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Local radio acts launched performers on music careers
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When local radio was in its pioneer stages, live acts, mostly country and gospel music, were a significant part of the programming.

Country personalities like Elmer Snodgrass are still recalled. They aren’t as common today as talk radio dominates many stations.

The late Jim Hartley, one of the best known local radio personalities, was nicknamed the “hillbilly disc jockey” in the 1950s after he joined Gainesville’s WGGA. The station would host such singers as the Stamps-Baxter quartet, Homeland Harmony, the Happy Two, Hall County Hot Shots, Uncle Harmon Kanady and the Queen City Quartet.

The Chicopee Kiddies Choir was the first live act on WGGA Saturday mornings.

One of the local acts that sprang from Gainesville’s WGGA was James Armour, who eventually played the upright bass with the Grand Ole Opry and the Atlanta Symphony. He could play any stringed instrument and tuned pianos by ear. Playing the bass, he didn’t have to have music in front him, just knowing when his sound was required. He also played with Curly Fox and Texas Ruby.

It was a pure musical family of local celebrities, remembered Red Forrester, father of Reggie and Phillip Forrester. Armour’s daughter, Jo Stone, remembers him performing at various venues. Her mother, Leota Savage Armour, sister Henrietta Savage Noles and aunt Clara Hautence Savage Bonds, known as the Mountain Trio, were among those with their own radio show in the 1940s. They also traveled throughout Georgia with the USO entertaining soldiers. You can hear a scratchy recording of them on YouTube.

Mrs. Armour’s sponsor on WGGA was J.D. Jewell, the poultry industry pioneer. Hartley was the announcer.

Jo and her sisters, Linda Armour Farr, Althea Armour Bleckley and Laura Armour Posey, though not members of any formal musical group, all play music by ear, a talent handed down by their father. Others in the musical family are Bryan Joseph Stone, Malyn Grace Stone and Drew Anthony Stone.

James Armour died of a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 57. Leota Armour died at the age of 70 in 1995.

Cousins Elivia Adams, Delores Kirkland, Elwanda Richman and Gwendolyn Kelley of Toccoa also were singers, and Elwanda entertained on a tour of Europe. Clara Bonds continued to sing and play her guitar in the nursing home where she lived in her later years. The cousins’ quartet once sneaked up on her at the nursing home and accompanied her,

Another family member, Wanda Kay Bonds, sang with the Goss Brothers and was named Gospel Artist of the Year in 1967. Her talent had been recognized as a teenager.

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The late Charles Smithgall started WGGA in a little white stucco building on Athens Highway in 1941. The station later moved to the Press-Radio Center on West Spring Street, where the Smithgalls’ newspaper, then called the Gainesville Daily Times, also was located. The station was part of the Blue Ridge Broadcasting Co., of which Smithgall was president.

After the radio station was sold, it moved to studios on South Main Street, and The Times moved to its present location on Green Street in 1970. WDUN, Jacobs Media, eventually bought WGGA.

The late Bob Schwab was another early WGGA personality who later owned other stations in North Georgia.

WGGA’s broadcast was once heard as far away as New Zealand, more than 12,000 miles away. A radio buff, L.A. Mackey of Dunedin, N.Z., reported to the station that he picked up the signal Jan. 3, 1950.

• • •

Shirley Tolbert Price was one of the few women wearing hats to church these days. It is said she had a collection of some 70 of them. She rarely missed Sunday services at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, even when her health began to fail. When she died recently, women of the church were offered to wear one of the hats to her funeral if they desired.

At the service in the Little-Davenport Chapel, almost half of one side of the chapel was filled with women wearing the colorful hats in Shirley’s honor. An appropriate tip of the hat to a deserving lady.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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