spanning 54 years, 74-year-old Tommy Jett has amassed a following like few others. Starting at WFLI (AM 1070) in Chattanooga, Tommy had provided the soundtrack to the Baby Boomer generation. On January 10, 2015 “TJ the DJ” celebrated the publication of his biography, a day he never thought he would see.

tjbooksigning 016 (2)On April 18, 2012, the longtime diabetic lost consciousness while driving along a rural north Georgia road. His car went airborne, flipping a half-dozen times before landing in a ditch. Emergency workers spent the next four hours removing Tommy from the wreckage, using the “Jaws of Life.” Walker County Deputy Bruce Coker led the rescue effort. “I thought there was no way we could get him out alive,” Coker said later.

Yet within days, Tommy was holding court in his hospital room, recovering from neck surgery. He was determined to attend his annual Entertainers Reunion, scheduled in May. As Tommy said, “If I’m above ground, I’ll be there.” He made that date, and even emceed the Riverbend Festival in June. But he was looking more gaunt by the day, losing weight rapidly. The once robust rock-and-roller had lost his appetite.

It all came to a head in late June. His wife Charlene, who had tried mightily to get him to eat, called 911. He had lapsed into a coma. He was rushed to a Chattanooga hospital, and friends started spreading the word: this didn’t look good.

On Sunday, July 1st, the phone calls went out. “If you want to see Tommy Jett alive, you’d better hurry.” He was being kept alive on a respirator, and doctors told Charlene the bad news: “He will never get better.” That afternoon, she told friends she was beginning to accept the inevitable. By morning, family members were called in to say goodbye. Funeral arrangements were made, a church was chosen, pallbearers were notified.

What happened next has yet to be explained, scientifically anyway. Some longtime radio friends hatched an idea. Yes, Tommy was lying in a hospital bed, lifeless. But what did Tommy enjoy more than anything else? Being on the radio, playing the hits. So the radio guys got a boombox, loaded in some CD recordings of Tommy’s WFLI “Night Train” shows from the 1960s, and cranked it up at the head of Tommy’s bed. When one disc ran out, a new one was put in. Elvis, the Supremes, the Beatles, all introduced by Tommy’s familiar “Hey Now” greeting. Just as it had aired on transistor radios fifty years earlier.

Monday morning arrived, and to everyone’s surprise, doctors did not “pull the plug.” They told the family that Tommy had shown slight signs of improvement. Tommy was still in a deep sleep, as the music played on. “Come on and be my little…good luck charm,” Elvis crooned. Tommy’s lively voice would interrupt between songs: “Nineteen minutes after midnight, you’re movin’ and grooving, with Super-Jett, your ever-lovin’ leader!”

The next day, Tommy began to move his fingers just a bit. By Wednesday, he was blinking his eyes. Later that day his eyes began following the movements of his grandchildren in the hospital room. Message received: Tommy wasn’t ready to “check out” just yet.

Tommy with two of his granddaughters, July 6, 2012

Tommy with two of his granddaughters, July 6, 2012

By Friday, five days after his pals came by to say goodbye, they witnessed what can only be described as a miracle. There was Tommy, now able to speak, laugh, and express his thanks. Did he hear the music during his deep sleep? No one, not even Tommy can be sure. But it certainly didn’t hurt. And if anyone wants to attach a little healing power to the sounds of rock and roll, so be it. His wife Charlene said, “When the #1 doctor, God stepped in and and said it is not time yet, Tommy woke up. We give much credit to the doctors, but Tommy and I know the real reason he is here is God.”

In early 2015, he’s still rocking, and happily autographing the book about his life.

Tommy can’t hide a smile when it’s suggested that maybe rock and roll had something to do with his amazing recovery. “There’s nothing like music,” he says. “It’s been a big part of my whole life.” As for me, I’m telling my family to keep some Tommy Jett CDs handy. If I’m ever the subject of those serious hospital conversations, crank up “TJ the DJ” for me. That’ll make me want to stick around a while longer too.

Johnny Eagle, Tommy Jett and Ralph Vaughn at book signing, Jan. 10, 2015

Johnny Eagle, Tommy Jett and Ralph Vaughn at book signing, Jan. 10, 2015

To get your copy of “The Jett Age” or to find out about future book signings, call 706-820-8111.

80th birthday salute to Elvis!

January 7, 2015 at 9:13 pm
Elvis at the Chattanooga railroad station coffee shop, July 4, 1956 (Library of Congress)

Elvis at the Chattanooga railroad station coffee shop, July 4, 1956 (Alfred Wertheimer collection)

Before Elvis Presley’s 80th birthday passes into history, I’d like to spin a few hits from the “Sounds Like Elvis” catalog.  Rock ‘n Roll radio had plenty of actual Elvis recordings to go around, but every so often they’d toss in a ringer.  Deejays like me would get requests for one of these songs “by Elvis.”  Then we would have to explain that the singer was not The King, but a pretender to the throne.  One that still fools people to this day is “Suspicion” by Terry Stafford.

This was a rare case of a singer out-Elvising Elvis.  The King recorded “Suspicion” in 1962, but it was stuck on an album while he was scoring with hit singles like “Return To Sender” and “Devil in Disguise.” Terry Stafford was looking for his first hit in 1964 in the midst of Beatlemania, and found this one hidden away.   Ironically, while Elvis himself struggled to compete with the Beatles on the charts, this sound-alike record was the only non-Beatles song in the top 5.  It turned out to be Stafford’s only hit, but it still gets played on oldies stations today.  And it still makes you think of Elvis, doesn’t it?

A few years later, in 1971, the Grass Roots were offered a song called, “Don’t Pull Your Love” as a potential single, but they had “Sooner or Later” ready to go, and turned down the song.  Their record label had another group called Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds willing to record it, and it became a huge hit.  Lead singer Dan Hamilton must have been an Elvis fan, because you can hear the King’s influence in his inflection and phrasing.  Many radio listeners thought it was Elvis.

Finally, there’s Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which lead singer Freddie Mercury wrote in the bathtub.  (I’ve had million-dollar ideas in the shower too, but they seem to swirl down the drain).  His band mates say it took him all of ten minutes.  He had to dry off quickly, grab his guitar and get the notes down before he forgot them.

It became a huge hit in England in late 1979, and a few months later some US stations got a hold of it, forcing Queen’s record company to release it here in the states.  By that time, the band had become famous here for intricate harmonies, multi-layered vocals and bizarre lyrics (like “Bohemian Rhapsody,“) so its management was concerned that Queen fans in America would be turned off by the song’s retro sound.

But within weeks, the song zoomed to number one (the band’s first ever chart-topper), and it was one of the most requested songs on KZ-106.  Then, and now, some people think it’s an Elvis song.  In 1980, some people swore to me that Queen had re-recorded one of Elvis’ old songs.  Remember this was pre-Internet, you couldn’t look this stuff up.  I’d tell them, I know a lot of Elvis songs, and I’ve never heard this one.  “Oh it wasn’t a hit,” they’d say, “but Freddie Mercury must have found it on an old Elvis album.”

Truth is, Queen recorded it in the style of Elvis’ early rockabilly days, and even filmed a video that most of us never saw; MTV wouldn’t come along until a year or two later.  Elvis and his fellow 1950s Sun Records artists (Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash) influenced many young British musicians of the 60s and 70s, and this was Freddie Mercury’s way of paying tribute to his heroes.  In the last years of Elvis’ life, most of his recordings were ballads and country-flavored songs, and the closest he came to his old rockin’ sound was the excellent “Burning Love” in 1972, five years before his death.  We’ll never know how the King would have sounded performing “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” but I’ve always believed he would have nailed it.  So sit back and enjoy this video.  I think it’s one of the best-produced, best-performed records of the rock-and-roll era, and despite Queen’s fears, it actually expanded their fan base worldwide.  Ready Freddie?

So happy birthday Elvis, hopefully I’ll see you soon at the Waffle House.  Or at least somebody who sounds a lot like you.

Elvis at the Chattanooga train station, July 4, 1956 (Library of Congress)

Elvis at the Chattanooga train station, July 4, 1956 (Alfred Wertheimer collection)

Congratulations John Smoltz!

January 7, 2015 at 3:27 am

I remember where I was when the Braves traded Doyle Alexander to the Detroit Tigers for John Smoltz.  It was August 12, 1987, and I was filling in for Luther Masingill on WDEF radio’s morning show.  The Braves obtained Smoltz, just a year out of high school, for the 37-year-old Alexander.  The Tigers had a shot at the American League pennant, and the Braves had no hope in the National League.  Alexander was a stud, so as I read the news on the air, my initial reaction was disappointment.  Smoltz had a dreadful minor league record of 11 wins and 19 losses, and a high earned run average.  Obviously the Braves were building for the future, as they always seemed to be doing back then.  Alexander promptly went on to win all nine of his decisions with the Tigers after that trade, while we Braves fans didn’t know what we were getting with young Smoltz.

Well, the rest is history.  Alexander was only in baseball for two more years, while Smoltz turned out quite well for the Braves.  He became the only pitcher in MLB history to rack up more than 200 wins along with more than 150 saves as a relief pitcher.  Today, in his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

On top of all that, he’s a genuinely nice guy.  On January 22, 1992, he visited Chattanooga as part of the Braves caravan, and stopped in for an appearance on our “Live at Noon” show on WRCB.  My son Chris, then four years old, was a huge Braves fan, and had memorized the jersey numbers of every Brave.  After the show, I asked John to challenge Chris by calling out a Braves’ player’s name, and asking Chris to identify his jersey number.  John started out with some easy ones.  “Terry Pendleton?”  Chris shouted out, “Number nine!” “Ron Gant?” “Five!” shouted Chris.  “Bobby Cox?” “Number six!”  And so on.  I asked John to give Chris a hard one.  John thought for a few seconds, and remembered a long-relief pitcher, seldom used, and certainly not a big-name player.  “Randy St. Claire?” John asked.  “He’s number forty-six!” Chris replied.  “Wow, he’s good,” John said.  “I didn’t even know Randy’s number.”

David and Chris Carroll with John Smoltz at WRCB in 1992.

David and Chris Carroll with John Smoltz at WRCB in 1992.

After the show, John posed for pictures, and although I somehow failed to save the video tape that day, I’ve always loved this picture.  After looking at it closely today, I think John Smoltz should be elected to the Sweater Hall of Fame too! One piece of video from that day is in our archives.  John and his catcher, Greg Olson (“Number ten!”) visited T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga, bringing some smiles to ailing kids.  He was still wearing that magic sweater!

John has been a frequent visitor to children’s hospitals over the years, and I appreciate that.  Here’s a photo that was tweeted by Braves fan Rhett Delk, who said John visited him ten years ago, when he needed a boost.

Rhett Delk and John Smoltz, 2005

Rhett Delk and John Smoltz, 2005

It’s great to know that John Smoltz will join his Braves pitching mates Tom Glavine (“Number forty-seven”) and Greg Maddux (“Number thirty-one”) in Cooperstown.  They, along with manager Bobby Cox were also inducted in their first year of eligibility last year.  Their jerseys, along with John’s (“Number twenty-nine”) were retired by the team, never to be worn again by another Atlanta Brave.  Soon, Chipper Jones (“Number ten”) will be joining this special group.

John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux

John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux

We Braves fans enjoyed a long run of great teams, thanks to these and other very special players.  It looks like we may be in for a dry spell as the team rebuilds its roster, while building a new ball park in Cobb County.  It sure is great to see our “Big 3″ pitchers of the dynasty years achieve baseball immortality.  Long live Glav, Mad Dog, and Smoltzie.  You made us proud.


20 years ago: When Newt’s mom met Connie Chung

January 5, 2015 at 11:50 pm


It was 20 years ago today:  US Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was Speaker of the House, and Bill Clinton was President.  First Lady Hillary Clinton was making headlines of her own, promoting a universal health care plan.  There were many who believed a president’s wife should stick to softer issues, like literacy or highway beautification.  Speaker Gingrich was certainly not a fan of the Clintons.

Connie Chung

Connie Chung

CBS News anchor Connie Chung hosted a prime time news magazine called “Eye To Eye.”  It was up against NBC’s “Seinfeld,” so it didn’t last very long.  But in early January 1995, one edition of Chung’s show got a lot of attention.  So much so, it pretty much ended Chung’s career as a national journalist.

Kathleen Gingrich

Kathleen Gingrich

Chung interviewed Kathleen Gingrich, Newt’s mother, and the following exchange took place:

At 70 years old, and not in the best of health, the Speaker’s mother was believed to be unaware that her whispered comment, said to be “just between you and me,” would be broadcast.  Chung, on the other hand, said “I think she knew what we were doing,” indicating that the presence of cameras and microphones should indicate to anyone that their comments were “on the record.”  Unless, critics said, they were told it was to be “just between you and me.”  Here’s a story on the controversy I did for WRCB:

The next few years were not kind to the participants in this controversy.  Kathleen Gingrich’s health declined, and she died in 2003 at the age of 77.  Her son the Speaker ran afoul of some of his own party members in 1998, opting not to seek another term in House leadership, and was even reprimanded for ethical wrongdoing.  As for Connie Chung, the whispering incident cost her the co-anchor seat (alongside Dan Rather) at CBS, and led to short-lived jobs at various networks before eventually fading out of the spotlight.

I’ve used the video story above when speaking to college journalism classes, and it always sparks a lively debate.  Most participants come down on the side of Kathleen Gingrich, believing that she was tricked into revealing her son’s unflattering description of the First Lady.  However, some believe that Connie Chung was doing her job as a reporter, getting a valuable piece of information regarding the House Speaker’s true opinion of Hillary Clinton.  Newt Gingrich held nothing back.  He called Chung’s broadcast “unprofessional, despicable and unfair.”

Personally, I think “Just between you and me” is pretty clear.  There’s a big difference between “you and me,” and “let’s show this to millions of people.”  And while Newt Gingrich was fair game, his mom really shouldn’t have been.  I don’t like to see anyone’s career go down in flames, and prior to this incident, had no reason to be critical of Connie Chung.  I’ll just say that was not the route I would have taken.  My interview with the Speaker’s mother would probably not have yielded headline news as this one did, but I would hope my reputation, whatever it was, would have remained intact.

Although Connie Chung never again reached her previous level of prominence,  she appeared in Chattanooga last year to speak to a large group. By all accounts, she was warmly received. In fairness, she had a successful career, far beyond the dreams of most aspiring  journalists.  But those few seconds back in January 1995 surely cost her millions of dollars in income.  To my knowledge, she has long defended that interview, and her decision to air the whispered comment.  I can’t help but wonder though: if Connie Chung could do it all over again, would she do the same thing?