As the line from a Carl Perkins’ cut from the Class of ’55 album declares, “I was there when it happened.”
For rockabilly fans that is the key to Wink Martindale’s Winking At Life, the new 282 page autobiography from Century Hill Books.
The book covers Wink’s life from the birth in Jackson-Madison County in 1933 to Hollywood at the end of the century.
Written in a series of short takes on various people, events, etc., the book is a surprising review of U. S. pop culture as expressed through music and tv entertainers. Wink Martindale has truly been there when it happened, from the stunning music/radio evolution to the changes in television reflected through the game show phenomena.
As an initially antagonistic 1978 interview began, “Are you going to be proud to tell your grandchildren that you were a game show host?”
Martindale’s answer is affirmative. Readers’ answers will vary. But whatever its long-term significance in TV history, Martindale’s career has certainly reflected 20th Century Americana.
The book is simple. It is a nostalgic reflection on days that seem simpler and a somewhat pleasant surprise that a high school kid from Jackson, Tennessee could through radio and TV rise to fame and rub shoulders with entertainment’s best. It describes home, girlfriends, marriage, children, divorce, remarriage, celebrity ups and downs, and contact with many.
This book acknowledges failures and lauds successes without exposing all the internals involved.
Those wanting a media analysis of the past fifty years will not find it with Wink Martindale. And the “fan” view of Elvis and others will not satisfy some critics. But the “gosh, all in all its been good,” overview has its place.
Wink Martindale has touched many and Winking At Life reminds all who recognize TV names from Bill Cullen to Chuck Barris that we share this culture and these moments.
Martindale has personally hosted nineteen game shows (e.g., Gambit, Debt, Dream Girl, The Great Getaway Game, How’s Your Mother-In-Law, Tic-Tac-Dough, Can You Top This?, etc.).
The photos from radio, TV dance shows and TV game shows as well as other celebrity contacts and events showcase Wink’s life and trigger personal memories for the reader.
Martindale’s career has survived to see “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” bring the game show back to prime time.
For the music fan Winks early radio days with WHBQ Memphis take us to the origin of white artist involvement with black music. Wink Martindale was not the cause nor source, but he was at the source. He walked through the Chisca Hotel doors. He was at WHBQ the night Elvis’ first record was played. He lived in the city that still shakes the world.
Everybody who was there has a story and Wink shares his:
“Dewey Phillips was arguably the most popular deejay in Memphis and the Mid-South. His show was called Red, Hot and Blue – and the title was a perfect fit. He played the red hot hits. But not the so called “pop hits” you might hear on WHBQ during other hours of the day. The early Fifties was still a time of vanilla music. That is, hits by Eddie Fisher, Jo Stafford, Johnny Ray, Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole and Perry Como. Those were among the artists ruling the airwaves of popular music stations. But the winds of change were beginning to blow. Dewey Phillips was a white jock who had gained enormous popularity among black and white teens by concentrating on “race” music, another term for music by Black performers. . .
“Phillips’ ratings were more than triple his nearest competition between 9PM and midnight. He possessed an uncanny ability to pick the hits. Record company executives, from Chicago to New York to LA, knew that if Dewey jumped on a record and started playing it with any regularity, they had a hit.
“So it wasn’t unusual to see Sun Records found Sam Phillips (no relation to Dewey) show up this night with an advance pressing . . .
“It was Thursday night, July 8, 1954. By happenstance I was at the station that night showing some friends the studio. And they were excited about meeting Dewey. Little did they know they were going to get more than they bargained for. From the first playing of the record (Elvis’) the phone lines lit up . . .
“It was only a relatively short time later that we realized the symbolism of that evening at WHBQ in the old Chisca Hotel on South Main Street. . . “
Wink in 1956, the star year, would get to interview Presley on the Memphis TV show “Dance Party.” In 1959 Martindale, with a new show in California, would interview Presley by phone from Germany.
Their contact would continue through 1976.
Martindale sees the world through 50’s eyes. Thus, he doesn’t approve of what he sees now.
“. . . I consider myself anything but a prude!” he declares in the book’s final paragraphs, “But when a mom and dad cannot risk gathering their brood around the TV set without first checking a show’s rating, who’s to blame? . . . modern day radio and television is reaping millions and setting new levels of filth for folks to live down to. . .
“Where does it end? Unfortunately the new 21st Century bodes no better. Only worse. Until those who yell from the rooftops, as in that famous scene from the movie Network, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more,’ and mean it! Only when a grass roots effort takes such a large and powerful stand that the largest of advertisers . . . feels the pinch right where it hurts – bottom-line profits – will a turn for the better begin to emerge. Winking at Life, the CD series, is intended as a modest effort at trying to create a little equity on the playing field.”
Thus says Martindale!
For West Tennesseans Winking At Life will have appeal because of the recognized names and events from Jackson. There is also mention of Wink’s involvement with Jackson’s WJAK, its first station to be programmed for a black audience.
For rockabilly fans there are some interesting insights into the early days, Sun shows, etc. that underscore how much was changing in the mid 50’s for radio and music. There is also a reminder of the edge. “I came away from that experience with a couple of visions burned into my memory, writes Martindale, “One was of the half-gallon jugs of vodka that Carl Perkins and his band consumed that week between shows, without it ever affecting their performance! (Carl would later give up booze altogether).” p. 62.
The challenge for those raised in the 50’s is the same. Much of today’s culture traces itself to the changes brought in the postwar 1940’s and 1950’s. We may not like much of what we see today, but we can not deny that our generation started much of this. Some of us think it has gone too far. Is that not what our elders warned?
Yet there was much that needed changing. We opened the world to pop U. S. culture. And we have lived to see the results.
Now as we attempt to call it back. . . we sound as our 1950’s parents.
Pure rock is a no consequence art.
Trouble is…there are consequences.