A few days ago my friend JB put up a post with a picture of Jerry Lee Lewis on his excellent blog The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ – a great blog that’s part of my daily reading ritual. I left a comment on JB’s post telling about the time I kinda sorta met The Killer (Jerry Lee’s nickname), threatening to post some of my recollections on my own blog. Well, here it is.
It was at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, right around 1980 or so. The CRS, as it’s known in the broadcasting biz, is the premier annual gathering for country music radio broadcasters and has been since back in the day, when it was called something like “the Country Music Disc Jockey Convention”. In 1980 I was in management at WYTL-AM in Oshkosh, an extremely successful country station with a huge following.
Every year, the station’s music director and I would attend the CRS. That picture at the top of this post is from Billboard Magazine in 1980. I was Operations Manager of the station at that time, but I had not yet begun my sales training at MidWest Family Sales University (that’s what they called it) but as the most senior official of the radio station present at the CRS, I accepted the award on behalf of the station’s outstanding sales department, which had sold the highest dollar value of ads of any medium market country station in the nation.
As usual, I digress.
Back to the Jerry Lee Lewis encounter. Here’s a shot of Jerry Lee, who, as my friend JB said, uses all necessary body parts during a concert.
Quite a few of the Wisconsin country radio station programmers and execs almost always wound up on the same flight from O’Hare in Chicago to Nashville. The gang consisted of folks like Marty Green, from WAXX/WAYY in Eau Claire, Chuck Mokri and morning man Andy Witt from WTSO in Madison, me and another person or two from WYTL in Oshkosh, and Ned Hughes, owner of WYNE in Appleton, and assorted other Wisconsin radio folks. Every year Ned Hughes would pick up the bar tab for all the Wisconsin radio folks waiting to board what Ned called “The Margarita Flight to the CRS”.
When we got to Nashville several of us crammed into a cab and headed to the big Hyatt Hotel in downtown Nashville, where the CRS was held at that time. A couple years later they moved the whole kit and caboodle to the huge Opryland complex, a few miles northeast of downtown Nashville. As we rolled up to the Hyatt, there was a long black limo in front of us. The door of the limo opened, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s fell out, followed by a gorgeous young blonde in a tiny black dress. Then Jerry Lee stepped out of the limo, followed by another gorgeous young thing about a third of Jerry Lee’s age.
He looked back at our group, which was standing around the cab retrieving luggage from the trunk, and said “you boys here for the disc jockey convention?” We said we were. Jerry Lee said “welcome to Nashville, boys, and thanks for playing my songs on the radio!”
The years are all a blur now, 30-some years after the fact, but 1981 was another memorable year at the CRS. Our station, WYTL, made the Seminar’s “Country Aircheck 1981” tape. WYTL was one of 12 stations all across the nation selected to have an aircheck included on a cassette which was distributed to every attendee. I still have that cassette and consider it an achievement higher than many of the numerous other awards WYTL won.
We’d been notified that our aircheck had been selected as one of the twelve best in the nation for 1981, and one of the nights we were at the CRS that year one of the Nashville record promotion guys who worked hard to get his label’s songs played on WYTL, Gene Hughes, took us out for drinks. We went to some lounge after the day’s seminar sessions and Gene picked up the tab. Payola was still very much alive in the 80's, although no one would ever admit it. Record company paid for a cruise for you and your wife? No problem. Just put a note in the station's FCC Public File acknowledging it, and hope the IRS never cross-references with the FCC.
Gene is the guy in the middle of the album picture above – after his recording and touring days with The Casinos, he went to work as a record promoter. There was a small band playing at the lounge we were at, and they recognized Gene and called him up to the bandstand to sing his signature song, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye”. I don’t know why, but that evening is still very clear in my memory, and Gene’s voice was every bit as powerful that night in 1981 as it was when he recorded this top ten hit in 1967. (Listen to it here.)
Now, as advertised in the title of this post, the story about how I knocked Marie Osmond off her feet, quite literally. It was in a lounge at the Opryland complex, at the end of the day’s sessions. I don’t remember the year. Marie had several hits on the country charts, and like many of the biggest country music artists, she made sure to attend the CRS to rub elbows with the folks that played her music on their stations.
I was in a small group that had gathered in the lounge, consisting of Dick Clark (yes, that Dick Clark, who at that time owned several big country radio stations, including a very successful one in of all places New York City), John Parikhal, an up-and-coming research guru who was the marketing genius behind the success of several big-time big-city county music stations, and a few other fellows. There was a lot to be learned in these informal, impromptu gatherings of top-flight professionals, which is one of the many reasons attendance at the CRS was mandatory.
As the small group was talking shop, Dick Clark turned to me and said “you’re from Wisconsin, right? So you ought to know a thing or two about beer. I’ve got a tab running at the bar – if you wouldn’t mind, pick out a beer for me and get one for yourself”. I don’t remember what I selected, only that I was in a hurry to get back to the discussion. The bartender handed me the two bottles of beer and I turned quickly to get back to the group, and took a step in that direction, when suddenly - BAM! - and Marie Osmond was on the floor. I hadn’t seen her come up to the bar (no doubt to get some ice water) and when I turned around and moved I knocked her literally off her feet.
I quickly set the beers back on the bar and reached down to take her hand and help her up. She was a completely good sport about the whole thing, made some joke about how we “had to stop meeting like this” after I apologized and introduced myself, and we had a short, pleasant conversation. And yes, she is just as beautiful in person as on TV and in her pictures.
When I went back to Dick Clark and the group, beers in hand, I was thankful they hadn’t seen what had happened, and the conversation continued. (I do remember that Dick approved of my beer choice.) At the next year’s CRS, Marie Osmond came up to me after one of the sessions, we had a laugh recalling the prior year’s calamity, and she joked “I’ll always remember you as the man who swept me off my feet.”
In one of the other years at the CRS following the Marie Osmond incident, I managed to baptize Ronnie Milsap in beer. For those who don’t follow county, Ronnie is a very talented singer and piano player. He's also blind. That’s him, in the picture above. He was one of the biggest stars in country music at the time. It was a similar situation – in a lounge at the Opryland complex, following the afternoon sessions at the CRS. I had a tap beer in my hand and turned to go to a different part of the lounge, and managed to run right into Ronnie and spill a lot of my beer all over him.
I was mortified, but he said “I’m not sure but I think somebody just spilled a drink on me”. Again, a hasty apology and introduction, and I guided him to the bar, where a bartender gave us a towel to help soak up the beer on Ronnie’s shirt. He, too, was completely gracious about the mishap, although I was mortified - again.
The Country Radio Seminar is still going strong, and is still one of the most significant media gatherings of the year. Now, the Seminar is held in the new Omni Hotel on 5th Street in Nashville. It's attached to the Country Music Hall of Fame.