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UGA honors one of its own, Whispering Bill Anderson
Country legend started career in Athens
Joseph Johnson, left, of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, helps Bill Anderson unveil a replica of a plaque that commemorates Anderson’s first recording session in Athens in 1958. - photo by For The Times

A half century ago, a country singer wannabe went into an unfinished recording studio at the University of Georgia, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bill Anderson, 70, is the renaissance man of country music. The singer-songwriter who has penned country hits for artists such as Brad Paisley and George Strait was a student at UGA when he wrote a tune called "City Lights."

While the song’s references to "The Great White Way" might lead one to think it was written in New York, it was penned on the second floor of a building in Commerce, where Anderson worked at WJJC Radio. The tune became a hit for singer Ray Price.

On Tuesday, the University of Georgia paid tribute to Anderson for 50 years in the music business with a luncheon and an awards program at the Georgia Center, where the unfinished studio was used to record "City Lights" in 1958.

"This is very special because this is where it all started," said Anderson, who said the time has flown since that first recording. "It seems like two or three months ago. By no means does it seem like 50 years."

Anderson, who was born in Columbia, S.C., grew up in Decatur.

Abit Massey of Gainesville, who was working in Decatur at the time, knew Anderson’s parents and their young son who liked "hillbilly" music. Massey was one of the speakers at a luncheon for Anderson.

"I had the privilege of hearing Bill Anderson play for civic clubs and remember hearing him talk of his plans for coming to the University of Georgia," Massey said. "It’s mind-boggling to see what he has accomplished over the years."

The recognition program was sponsored by the university’s music business program. Bruce Birch, a Gainesville native and accomplished Nashville songwriter, is the administrative director of the program.

"Having Bill Anderson come back is a real honor for me, knowing what a legend he is in Nashville," said Birch, who said Anderson had paved the way for songwriters like him.

At an afternoon program, Trey Paris of Gainesville, president of the University of Georgia Alumni Association, presented Anderson with a resolution recognizing his accomplishments.

"His songs have been recorded by such diverse musical talents as Porter Wagoner, James Brown, Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis," Paris said. "Bill Anderson is one of the most decorated songwriters in country music."

Anderson, known as "Whispering Bill" for his gentle, airy vocal style, debuted on the music scene in 1959 with "That’s What It’s Like to Be Lonesome."

His biggest single was in 1963 with his signature song, "Still," which also rose to the top of the pop charts.

Anderson had a number of hits in the 1960s and 1970s, but his style lost favor with fans and he found success in both writing songs and as a television performer and host.

For three seasons, he appeared on the ABC daytime drama "One Life to Live."

Anderson was also popular as a guest on network game shows, including "Match Game" and "Family Feud."

At a time when most men his age would be considering retirement, Anderson still regularly performs on the Saturday night "Grand Ole Opry."

He grabbed Song of the Year honors from the Country Music Association in November for co-writing "Give It Away," a major hit for Strait.

"I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had," Anderson said. "I’m getting to work with these young people and I’m getting a lot of energy from their creativity. Fortunately, they’ve been very nice in accepting what I bring to the table."