Whisperin’ Bill Anderson

Bill Anderson
I got kicked out of the library for writing a song!

Transcript of Interview with Bill Anderson

Intro

Bill Anderson, what a great pleasure to meet you…and…and we are so appreciative of your taking some time to come talk with us.

Thank you, Fran. I appreciate it myself, and I’m glad to be here.

I was in Nashville recently and had an opportunity to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame…found your plaque and was so proud – a Georgia boy – and was so proud to see the University of Georgia prominently mentioned there in that text and…

Thank you.

Back to scenes

First Recording

I was hoping today that we’d have a chance to…to go back a little bit and let you recall some times here at the University of Georgia in Athens on campus. Would that…would that be a…an okay deal for you?

Well, I can tell you, I can recall a night in this very room where we’re sitting that I didn’t even dare to dream at the time. I was jump - starting my career in the country music business so this is like really coming full circle.

This is back to your roots.

To be right here in this very room.

Talk about that a little bit, will…

This room, of course, is in the Continuing Education Center as a part of the University of Georgia, and when I was here in the late '50s they were building a television station facility here and they had not yet completed the room for television. There were no lights, there were no cameras, no anything for television, but the audio portion of the studio had been completed and we got a phone call somewhere, somehow, and I’m not really sure…I was trying to think this morning…there was a disk jockey here on radio station WDOL…

Uh-huh.

…which was the top 40 station in those days, played the rock and roll hits, named Bob Ritter and I think somebody contacted Bob Ritter and asked Bob, because they knew he’d moved in and out among the music scene that was here such as it was at the time, and said we’d like to get a band in this studio to test out some of the audio equipment. Well, Bob knew me and he knew a friend of mine named Chuck Goddard that had a little band with me here and so Bob called us and said, “Do you wanna come over to the new studio and help them test out the audio equipment ? “ Well, we were game for anything, you know, at that point, and so I grabbed a couple of new songs that I had written and just stuck them in my guitar case and brought them over here and we ended up recording them that night. One of them was a little rockabilly song called “I’ve Got No Song to Sing” and we thought the night that we made that record that that was probably the side that would get played, if anything did, because that was right kinda in the trend of what was happening in the late 50s - rockabilly and the advent of rock and roll – and we put a little country ballad on the other side that nobody thought a whole lot about called “City Lights” and it ended up that “City Lights” was the hit, not by me, but my record got to Nashville and got heard by some of the right people. The song got recorded by a great artist named Ray Price. It became the number one record in the charts for 17 weeks, and in some polls was voted the Country Music Record of the Year and it opened all the doors for me in Nashville as a performer and as a song writer, and it all started right here in this room. And it’s so amazing to be sitting here again.

We need to have a plaque.

(Laughs)

We need to have a plaque in this room.

Well, I…I’ll never forget it. You know, its…its kinda like going back to the house where you grew up...

Right.

…many years later. The front yard doesn’t look as big as it did. (Laughs) When you were having to mow it as a kid and…and I thought this room was about twice this big. (Laughs)

Some of the things still look the same…

A lot of things look the same. There’s an old speaker hanging on the wall back there that I’ll bet you…I’ll bet you the night we were in here and they played our recording back…I bet my recording came through that. That may have been the first speaker I ever heard myself on in a recording studio.

Another plaque…another plaque.

Back to scenes

Days at UGA

Talk to us a little bit about…you came to the university in the late ‘50s. Did you have a special goal or dream when you thought about coming to the University of Georgia? Was there a…a focus or a purpose?

Going to college and getting a college education was the only thing my parents ever asked me to do. They were products of the Great Depression era. They got married in 1933 and they knew the value of education and they instilled that into me and…when they saw that I was interested in things like picking a guitar and singing country music or even before that, I wanted to be a baseball player. I wanted to be a song writer. I wanted to be a newspaper writer. So all of these things, they humored me with that. You know, you can do whatever you want to do, be whatever you want to be, but get that education. So I came here, not only wanting to get the education, but feeling a certain obligation to my parents because that was really the only thing they really ever asked me to do, was to graduate from college.

I think parents are still asking their children that same kind of thing. Your major…you majored in journalism.

I majored in journalism. I had done some writing for some newspapers. I grew up in Decatur right outside of Atlanta and I became the sports editor of a little weekly newspaper there called the DeKalb New Era back in the mid 50s when I was in high school and covered the…there were 8 county schools in Decatur that participated in the major sports and I…my…my beat was to cover those 8 DeKalb county schools, and in doing so, somehow I attracted the attention of somebody at the Atlanta Constitution and I became what they called a stringer for the Atlanta papers. They would send me out to cover football games, basketball games, whatever, in the whole greater Atlanta area, and then come in and write the stories for the Atlanta Constitution. They paid me the princely sum of $5 per game. (Laughs) Of course, gasoline was, what 17 cents a gallon or something, back then. But my ambition at that point was…was to go into the…the newspaper business. And when I came to Georgia and I found that the journalism school was divided into 3 sequences. It was News/ Editorial which was newspapers, magazines. There was Radio and Television – the broadcasting sequence. And then there was Advertising and Public Relations. And I got into the News/Editorial sequence to start with and then I kinda got bitten a littlebit by the show business bug and decided…and ended up majoring in the broadcast division.

So, music took one of our great sportswriters, is that right?

(Laughs) I wanted to be Furman Bisher…

Furman Bisher. What influences…did you find here? Did you have some faculty person or was there a person at the…at the Grady College that particularly influenced you and impacted your life or…or someone on campus maybe?

Well, of course, I was influenced by Dean John Drewry who was the head of the Journalism department at that time, the dean of the school, very much influenced by him; Worth McDougal who was the head of the Broadcast division; and I met people around town that influenced me a lot. H. Randolph Holder bought WGAU radio while I was working there. There was a man before him named Burl Womack, who I don’t think had any connection with the university but Burl managed WGAU and gave me my first radio job, hired me, I was green as a gourd and he hired me to work at the radio station. So…so many people like that influenced me and then I met a couple of people here…a couple of guys who were older than me that were back in school on the GI bill. They had been in the military and come back to school and they were both really country music fans and lovers and they both played guitar and sang. One of them had an early morning disk jockey show at WRFC and… they influenced me a lot because we formed a little band. I was actually going to go out for baseball when I came here. I was going to try to play for the Georgia baseball team and workouts started, practices started in the winter, in January or February, of my freshman year and it was about that same time that I met those two guitar pickers. (Laughs) And I ended up playing in a hillbilly band…

…instead of trying to see if I could throw fastballs and curve balls…

The end of your baseball career, huh?

(Laughs)

You lived on campus for a while.

Lived in Reed Hall. I used to…could sit in my room before they double decked the stadium and watch the ball games.

I was gonna ask you about that.

(Laughs) I can’t do that anymore.

You had a tour last night. You know, Reed Hall is the Ritz Carlton now. Have you…did you have a chance to poke your head in the door?

No, I didn’t. I would love to. What do you mean, the Ritz Carlton?

Oh, they’ve renovated it. It’s really snazzy now.

Wow.

You need…

Well, I’d love to go back to the room that I shared…my roommate my sophomore year was an exchange student from Tokyo, Hirouki Shugahara, and, we had some interesting experiences…me trying to understand him and him trying to figure me out and figure out what all this guitar picking was all about.

What was the social life on campus in the late ‘50s? I have a vision of “Happy Days.” Was it the good life? Was it…

It was good by...by the time I got past my freshman year. I was in the Kappa Sigma fraternity…

Uh-huh.

…and, you know, attended some fraternity parties and things and lived in the fraternity house for a short time and went to various events and things but I got awfully focused on…on the radio and music, and things like that, so I probably missed out on a good bit of the social life that I could have taken advantage of, just simply because… my interests kind of went elsewhere.

Well, you had a focus. That is something else that parents pray for, I’ll tell you that. There was also a 1947 Ford that I read about.

(Laughs)

Was that something that got you around and…?

Yeah, when they finally let me bring a car on campus…you know, in those days freshman couldn’t have cars on campus.

Uh-huh.

And the first one that I brought over here was an old 1947 Ford, as you said, metallic blue. I’m sure it had been repainted a couple of times. And yeah, that’s what…what I got around in.

You’re not going to believe this, but I actually have a copy of your car permit that the alumni society had kept in your records. I’ve got some things you might want to see.

You are kidding.

No.

Oh, my goodness !

Not the actual permit, but the information about your permit. I can tell you what your car permit number was.

(Laughs) I’d love to see that.

We ought to take a minute to say that Beta Lambda Chapter of Kappa Sig has honored you, I think recently.

Yes, they did.

In their Hall of Fame.

Yes, they did. That was very, very nice. I went to an event in Atlanta. There annual, what they call their Black and White, well, used to be called the Black and White Formal. I don’t know if it’s still called that or not, but it was a gathering in Atlanta at the Georgia Aquarium. And they honored me by naming me to the Kappa Sigma, Beta Lambda Chapter Hall of Fame and that’s pretty special.

That is…that is special. That’s special. You won the freshman talent show.

No, I came in second.

Just second?

Uh-huh.

Who won first?

(Laughs) There was a little girl from, I think, Douglas, Georgia. She was a blind girl, a student here, and she played the piano and sang beautifully and she won first place and I won second.

Tell us what you did.

Uh, what I sang – I really don’t remember. I was starting to write some songs about that time so I probably sang something that I had written. What I do remember is that I had a little red cowboy shirt – a western shirt – now where in the world I found a pair of red pants…

(Laughs)

…I do not know. (Laughs)

You were decked out!

(Laughs) I have a picture that appeared in the Red and Black newspaper, fortunately in black and white, and I’ve got on this red shirt, red pants, and a pair of white shoes, I think, and a white belt. So, for…for a long time after that I was not nearly as well known for singing or playing a guitar or song writing as I was for, there goes that crazy guy that wore that red suit on the stage.

Back to scenes

Writing Songs

(Laughs) Oh…was…you had been writing songs a good while as…as a young fellow, right? As early as 11 or 12, is that what I read?

Yeah, I started just trying to make up some songs back then. I didn’t really get serious about trying to write songs until probably maybe my senior year or so in…junior or senior year in high school. And then continued to…to try and write some. When I got over here, I was pointing up to the library a while ago and remembering the night I got kicked out of the library one night. I was in there studying and I had the…a pencil and…and I was…I was making up this song in my head and I was tapping the eraser of the pencil on the desk. And one of the librarians came over and said, “You…you’re gonna have to stop that – you’re disturbing the students.” I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. I mean, I was making up this song in my head and, uh, so she walked away and…(laughs).. a few minutes later I guess I was back at it…

Back at it.

…not even realizing I was doing it. And she came over and she said, “Sir, this is your second warning, you’ll have to leave”, so I got kicked out of the library for writing a song. (Laughs).

Oh…

The good news is I got the song recorded.

Back to scenes

Radio Days

What…we talked a little bit about your sports writing and then we talked about…we’ve not talked about DJ days. Just briefly about WGAU, and my understanding was Mr. Holder suggested you might want to look elsewhere. Is that right?

(Laughs) I went all over north Georgia the summer after my freshman year trying to find me a job at a radio station. I drove…I had a little ’47 Ford that you’ve talked about. I drove it to…gosh…to Winder, to Monroe, to Griffin, to LaGrange, to Newnan, to Carrollton. I remember all of these places I went in and…and the whole thing…and…and this is so true in…in broadcasting, or it was then, because we didn’t really have all that experience that you can get here at the school now, but it was always, well do you have any experience? Well, no. Well, go get some experience and then you can get a job. Well, how you gonna get experience if you can’t get a job and it just becomes this chicken and egg thing. So I was turned down in all of these places, came back to Athens of all places, and a man I mentioned a while ago named Burl Womack was managing WGAU and he hired me to do some radio work, trained me, taught me. I’d been working there 6 weeks when Randolph Holder and Tom Lloyd bought the station and I figured well, I’m…I’m back out on the street again. But Mr. Holder was very nice. He kept me on. I stayed there for several months. He made it very clear that there was not going to be any country music played on his station and (laughs)…a strange sequence of events one Saturday night. I was doing exactly what I was told to do but it ended up that I put some country music on the radio, doing what I was told to do because there was country music on the CBS network and I was told to go and hit the network – whatever was on – and it was country music and Mr. Holder fired me the next Monday. (Laughs) And it wasn’t really my fault, but he said there was going to be a new station go on the air up in Commerce and he knew the owners and he would call them, so it’s the nicest anybody was ever fired. He fired me and got me a new job at the same time.

And interestingly enough, WGAU is now WNGC and is all country.

Well that’s…I…I…I…believe me, in later years Mr. Holder heard from me many times…

Did you…?

(Talking at the same time) That we…

You rubbed it in.

Oh, yeah. Big time. But he was such a wonderful man. He laughed about it as hard as I did.

Back to scenes

City Lights

Oh….Well, talk about that. W…That was WJJC in Commerce and there’s a wonderful story that’s in the folklore of country music about “City Lights” and…and how you wrote “City Lights” and you’ve told it a million times. I’m gonna ask you tell…tell it one more time…

A million and one.

Please, sir.

Well, I’m glad somebody’s interested in it. There was a little three story hotel in Commerce at the time, called the Hotel Andrew Jackson, and when I got the job in Commerce, I moved into a room at the hotel and when school started back I just decided, well, I’m just gonna stay in the hotel and rather than commute from Athens to Commerce, I’ll commute from Commerce to Athens. And so that’s what I did. And it was in the summer of 1957, I was 19 years old, and I took my guitar up on the roof of that hotel a lot of times at night when it would get hot in the room and…I’d just…somewhere to…to cool off a little bit and I’d go up on the roof and they had some…some lounge chairs, some deck-type furniture up there. And I sat down in one of those lounge chairs on this particular August night in 1957 and got to strumming my guitar and it was a clear night and I remember looking up at the stars and down at what few lights there were in Commerce. There weren’t a whole lot of them. And somehow the idea to write the song “City Lights” just came on me, and I wrote it with a pencil on the back of a radio station envelope that I had in my guitar case. I’d give anything if I had saved that. The one thing I did save…was when I…when I typed the lyrics, I later went down to my room and typed them out on a sheet of paper, and I did write the date down so I’ve known all these years that I wrote it on August 27, 1957.

That’s special.

And it, of course as I said, was the thing that I ended up recording in this very room where we’re sitting and it ended up…being my key to the music business.

I was gonna say, would you say that that particular…you’ve composed hundreds of songs, but did that one song probably have the biggest impact on your life?

Oh, yeah…

(Talking over BA) Over anything?

Because that…when I went to Nashville after that, I could knock on doors and not just say my name’s Bill Anderson and I’m trying to write songs, would you listen to some of them. I could say, my name’s Bill Anderson and I wrote a little song called “City Lights” and I’ve got some others, would you like to listen…Oh, come in! (Both laugh)

I bet!

The door was open.

I’ll bet.

Back to scenes

Nashville

That was ’57. You continued on, though. You got the ABJ degree. Graduated in 1959. Did what your mom and dad asked you to do.

Yeah, had to.

I hear ya. I hear ya. And then you moved to Nashville. And…and then…you…you had…it...it…it just burst. It exploded, did it not? You…you got a contract with Decca records.

Well, you know, when you look back on it now it…I guess it’s easy to say it exploded. It didn’t feel like it exploded at the time.

Right.

Felt like it imploded a few times.

(Laughs)

But…yeah, I guess when you really look back on it…it…it…it did happen fairly fast. It really did. Because I went there to stay. I permanently moved there in January of 1960. I graduated here in August of ’59. I went on a couple of little tours that fall and moved back to Nashville to stay in January of 1960. And…a year and a half later – 1961 – I was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry and in 1962 I had my first number one record as an artist. In 1963 I had a career record with a song called “Still” that crossed over into the pop field and the country field and sold…a million records or so I guess looking back on it now, that was kinda fast but it…it seemed kind of slow and agonizing at the time.

Back to scenes

Grand Ole Opry

Talk about…1961 and the Grand Ole Opry. What must it have felt like, that first time you appeared?

(Laugh)

When you walked out?

My mom and dad had taken me to the Grand Ole Opry when I was 14 years old. They knew how much I loved country music and planned a family vacation for us to go to Nashville. I also wanted to see an old baseball park there called Sulphur Dell which was very famous. I’d grown up listening to the Atlanta Crackers playing baseball at Sulphur Dell against the Nashville Vols, so I wanted to see the ballpark and, of course, I wanted to go to the Grand Ole Opry. And never dreaming, sitting out in that audience when I was 14 years old, that in just a few short years I’d be standing on that stage and performing. It just…it…was really something I didn’t even dare to dream about. I just figured that happened to other folks, you know. I didn’t figure that would ever happen to me. But there’s been many a night when I’ve stood on the stage at the Ryman - and we still go back there for 4 months in the winter now – November through February – and many a night I’ll stand on that stage and I’ll look over to my left where we sat that night and I’ll think, you know, this didn’t really happen. (Laughs) But it did.

Amazing thing, wasn’t it?

Yeah.

You…you’ve met all the greats. You’ve worked with most of them. If you were picking out some special people to talk about…

(Laughs) You wouldn’t have time for me to pick ‘em all out.

I’m…I’m sure.

I remember that first night at the Grand Ole Opry seeing little Jimmy Dickens on the stage…

Uh-huh.

Listening to him sing…what he introduced as a new song and…it became one of his biggest hits, a song called “We Could” and now I tour a lot with little Jimmy Dickens and have known him and have been close friends with him for many, many years and sometimes I have to just kind of go, you know, that’s…pinch myself…that’s…that’s little Jimmy Dickens that you saw from the audience and….and now you’re working on the stage with him. He’s still going strong. He’s 87 years young and still going strong. So, people like that…that…that have inspired me so much down through the years. Getting to…to become friends and know and be on a first name basis with people that I idolized from afar as a kid and then later…people….that…who’s records I played when I was a disc jockey. Johnny Cash…uh, you know…people like that. I’ve been very blessed to get to know just about everybody and…

Minnie Pearl’s birthday was the same day as my birthday. Not the same year, but the same day, and she was always somebody that I just…looked up to as somebody to respect, who…who made people laugh but also, I know she did a lot of wonderful things in and around Nashville and was just a wonderful person, so…

She was one of the finest human beings that I…that I ever knew. She’d walk down the hall at the Grand Ole Opry and you’d….you’d meet her in the hallway and she’d just look up at you. She’d say “Bill Anderson, have I told you lately that I love you?” I’d say, no Minnie Pearl, have I told you I love you? And we’d hug, you know. One of my favorite memories of Minnie, and I’ve shared this with a lot of young artists in the business because this…this really said something to me. It was the last tour I ever worked with Minnie Pearl on the road. We were in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she was standing backstage getting ready to go on and I walked up and was kind of standing behind her. And she looked around at me and she said, “Bill, do you think we’ll ever get over being nervous before we go on stage?” I said, "Don’t tell me Minnie Pearl is nervous. Don’t…don’t pull that on me. As many stages as you’ve been on." She said, “Every time I go on a stage, I get butterflies in my stomach.” And then she paused and she said “but you know, if I didn’t then maybe it wouldn’t mean as much as it’s supposed to mean.”

Right.

What a lesson. What a great lesson for me to pass along to other people. I…I love these kids who come on the Grand Ole Opry now and I’ll be introducing them the first time they’ve ever been on the stage and they’ll say “I’m nervous” and I’ll say good….good…you’re supposed to be nervous. This is supposed to mean a lot to you. If you weren’t nervous I’d be worried about you, and I learned that from Minnie Pearl.

Couldn’t do a better job. Whisperin’ Bill…

(Laughs)

Do you remember where you got that nickname and when did it happen?

Back to scenes

Whisperin' Bill

(Laughing) Yeah, I remember. I was doing a syndicated television show in the '60s, late '60s, and there was a little comedian on my television show named Don Bowman. And Don Bowman hung that name on me because I used to do a lot of songs,well, I mentioned “Still” a while ago and some of my early records where I’d talk a little bit and sing a little bit and…uh…I just have a naturally soft voice and when I would talk on these records I didn’t want to sound like I was selling used cars, you know, I wanted to try and, you know, put the warmth into it if I could. And, I guess, it kind of came out as a whisper or a glorified whisper or something. Well, Don Bowman used to tease me about it and he’d start calling me “Whisperin’ Bill”…”the Old Whisperer”…there’s…okay…get up there and whisper us a song, you know, and …Ralph Emery at the time was the all night disc jockey on WSM radio in Nashville and every disc jockey in America listened to Ralph at night so they’d know what to say on their shows the next day all across the country. Well, Don Bowman got to calling me “Whisperin’ Bill” to Ralph and Ralph thought it was funny and Ralph picked up on it and he started calling me that and then pretty soon here’s this whole avalanche of radio people all around the country calling me “Whisperin’ Bill”. In the beginning, it kind of bothered me. I was sensitive to it. I thought they were making fun of me. And then I came to realize something and it’s probably one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, because Bill Anderson is a very common name. You can look in any phone book in America, you’ll find a Bill, a Billy, a William, sometimes you’ll find 15 or 20 of them. Go to Minnesota and you’ll find three pages of them. (Both laugh) But, “Whisperin’ Bill” is a unique little handle. I didn’t have to change my name to Conway Twitty or anything like that to have that little unique handle. Bill Anderson, a lot of people…a lot…there are a lot of…you’d be amazed how many people today, they think Bill is my middle name. They think Whisperin’ is my first name. (Both laugh)

Back to scenes

Television

(Sigh) You’ve been a performer and a songwriter, you’ve hosted game shows, you’ve appeared on every variety show…there is. You’ve authored best-selling books…um…you’ve done a soap opera. Tell us, in 30…in 30 seconds how that happened.

My whole life has been a soap opera. (Both laugh) I’d done a game show at ABC in California that had gotten cancelled. The head of daytime programming at ABC was a big fan of mine and she said to me the day she told me the show was cancelled, she said, “But I’m gonna bring you back and put you in a soap opera,” and I thought, yeah, sure you are. And she did. She had an opening on a show called One Life to Live. They wrote me into the script and I spent three years off and on being a part of that cast. Did I do that in 30 seconds?

That just sounds like wonderful fun.

It was a lot of fun. And I tell you what, I…I gained a whole new respect for the people that make their living doing that. That is a tough gig. It really is.

And you do it every day…you…

Get up in the morning. You’re there at 6:00 in the morning. You’re going through your stuff for that day. You eventually tape your show…around 2-3:00 in the afternoon. If you’re lucky, you get out maybe around 4-5. You go home. You gotta start all over and start learning for the next day. And so it’s…it’s a very demanding way to make a living. I have the greatest admiration in the world for the people that do that.

Jeff’s giving me the sign up here that…that we’re getting ready to…to have to close and…

Back to scenes

Honors

When I walked in this morning I told the fellows here that I could take a whole 30 minutes together just reading the honors that you’ve earned over your wonderful and…and long career. You were Songwriter of the Year 6 times, Male Vocalist of the Year, member of the Duet of the Year, Band of the Year, membership in every…hall of fame on…east of the Mississippi, I think., absolutely the Georgia Broadcasters Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the South Carolina Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, and, of course, the highest honor, the membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame back in 2001 with…with all those other greats. And…and…speaking for the Bulldog Nation, you’ve made us all very, very proud, Bill. And…and again, I want to thank you for being here today. I caught the tail end of your show, your radio show last week, “Bill Anderson Visits with the Legends.” I think you were talking to Tommy Cash. And I thought to myself, I’m such a lucky girl because I get to next week visit with a legend, Bill Anderson, and I want to thank you so much for being with us today.

Thank you. It’s very nice of you to have me and how “bout them Dawgs?”!

How ‘bout them Dawgs?

(Laughs)

Back to scenes