11/20/2014 Legendary music event producer Bill Carter advises GW pre-law students

Bill Carter, the legendary former Secret Service agent for President John F. Kennedy whose later music business experience includes managing artists like Reba McEntire and legal representation for the Rolling Stones, recently recounted his remarkable career before the George Washington University Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity at the Marvin Center Amphiteater in Washington, D.C.

But Carter also addressed the anxiety that students naturally feel as they near the end of their college studies.

“Life is not always going to go as you think it will, so expect the unexpected,” he said, then illustrated with examples from his own unexpected experiences following high school graduation in his tiny hometown of Rector, Ark. College not being an option, he joined the Air Force in 1953, then attended Arkansas State University on the GI Bill. Higher education, he said, prepared him for and provided the opportunities that would guide his future.

Deciding to go to law school at the University of Arkansas, Carter first accompanied is brother, who went to Dallas to take a civil service exam. Rather than just sit there, he took it, too.

Broke following 18 months of law school, he was about to take a job as an insurance adjuster (“It paid $450 per month and they furnished you a car. Sounded like heaven to me.”) when he was contacted by the U.S. Secret Service, which had found him through the Civil Service roster in Dallas.

“I wonder what direction my life might have taken had I not taken that test,” Bill told the students. “Now the 26-year-old kid from Rector was in training school in Washington, which included the White House. Never in my wildest imagination growing up in Rector, did I think this kid would ever make it to Washington, much less meet the president of the United States.”

Carter was in Washington on that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, and was sent to the White House immediately following the assassination.

“Those four days still haunt me and will until I die,” said Carter, who was assigned to the Warren Commission investigation in Dallas, and brought Marina Oswald to the commission’s hearings in Washington in March, 1964.

“JFK inspired my generation with new ideas, hope, and vision,” Carter told the students. “He touched and remolded lives, and gave young people the faith that individuals can make a difference to history.”

Devastated by the death of Kennedy—“the most magnetic personality I have ever met, and I have met several”—he left the Secret Service in 1966 and returned to law school and graduated in 1967. But his time in the Secret Service led to future opportunities.

While practicing law in Little Rock in 1969, he was hired, because of his Washington contacts, to represent a young man who was trying to establish a cargo airline. After three years of legal work to change Civil Aeronautics Board regulations, Federal Express was born.

Then in 1973, Bill’s friend Wilbur Mills, the powerful Arkansas Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, asked him to help another friend whose clients were in trouble. And thus began Carter’s work for the Rolling Stones, who had been barred by the State Department from returning to the U.S. because of open drug use and riots by fans at American concerts in 1972.

Carter’s exploits with the Stones are chronicled in books including Chet Flippo’s On the Road with the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards’ Life and Bill’s own memoir, Get Carter.

“Needless to say, I spent a lot of time getting various members of the Rolling Stones out of legal troubles so they could perform in the United States,” he related. “And while I was busy doing that, I also established friendships with some of the most colorful characters that ever walked the planet. Me, a kid from little Rector, Arkansas.”

Bill also shared other adventures stemming from his new entertainment business involvement, most notably his friendship with actor Steve McQueen and the retrieval of his body following his death in Mexico. But besides representing the likes of the Stones, David Bowie, the Bee Gees, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Waylon Jennings and Bill Gaither—to name a few—Bill represented Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1974, bringing him into a confrontation with President Nixon in his White House office.

“None of these opportunities would have come my way had I not been prepared to take on the challenge,” Carter said. “You’ve got to be fearless, and you’ve got to be ready to do what it takes—even if you think the job is beyond your skill.”

Always remember, he instructed, that “hard work creates opportunity.” You never know who you will meet at a job, he explained, and the opportunities that flow from those fortuitous meetings.

But even the best education, he suggested, “is not always enough to be a good and effective lawyer.” While he himself was “never a brilliant lawyer,” he allowed, “I had common sense and knew how to deal with people. That kind of knowledge is a valuable commodity, but you’re not going to learn it in a classroom.”

It’s vital, then, to “get to know your future clients–the ones who will be counting on you to help them. The better you know the big variety of life’s circumstances, the better prepared you will be to relate, and help.”

So “believe in yourself, hold strong to your faith, and know there is a world out there waiting for you to make a positive impact,” Carter concluded. “One person can change the course of history. Be that person. You can do it.”

Noted fraternity president Will Jennings, “Most of the speakers we bring in to discuss what they have done with their careers in law focus on how necessary it is to get into the best law school and work for the best law firm as quickly as possible. With the recent economic recession, those who are interested in law in my generation are always worried about the next several years and are under a lot of strain from mentors and peers who constantly tell us we will be unemployed or underpaid if we don’t follow a career center’s clearly defined plan better than anyone else.”

“But Bill offered the students a different story—one of hope,” added Jennings.

[The Examiner wrote the foreword to Bill Carter’s memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]

Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

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For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams

It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.

The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!

But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.

All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.

But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various examiner.com features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.

And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”

But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.

But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.

But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.

The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.

I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.

“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.

The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.

Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.

Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”

But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.

For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.

Tales of Bessman: Minnie Pearl, Dick Nixon and the Grand Ole Opry House

After finding out Friday that the Grand Ole Opry House has joined the Ryman Auditorium in the National Register, I hastily knocked off a little piece for examiner.com reporting the facts, ma’am, just the facts. Among them was that then President Richard Nixon attended the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974.

I left out that it was nearing the end of Nixon’s presidency, as he would resign on August 9. In his hopelessly awkward, embarrassing and clearly guilt-ridden way, he was blatantly seeking what was likely his last refuge: at best a conservative audience that was still in his corner, at worst a bunch of hillbillies who probably saw him as too liberal. Who else but Roy Acuff introduced him, and he played piano and sang, and Tricky Dick notwithstanding, clumsily clowned with Roy’s yo-yo.

I made my first trip to Nashville two years later, and by the time President George H.W. Bush became the next sitting president to visit the Opry House—for the 1991 CMA Awards show—I was an Opry regular. In fact, I was either four rows in back and two seats to the left of President and Barbara Bush, or six rows back, two seats left. I can’t remember exactly because I was so stoned when I got there, as was my tradition at all black-tie events Nashville. Probably four rows, because I used to sick-joke that two rows closer and I’d have been within strangling distance.

It was at the height of my career then, and the CMA and Opry took care of me good. I do remember that everyone attending the show had submitted their Social Security numbers well in advance, for vetting by the Secret Service. Still, there were no metal detectors, and I didn’t feel like I was being surveilled at all, especially after it dawned on me that by constantly bending over and setting my notebook, pen, or program on the floor and picking them up again, it might well have looked like I was, say, assembling some kind of makeshift weapon.

I ran this thought past my pal Bill Carter, the next day, the Bill Carter who was the ex-Kennedy Secret Service agent who had taken Marina Oswald into protective custody immediately after the assassination, and who is on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir for fixing his and the other Stones’ legal troubles from the 1970s on.

“Oh, they were watching you from the moment you walked in!” Bill reassured me.

I couldn’t find a video of Nixon at the Opry House to post with my examiner.com piece, so I settled on Minnie Pearl’s performance from that night. Here it is again:

“Come to see us at our new house!” Minnie implored. “We’ll treat you so many different ways, you’re bound to like one of them!”

She looks so adorable, doesn’t she? Beautiful in fact. She’d have been 61 then—a year younger than I am now. The hillbilliest person you can imagine, but you know it was total shtick: Born in the small mid-Tennessee town of Centerville, she was the youngest of five daughters of a prosperous lumberman, and graduated from what is now Belmont University in Nashville, then its most prestigious school for young ladies. She majored in theater studies, and taught dance for several years after graduation.

She went on to join a touring theater company out of Atlanta, producing and directing plays and musicals while creating her Minnie Pearl character, which she introduced in 1939, then brought to the Opry the following year. And while she played a hillbilly to the hilt, she stood up for the induction of harmonica legend DeFord Bailey—the Opry’s first African-American performer—into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which finally happened posthumously in 2005.

Minnie was also adored by the likes of Dean Martin and Paul Reubens, who brought his Pee Wee Herman character to a Minnie Pearl tribute show in 1992—a year after she suffered a stroke. I had seen her regularly at the Opry up until then, and always worshipfully said hi.

An Opry regular myself, I was particularly close to Grandpa Jones, Jimmy C. Newman, Skeeter Davis and Porter Wagoner—now also all gone—and Bill Anderson and Riders in the Sky–among the still living.

One time, not long before her stroke in June, 1991, Minnie appeared at the Jim Halsey Company’s annual hang at his Music Row office the afternoon of the CMA Awards. Agent/manager Jim Halsey had worked with everyone from Minnie to Roy Clark, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Hank Thompson, James Brown and the Oak Ridge Boys, and still works with the Oaks.

Jim’s son Sherman was a pal, and a talented and successful music video director and a wonderful guy. Sadly, he died, too, a year and a-half ago. When I got to Jim’s office that afternoon, I immediately hooked up with Sherman, and we both made a beeline to Minnie, who was leaving with her husband Henry Cannon. Sherman would have known Minnie all his life, but he was no less enthralled in her presence as I was. We just stood there, hanging on her every word, beaming ecstatically.

“Did you boys smoke pot?” she finally asked.

“No, Minnie,” I said, “but you can be sure we will before the show!”

Minnie was bedridden following her stroke. At first she was tended to at home. For some reason, I felt compelled to see if I could visit her, and for some reason, they let me. I went out to the house—a large estate home next to the Tennessee Governor’s mansion–but I don’t remember much about the visit.

Soon after, she was moved to a nursing home. My understanding was that Henry was very stern about who could visit her, and that I most certainly didn’t qualify. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

I’d become friendly with Minnie’s assistant, and it was through her that I managed to sneak in to see her every time I was in town, which at that time was three times a year. It was all done very secretly: She’d let me know when was a good time to go, usually mid- to late afternoon, when no one else was there. And sure enough, I’d get there and Minnie would be alone. The nursing staff expected me, and maybe Minnie did, too.

I say maybe, because Minnie was a stroke victim: She was partly paralyzed, and I was never really sure how great her grasp was on reality. I mean, we’d talk about what she’d been doing, and she’d say something like how much Garth Brooks loved her and had been in to see her the day before, which most certainly could have been true—he did in fact name his first daughter Taylor Mayne Pearl Brooks—and that the day before that she’d been in New York, which most certainly wasn’t. And that’s how it was with her: She talked nonstop, going back and forth from presumed reality to assured fantasy, and I had to hold on for dear life not only to keep up but to keep her going.

One time—I think it was the last time–she was in the day room when I got there. She was having a bad day. We started talking and she started crying, and the nurses looked on, like maybe I should leave.

“Oh, he don’t give a shit!” she said, and I had to bite my tongue not to bust up laughing—out of respect, of course, and undying love. They then gave me the ultimate honor of pushing her bed, wheels unlocked, through the hall and back to her room.

It was dark when I left, and as I walked to my rental car, I faced the ultimate horror: Henry!

Henry Cannon was really the perfect Southern Gentleman. Serious and polite, he ran an air charter service for country stars including Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. I’d met him a few times but never really knew him. But I knew he knew me.

I was leaving, he was coming. We met in the parking lot halfway to my car.

“I want to thank you for always remembering Minnie and coming to see her,” Henry said softly. “I know it means a lot to her.”

I was so dumbfounded I don’t remember what I said, or that I said anything.

Minnie died on March 4, 1996, from complications from another stroke. She was 83.

Nixon was 81 when he died almost two years before Minnie. That they were both at the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974 was probably all they had in common.