McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

Local News

December 9, 2011

McAlester-area man who worked with legends celebrates "Bob Sullivan Day" in Shreveport

McALESTER — A Tannehill resident who’s worked with some of the biggest names in music history has been recognized with a day of his own  — in Shreveport, La.

Shreveport Mayor Cedric B. Glover declared Dec. 3 as “Bob Sullivan Day” in the city and urged “all citizens to celebrate this joyous occasion.”

Sullivan had been invited to Shreveport — the third largest city in Louisiana with a population of nearly 200,000 — for an event at the North by Northwest Louisiana Music Foundation  inducting him into the NXNWLA Museum.

“I’m really thrilled to be in there with Lead Belly,” Sullivan said, referring to the renowned folk singer who had previously been inducted.

 The event also honored Sullivan on his 85th birthday.

An engineer on radio station KWKH and chief engineer for the famed Louisiana Hayride from 1948 though 1958, Sullivan worked with some of the biggest names in music  history near the beginnings of their careers, including Hanks Williams and Elvis Presley.

During the Dec. 3 induction ceremony, Liz Swaine, a noted Louisiana journalist and the executive director of the Shreveport Downtown Development Authority, read the mayor’s  proclamation aloud.

The proclamation noted that Sullivan had been born in Shreveport and started his career as chief engineer at radio station KWKH.

“He also served as chief engineer for the Louisiana Hayride from its beginning in 1948 though 1958, where he engineered Hank Williams’ first performance on the Hayride in 1948 and Elvis Presley’s first performance on the Hayride in 1954,” Glover’s proclamation notes.

Glover also notes that Sullivan worked as an engineer on Dale Hawkins’’ recording of “Susie Q” at the KWKH studios in 1956.

The proclamation also noted that Sullivan “has engineered thousands of recordings from some of the most famous names in country music, including Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Johnny Horton, David Houston and Slim Whitman.

“Whereas Bob Sullivan is still considered one of the best track recording engineers in the business for getting the pure sound of rock n’ roll the way it was recorded in the ’50s, I, Cedric B. Glover, mayor of the city of Shreveport, do hereby proclaim Saturday, Dec. 3, as Bob Sullivan Day,” the proclamation concluded.

Sullivan had started working with Presley at the Hayride shortly after the then 19-year-old truck driver had signed with Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn.

He worked with Hank Williams on a morning radio show on KWKH, before Williams moved to Nashville.

As the chief engineer at the Louisiana Hayride, he worked with the sound system as Williams, Presley, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell and many others gave some of their most incendiary performances.

Sullivan recalled Williams as a likable, down-to-earth man, but also as someone who occasionally radiated the loneliness reflected in some of his classic songs.

“After five minutes, it was like you had went to school with him,” Sullivan said of the camaraderie the two shared. “He was a great guy to pal around with.”

“He was also the lonesomest guy I was ever around,” Sullivan said — a trait reflected in Williams’ timeless classic, “I’m So  Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Williams captured all of his emotions in his stage performances at the Hayride, Sullivan recalled.

“He was the greatest performer I’ve ever seen,” Sullivan said. “It was incredible to watch what he could do to an audience with a four-piece band.”

When the young Presley traveled to Shreveport for his first performance on the Louisiana Hayride, he and band members Scotty Moore and Bill Black first stopped by the KWKH radio station.

“He said ‘I’m supposed to be on the Hayride tonight,” Sullivan recalled.

Sullivan said Presley and his band  didn’t know where the Municipal Auditorium, the site of the Hayride, was located, so they followed Sullivan in their car as he headed over to the site for the night’s show.

Presley performed at the Hayride at various times over the next 18 months. Like other performers, he would get fan mail addressed to either the Hayride or KWKH.

One day, Presley stopped by KWKH and was starting to look through a batch of letters, when Sullivan noticed him sitting at a table with his head down, looking exhausted.

“I said ‘You look beat,’” Sullivan recalled. Presley talked about his grueling touring schedule.

“When I leave here, I’ve got to head to Oklahoma City,” Sullivan recalled Presley telling him.

“I said ‘Why don’t you slow down? Tell them to quit booking you so much.’”

Presley, who not so long before had  still been a truck driver, looked horrified at the notion of turning down work.

“He told me ‘A year from now, nobody will know who Elvis Presley is,’” Sullivan recalled. “He said ‘I’ve to make it while I can.’”

Sullivan chuckled at the thought of how far off Presley’s prediction of a short career had been.

On Friday, Sullivan said Friday he hadn’t expected the honor bestowed on him last week in Shreveport.

Apparently it started when Texas writer Jonathon Vanvoorhees contacted Sullivan to try and get some information about a club Vanvoorhees’ parents had owned in Bossier City, across the river from Shreveport. He also traveled to McAlester to meet Sullivan in person.

As Vanvoorhees learned more about Sullivan’s remarkable career, he asked him if Sullivan could come to Louisiana on Dec. 3 for a get-together with some of his long-time friends.

Sullivan agreed — but said he had no idea what had been planned.

A number of noted Louisiana musicians performed at the Dec. 3 event, including 13-year-old blues guitar prodigy Matthew Davidson and veteran performer Maggie Warwick.

Other performers included the group Airhart, along with the great bass player Joe Osborn and Vernon Rust.

In addition to his long-time friends, Sullivan made some new ones, including Davidson, the young guitarist, and Ken Shepherd, the father of renowned guitar slinger Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

Sullivan had many friends, both old and new, at the event. He said his only regret is that he couldn’t have spent more time with all of them. His family from the McAlester area traveled to Shreveport with him, where members of his extended family in Louisiana also dropped by to see him.

“It just knocked me out,” Sullivan said of the celebration and induction in his honor.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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