Texas Radio Legend Phil Parr Dies, Tells His Own Story
October 12, 1940 – April 22, 2015 musician, studio engineer, blind handyman
I am writing a little something here about one of my favorite subjects, that being myself. I have started a full biography and maybe someday I will even finish it. Anyway, here are a few pertinent facts about me for your perusal since you came to my web site.
At present, I live with my wife, Luan Tatum, and our two dogs Sarah and Frankie in Lufkin Texas. Now, how I got here is certainly a mystery to me. We have seven acres inside the loop, a very nice house and another building containing my recording studio and wood shop.
At this writing, May 13, 2008, I am 67 years of age and totally blind. I was born without benefit of eye sight in 1940 on October 12, a Saturday. By the way, my wife, the journali sm major pointed out, “being born without benefit of sight” is certainly a misleading statement. The doctor had sight, my mother had sight and the nurses had sight. As a strict fact, the only one without benefit of sight was, you guessed it, me. According to my sainted Mother, Georgia Helen Pack Parr, I began attempting to make an appearance while she was in a movie theater. What I am saying is, ironies began appearing in my life from an early age.
My first six years weren’t that much different from other children born during that era. I was allowed to run and play, ride a tricycle, and get hurt just like my friends. When I was only two years old my family moved from St. Louis Missouri to San Antonio Texas. My Father worked for the National Biscuit Company for 47 years and they transferred us to San Antonio in December 1942. I can only remember one thing that happened in St. Louis before I was two.
I won’t bore you with the details but suffices to say, my memory is quite good and goes a long way back. I clearly remember our first house in San Antonio, it was on Magnolia Drive and I think, 104 was the address. This was during the years of World War two and I remember air raid warnings quite clearly. Our air raid warden was Billie Wade’s daddy, Billy senior. We got under the kitchen table for a time and I never really understood just why but it was fun.
My immediate family consisted of my brother Wallace Eugene born September 29, 1930. My sister, Marcia Jane born May 19, 1937. My Father, Harry Heiner Parr born November 24, 1904, and of course my afore mentioned Mother, born April 13, 1905. My big brother, which is how I thought of him, was also born totally blind. Somehow in those early years it seemed perfectly normal to be a family with blind children. After all, didn’t all families have some blind folks hanging around. At the time I didn’t realize that’s how I felt but looking back, I just didn’t seem that different from the other children I played with. My sister Marcia had good sight and that also just seemed normal. After all, She was a Girl and Girls were very different from me, a happy little boy. My brother Wallace had been given a dinner bell to play with which he had outgrown and I loved the sound of that bell. It sits on the mantel in our living room to this day along with many other bells I collected along the way.
Let me tell here that my brother decided to take his own life in December 1956. He was 26 and I was 16 and I still miss him very much. On his birthday every year I spend some time reflecting on the times we had and just what He might think of what has happened since his death. I will talk more about Wallace later you can be sure. Times on Magnolia drive were for the most part happy. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and keeping us all safe and my red wagon rolled very good. That wagon was also a hand me down from big brother Wallace and I loved it very much. I went all over with one foot in the wagon and one foot pushing us along. We had a big floor model Philco radio in the living room and we listened to it seems all day and late in to the night. Wallace’s chair was just beside the radio and he did the tuning for the next program we listened to. I have come to realize just how much Wallace is responsible for shaping my life in so many ways. So, let me name the ways. He got me hopelessly hooked on radio. He introduced me to country music and it’s still my favorite. He also showed me how to smoke and drink and, I certainly did a lot of both in my life.
One more Magnolia Drive story and I will move on. This house was a duplex and we lived in one side. In the beginning the other side was occupied by the owner, Margaret Johnston, her mother and her son. When we moved there in 1942 a fellow named Al Dexter had a hit called Pistol Packing Momma and Miss Margaret played it over and over. At age two I knew all the words and yes, still remember them. I use to sit in my swing and sing them at the top of my voice along with many other songs I knew at the time.
Part Two: The Blind School Years.
In September 1946 my parents took me to the Texas School for the Blind in Austin, 80 miles from home. At that time they didn’t have much choice as that is just what you did with blind children in those days. After all, Wallace had started there in January of 1943 and done well for the most part. His grades were certainly good and he was well received by faculty and students alike. I was told some very funny Wallace stories in later years but mostly He did quite well. So, no reason little Phil shouldn’t do fine at school, wrong, braille book breath. As this narrative proceeds I will tell stories of good times at the blind school but, for the most part, it was a disaster. I hated it and rebelled from the time I arrived in 1946 tell I left for the last time in 1958 at age 17.
My first house Mother, as she was called, was Abby Young or, our name for her, crabby Abby. She was an ignorant spiteful old Lady with much more responsibility then She should ever have been given. She was in charge of 25 to 30 small blind boys ranging in age from 6 to probably 10. Now, I do understand this was a daunting task at the least but she made a bad situation much worse than it should have been. First, she should never have been left with all she had to do by herself. In this day and time the parents would never accept this arrangement. The only thing that kept us going is, the girls’ house Mother was even worse. We were all in one long room with little beds in rows and sets of lockers along the wall. As many blind children are, I was an eye puncher. There were two holes in my face that served no purpose other then being good resting places for my little fists. I guess I kept my hands in my eyes until probably age 9 or 10. This caused many problems as they tried several ways to break me of that habits.
The building where we were housed and attended classes was called cottage K. I remember many weekends sitting in that little chair at the head of my bed while the others were out playing. I was being punished for something but, I don’t remember what it was. Like prisoners do, we adapted to the situation and had some good times there. I made some friends and began learning Braille and other things. Actually I thought I was handling this school thing pretty well until the end of my second year. That is when Miss Haygood, my second grade teacher informed me, she was keeping me another year. I thought I had them all fooled but, I suppose not. I just couldn’t believe this tragedy was befalling me, another year in K. Of course I couldn’t read braille and still can’t, but, what the hell, that’s not a good reason for failing me. When you went to the third grade you had classes in the main building and got to hang out with the big kids. Being held back broke my heart and my spirit so I just quit. If they wanted to play hard ball well, I would show them.
I finally made it to the third grade and actually did quite well there. The teacher was Lena Louis and she was a hard woman but seemed to like me. Fourth grade was however, a different story. My inadequacies became apparent here and I began a long period of failing. By then I was also in cottage F and had much trouble there.
The first year in F we had a very gentle house Mother named Miss Shaden. She had played piano in movie theaters before talking pictures and really played very well. I learned the tune to many songs listening to Her play. She retired during the year and then we got the house Mother from Hell. I’ll be dammed if the next year they didn’t move old Miss Young up to F and I had her another two years. Things just seemed to get progressively worse and I became increasingly rebellious. I did manage to slide thru the fourth, fifth and sixth grades without being kept back. I remember at the end of each year I did much praying for forgiveness of my sins and vowed to do better next year.
Since I couldn’t read nor write Braille, doing better was not an option. In the fifth grade we learned multiplication plus more math and Texas history and I did well at all. I was passed from the seventh to the eighth grade but, sent back just after the first quarter. So, I repeated the seventh, failed the eight and moved on to, what was at that time, high school. Between my first and second year in grade eight I had my eyes removed. Now, that might sound like a terrible thing but, for me, it was necessary. I had acme very bad and my eyes looked awful from being pushed back in my head.
When I came back in 1956 I was free of acne and looked much better. I also was older then all my class mates so, by default the leader. I found a girl friend, my first serious one and had a pretty good time my last two years. Problem was, I wasn’t learning anything accept how to tune a piano.
In 1956 myself and four friends started a little band we called the Swing Kings. In truth we did anything but swing but what the hell, a good name for a band. You know, in 1954 the music changed and so called rock and roll was discovered. In the early days it was a kind of country, black, blues mix and that is what the Swing Kings tried to play. I had taught myself along with a little help from my friend, Tom, how to kind of play upright bass. I also had a public address system of sorts, so they let me in the band and I announced the songs. We played dances all over Austin and even out of town some. This made me enough money to buy cigarettes and pay someone to take my dish duty for the last year. I also got something to eat before every
job. Of course by then I had fallen hopelessly in love with radio and when we weren’t using the amp for dances we played disk jockey with it.
For Christmas one year my Father made me a set of turntables and a little mixer. We would put a speaker out on the porch and sit in the room and pretend we were on the radio. It was several years before my dream of being a for real disc jockey actually came true.
Part Three: The Blind School to Polly.
This period of time somehow seems to my recollection much longer than it really was. It lasted only from the spring of 1958 until November of 1962 but, much happened in that time.
I made no secret to anyone who would listen, the fact that I was not going back to the school for the blind in the fall of 1958. I mean, no amount of pressure from my Father, and believe me there was plenty, was going to sway me. Of course the powers that be at the school knew this so, they sent a letter saying they didn’t want me back. Dad tried to get me to call old Bill Allen, the alcoholic superintendent of the blind school, and say I would do better if they just would give me another chance. I was tired of lying and I was not going to do any better, how could I, I couldn’t read nor write. My Father begged, roared, tried subtle persuasion but, nothing was going to send me back to that school again. From the spring of 1958 until February of 1959 I just did nothing. Oh, I tuned the pianos at the church where we went but mostly just dreamed, smoked and rocked. In early February my friend Russell Stephens called me and told about his job on the sales crew from the Light House for the Blind, selling brooms. I asked if maybe they could use a genius like me and sure enough, there was an opening for a fellow with just my qualifications.
I started in February and by the early summer of that same year I was running the sales crew. I had bought a truck, conned the light house in to lending me some money, and had two crews of fellows selling and stealing under me. I hired one of the men’s wives to drive for me and well, we sort of fell in lust. In the fall of that same year, 1959, we ran off to Corpus and did just what one would expect of us. We spent all my money and by Christmas I was back at home thankfully, with out the girl.
The year 1960 is kind of a blur now. I went back to Austin for a while, we moved to San Antonio and then back to Austin and I guess ended up in Houston. By we I mean some friends of mine or at least they were at the time. We did a lot of drinking and smoking but, somehow I survived that year. In December a friend of mine and I went to Austin to do some drinking and maybe sell a few brooms and like that. Well, during that year we had been given some merchandise by the Lighthouse in Austin and somehow never paid for it. Old Miss Webber, Lighthouse director, had me arrested and I spent a couple of hours in jail. Looking back on all that, what a good song that would have made.
Early 1961 found me working for George Wright on what was called the out of town crew. Reason it was called that is, they worked mostly out of town. That lasted until the spring when my friend Henry beat the shit out of the sighted driver. For some reason they fired the both of us and once more, I was stuck in the middle again. Henry and I, for some reason, hitchhiked to Dallas in hopes of finding work there. The second day when the landlady asked for more money we told her we were broke. She asked if we could do anything to earn our keep and I said I was a good handyman. I spent the next five days oiling, cleaning and sealing window fans for her. She finely told us it was time to leave and gave us a carton of cigarettes and 10$ each and took us out to the highway.
We hitchhiked back as far as Austin, stopped at John and Jo Helen’s for the night and guess who was there- My old high school girl friend who had got her a new boy friend when I ran off to Corpus with the fellow’s wife. I had broken Her heart but, she did spend some time with me and we had a fun summer. That fall I went back to Houston and moved in with a couple I knew who were in the door-to-door broom business. At Christmas that year we all went to Austin to visit and a wonderful thing happened while I was there. I stayed with John and Jo Helen and on their back porch was an electric bass and amp. This fellow was behind on the notes and hid the rig out there for safe keeping. I called Him and made a deal to catch up the payments and keep them up from then on. I took the bass and amp home and taught myself to play it and the rest, as they say, is history.
By March of 1962 the couple had moved out and I had an apartment all to my self. I was playing every night and making fair money, more than I had ever earned before. Then there was the abundance of female companionship. Ah yes, the summer of ‘62 was the best so far, by far.
In September of that year I was playing at a club called the Blue Angel with a fair guitar player and a kind of drummer. One Saturday morning the owner of the club called and asked if I wanted to hire the guitar player from the Utah Carl television show. Well sure, so the next night I fired the fellow I had and Herbie went to work with me. He was kind of famous there in Houston and he got me on the television show besides that. Truth to tell, He probably wasn’t much better than the player I had but he could sing harmony and was much more into the music business.
Part Four: Molly, My First Wife.
In November of 1962 one of my girl friends, Molly Williams, came and told me she was pregnant with my child. Like the good little Baptist boy I was, I agreed to marry her and, right away. We were married on November 24 1962 at my sisters home and by her then preacher husband. I knew at the time of the marriage I was making a mistake but, I thought I should make the best of my fate and pay for my sins. Somehow it never dawned on me just how long I might be paying for those perceived sins. I finally obtained a divorce from her in June of 1976 but much transpired during that time.
Mollie or Polly as she prefers to be called came with a child, Sheila who I later adopted. I regretted that move later not because of Sheila but because of the actions of Her Mother. Anyway, I am getting way ahead of my self. Polly was indeed, pregnant with my child, George, born June 20 1963. So, a little family and I suppose a fairly happy one thru the sixties and early seventies.
In late August of that year I began buying two hours each Saturday afternoon on the radio station licensed to Texas City, called KTLW. I then was suppose to resell the time to sponsors and maybe make a profit. As one might suspect I didn’t sell much and quickly became indebted to the station. In early 1964 they decided to hire me and let me work off the debt and make a salary besides. Sometime that same year, Bill Legrand, a new manager came and made me program director. I quit a couple of times but basically worked there until 1970. In retrospect it wasn’t much of a radio station but, it got me in the business and we can’t all start in New York. Also sometime in 1964 a fellow named Red Walling called from a new place named the Western Club wanting to hire me so I played music there until I moved to Lufkin in 1972. Like I said, much happened during those years but what I did mostly was, worked my ass off trying to get ahead in life. We bought new cars and houses and I suppose had a pretty good time. I got religion, lost religion, drank much too much and learned how to smoke marijuana during those years.
I turned 30 in 1970 and began contemplating moving out of that big city. I thought I could do better as a big fish in a little pond and you know how that old saying goes. At the and of April 1972 we sold our big house, packed up a large U-Haul truck and made the move to Lufkin. I had no idea what to expect when I moved here but it worked out well. Two weeks after moving I was doing mornings on the country station KSPL in Lufkin or actually licensed to Diboll. Off and on for the next 12 years I did everything at that station. I was manager for a long while and I did every shift and even acted as chief engineer for a time. For most of those 12 years I suppose my life revolved around that radio station. Looking back that seams like a monumental waist of time but, what the hell. As Willie would say, there’s nothing I can do about it now.
Part Five: My Second Marriage.
In the summer of 1973 I needed an over night person and hired a girl named Terry Dossett. She is a very bright lady and, you guessed it, I fell in love. Of course my then wife Polly discerned my feelings and made me get rid of her. Maybe the way she could tell was by my rapid breathing, I really don’t know. In 1976 Terry and I hooked back up and married in August of that year.
You know, when you get older how time seems to move so much faster. Well, that’s how this little biography is going. In 1984 I left that station for the last time, and went to work at an agency for a while. I worked at another station here in town and in the summer of 1985 began working playing music at a restaurant. That little job lasted me through my second divorce and the hooking up with my now wife, Luan. Terry and I split in October of 1986 and Luan and I started seeing each other in February 1987. I stayed at the restaurant until the and of 1988, took a year off to do an album and at the beginning of 1990 started the daily version of American classic country. I did that until January 31, 1997. I suppose one might say, I’ve been out of work since then. Luan and I married August 16, 1991, a palindrome year if I ever saw one. We had just completed our house and went to Vegas to do the deed. We still live in our little house on Southwood Drive but, in 1999 we built an additional structure that has a pool bath, my recording studio and, my wood shop.
I know, we are moving along fast now. You know, writing that stuff about the late fifties was fun. One thing now, maybe I have it all straight in my mind for a change. In 2002 damn, another palindrome year, we started doing the Blind Handyman Show. In 2003 I started Blind Like Me and still do both shows today. It’s 2008 now and I am married to a lady I love very much and having the best time of my life. I left out many stories so, maybe I will go back and fill in some blanks as this thing goes along. One thing is for sure, you know a lot more useless facts about me than you did when you clicked on this site. Anyway, thanks for visiting my little web site and before you leave buy some music, I need the money.
All monies spent on my CD’s goes to feed hungry blind people in Lufkin, Texas.
– Written by Phil Parr who died on Wednesday April 22nd in Lufkin. He was 74 years old, born October 12, 1940, in St. Louis Missouri, but lived most of his life in Texas.