Tandy Rice, arguably the fastest mouth in the South, leaned back in his chair, threw one Brooks Brothers-clad leg over the other, grabbed the sole of his Gucci loafer and started in on one of his favorite topics: Billy Carter.
"Nope, honey, I'll never forget that first day I walked into Billy's warehouse in Plains," he laughs, shaking his head at the memory. "Why it was the most intimidating, distracting, chaotic thing I'd ever seen. there were tourists, three lawyers who only knew some slick-talking dude had come down Nashville to see their client, all kinds of assistants and aided and Billy, who was talking on the phone and just wouldn't get off. Why, hell, I didn't know where to begin. Finally, I said, 'Billy, my name's Tandy Rice and I have to got to talk to you. We have to have a minute to just sit down together eyeball to eyeball.'"
That was 10 a.m. By 2, Rice had signed on as Billy Carter's agent and was driving madly to Americus searching for a pay phone to call his office and tell them . . . the eagle had landed.
"See, the only person who knew I was going to see Billy was my gal Friday, Barbara. 'Barbara,' I said, 'I'm going to Plains and I aim to be successful4. And when I am successful, I'm going to call you and in case you're out of the office (she was) the message will be: The eagle has landed.'"
And if Billy had said no? "Well," says Rice, "I was telling this story the other day to my little daughter and she said, 'Daddy, if you hadn't made the connection what was the message going to be? The eagle hs crashed?' And I said, 'Cindy, with God as my witness, I gotta tell you we only had one message.' We never made any allowances for the fact we wouldn't be successful."
Although Rice claims Billy never wanted to be sold as the brother of the president of the United States, he also admits he wouldn't have been in Plains if he weren't. "At that time - it was right after the election - neither Billy nor I had a concrete game plan for him," he maintains"All Billy knew was that his life had suddenly turned into a real pressure situation . . . he couldn't get off the phone . . . he couldn't walk down the street . . . he couldn't even transact business at the warehouse because of the tourists. Billy was getting so many requests, he didn't knoe how to handle them. Even if I didn't do anything more at the time except help him cope, I would have been rendering him a tremendously valuable service."
And did Billy consult hid brother before signing up with Top Billing? "I do not know," says Rice. "My guess is that he did not. Billy is absoletely his own man. His brotherhas never really been a factor in any of our dealings."
Nor, apparently, in Rice's politics. "Nope, I sure didn't vote for Carter," he laughs. "And I've never made any bone about it. But I also want to add real quick," which he does with a loud guffaw, "that I'll sure be voting for him next time around. tes, sirre, you can certainly look to see Mr. Rice right in the middle of that ring next time out."
The eagle - or something - has clearly landed most of Tandy Rice's life. At 39 he is owner of Top Billing, one of Nashville's biggest talent agencies, which, until that fateful day in Billy's warehouse some 18 months ago, specializing mostly in country-western entertainers. Heavy country western - like Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius, last year voted country and western duet of the year; Kitty Wells, the queen of country music; Porter Wagoner, Tom T. Hall, Jeanne C. Riley and Jerry Clower, who Jimmy Carter calls his favorite comedian.
Nowadays, however, Rice has gone political - starting with Billy and adding, most recently, Cornelia Wallace, who Rice signed up basically at Billy Carter's behest. "Billy's always been a big fan and supporter of George Wallace, you know," Explains Rice, "so one day - after they broke up - Cornelia called Billy up and asked if she could come see him to get some advice. he said sure, so she hopped in a plane and flew herself over to Plains. Two days later, Cornelia came to see me in Nashville."
But is there, in fact, that much marketability in being the former Mrs. George Wallace? "Well," drawls Rice slowly, "that's not necessaryily a liability. Cornelia does have a high degree of name recognition and celebrityhood about her. I can see her in some way being involved in TV and maybe movies. In fact, I think she'd be a dandy in a Barbara Walters-type role."
As for Billy, Rice decided to go after him the day he was sitting in Mississippi and heard that the William Morris Agency had just signed not only Gerald Ford, but Betty and the kids to boot. That, says Rice, just made him madder than a wet hen. "I went after Billy frankly, because I'm a very competitive person. I hate getting beat out of anything, to the point where I am just paranoid about it."
Tandy Rice could probably sell Bibles to the Devil. He is articulate, attractive, funny, fast and smart. Small enough, in fact, to make prejudice pay. "Lots of people," explains Rice who graduated from The Citadel, "think southerners are hicks. Well, I've lived with that all my life. It's been one of my most advantageous sales tools. No. 1, I ain't no hick, but if you think I am, well, you won't have your guard up so high, will you? . . "It's like I tell my 15-year-old daughter, who goes to this fancy, private school, is into Elton John and the Eagles and just cannot fathom what her daddy does for a living. 'Honey,' I say, -you just ought to get down on your knees every damn day and thank God for Roy Acuff because Roy's the one that's keeping you in that damn school, helping you to be such a snob.'"
Fourteen years ago when Rice arrived back in Nashville from the military with a new wife and no job, Nashville's music industry was like the Klondike - untapped. Nonetheless, Rice was headed for a bank job because, "at that time in my life, I not only hated countru music, I hated anybody who liked it. I was that much of a damn bigot. Then somebody said I ought to try selling and I ought to try it in the music industry because there wasn't no third generation gentlemen running around oner there."
So he did. And by 29 Rice says he was "the best damed salesman you ever saw," making $38,000 a year as a vice president at Show Business, Inc., a producer syndicated TV shows for whom Rice sold country music TV spots. Leaving that job , however, he spent a miserable 18 months elsewhere before finally borrowing the money to buy Top Billing, an in-house agency of Show Business, Inc., which came with three main clients - Jerry Clower, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.
These days, of course, Rice is understandably proud of country music. He has, after all, made a fortune from it, even though he won't say how much. "Did I want money? Hell, yes . . . wanteall I could get my hands on," he chuckles. "But it's interesting, now that's not a factor anymore . . . that's not the reason I get out of bed every morning."
But selling is. the man is hooked on it. "The whole essence of what we do for a living boils down to this," says Rice, leaning in toward his listerner for emphasis. "I can represent you, better than you can represent you. That's fact. Listen, I couldn't represent me. But, hell, I wished O worked for me. The trouble is, I can't afford me."
Billy Carter can. And is, claims Rice, getting more apppearance requests than ever before. "I think there's a little Billy Carter in all of us. I know there's some in me," he says trying to pinpoint Billy's appeal. "The mail we get - so much of it will say, 'Billy, don't change . . . keep on being Billy.'"
Yet, concedes Rice, he and Billy did make mistakes originally. "You gotta remember, there are no precedents to go by to judge how you handle a president's brother. But Billy wants to so these things simply because he loves people better than anybody you ever saw." Which is not to mention, of course, the $5,000 a day plus expenses that Billy gets everytime he sets foot on a fairground.
Yet, he claims even that isn't as tacky as it may appear. "I know," he begins cautiously, "what it looks like to a lot of people. But he assured there are dimensions to Billy that aren't readily apparent. On the face of it, sure, it ain't right. But there's more to it than the face."
"Well, what would you say if I told you that Billy Carter gives 50 percent of everthing he earns to charity?"
"Well, now," laughs Rice, obviously pleased at a surprised reaction. "I can't say that he does,of course. But if it was true, that all kind of changes how you might look at what Billy is doing - doesn't it???"