Thursday, February 24, 2011

The King of Late Night Gospel

Once upon a time when I was out of work, I got a phone call from a man who said he was referred to me by the sheriff.   The man said he wanted to talk to me about a job and asked if I could meet him at the jail.  

Now this was in a small Georgia town over on the Alabama line where, until recently, I had been manager of the local chamber of commerce, so it wasn't a total surprise for someone to be referred to me by the sheriff.  Besides, I needed some gainful employment and had nothing better to do, so I agreed and arrived at the aging red-brick building at the appointed time.

When I approached the receptionist and told her who I was, a rather short, pudgy looking fellow dressed in a royal blue, western-style double-knit suit with matching boots, hurried out of the adjacent sheriff's office and over to me.  Grinning from ear to ear and with a gleam in his eye, he grabbed my hand and began pumping vigorously while introducing himself as Wally Fowler. 

I hardly had time to digest this before Wally took me by the arm and hustled me through the cell block doors and into one of two interior interrogation rooms.  It was a small, dingy room painted institutional green and appointed with well-worn,  gray steel furniture.  A table, two chairs, a telephone and a dog-eared phone book.  The only window was about six feet up and covered with bars.  Wally took a chair and motioned for me to take the other.

As Wally launched into his pitch I couldn't help but be more than a little distracted by the whole scene.  Here I was, sitting inside the jail in a room right out of Cool Hand Luke with a guy that looked like an Elvis impersonator who wanted me to go to work for him.  To cap it off, as he talked I noticed he was wearing the most ill-fitting hairpiece I'd ever seen.  The thing was sort of floating around on top of his head with a life of its own as Wally, gesturing enthusiastically, imparted to me his wonderful income opportunity.  (I soon learned that everything Wally did, he did with enthusiasm.)

Here's the gig.  Wally recruits the local sheriff to sponsor a gospel concert.  The concert program is filled with tid-bits about the artists, a welcoming letter from the sheriff, and a lot of ads supporting the whole effort, as a portion of the proceeds would be donated to charity.  

The sheriff gets a feel-good, family-friendly event and a photo-op while handing over a "big" check to a local charity (about 5% of the gate).  Wally gets a reason to stay in business.  I get to sit in the jailhouse and call local businesses out of the phone book asking them to support the sheriff by taking an ad in the program.  I also get to coordinate all of the set-up and printing of the program as-well-as arrange for the local venue.  I get paid by commission only.  A percentage of the action, the amount of which I have since forgotten.

Astutely sensing I'm not exactly sold on the idea, Wally pauses.  Actually, I have hardly heard the idea at all as my head is swimming from sensory overload.  

Wally leans forward, looks me in the eyes, and asks,  "You do know who I am, don't cha?" 

Squirming, I replied, "No sir, I'm afraid I don't."

Surprised, and a little hurt, Wally quietly imparts, "Why Charleston, I'm the originator of the All-Night Gospel Sings."  

Me, dumb face.  

Wally, incredulous, asks, "Don't tell me you never heard of the All-Night Gospel Sings??"

Me, "What?"  

Exasperated, Wally sits back in his chair, takes a deep breath and says, "Well, now I see why you don't realize what a wonderful opportunity this is."  

After a moment's thought, the gleam returns to his eye.  He has an idea.  "I tell you what," he continued,  "Tomorrow I'm gonna go up to Carrollton, Newnan and Griffin.  Why don't cha come along and you can see for yourself what a wonderful opportunity GOD has put before you."

Always open to adventure, and not wanting to chance offending God, I agreed to join him.

Bright and early the next morning I met Wally at the jail.  Beaming, he offers up an exuberant "Good morning, and what a beautiful morning GOD has given us," and motions for me to climb into his shiny royal blue, white leather Cadillac.  I don't remember a set of bull horns on the radiator, but they could've been there.  We hit Micky D's for a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin on the way out of town, and we were off.

Along the way we talked about the business of the business but I soon turned the conversation to Wally himself.  Who the hell was this guy?

A devout, "straight and narrow" Christian, Wally told me that he had spent his entire life on the Southern Gospel circuit.  As we drove he waxed reminiscent about his career of singing in everything from tent revivals to county fairs and finally, breaking into big-time radio with the All-Night Gospel Sings out of Nashville.

We soon arrived in Carrollton where we went straight to the jail.  Unannounced and with no appointment, Wally, resplendent in his royal blue outfit, bursts through the front doors of the jailhouse and announces to the astonished receptionist " I'm Wally Fowler.  Young lady, would you please tell the sheriff that I would like to see him?"

For a moment, the young lady sat transfixed, but soon regained her composure and jumped up to deliver the message.  

Unbelievably, when she went into the sheriff's office, interrupting a meeting, and told him Wally Fowler was here, the sheriff immediately left the meeting and rushed into the lobby to see if it was true.  Wide-eyed, the sheriff hurried over to Wally and shook his hand while saying what an honor it was to meet him and that his whole family listened to him every Saturday night!

I stood there, in slack-jawed amazement.

After securing a date for the show and signing autographs for everyone present, we again hit the road.  On the way to our next stop Wally announced that he was hungry, magnanimously offered to buy lunch, and immediately pulled into Long John Silver's.  "Man, I love this place," he proclaimed.  "The popcorn shrimp are terrific, and they give you a lot." 

If you thought the sheriff's receptionist was astonished, you ain't seen nothing until you've seen the pimply-faced staff at Long John Silver's when confronted by a Nashville cowboy with a "buy-one-get-one-free" coupon.

Our next stop was Newnan and again, the same thing happened as before.  The sheriff was delighted to meet Wally and glad to sponsor a gospel show.  At the last stop, Griffin, the sheriff wasn't quite so enthusiastic but Wally still booked a show and it seemed as though he was right,  I was the only person on earth who didn't know who he was and who had never heard his All-Night Gospel Sings.

As we drove, we talked more about his career.  I have to say, I was totally fascinated and taken by his warm and giving manner.  

He told me that he had discovered Elvis, and that Elvis was a singer in a gospel quartet that was part of his show.  He allowed that Elvis, "...wasn't the best singer, but the girls sure liked him."   He also told me he had discovered Patsy Cline and originated what became the Oak Ridge Boys.  Of course, I thought this was all a bunch of hooey and the water was getting deep, but I decided to give the job a shot anyway.  After all, I had nothing to lose.

I did about a week and sold a dozen or so ads before giving it up.  It was dreadful work and the curiosity that had driven me to accept his offer in the first place quickly waned while working in the dungeon of the jail.  One of his other associates came to town and picked up the ball.  Wally didn't pay me for the work that I did, I didn't deserve it, but he did send me a pair of tickets to the show.

The show was terrific.  First class Southern Gospel that had the entire place clapping their hands and stomping their feet.  I gained a world of respect for Wally Fowler that night.  He was a consummate professional and the crowd loved him.

I have since learned that everything he told me was true.  Elvis was in his show.  He did discover Patsy Cline and start the Oak Ridge Boys.  Chet Atkins played in his band and he wrote songs that became hits for Eddie Arnold and Willie Nelson.  Known as The Man With A Million Friends, Wally is an icon in his industry and was a walking encyclopedia of not only the history of gospel music, but of the whole country music scene and old-time radio in general.

If I knew then what I know now I would have jumped at his offer, hired an hourly employee to make the dreaded phone calls, and spent my time promoting the shows, soaking up the culture, and chronicling this gentle and talented man's considerable accomplishments.

But, hindsight is always 20/20.

Wally passed away in 1994.  If there is such thing as the Pearly Gates, I'm certain Wally Fowler walked through them... and probably pinched a few pearls for his outfit along the way.


  1. What a hoot reading this and watching Wally Fowler! You have had an interesting life Mr. Charleston.

  2. I agree with Andrew. What a wonderful story!

  3. They just don't make people like him anymore. Great post!

  4. So did you wind up all destitute and living under a bridge for a few years because you didn't take the opportunity God put in front of you?

    Or is this to make up for the God will fuck you up post?

    Seriously to this Northerner, that whole Southern gospel, tent revival thing as foreign to me as the idea that as a whole people are sane.

  5. Andrew... I was only reminded of this after stumbling across Wally on the internet.

    Susan... Danke

    BB... Danke

    WM... Yes, yes, and... It was pretty foreign to me as well, as you could see. I've always been drawn to gypsy-types, whether it be carnivals or tent revivals.

  6. Sounds like a real interesting gentleman. I'm sure you look back fondly on your interaction with him.

  7. Oh jeez, it allllll makes sense to me now. No WONDER yer like royalty round here! You were actually in THE presence of THE man who discovered THE King! (and who could ask for anything MORE???) ;-)

  8. DonnaJean... where the hell have you been? Thought maybe you had up and become gentrified.

  9. "If you thought the sheriff's receptionist was astonished, you ain't seen nothing until you've seen the pimply-faced staff at Long John Silver's when confronted by a Nashville cowboy with a "buy-one-get-one-free" coupon."

    Holy Hallelujah, I have hit blog pay-dirt (via Murr Brewster's site). As Minnie Pearl would say, "I'm just so PROUD to be here!"

    My son lives and works in Nashville, behind the scenes in the music industry, and gets to meet the folks who really make the music and the myth of Music City. His mommy gets great name-dropping rights and the best inside stories ever. We often forget that it all started with the likes of Porter Waggoner and Wally Fowler. Snake oil and twang, but hugely heartfelt.

  10. Glad you stopped by Nance. Please feel free to visit anytime. Murr Brewster is a new site for me and already a favorite.

    My wife just brought home a CD collection of Bill Monroe from the library and it drove home again just how on the edge these guys were. We tend to think they were really successful because they are famous but not so. They worked their butts off just to stay above water. Really gives you empathy for folks like Woody Guthrie who did during the Great Depression.


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