By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
As a young man growing up in western Tazewell County, Va., Don Whitt was pressed into service as the pianist at the Linkous Chapel Freewill Baptist Church on Dry Fork.
“My dad led the singing at the church,” Whitt, 77, of Bluefield, Va., said of his father, Carl Whitt. “Once in a while, if the piano player didn’t show up, dad would tell me to sit down and play. Since dad led the singing, you had better be ready if he called you to play, so I was always ready.”
When he wasn’t leading the singing at church, Carl Whitt worked as a coal miner in the Bandy area. For a while, Carl & Faye (Pruett) Whitt, lived with Whitt’s grandpa at Sinking Waters. “There was a pond there that would be full of water one day, then just drain itself,” Whitt said. “That’s why they called it Sinking Waters.”
The Whitt’s moved to Dry Fork when Don was young. “We used to walk 2 or 3 miles to church on Sunday,” he said. “I was little then, and it seemed like a long way.”
Whitt attended school in Tazewell, Va. He got his first taste of the stage at age 12 or 12 when a group of puppeteers put on a show for the school. He said that some of the students were invited to play with the puppets, and Whitt discovered he had a natural knack for puppets.
“I was hot stuff,” he said.
Not long after that, a young lady from another local church caught Don’s eye when he attended a church play. After that first sight, Whitt started attending church plays on a regular basis. He kept going to church plays and singings even after he graduated from Tazewell High School in 1952.
“Peggy and I courted for about four years, and then we got married when I was 21 and she was 19,” he said. “She loved music and singing as much as I did. She was independent, so if there was a church singing that she wanted to go to, she was going. If I wanted to be with her, I had to go to. But we both loved singing.”
The Whitts were married for 39 years until Peggy Whitt died of cancer 16 years ago. “I really was destroyed when she told me she had cancer,” he said.
After graduating from high school, Whitt started working at WRIC-AM Radio in Richlands, Va. “I was a disc jockey, but every time the radio went off the air, I loved going back in the back and try to fix it.”
In order to secure extra pay, Whitt attended Grantham School of Electronic Engineering in order to get his radio/telephone license. Whitt said that Claude Van Dyke had wanted to hire his (Whitt’s) brother to work as a repairman at his business, Van’s Radio and TV.
“My brother wanted to travel, so he turned Claude down,” Whitt said. “He got a job driving a milk truck. Claude hired me to install antennas, hook up televisions and do repairs. That was back in the black & white days when you had to do everything.”
Whitt discovered that he really enjoyed working in radio and TV, and went into business for himself. He and two partners opened a TV shop in Tazewell and were doing a good business. That all changed in 1956. “All of a sudden I got a letter that started out: ‘Greetings,’ and my number came up in the draft,” Whitt said.
Whitt sold his share in the business and started making preparations to enter the military, but when he took his physical examination, he failed it due to poor hearing. “I was disappointed,” he said. “I wanted to go into the Army so I could get a good education. As it was, I went to RCA, Zenith and Sylvania to learn how to repair televisions, and then in 1958, they came out with transistors.”
Whitt continued with his education in electronics, earning first his second class license, and studied for his first class license test. “I had to drive all the way to Norfolk, Va., to take the first class test,” Whitt said. “I was just a little old kid from the country who didn’t know anything. I drove up there on a Sunday, and when I went up to take the test the next day, it was closed for a holiday. I didn’t know that businesses closed on a holiday.”
Soon after he passed the test and got his first class license, Whitt answered an ad in the newspaper for an engineer at (then) WHIS-TV. “Ken Dick hired me in 1958, and I stayed for 11 years until I opened my own shop up in Bluefield, Va.,” Whitt said. “Cecil (Surratt) was working at the station then too. When I didn’t have anything else to do, I used to go into the studio and play the piano. Cecil liked the way I played, and he asked me to sit in with the Swing Kings on the Country Jamboree.
“When Christmas came around, Cecil asked me if I would play with them for the Community Christmas Tree,” Whitt said. “That was in 1958 and I’ve played every show since then.”
“When I first went to the station, I thought all these guys I was working with were big, famous stars,” Whitt said. “Guys like Cecil, Gordon Jennings, Buddy Pennington, Smitty Smith, Ray Brooks, O.C. Young and Mel Barnett were on television every day. I thought they were stars, but the people they worked with at the station didn’t pay any attention to them, like you’d think they were just like the rest of us.”
Whitt said that early in his career, he tried to blend into the background. “I just wanted to hide behind a curtain and play,” he said. “Ray (Brooks) was the comedian and I was the piano man. It wasn’t important for me to be recognized. I would just blend into the background. In the early days, Cecil (Surratt), Smitty (King Edward IV Smith) and Gordon (Jennings), were the stars, but when Mel (Street) came along, he was the biggest. We didn’t have any stars who were bigger.”
Street, who broke into the country music big time with a string of hits including “Borrowed Angel,” “Smoky Mountain Memories,” and many more hits had a hard time dealing with the pressures of success. “The road was tough on Mel,” Whitt said. “He called me several times just to talk. He would just have finished a show, had pockets full of money, but none of the people around him who he cared for to share the excitement with. He asked me several times to join him, but I had my own business here. He was like a lonely man.” Street took his own life on Oct. 21, 1978, his 43rd birthday.
Whitt through both feet into blending into the background at WHIS-TV. He played on the WHIS-TV baseball team — the WHIS Bums — the basketball team and the bowling team — all of which were named the Bums. He also played regular show dates with the Swing Kings, and helped the television station improve its on-location productions.
“The station was located in the third floor of the Arts and Crafts Center then,” Whitt said. “We found out that our camera cables were long enough to reach from the studio into the Ramsey School auditorium. We were able to take cameras over there and broadcast the Community Christmas Tree shows from there life. We started doing that in 1960. It seems like a lifetime ago. There’s a lot of good memories.”
Whitt completed his 54th year of performing at the Community Christmas Tree party on Friday. “Cecil invited me to be part of the show,” he said. “He was one of my closest friends, and we were as close as anyone could be, but we could practice three numbers all night long getting ready to go into a recording studio, and as soon as we would start to record, he would start playing three totally different songs. You just never knew when you were performing with Cecil.”
Whitt has managed to bridge the past with the present. Mark Pennington, a son of the late Buddy Pennington, one of the truly great musicians with the Swing Kings, performed with Whitt and Larry Gilpin for the 2012 Community Christmas Tree show.
“The music has always been a big part of the shows,” Whitt said. “After 50-some shows, it hasn’t changed much over the years. I just wonder if the public really does appreciate it.” Actually, the biggest round of applause came during the concert when the crowd learned how many years Whitt had dedicated to the program.
With a demanding business, an on-going commitment to his family and his church, a busy performance schedule and an on-going commitment to the community, it’s difficult to believe that Whitt is also an avid golfer who has played on golf courses throughout the region.
“I don’t golf as much any more like I did up until a few years ago, but I kept track of all the courses we played and how many times I played them,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of courses through the years.”
Whitt still gathers his friends for an annual concert as part of the Evening Shade Concert Series where his son, Scott Whitt, often serves as his sound man. He also performs for the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce and other civic groups when needed.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org