On a very rainy Tuesday in early September '74, Cliff Beach and I headed off to WROV to interview Bart for the Cave Spring High School newspaper, The Knight Letter. It would be a day that permanently changed my life, but first, some background.
The Knight Letter, typical of most high school newspapers of the era, was a fairly bland and very "vanilla" sort of publication. It was printed monthly and distributed to the 1100 or so students in their "home room" classes (the first place you went each morning where they read announcements and took attendance). Like most high school papers, most of the stories were about cheerleaders, athletes, and the usual "wholesome" fluff that passed the watchful eyes of the teacher sponsors and the school's administration. Upon starting my sophomore year there in 1973 I noticed that when the papers were handed out, most people glanced over them, rolled their eyes, then dropped them in the trash can on the way out the door.
|Bart Prater. This photo by Pat Garrett shot this day became his Roanoke Times & World News file photo and was used for years!|
But going into the 1974-75 school year this was about to change. The Knight Letter was now being edited by two who dared to make it more than the usual high school journalistic fare, George Griffith and Galen Grubb. George recalls "Galen and I had gone to a five-day conference of VA high school newspaper editors-to-be at VCU just before school opened. We all brought a sheaf of our school's past issues to be critiqued by journalism professors, some writers at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and our peers. Long story short, it was apparent that the KL was a pretty boring rag. The seminars and other editors gave us a lot of ideas, and we were inspired to turn the paper into something other than a liner for File 13."
About this time I became interested in photography. This had EVERYTHING to do with my being in love and wanting to cover my walls with my girlfriend's photos (well, the areas that weren't already covered by Chicago posters) and not having the money to pay the local camera shop to print out all the 8x10s. I began taking pictures using my dad's old Argus C-3 which he'd bought at the PX while in the Army. I was then bequeathed a complete set of darkroom equipment by one of his friends who didn't want it anymore. Soon I was running a photo lab in the basement. Then I got a Canon FTB 35mm SLR. I already knew George and KL photographer Kevin Foster (who taught me much about cameras). So for my Junior year I joined the KL staff.
|The Knight Letter bannerhead. From an issue later in the year.|
It was there that I became friends with Cliff Beach. Cliff—a man of many talents—was a feature writer for The Knight Letter, one of the few people on the staff whose work didn't sound like an English class assignment. His writing was chock full of personality and fun to read. I started going along with him to do movie reviews (and ever the con-artist, he always got us in for free). George & Galen made Cliff the entertainment writer and for the first issue he interviewed Mike Ives, infamous columnist for the Roanoke World News. For the October issue, the guest was to be Suzi Quatro, of rock & roll (and later, "Happy Days") fame. Suzi was the opening act for Uriah Heep and both were scheduled for a big show in Roanoke early that month.
But at the last minute, the show was cancelled. The official reason was that keyboard player Ken Hensley had suddenly gotten ill, but rumors were rampant that the REAL reason was low advance ticket sales. So suddenly the the paper was without a feature story. But Cliff came to the rescue and, at the last minute, arranged an interview with Bart. As one who grew up listening to WROV and who wanted as a kid to grow up and be a DJ, I couldn't wait to cover this assignment. I'd always wanted to experience WROV from the inside; meet some of the voices I'd listened to for years, and stand in the hallowed control room. I was about to get the chance.
|Cliff Beach interviewing Bart. Fuzzy because it's from a contact print (pending my finding the actual negatives). A good look at the WROV control room in 1974.|
When the day finally came we piled into my old beat-up blue Rambler Rebel, and off into the rain we went. The interview was to take place around six o'clock. When we arrived, we parked at the far end of the lot and thought up and jotted down about ten questions to ask Bart, then headed in the front door. Lynn Wright (a.k.a. "Gum") the secretary greeted us, then led us back to the control room. We walked in, and there was Bart. I was standing at the epicenter of Roanoke's pop culture. Suddenly all of my years of music lessons and plans to be a church organist went right out the window. I was hooked. And come hell or high water, I was going to be on the radio.
We were there for about an hour and recorded it all. Bart was approaching the peak of his career, and with the possible exception of Fred Frelantz, was the biggest star in town. He was definitely in his "element" that day and enjoyed the attention and the chance to talk shit to a couple of high school morons like us. He was uncensored and happy to honestly answer every question he was asked. Obviously, he figured we would edit the interview down to a few columns and leave out all the racy, blue, controversial stuff. Did we?
|Over Bart's shoulder. From another contact print. Showing the board and Bart's omnipresent Mr. Pibb.|
Of course not! Thinking that we had done the best interview since The Rolling Stone interviewed John Lennon, we transcribed nearly every word. The editors loved it. George recalls "you and Cliff had created a tightly-written interview with some great pix of the 'Big Guy' on the Star City's airwaves. We never passed it by our advisors. Both Galen and I were thrilled with it and thought it would make a statement: 'Check Out The New Knight Letter.'"
The interview and the photos took up an entire page and led to what may have been the very first six-page edition of the KL. After doing the layout it was sent to the Salem Times-Register for printing. As for the photos, one would become famous in its own right. The picture of Bart holding a cigarette up to his mouth became the RT&WN stock photo of him for the next thirty years (and no, I never received a cent nor a credit for this, though years later RT&WN staffers were very helpful with the creation of the WROV History website).
|The Interview! As it appeared in the paper.|
When the papers were printed, Cliff and I grabbed an early copy and took it to Bart (the first of many times I'd show up at the station, shoot pictures, then use 'delivering copies of the printed pictures' as an excuse to get BACK INTO the station, at which time I'd shoot some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.). We left thinking that life was wonderful, and that in the morning, the school would see the interview and we'd be the coolest people around.
Now, thirty five years later, I can't remember if I went home first or just went to Cliff's after we took Bart his copy of the paper. But that night I do remember being at Cliff's when the phone rang. It was Bart and he was not happy with the interview and wanted it pulled from the papers. He'd been in touch with James Daughtridge, our principal who looked exactly like Jackie Gleason. Several calls went back and forth between us, Daughtridge (who Bart referred to as "Death-ridge") and George (who Bart was calling "Vicious George").
|Separated at birth? James Daughtridge and Jackie.|
Due to the limits of print (which, these days manifests itself as 'improper email etiquette') several comments Bart had made in jest were taken completely out of context and seen as being potentially damaging to his career and / or "not being fit for students in a public school." In retrospect, I believe it was both. Daughtridge was a prude and would later censor a CSHS performance of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple because he didn't like the "damns" and the "hells."
And in the years that followed I worked for and and got to know Bart fairly well and began to understand that when behind a mike, he was the outgoing, funny entertainer that everyone knew and loved—but the rest of the time he was a very private person. It now makes perfect sense that while in the control room he was "in his element" and said all this stuff, but after going home and thinking about it, he decided that maybe it was too much for high school kids to read.
George remembers it this way. "Bart called me at home around 9 PM (a kick in the tail considering who he was) apparently after a chat with Daughtridge. He was cordial but resolute: the interview couldn't be seen. I was stunned. Though he never actually said it, I got the impression that what had been written didn't project the personal / professional image he wanted it to. He just didn't like it and Daughtridge apparently backed him up on nixing it.
|Galen Grubb and George Griffith edited The Knight Letter in 1974-75 and should have won a Pulitzer Prize.|
"I never thought for a moment that you and Cliff had played 'fast and loose' with anything he'd said and thought that you had taped what was obviously a long interview. I don't have an exact recollection of the subsequent exchange, but I wanted to stand behind you, Cliff, and the hope that the piece would show that the KL could be better than it ever had been. Though I think (and hope) I maintained a moderately respectful tone as the call came to a close, I believe I took the 'over my dead body' position and he assumed the 'let's see what happens in the morning' stance. Neither is an exact quote of what was said, but it's suggestive of what probably gave rise to my 'Vicious George' moniker.
"My guts turned to ice water. Here we were: a bunch of kids up against a Big Name and a Big Fat Principal who could make our lives hell for as long as 'we sing this song for Cave Spring High...' I had enough 'pep and spirit' from my Dad's fighting Welshman coal-miner genes and my Mom's 'bravest of the Gallic tribes' chromosomes to immediately think, 'This is impossible. It may be a high school paper, but we're talking about Freedom of the Press, plain and simple.'
|Another shot of BP and fortunately we do have a clear copy of this one.|
"I knew about the ACLU and that they'd probably take on the case. But where would that lead? A radio personality is interviewed by some aspiring adolescent journalists and the ink on some things he doesn't like is now dry. Did we pass the text by him beforehand? Nope (to the best of my knowledge). Did we get approval from our advisors before we went to press? Nope. Did the article cast Bart in an unseemly light? I don't think so, unless I've forgotten something truly juicy. Do you win the battle but lose the war?"
After the seemingly endless evening at Cliff's in "phone hell" I left with it all up in the air. The next morning, the day the papers were to be distributed, the entire KL staff was summoned into the newspaper room at the school. Daughtridge was there and ordered us to remove the middle page that contained the interview from every one of the 1,100 copies of the paper. Our masterpiece had been yanked, and we naturally thought this was the absolute end of the world. While doing this I remember glancing over at Cliff and it looked like he had tears in his eyes.
|Cliff notes Bart's answer to a question (did you catch that one? "Cliff Notes" Boooo...). Yes, from another contact print. Sigh.|
Cliff managed to sneak out one copy of the interview but lost it (we think it was in one of his filing cabinets that he lost in a nasty girlfriend breakup several years ago). And I had the original cassette. The tape had broken and when trying to fix it, I ruined the plastic casing. I didn't have time or the patience to fix it so I stuffed it in an envelope, sealed it, and stuck it in a box. This was sometime around 1979. Though I thought of it many times over the years—especially when writing the text of the WROV History site—I had no idea where it was or if I still even had it.
But lo and behold, in December 2006 when I was cleaning out a box of my old stuff in the attic, voila! There it was. I carefully fixed the tape and—holding my breath—put it into the cassette player and EUREKA! It was still in fairly good quality! And a year later, by way of the World Wide Web, I received an email from George who found me on the WFIR website while looking up (of all things) information about Hayden Huddleston. I then learned that George also had a copy.
|Pat Garrett looked and dressed like a complete total dork back then, but BP posed with him anyway.|
So thanks to my dumb luck, George's courtesy, and the permission of Bart's son Jay, here it is. Bart in prime form, Cliff as an "ace" high school columnist who was—at the time—the biggest Loggins & Messina fan in the entire world, and me with my SW Virginia Southern Drawl which was HORRIBLE back then and took months of going to the Speech Clinic to lose. You'll also hear appearances by Don Foutz, Mark Fryburg and Rob O'Brady who had only been at WROV about four months at the time and had just replaced Shane Randall on the 7-Midnight shift.