He was born in Newport in 1930, with the first and middle names of Rufus James. His parents owned a cafe/service station, but would later open a furniture and appliance store. He graduated from Newport High School after having attended Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tenn. He enrolled in the University of Arkansas, but when the Korean War broke out in 1950, he took it as a chance to see more of the world, and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. By the time the armistice was signed in 1953, he had attained the rank of sergeant and received three battle stars.
After his honorable discharge in 1954, he returned to Newport to work in the family furniture store, and because of his "natural radio voice," worked as a part-time announcer for KNBY in Newport. He soon became known as "The Voice of the White River Valley."
In 1957, he accompanied his childhood friend, Sonny Burgess, who had a rock 'n' roll band, on a trip to Little Rock for their appearance on KTHV, Channel 11. As he wandered around the studio offices, he pushed open a door that had "Manager" on it and said, "You don't need any announcers, do you?" An announcer at the station had recently left, so Jack Bomar, the station manager, had him audition on the spot. He got the job, but Bomar suggested he change his name. That same year he married Ellen Beede of Newport, and the couple had two sons, but the marriage ended in divorce 30 years later.
In March 1957, he started hosting a Saturday-afternoon television dance show, initially named "Your Party." The show was so successful that it was expanded to six days a week, and the show's name was changed to bear his new name. Tickets had to be issued to control the number of teenagers arriving from all over the state by the busload. He invited up-and-coming musical groups to be on the show, and was instrumental in launching the careers of Brenda Lee, Fabian, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, and others during the show's eight-year run. He also served as the senior weatherman for the 6 and 10 p.m. news.
He became the go-to emcee for fundraising events and, for more than a decade, served as national trustee for the March of Dimes. Perhaps his greatest talent was that of voice-over. His strong, deep, all-American sound was used for commercials and institutional videos all over the country. From touting life in Amarillo, Texas, to pointing out the qualities of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, his voice gave immediate assurance that one could trust the message. With just a slight vocal twist, he could become the iconic Texan or reliable spokesperson for an insurance company, and advertising agencies nationwide used his voice to promote their products. He became adept at conceiving projects — and finding partners to assist in their production, as he did with the radio series Biography Arkansas, aired on KUAR public radio, and even with the very column you are currently reading.
Who was this Arkansas icon, who died in January 2021 at the age of 90?