During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I spent a lot of time driving around the Arkansas Delta, the Mississippi Delta, the Missouri Bootheel and west Tennessee.
Much of that time in the car was spent listening to WHBQ-AM, 560, in Memphis, a famous old radio station that has had an all-sports format for a number of years.
In the 1950s, though, WHBQ was famous for its music. It was owned by RKO General, and one of its disc jockeys was Dewey Phillips, who had a show each night known as “Red, Hot and Blue.” In 1954, Phillips played a recording by a young man named Elvis Presley. It was the first Elvis song ever played on the radio.
Phillips, who often went by Daddy-O, was a Tennessee native who began working at WHBQ in 1949 when he was just 23. He became legendary for his frantic delivery and his propensity for showcasing the music of both black and white artists.
Memphis was booming in those days, and musicians flocked there from rural towns in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Phillips introduced many of them to the listening audience. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up on his show, playing not only rhythm and blues but also country music and even jazz.
The station let Phillips go in late 1958 when it adopted a Top 40 format. He died in 1968 at the age of just 42 following years of alcohol and drug abuse.
WHBQ was a bit of a farm club for the bigger RKO stations. DJs such as Rick Dees and Wink Martindale would pass through on the way to the company’s stations in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Boston.
RKO sold WHBQ to Flinn Broadcasting in 1988.
During those years I spent driving through the flat Delta cotton fields and listening to the sports talk on WHBQ, I felt as if I knew all of the station’s on-air personalities.
Fortunately, I actually do know some of them. Those of you who listen to my Sunday morning appearances with Bill Vickery on KABZ-FM, 103.7, in Little Rock know that a frequent guest on Bill’s show is Arkansan Brett “Stats” Norsworthy.
Brett began working on the air in Memphis with George Lapides in 1992 and has become a Mid-South radio fixture during the past two decades. He’s making the trip to Little Rock on Saturday to watch UALR’s 3 p.m. basketball game against Middle Tennessee State. We’ll then have an early dinner at Doe’s.
It will be great fun since Brett and I share the same interests — sports, politics, Southern culture and good food.
What could be better than eating tamales followed by a steak at Doe’s, discussing politics and maybe even telling some old Paul “Bear” Bryant stories?
That’s another thing we have in common: Coach Bryant was a childhood hero for both of us.
Even though he lives in Forrest City, Brett helps host the pregame and postgame shows on the Ole Miss football radio network. Nobody knows Southeastern Conference football better. If you’re headed east, you can hear him each Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on 560 AM.
I mentioned George Lapides, who’s indeed a Mid-South legend. Back in the fall, my friend Keith Ingram of West Memphis invited George and me to speak to a meeting of the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce. George talked about sports. I talked about politics.
George could just as easily have talked about politics. He’s highly opinionated, well read, articulate and funny. We shared a delighful dinner afterward, which leads me to perhaps my most important point — George loves to eat out and knows the best restaurants across the South and in other major U.S. cities.
We each choose Galatoire’s in New Orleans as our favorite restaurant in the country.
Go to the website www.georgelapides.com. Ignore the fact that parts of the site haven’t been updated in years. Click on “Places To Eat” and enjoy yourself. You can find George’s opinion on restaurants in Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Fayetteville, Houston, Kansas City, Knoxville, Little Rock, Louisville, Mobile, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City (which George describes as a terrible restaurant city), Orlando, Oxford (the one in Mississippi, of course), Phoenix-Scottsdale, St. Louis (George shares my love for eating Italian food on The Hill), San Antonio, Shreveport and Tuscaloosa
The best part of listening to George from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m. on WHBQ is hearing him do live ads for various Memphis restaurants. I’m always hungry when I turn off the radio.
Be advised that a few of the restaurants listed on the website are no longer in business.
In his Fayetteville listing, George says his favorite is Herman’s Ribhouse. When it comes to Fayetteville itself, I agree with him. Give me a single rib for an appetizer, a gear salad and a New York strip with hashbrowns at Herman’s. But as far as northwest Arkansas as a region, I’ll usually make the trip to Venesian Inn in Tontitown for fried chicken and spaghetti or to the Monte Ne Inn near Rogers for fried chicken.
When the Memphis Tigers came to North Little Rock to play in the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament, George became a fan of Capeo in downtown Argenta. We agree on that. He called it a “don’t-miss place.”
On the Little Rock side of the river, George likes Ferneau, Brave New Restaurant and Ashley’s.
Here’s how the WHBQ website describes him: “When you think Memphis and sports, you instantly think of George Lapides. George is a native Memphian, his parents were Memphians, their parents were Memphians and his great-grandparents were raised in the Mid-South. In fact, George was part of the first-ever graduating class at White Station High School. George attended the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis. There aren’t too many people who have the firsthand knowledge of the history of this area that George does.
“George has spent nearly 50 years in the sports business , whether as sports editor of the Memphis Press Scimitar or sports director at WREG-TV. … He is in his 40th consecutive year of doing sports talk on radio. It’s the longest-running sports talk show in the country and, according to some, the second longest-running radio show of any kind.”
Though the Press Scimitar is long gone, I still cherish my copy of the afternoon newspaper that came out the day of Bear Bryant’s final game as head coach at Alabama in the 1982 Liberty Bowl. George’s column ran on the front page that day.
In 2006, George donated his sports memorabilia collection to the University of Memphis
“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do something to which I first aspired when I was in the fifth grade at Vollentine School — that is, work in journalism,” George said at the time.
Here’s a sample of the kind of history George remembers. He was asked about his memories of Russwood Park on Madison Avenue in Memphis, which was destroyed by fire in 1960. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Stan Musial had all played there at one time or another.
“It smelled,” George told The Commericial Appeal last year. “The minute you walked into the guts of the entry plaza, you could smell the hog dogs and the popcorn. I have two strong memories, and that’s one of them.
“The other memory is the unbelievable noise because everything was wood and when people started clapping for a rally, they also stomped their feet on the wood, and it was just unbelievably loud when they did that. They’d do this rhythmic clapping and stomp their feet.”
Good memories. Good stories. Brett and George — two Memphis radio personalities who make fine dining companions.
I imagine George also has fond memories of Justine’s, which, all due respect to Galtatoire’s, from a 19th Century mansion in Memphis had an almost 50-year run as the best restaurant in the South.
Justine’s was indeed legendary — Rex
Do you remember a restaurant chain in Washington calledRed, Hot, and Blue BBQ? A friend I went to college with in Ohio had worked in Memphis and was one of the original owners. The name of the radio show became the name of the restaurant chain.
Joe: They opened the first Red, Hot & Blue restaurant over in Arlington back when I lived in Washington in the 1980s. The late Lee Atwater was one of the original investors. So was then-Congressman and later Gov. Don Sundquist of Tennessee. Melissa and I used to go there when we were just starting to date. It grew into quite a chain — Rex
Enjoyed your column on WHBQ and George. Last time I was in Memphis I walked past the old Hotel Chisca. If memory serves, Dewey did his show live every night from the balcony of the hotel. It is boarded up now and don’t know its future. But b oy what history. Just to think Elvis did his first interview there.
Also, just to let you know that after 47 years of working in downtown Little Rock I’m hanging it up at the end of March. It’s been a great run for me – working for three great institutions in Arkansas – the old Gazette, KATV and Entergy (AP&L).
Remember so well walking into the Gazette building, up those marble stairs and being met by Harry King, who took me to see Orville. That was in May 1964 when I got off the CAT bus at Markham and Main. Never dreamed that I’d be driving downtown Little Rock, and within a six block area, for 47 more years.
Thanks for letting me know, James.
You have seen and lived A LOT of Arkansas history.
Maybe you can write a book in retirement — Rex