It was Sunday, Dec. 13, 1970, and our Kansas State men’s basketball team was heading to Nashville for a game with Vanderbilt. We were 2-2 on the season and still celebrating our 75-74 victory over Wichita State from the night before on a game-winning shot in Ahearn Field House by Bob Zender with 4 seconds remaining on the clock.
Little did I know at the time that this three-day road trip would provide me with a lifetime of memories? Howard Liebengood met me at the hotel when we arrived. Howard was a huge K-State sports fan, and graduate, as well as my best friend and fraternity brother from college. He and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, of Watergate fame and now a TV and movie star became best friends in law school. Both graduated from Vanderbilt in 1967. We had visited Howard and his wife Dee that summer in August and spent time with Fred and his family as well. Fred lived in Nashville and was an assistant U.S… attorney, while Howard had just started his career with a local law firm.
Thompson was the campaign manager for Republican U.S. Senator Howard Baker’s re-election campaign in 1972 and was minority counsel to the Senate Watergate committee in its investigation of the scandal (1973-74). Liebengood became a member of Thompson’s team. Fred and Howard shared many of their Watergate stories with me and both provided a detailed account during their visit to K-State in 1975 when Fred was featured in a lecture series on campus. I still have Fred’s autographed copy of his book “At That Point in Time,” published in 1975.
Thompson’s appointment as minority counsel reportedly upset President Richard Nixon who believed Thompson was not skilled enough to interrogate unfriendly witnesses and would be out foxed by committee Democrats. But Thompson’s team discovered the White House tapes, which brought down Nixon. When the Watergate investigation began to pick up speed, tapes revealed that Nixon remarked to his then-Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, “Oh… Thompson, he’s dumb as hell”.
Liebengood told me that he was scheduled to be at the hearing when former White House aide Alexander Butterfield was being questioned under oath, but he sent Don Sanders another team member instead. Thompson reported in his book that Sanders questioned Butterfield and said, “John Dean has testified that at the end of one conversation with the president he was taken to a side of the Oval Office and addressed by the president in a very low voice concerning a presidential exchange with Colson about executive clemency. Do you know of any basis for the implication in Dean’s testimony that conversations in the Oval Office are recorded?”
Butterfield then revealed that all conversations were taped. Three days later, in front of a nationally televised audience, Thompson asked Butterfield the famous question, “Mr. Butterfield were you aware of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?” The rest is history. Nixon’s nasty remark about Thompson’s ability would come back to haunt him since Thompson’s group uncovered the tapes that eventually led to Nixon’s demise. According to National Public Radio, Thompson’s questions and the discovery of the tapes were “a turning point in the investigation.” In the end, Nixon was the one who was “dumb as hell,” and not Fred.
Following a brief visit in the lobby, I told Howard that I had 25 complimentary tickets for the game and asked if he could round up a crowd to sit behind our bench. When we arrived for the game, there was Howard and Fred, with some of their fellow classmates from Vanderbilt Law School as they cheered us on to victory.
Howard died of a sudden heart attack in 2005. Thompson gave the eulogy and I had a chance to visit with him after the funeral. He still remembers the night he and Howard led the cheering section at the Vanderbilt game. Whenever I see Fred promoting those TV advertisements for reverse mortgages or watch one of his movies, I don’t reflect on his fame. I think about his K-State basketball connection as a raving fan behind our bench in 1970. Fred’s next movie “Unlimited” hits the theaters next year. His character is based on Harold L. Finch of Lee’s Summit, Mo. Finch is a former Apollo space program engineer, author and motivational speaker.
The Thompson-Liebengood cheering section must have inspired the team because we defeated Vanderbilt 81-74 with a pesky man-to-man, in-your-face-Hartman-defense and held the Commodores to only a 38 percent from the field. Our guys shot 52 percent from the field and six players scored in double figures. Needless to say, Coach Hartman was in a jovial mood the next day when our players and coaches were treated with a tour of RCA studios and met with guitar legend and record producer Chet Atkins.
Atkins left the KWTO radio station in Springfield, Mo., to become the manager of operations at RCA in Nashville in 1968. He’s credited with upgrading country music from three-chord hillbilly instrumentation, by adding strings, keyboards and multiple vocal tones during recording sessions. He bought up the contracts of Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley from Sun Records and produced more than 45,000 recordings that made RCA Studio B the most hit-generating studio on Music Row.
The team gathered around Atkins as he greeted us in his large office at RCA. He was smoking his trademark cigar and said, “I see where you beat the Commodores butts last night.” Following some small talk, he invited us to take the tour. As we left his office, I told our players, ‘guys, you just met the greatest guitar player in the world.’ Three of our black athletes smiled and said, “Coach, Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitar player in the world.” I think David Hall said Wes Montgomery was the greatest.
As our group was leaving the building, K-State’s longtime play-by-play announcer Dev Nelson and I asked if we could sit in on a live recording session. We got the OK and our guide led us down the hall of RCA’s Studio B, which has now become a shrine and museum. We learned that in addition to Elvis, the list of artists who recorded there included the Everly Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Dottie West, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Much to our surprise, we were led into a studio where Dolly Parton and Porter Wagonor were recording. They had just taken a break, and Dev and I sat quietly in two chairs about 15 feet away. Dev couldn’t get his eyes off Dolly and she gave him that big Dolly smile.
As we left the session, Dev kept saying to me, “Boy, isn’t that Dolly something?” I knew what he meant, when he referred to something. I think he was really thinking what I was thinking — some things.
Dolly was one of 12 children who grew up in Locust Ridge, Tenn., and became Porter Wagenor’s sidekick. She appeared on his TV shows from 1967-75 before becoming a star herself. Whitney Houston’s hit “I Will Always Love You” was written by Dolly for Porter Wagenor.
I recently watched one of Dolly’s Bio Bites on YouTube where she reminisced how she learned to drive in Nashville. She said on her way to her first recording session at RCA’s studio B, she hit the back end of a bus. Then, she drove her blue Chevy station wagon into the side of the RCA building, turned off the motor, and went to the session. When she came out of the session, Chet Atkins said, “hell, someone ran into our building,” and Dolly had to confess that it was her.
RCA studio B is no longer used to record music. It serves as one of Nashville’s real treasures and is located at the corner of 17th Avenue South and Roy Acoff Place. Tours depart from the Country Music Hall of Fame‘s main entrance in downtown Nashville. If you’re ever in Nashville, take the tour. And, as you enter the building and view the portraits of all the country legends on the wall, remember this is where Dev met Dolly during December of 1970.
Years later, Dev often talked about that recording session with Dolly in Nashville, and he was still saying, “Boy, that Dolly is something.” The Nashville trip inspired Dev to take up the harmonica. Later in the season, he asked me if I’d give him a harmonica lesson on one of our long bus trips to Oklahoma. Dev purchased a brand new shinny Hohner C harmonica. We were both in the back of the bus ready for the lesson, when Dev said, “I better go ask Coach Hartman if it’s OK for us to play our harmonicas on the bus.” Dev moved to the front and tapped Coach Hartman on the shoulder. Hartman always sat in the front seat near the driver. Dev said, “Coach, would it be OK if Larry and I play our harmonicas on the bus?” Hartman looked at Dev and said, “Dev, there’s one instrument I can’t stand and that would be a (damned) harmonica.”
Dev retreated to the back of the bus and told me, “We better wait until we get to the hotel.” The press box at Bill Snyder Family stadium is named for after Dev. He was the gentlest person I’ve ever met and we had some great times together. I even got to do some color announcing with him on the radio for K-State home basketball games my graduate assistant year in 1967. Dev grew up in Marquette. He told me that when he was a young boy, he’d get a nickel if he’d whistle a tune while standing on the street corner for the folks who walked by.
Dev, who did play-by-play for K-State from 1954-75, died at age 66 in 1993. Dev is known by Wildcat fans for a tongue-twister phrase he would often use when K-State was in a tight game and the Ahearn noise was deafening. He’d say, “folks, this game is a real rip-snortin-hootenanny, double-barrelled, deep-dish dilly.” There’ll never be another Dev. He was the best. Thanks, Dev, for all the great memories.
Coach Hartman may not have liked harmonicas, but he loved country music. He and I had an opportunity to sit in on a recording session at RCA with songwriter and musician Nat Stuckey. Stuckey had a rich baritone voice and had been a disc jockey before signing with RCA in 1968. Coach Hartman and I were like two little kids in a candy store as we sat in the studio while Stuckey recorded. As I recall, Stuckey was so impressed with Hartman’s knowledge of country music that he invited us to lunch after the session. This was a very memorable moment for both of us
Stuckey’s best-known hit “Waitin in the Welfare Line” was recorded by Buck Owens. Shortly before his death in 1988, Stuckey co-wrote Randy Travis’ hit song “Diggin Up Bones.” I believe Hartman’s favorite was Stuckey’s recording of “It’s a rainy night in Georgia” from his Country Fever Album that became part of our record collection when we returned to Manhattan.
During a previous trip to Nashville, I had an opportunity to meet Grammy winner and Country Music Hall of Fame musician Charlie McCoy. I sat next to him during a live recording session and watched in amazement as he opened his briefcase filled with harmonicas. I’ve tried for years to learn to play his harmonica rendition of Orange blossom special, but can’t even come close to play it with his accuracy, speed and note clarity. I think he’s the greatest country harmonica player of all time. Other Nashville highlights included a backstage pass at the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman auditorium where I met Marty Robbins, Boots Randolph, Jerry Reed, while sitting in on a recording session with the great Nashville rhythm guitarist Ray Edington.
But nothing tops that trip to Nashville in 1970. Whenever I see Dolly on TV, I can still get a mental picture of that day and hear Dev saying, “Boy, that Dolly is something.”