|'Fantastic Fred' Burton shares the blues|
|Wednesday, February 15, 2012|
By KEN BECK
Making that “lovely sound in the groovy town” comes second nature to WANT/WCOR deejay Fred Burton, known as “Fantastic Fred” to countless listeners across the Mid-state.
Rhythm and blues scholar Burton, who began his radio career in Korea in the 1960s, has entered his sixth decade of spinning the hits, although these days the music he plays is no longer on 45 rpm records but on compact discs.“I was kind of a pioneer with rock ’n’ roll on FM radio,” said Lebanon native Burton, who rain, snow or fair weather, can be caught on the air Saturdays from 7 p.m. to midnight. “I went on FM five nights a week in the fall of 1971. Everybody else was (playing rock ’n’ roll) AM big time. I told Jack Hendrickson(then owner of the Lebanon radio station), ‘Let’s see how it will do,’ and it took off from there.“I’ve seen the music industry change from the good music to the junk music. The music today doesn’t have any longevity to it like the old-school songs that you can identify with. A lot of music today is all computer generated. There’s not a nice string section or horn section. . . . I play a lot of ’60s and ’70s classics and don’t care for rap. To me, it’s not saying anything. It’s just a bunch of noise.”
Burton has been planting himself in front of the console at the radio studio on Trousdale Ferry Pike most Saturday nights since 1970. The role fits the music man like a glove as he eases into his chair, headset in place and pops a CD into the player. This evening the soulful sounds come from the vocal cords, guitar strings and all the other instruments from such artists as B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor; Solomon Burke, The Gap Band and Marvin Gaye.
The songs Burton plays came straight from his personal collection of 3,000 albums and 350 compact discs. He totes them into the station by the case full.
But his mojo doesn’t really get to going until he speaks effortlessly into the microphone, often rhyming his sentences as he announces the songs and artists or palavers with his fans.
“I developed my own pattern, kind of worked into my style over the years. I’m what you call a personality deejay. Every deejay has his own different personality that they work on,” said Burton, who grew up listening to Nashville late-night legends John R (John Richbourg) and the “Hossman” (Bill Allen) on WLAC.
One of his favorite sayings on the air is “right on, right on.” While giving the weather report he may spout something like “as the breeze blows through the trees, you’ll find 75 degrees around your knees.”
As for the tunes he turns his listeners’ attention to, he describes it as, “It’s uplifting and enjoyable music that you can identify with. Mostly ’60s, ’70s and ’80s classic songs.”
His show that flows with blues, rock ’n’ roll, soul and R&B, connects to a wide audience, and he gets 75 to 100 requests most nights. Fans phone in from such towns as Dickson, Livingston, Shelbyville, Gallatin, Nashville and Bowling Green, Ky.
For all of his long and late hours of sharing his stash of super sounds, Burton was honored last fall in ceremonies at the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation in Memphis.
A plaque he was awarded reads: “In appreciation of your commitment to the Blues Music & Artists you have faithfully played for the past 35 years on WCOR/WANT Radio in Lebanon, Tenn. For that The Jus’ Blues Music Foundation, Inc. Salutes Fantastic Fred Burton, 2011.”
According to Charles Mitchell, executive director, “The foundation strives to preserve the American traditional heritage of blues and soul music. Many of the artists we salute are ignored by the mainstream media but are chittlin’ circuit kings and queens well worthy of recognition.”
WCOR-AM (Wilson County’s Own Radio since 1949) and WANT-FM have been operated by Susie James since late 1993.
“One of the first things I heard when people found out about the new radio station was ‘are you going to bring back “Fantastic Fred”?’ I had met Fred Burton but did not remember hearing his program. We got together, and here he is 19 years later every Saturday from 7 p.m. until ‘The Power Hour’ as he refers to the 11 p.m. to midnight slot,” said James, station owner and general manager.
“Fred is a soft-spoken almost shy gentleman but put him in front of that mic and he comes to life. He loves to give a ‘shout out’ to his regular listeners, and there are a lot of them from all walks of life. Most people love his unique way of talking to the artist during the recorded songs, adding comments that are not really an interruption. Fred provides his own music, and it’s hard to describe his format, you just have to tune in Saturday night to appreciate it,” James said.
Fred Anthony Burton, who graduated from Wilson County High School in 1959, was the son of two schoolteachers and grew up listening heavily to the music of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and The O’Jays. He believes the first record he purchased was “I Only Have Eyes for You” by The Flamingos in 1959.
Burton’s lengthy career in radio began while he was stationed in the U.S. Army in Unchon-ni, Korea, in 1964.
“I was working in the supply area, and a buddy of mine was a deejay at AFKN. I went up to the station one day, and he had me take a voice test, and the program director loved my voice and that started my career off to the races,” Burton recalled.
“After serving in Korea for 13 months, I returned to Lebanon and enrolled at Tennessee State University. I met Clarence Kilcrease, who was the program director at WVOL in Nashville. I worked there part time from 1965 to 1970 during the Sunday night shift from 7 to midnight.”
(It was a buddy at WVOL who gave Burton his nickname of “Fantastic Fred.”)
In 1970, Burton decided to bring his act home and was hired by then WCOR owner Jack Hendrickson.
“Once I got my third-class broadcasters license, I started doing the Saturday afternoon shift from 1 p.m. to signoff. During my tenure in broadcasting, I had a chance to meet Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor and James Brown. James Brown was a personal friend of mine,” he said. “Every time he came to Nashville, we always got together.”
Burton made the acquaintance of most of these acts when they performed their R&B shows in Music City. As a deejay, he received backstage passes, thus he enjoyed close encounters with the stars, also including Ray Charles, Natalie Cole and Aretha Franklin.
Burton even produced concerts in Lebanon, mostly in the 1970s, as he promoted shows here for such singers as Millie Jackson, The Manhattans, Z.Z. Hill, The J.B.s, The Valentines and Johnny Jones.
And music was not his only forte. For 12 years, the graduate of Tyler Barber College, operated Esquire Barber Shop on Market Street where a trim would cost a customer $1.
The businessman was also a politician and community servant. Burton represented Ward 2 as a Lebanon Councilman from 1986 to 2001 and was hired by former Lebanon Mayor Don Fox to be finance manager from 1999 until 2008.
Now retired, Burton and his wife Billie have a son and grandson. When not playing music, he proves to be a serious fisherman going after big bass on the local lakes.
And what about his 11 p.m. to midnight “Power Hour”? What exactly does that mean?
“I call it ‘The Power Hour’ just before I go off. After I go through my official request line from 9 to 10, then from 10 to 11 is just new releases. People get a little humdrum, so I fire ’em up with that ‘Power Hour,’” said “Fantastic Fred” with a grin.
The man intends to “go ahead on” making his own kind of music every Saturday night on the radio, he said, “till I die.” Right on, right on.