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by George Lester
George Lester
Several months went by and everything at our radio station in West Monroe was still humming like a well oiled machine. I continued to visit the Louisiana Hayride almost every Saturday. It had become a way of life for me. One Saturday I was in for a big surprise. As I entered the stage door someone told me that my brother Sam was there. He worked as a mechanic in a Texas coastal town almost 200 miles away. I wondered what he was doing there. I learned that he had driven up with a mechanic who worked in the same shop with him. His name was Benny Barnes and had just been given a spot on the show.

I thought he had one of the best natural country voices I had ever heard. The lively crowd seemed to feel the same way. When the show was over I asked Benny for a copy of his record that was making a big splash in the region. I wanted to introduce his great talent to the Monroe-West Monroe area. As I was about to leave Sam and Benny introduced me to another young singer they knew from the same area who had also driven up to appear on the show that night. I was so impressed with Benny Barnes I hardly paid any attention to the other fellow. I quickly forgot all about him.

I continued to push Benny’s record at our radio station and encouraged the other disk jockeys to do the same. His career improved somewhat and then suddenly leveled off and started to diminish. In a couple of years his booking practically ceased to exist. He finally ended up going back the Texas coastal area and finishing his career playing in local night clubs. I could never understand how it all happened. I still think to this day that he had one of the best country voices of all times. I guess the vast majority of record buyers didn’t agree.
Later I received some records in the mail with some publicity pictures enclosed. I recognized the country singer as the one Sam and Benny had introduced me to at the Louisiana Hayride that night. I listened to the songs and I felt surely this fellow would go a long way in the country music business. But I had said the same thing about Benny Barnes so I figured I might be wrong again. However, this time my prediction proved correct. Today he is considered by many to be the model for all country singers. His name is George Jones.

Back to the radio business.
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One morning I finished my program and had walked into the office when a lady held the phone up and said, “It’s for you”. A man on the other end of the line introduced himself as the manager of a radio station in Natchez, Mississippi. He was at a downtown hotel and he asked if I would meet him in the lobby. I tried to get him to tell me what it was all about. He said that he would rather tell me in person.

As I entered the hotel lobby a distinguished looking gentleman arose from his seat and walked toward me with his hand extended. I was impressed by how well he was dressed. Although everything I wore came from the bargain rack I knew expensive clothes when I saw them. His gray hair was perfectly groomed and he looked as if he had been cast for the role of a CEO in the movies. He invited me to join him in the dining room for a chat.

He got down to business right away. He explained that he wanted to pump some life into his radio station and he thought I was just the man to do it. I wondered how he knew so much about me when I knew nothing about him. He explained that someone had told him about me so he spent the night in the hotel so he could get up early and listen to my program the next morning. He admitted that he was very impressed.and wanted me to come to work for him as soon as it was convenient. My head was spinning. Things were happening so fast.

I was very happy where I was and the idea of leaving to take a job somewhere else wasn’t high in my priorities. I know I should have told him that right from the start. I guess it was vanity that influenced me to let him continue. I admit I was flattered and I guess I just wanted to see where it would lead. When he asked me what kind of salary I would need to make the move I should have simply told him I wasn’t interested. Instead, I quoted him a figure that I thought he would surely back away from and that would be that. He never even blinked. A pleased smile appeared on his face as he simply said,”Done.”

That idea had backfired on me so I moved to plan B. I thought of all the problems I had experienced at other stations. I began to give him a list of conditions that must be met before I could accept the job. I figured all those demands would put an end to the whole thing. Wrong. He accepted them one by one and assured me he would do everything to make working conditions as pleasant as possible. I had painted myself into a corner.

I thought back to all those days of starvation and self denial such a short time ago. Sure, things were better now but I still had to watch my budget carefully to get by. If I took the job offer I could live a much more comfortable life and perhaps even put a little away for a rainy day. I reasoned that I had worked hard to get where I was and I should take advantage of the opportunity. I was still in a daze as we shook hands and sealed the deal. Now, came the problem of telling someone I really liked and respected that I was leaving.

It was one of the toughest things I ever had to do. I guess it was like man must feel when he tells his wife he is leaving her for another woman. My boss had been super nice to me and he just simply didn’t deserve that kind of news. The room was awfully quiet for a while. When he finally spoke I can’t recall what he said. It is probably one of those things that are so unpleasant you block it from your memory. At that moment I wished it had all been a dream and I would wake up. I couldn’t believe I was really going to leave that “perfect radio station” I had sought for so long.

Now, another difficult task lay before me. I had to tell Molly that I was moving to Natchez, Mississippi. I assured her that I would come up to visit her every weekend but it didn’t do much to improve the situation. She said it just wouldn’t be the same anymore and it just might even be the beginning of the end for us. I was afraid she was right. I remembered how many times she had been left alone as I went to the Louisiana Hayride and other places by myself. I reasoned that I did it because I knew she didn’t like that kind of life. I know now that I should have tried more to adjust to her way of life. “What have I gotten myself into?” I thought. Here I am leaving the Garden of Eden to chase an uncertain dream. I might be losing someone near and dear to me as well. I had given my word and I felt I couldn’t go back on it. It was like being on a run-away train and I had no way of stopping it.

I packed my meager belongings in my car and took one last look back at my little garage apartment that I had grown to love. I drove by the radio station on the way out of town and glanced up at it with misty eyes. As I headed south and watched the vision of the twin cities disappearing in my rear view mirror I knew that I was probably leaving a way of life that I could never regain.

At that moment I wasn’t sure which way the roller coaster was going, up or down. In fact, I thought it might have even jumped the tracks.

© George Lester
Spunky Flat and Beyond - A Memoir

August 15, 2007 column

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