Sunday, May 19, 2013

Homer and Maurice

One of the benefits of reaching a certain age is reconnecting with old friends that you haven’t seen in a while. That happened for me earlier this week at a Columbia Media Club meeting. I was running a little late, having some last minute things to clear up before the meeting, so the room was already abuzz with activity. I noticed a solitary figure in a green Ban-Lon shirt quietly finishing up a sandwich while he observed the others in the room. From a distance I could see that he was familiar but the name wasn’t quite coming to me yet. As I approached him, it was clear that he recognized me as well but had not quite placed me. He spoke first and at the sound of his first word, it all came to me. This was no other than Homer Fesperman who I had worked with a lot in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. He said to me, “Help me remember your name.” In Homer’s defense, I have changed more than he has since we last saw each other.

Homer Fesperman

Homer is a legendary broadcaster in “these here parts.” We worked at several radio and television stations before starting his recording studio business. Homer worked on both sides of the microphone, as an announcer and as an engineer. We spent the next hour or so, reminiscing about our broadcast careers. After an announcing stint at WIS radio, Homer and a mutual friend of ours, the late Bobby Lambert put the first television station in Columbia, WCOS-TV on the air on May 1, 1953. Channel 25 was owned by Columbia Radio along with WCOS radio (AM 1400 and FM 97.9, now 97.5). It was South Carolina's first television station, and carried programming from all three networks - CBS, NBC and ABC. Studios were located in a Quonset hut on Shakespeare Road in northeast Columbia. More about that Quonset hut later. WCOS-TV had a relatively short life span when the CBS network moved to WNOK-TV in September of 53 and WIS-TV (NBC) signed on in November as the only VHF station in the market. The station lasted until January of 1956 when the struggling station went off the air. Eventually the station returned to the air on October 1961. It is interesting to note, that the equipment that Homer and Bobby put into that Quonset hut was very modern by 1953 standards; but more about that later.

All of this occurred while I was still growing up in Jacksonville. I first met Homer while I was working at WCOS AM-FM in the late 60s. The radio stations did not suffer the same fate as the TV station. They were sold to George Buck and never went dark when Charles W. Pittman agreed to take the TV station off the air. Bobby Lambert had left full time employment as a station engineer and was now a consulting engineer for several stations in the market. By this time, Homer was running his own recording studio and on several occasions had the need for an extra voice for some of his productions. One of the most enjoyable experiences for me was participation in a radio series called “The Investigators.” This was a series of half hour shows Homer produced for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of the department of the Treasury, now part of the Department of Justice. Veteran broadcasters Mackie Quave and Dean Poucher played the recurring roles of ATF agents and about 20 or 30 others played bit parts. Most of the shows were about “moonshine” or illegal whiskey but some were about firearms. I don’t remember doing any about tobacco, but that is not surprising, living in the middle of the tobacco belt as we did. I played everything from a brother to a moonshiner who eventually came clean to Mackie and Dean about what my family was into, to a mob henchman who wound up face down in a field after challenging the marksmanship of the stalwart ATF agents during a gun running episode.

When I was to be on the show, I would pick up the script from Homer a few days before the taping so that I could work up my lines. The actual show tapings would take most of an afternoon and we pretty much recorded live to tape, occasionally stopping to re-record a flub. After the voice track was recorded, Homer would spend hours putting in those sound effects that we did not include when we recorded the dialog. One of my fondest memories from those recordings was standing in a box full of gravel and moving my feet to simulate walking when the script had me “walking and talking.” We never recorded the sound of gunshots during the recording of the voice tracks. I suspect that was because it was difficult to have the microphones turned up loud enough to record voices without being overloaded by firing blanks. Homer told me this week, that he still has the original masters of those shows but we both think that after all of these years, the “razor blade” edits would never stand the strain of being played.

OK, OK! You want to know about that Quonset Hut! And just who is “Maurice?” Well Maurice is Maurice Williams of the Gladiolas, the Royal Charms, and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. Maurice wrote the song “Stay” in 1953 when he was 15 years old. He had been trying to convince his date not to go home at 10 o'clock as she was supposed to. He lost the argument, but as he was to relate years later, "Like a flood, the words just came to me." Maurice wrote several songs that became hits back in the ‘50s and ‘60s; most notably “Little Darlin’” which was covered by the Diamonds and “May I” covered by Bill Deal & the Rhondels. But “Stay” was Maurice’s own through and through, his big number 0ne hit. And it was recorded in that Quonset hut that was WCOS-TV old home and now the home of WOLO-TV. Not only that, but Homer Fesperman was the recording engineer for that and several other songs that were in the demo that Maurice presented to Al Silver of Herald Records in New York, by way of producers Phil Gernhardt and Al McCullough. The Zodiacs signed with Herald and "Stay," sparked by a stunning falsetto performance by Shane Gaston, became their debut on the label during the summer of 1960. It hit number one that fall and easily topped a million sales at the time, also becoming the biggest hit in the history of Herald Records. “Stay” is also the shortest song, at 1 minute 37 seconds to ever top the charts.

Rick Wrigley and Maurice Williams

So now things have come full circle, “Stay” was one of my favorite songs when I was in high school. And its back story involves two men who became my friends later in life. It was in a conversation with Maurice a couple of years ago that I learned that Homer was involved in the recording of “Stay”! Needless to say, my jaw dropped. Homer had never mentioned it. There has been a lot of talk about Hollywood being a close knit society; “the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon” they call it. But not a lot written about how close the broadcasting / recording industries are. But it is true, everyone in the business knows someone who knows everyone else. Right now, I sit here with the faces of many friends in radio, television and the recording industries flashing across my memory. I have been blessed with knowing all these folks, and like with Homer this week, when I see them again, it is like no time has passed at all. Oh MY!

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