There was no way I was going to say “no” to this request.
Walter B. Walker was born and raised at Helena. He moved to Little Rock in 1962 and worked for the Darragh Co., the Mountaire Corp. and Orbit Valve Co. before retiring in 1993.
Walter has been friends with fellow Helena native Randy Tardy since the first grade.
“I don’t think a week has gone by since 1939 that we haven’t talked at least once,” Walter told me.
I’ve only been friends with Randy since 1981, when I went to work for the Arkansas Democrat as a sportswriter. Randy was a business writer at the newspaper for a quarter of a century, and a darn good one.
He’s also a great storyteller, especially stories of his early life when Helena was a prosperous port city on the Mississippi River. Randy is in hospice as I write this. It was Walter’s idea to contact Paula Morell, the talented executive producer and host of “Tales from the South.”
His plan was to have some friends of Randy read pieces Randy had written. They would be read during the weekly taping of the radio show at the Starving Artist Cafe in downtown North Little Rock.
Morell agreed to the idea, and so I found myself at the Starving Artist on Tuesday night reading stories along with Walter and Harvey Joe Sanner of Des Arc. A full house listened.
“Tales from the South,” which airs each Thursday at 7 p.m. on Little Rock station KUAR-FM, 89.1, is quite a phenomenon. It began as a single show seven years ago. It’s now syndicated by the World Radio Network, where it airs three times a week on WRN Europe, twice a week on WRN Asia and twice a week on WRN Africa.
The show also can be heard on numerous public radio stations across the country.
The weekly taping before a live audience features writers reading their stories. All stories must be true. Past participants have included people ranging from Judge Reinhold to Jill Conner Browne to David Pryor.
I only wish I could have read a story by Randy about the old second-floor newsroom at the Democrat. When I went to work there in 1981, it was still like something out of the 1931 movie “The Front Page.” There was trash on the floor and wires running everywhere. The air was thick with smoke, and ashtrays were overflowing. Finding a chair that wasn’t broken was a challenge.
Randy used to claim he was going to write a book titled “Ray 85.” Here’s the story behind that: The late Ray Hobbs was the city editor in those days, and the main number to the city desk was 378-3485. Clerks would answer the phone and then scream at the top of their lungs for the city editor to pick up on that line.
Frank Fellone, in a column in Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, described that old newsroom as a place “so crowded, noisy and unkempt that reporter Randy Tardy once described it as being like Bhopal, India, at rush hour.”
Randy loved the newspaper business, and he loved every form of transportation. His idea of a day off was to go to the airport to watch planes take off and land, to the banks of the Arkansas River to watch the barges go by or to the train station to watch the trains as they passed.
I like Helena, I enjoy radio and I’m intrigued by the history of KFFA-AM. So I had no complaints Tuesday night when Walter asked me to read about those subjects.
Here’s part of what I read. The words are those of my friend of more than three decades, Randy Tardy:
“I worked at radio station KFFA-AM, 1360, in Helena from 1956 until July 1959. I set up locally prepared newscasts and delivered them, using information gathered from local sources, our Associated Press newswire, handouts and local interviews.
“As I recall, my live newscasts were weekdays at 8 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and a 6:15 p.m. wrap-up of the day for 15 minutes. My noon program was unique. It immediately preceded the 12:15 p.m. broadcast of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ which had been on the air since around 1941 and is still going.
“The musicians stored their instruments in a corner of my newsroom. So did the janitor with his mops, brooms and bucket. I even had a vertical rack of glowing and buzzing radio tubes, which kept the station’s signal going out.
“During one noon show, I was talking about an explosion of some kind along the Gulf Coast when the King Biscuit drummer came in to get his instrument. He had trouble holding onto it. As I was reading the story, there was a ‘wham’ behind me. It was timed right with the word ‘explosion’ as I was reading the story. It was not a funny story, but the timing almost got to me. It was hard to get through the rest of the newscast.
“I looked at the drummer with my microphone still on. He said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Randy, I didn’t go to do that.’ I knew he didn’t, but I remember that moment until this day. I believe that drum, with its red lettering, is still around and on display at the Delta Cultural Center.
“When I would come into the station from making my rounds of the police department, fire station and courts, I would park out front on York Street and put a nickel in the parking meter. Often, Dudlow, the King Biscuit piano player, would be standing there. This time he asked me if I could give him a dime to ‘get me some soda crackers and a little bologna.’
“That day I had a pocket filled with quarters because the gas station I had just stopped at was out of dollar bills. I had put five gallons of gas in my 1955 Pontiac and was expecting $4 in change. I got it, but not in bills. They gave me the change in quarters. They were out of bills.
“‘Here, Dudlow, here’s a quarter,’ I said. ‘Go have yourself a big lunch.’ He thanked me over and over. He looked at the quarter and said, ‘This will really help me tickle them ivories.’
“Those were interesting times. Little did I know that the broadcast would live on for decades and become the centerpiece of an internationally known blues festival. Sunshine Sonny Payne was at KFFA then. He’s still there as of this writing, a legend himself.
“When folks sometime refer to me as a pioneer radio broadcaster, I tell them that I never looked upon myself as a pioneer. But there weren’t too many of us around back then. One is my old friend H.R. ‘Herbie’ Byrd, who toiled for early news operations at several radio stations. I remember him best as the news voice of Little Rock station KLRA-AM, 1010, which has been off the air for years.
“Life goes on, but I wish news today were the real news we tried to deliver back then.”
Nice memories from Randy Tardy.
They’re holding the third annual Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival in Helena this weekend. The likes of the Kentucky Headhunters, Ben “Cooter” Jones, The Cate Brothers, Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers and Wanda Jackson will be there.
Rockabilly got its start in the Memphis area in the 1950s. I wish Randy could be there for the festival. I have no doubt he would enjoy it, especially if he had a spot atop the levee where he could also see those barges moving up and down the Mighty Mississippi, the river that so defined his youth.