Longtime Nashville radio entrepreneur Cal Young passed away Monday at the age of 86.
Young was a white man who brought African-American music to the Nashville airwaves for the first time. He was also a pioneer of country music radio in the Music City.
While serving in the Armed Forces Radio Service during World War II, Young broke into commercial radio with a station called W47NV. Owned by National Life & Accident Insurance Co. of Nashville, it was the first FM station in the country to obtain a commercial license — though it had nothing like the reach of National Life's AM station, WSM.
Young served with the 308th Bomb Wing of the Fifth Air Force, participating in the 1945 invasion of Luzon in the Philippines, and was later attached to several other units in the Pacific as a radio announcer before returning to civilian life in late 1945.
In 1951, Young launched WSOK, the first radio station in Nashville to cater to an African-American audience with an all-black air staff playing rhythm-and-blues and gospel music. In its early years, WSOK reportedly became the first local station to play Elvis Presley's records, which white-oriented stations had shunned. Young sold WSOK in 1957, and its new owner changed the call letters to WVOL — the station that gave a young Nashville woman named Oprah Winfrey her first job as a newsreader in 1971.
By the late 1950s, Young owned a number of stations in the Southeast, some in partnership with iconic Grand Ole Opry advertiser Martha White Flour Mills. In 1957, he launched WENO radio as the first full-time county music station in Nashville. (WSM was the home of the Opry, but it did not have country as its primary format.)
WENO became highly influential on Music Row. Young's son, Jay Young of Nashville, recalls that aspiring country performers such as a youthful Willie Nelson frequently hung out at the broadcast studio.
The late Roger Miller, as he was trying to break into the music business, is said to have pestered Cal Young for a job at the station, Jay Young recalls. Asked why he would not hire the ebullient and witty but unpredictable Miller, the station owner replied: "I was afraid of what he might say on the air!"
On a trip to England in the 1970s, Young encountered an opportunity to buy a London Transport double-decker bus. He shipped it back to Nashville, and the bus became familiar to a generation of Nashvillians as the rolling billboard of WENO, open for tours during public events such as the Iroquois Steeplechase.
After Young sold WENO, its place at 1430 on the AM dial eventually passed to Nashville Public Radio, which now broadcasts public-radio news and talk programs there.
In May of this year, the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters presented Young with its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award.
Surviving Young are his wife, Joan Henshaw Young, and children Jay Young (Barbra), Chuck Young (Deborah) and Babs Young Behar, as well as step-children Jerry Moore (Gina) and Jeanne Talley (Mike), five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Visitation with the family will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday and 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Woodlawn-Roesch-Patton Funeral Home, 660 Thompson Lane. Funeral services will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30 in the Dignity Hall at Woodlawn.
Pallbearers will be Steve Parker, Paul Minor, Chip Throckmorton, Warner McNeilly, Gerry Speir and Boyd Adams. Honorary Pallbearers will be Bill Barry, Don Kern, Sonny Deal, Flip Pitts, Gil Fuqua, Nat Winston, Hank Sanford, Cal Turner, Clark Rollins, Cato Bass and Raymond Unland.
Addendum: Local blog "Dru's Vues" on Cal Young.