At 68, bearded and still gangly, Connie B. Gay is one of the true good old boys of country music.
"Now this is just my opinion," Gay says gently but firmly, "but the phrase 'country music' was first used by me on WARL as an in-and-out, day-after-day thing. That's how the name finally began to catch on."
Tonight's 25th-anniversary bash for, of and by the Country Music Association he helped found will fill Constitution Hall with stellar figures. But the oldest memories of both the hall and the music belong to him.
Gay came to Washington on the tail end of the New Deal; he'd been the mellifluous voice of the Agriculture Department's "Farm and Home Hour."
The newcomer from Lizard Lick, N.C. (population 26, 14 of them Gays), put his energies into WARL, a 1,000-watt Arlington station that took a chance and gave him a lunchtime spot five days a week.
The program was called "Town and Country Time"--"a little bit of town and an awful lot of country. You had to lay the cliche's and the old down-home Lizard Lick things on 'em," he laughs.
WARL had only 1,000 watts but it was a clear signal with little interference.
"It was set in a good moist cow pasture near Annandale and we blanketed Washington, Maryland, Virginia, parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware. It just went out like gangbusters. I know because I'd run those little promotions around in armories, play everything from bull roasts on up, and that was the only real method that we used to advertise, to let people know we were coming."
Somehow, slowly, Gay managed to bring country music uptown. He was the first to broadcast it in a major metropolitan area (Washington in 1946), the first to book it into a classy concert hall (Constitution Hall in 1947), the first to get it on network television (NBC in 1948). He was a founding member of the CMA, as well as its first president. Gay eventually became a broadcast baron, but it was for his work in the early days of country music that he was inducted into the CMA's Hall of Fame in 1980.
In 1946 when Gay was getting started, it was called "hillbilly," not "country," music.
"Then I began using that term when I'd go to Nashville. We formed an association called the Country Music Disc Jockey Association. When it died in 1958 , we had a rebirth in a suite in the Everglades Hotel in Miami. We'd had a show the night before, had a thousand dollars left over. We saw we had a dead duck on our hands, so we formed a new thing called the Country Music Association."
It eventually grew to include artists, producers, executives and publishers, and it became the dominant trade association for country music and Nashville.
In the '40s, Gay noticed another new horizon: television. He got into it through the back door, by taking country music into Constitution Hall, which obviously didn't know what it was getting into.
"We opened on Halloween night, 1947," Gay says.
There were two sold-out shows (setting a house record for grosses), and 10,000 fans were turned away. It was the beginning of 26 straight weeks of Gay shows (he was eventually eased out amid speculation that the staid hall would otherwise be forever known as Connie's Barn). Several of the folks from that first DAR show are back tonight, including Eddy Arnold, Minnie Pearl and Kitty Wells, then an unknown backup singer in a western band.
Country music began to make a lot of noise around the Washington area (for many years this was considered the number-two market, behind Nashville), and in April of 1948, NBC broadcast a DAR show live, temporarily renamed "Gaytime."
"There were just a shirttail full of TV sets by that time," Gay says, "and the NBC 'network' was made up of five stations."
Over the years, Gay had shows on all three networks, managed regional or local singers like Grandpa Jones, Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline and an American U. undergrad named George Hamilton IV. "I was hardly ever without a show and it was usually called 'Town and Country Time.' "
Gay became known as the man to see: He always did cash deals, even when the numbers were low, like the $250 he paid Elvis Presley for his first Washington appearance.
"We began to be star makers early in the game. When I say star makers, I'm talking about taking a guy such as Roy Clark or Jimmy Dean that you'd pay $60.18 a week salary to and before you knew it they'd be shooting up into the $7,000-to-$15,000-a-week category. And take my word . . . when you start separating Grandpa Jones from Dow Jones, word gets around, you know what I mean?"
Grandpa Jones, who is also on tonight's CMA program, is the same age as Gay. "We started out both kinda young," he laughs. "He's got a nasal obstruction God blessed him with, made him sound like a grandpa even when he was a young man. We put him in false mustaches, beards. Of course, the thing he wears now is real."
Over the years, Gay wheeled and dealed and kept the cards pretty close to his vest. He bought and sold radio and television stations, seldom at a loss. He picked up a local AM station for $464,000, and bought the FM rights for $1 as an afterthought.
"Nobody thought FM would amount to anything. Everybody said I was a sucker, paying $464,000, which was somewhat of a record price. On the back of the menu--we were eating at the Shoreham Hotel--we wrote a $1 contract on the FM permit. Of course, I got several million dollars back for that $1 a few years later."
Yes, he once owned WGAY (selling it 10 years ago): "Most of the people around here now think it was named after me. It actually wasn't. But I did have an ego factor that caused me to buy the thing in the first place."
There have been some hard years for Gay, too. He had cancer, and a stroke. He's been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 27 years. Although Gay still follows CMA affairs and attends meetings, he retired years ago to a suburban Virginia home filled with scrapbooks and pictures. His active mind is filled with memories of the early days of country music. Some of those memories are hard to beat.
"I cannot take credit for Charley Pride," Gay says proudly, "but I can tell a little human interest story. Chet Atkins then head of RCA's Nashville operations was hanging on the fence as to whether or not to sign Charley. Charley was black. I knew he was black, Chet knew he was black, hell, a lot of people knew he was black in and around Nashville, but the nation didn't know Charley was black. And, you know, there's a Bible belt, and there's a hate belt and there's a bigotry belt and there's a little bit of bigotry scattered from here to yonder and all of it.
"Chet and I were stranded in an airport one night. We'd been to a CMA meeting and and we played pinball to stay awake, waiting for the fog to lift. And we were shootin' for a dollar apiece and we shot all night long and I'd win a dollar, he'd win a dollar. We said, we're just going round and round on this thing. Let's really bet on something. I said, tell you what I'll do. You sign Charley if I win. If I lose you don't sign Charley and you get 50 bucks."
"And damned if I didn't win the pinball game and when we got through, shook hands, he said well you got the deal. Now whether or not that made the deal . . . I don't know, but it makes a good story and it's the damn truth."