Remembering a Friend and Mentor by Rocky Russell
In what seems like another life, I thought I was going to be a Country Music Star. All my classmates and I were really rooted in 70’s Rock. I loved living in the Golden Era of Music. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Creedence, John Denver, Joplin, Hendrix, Aerosmith, The Beach Boys… The list goes on and on. But one day I was home sick and I turned on our 19″ black and white TV and my life changed forever.
The movie “Your Cheating Heart” was being shown that day on KSL and my attention turned to “Country Western” as it was called then. Shortly after that I turned on my transistor radio and found KDYL in Tooele and heard the song that set me on the path that would consume me for the next two decades. Buck Owens released “Tall Dark Stranger” and from that moment I was hooked.
Mom and Dad gave me an old Harmony Guitar for Christmas one year. They didn’t know that guitars needed to be set up first so a kid can learn before the extra unnecessary pain discouraged young fingers from learning to play.
I saved all my money and sent off for an electric guitar and amplifier. The Guitar was a Silvertone I bought from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. My amplifier was bought out of the Montgomery Ward catalog. I was in Heaven.
A fire would later take all my treasures when my house burned down in 2003. I lost my Silvertone autographed by Tommy Overstreet along with my Gibson, Gretsch, Fender… all of which would be worth a pretty penny today.
Anyway, I found out my bestest buddy at the time, Pete Gordon also had a guitar and a new Erda kid moved into town who was Guy Johnson. Guy came from a musical family so there was much to be learned there. The three of us became a trio and we fumbled around as all young musicians do as they learn to apply their craft.
Guy would later move back to Canada and I soon found that no one else shared my passion and I couldn’t find anyone else to play Country Music with. My cousin Kelly Lee and I would frequently play together popular songs of the 70’s, but I thought if I was going to have a shot at a rapidly evolving country music I would have to stretch out and get some of the better connections I would need if I were to reach my Country Music dream. I wondered how a boy from Tooele Utah could get connected with Nashville, TN.
Along the way I thought the first step would be to get into radio. I went in to KDYL and met Wendell Winegar. I asked Wendell what a 14 year old boy needed to do to become a disc-jockey and get into some inner circles and make more contacts. To my great surprise, Wendell told me that if I would work for him, he would teach me the ropes and let me have my own show on KDYL.
There was just one big hangup…I needed to get my FCC 3rd Class Radio-Telephone License to operate a radio station and keep it within FCC guidelines which meant I had to keep the frequency tuned to where we were licensed. That was 990 kilohertz on the AM Dial.
I studied harder than I studied for anything in my whole life and one Saturday Morning I went up to Sunnyside Ave in SLC, paid my $20.00 (which was a fortune for me back in 1971) and took my test.
A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail with my license and a note attached to it. W. D. George, the head of the FCC wrote me a very kind note congratulating me and telling me I was the youngest licensed operator in the United States and that I not only passed my test on my first attempt, but I did so easily. Apparently not many adults passed this exam on their first attempt.
It was a very kind and a very encouraging letter of encouragement from the top man at the FCC. Later Radio Stations would lobby the FCC to drop the license testing requirement because so few people were passing the exams. Wendell trained me well, something I will always be grateful for.
It was during this period that the station started promoting concerts and we brought in some name acts. If you grew up in Tooele in the ’70’s you knew that Tooeleans did not like to support much in the line of entertainment.
I would later branch out, form my own concert production company and brought in Tommy Overstreet for a concert in the THS Auditorium. This is the reason for this post. Tommy would remain my friend for many years after. He wrote to me when I was on my mission. Years later when I worked at KSOP we brought him in for a show with Marty Robbins at the Salt Palace.
When we moved to California, we met up with Tommy at Pismo Beach. My kid’s mother was very “heavy” with our first child at the time. Tommy sang to her his song “What More Could A Man Want” Not a bad way meet the Male Vocalist of the Year is it?
This kind man mentored me and freely imparted his knowledge with me. He was indeed, a friend. His uncle was Gene Autry and he often told me that it was his uncle that helped him break into the business, so this was his way of giving back…to help another young dreamer as best he could. We communicated on Social Media up until about 2008 and then things seemed to fade away.
Today I learned my mentor has passed away. His Beautiful Baritone voice is now silent. Yes, my heart is saddened to know he is gone, but I will be forever grateful to know he was my friend, and that he cared for me. Pete and I sat at his feet when he and his band came to my home and ate a good, Erda home-cooked dinner. Erda had such wonderful water then. It was so fresh and pure. He left with as much as he could carry on the tour bus.
Thank you old friend. Thank you for taking a 15 year old boy under your wing. Thank you for your encouragement. I look forward to sitting down with you again someday and playing music with you again. There is a great band awaiting all of us who love music and were fortunate enough to have made it a part of our lives. I truly look forward to the show!
Tommy Overstreet September 10, 1937 – November 2, 2015.