Grapevine Opry, August 14, 2017
Guest Column by John Lee
Dear Mr. Thibodeaux,
I thoroughly enjoyed your story about the Grapevine Opry. I just happen to be in Grapevine this weekend for a family reunion as my daughter’s Grammy award winning band has been recording their next album nearby. I thought you might be interested in my story.
Back in 1977, I heard that the Grapevine Opry was holding auditions for local talent on Saturday mornings. My young wife and I had only been married a few months and we lived in Dallas. She was 21 and I was 22. With her encouragement I called the Opry, got the details and showed up on a Saturday morning. Johnnie High was there to run the audition and so was Chisai Childs along with other people who wanted to audition.
The audition consisted of walking up on the stage and doing your act. If you were a singer, you sang one song. I didn’t play Country music, so I sang, “Heart Of Gold” by Neil Young and accompanied myself on guitar and harmonica. I had been playing in a few Dallas restaurants for about a year, so I had the song down pretty well.
After everyone auditioned Johnny High came over and started talking to me and he said that he really liked me, “…but that song just wasn’t going to work at the Opry.” He asked me if I would be willing to sing and old Leroy Van Dyke tune on the show and I said, “Yes sir.” “Alright,” he said. “You’re going to be the featured local talent on next Saturday’s show.”
I wanted to be confident and sure of myself because I thought if I appeared timid or unwilling, I wasn’t going to be on the show. I acted like I knew who Leroy Van Dyke was and that I was somewhat familiar with the song, “Walk On By.” I assured Johnnie High that it would be no trouble for me to have it ready for next Saturday.
In 1977, we didn’t have computers otherwise I would have watched and listened to Leroy sing the thing on YouTube, searched for the chords and lyrics on Google and I would have had the tune learned and memorized in a day or two. The truth was, I had never heard of Leroy Van Dyke or his little ditty, but I didn’t panic. I had been in garage bands since age eight so I knew how to learn a song. The first order of business was to get to a record store.
I discovered that “Walk On By” was a huge hit in the early sixties! In fact, it is still one of the biggest Country songs of all time. Who knew? I bought the Leroy Van Dyke cassette and headed home to learn it. Johnnie High was charismatic and he had a knack for the entertainment business. He was certainly right about “Walk On By.” When I first listened to it I knew It was a great fit for my voice and I really liked singing it.
I practiced all week and my wife found a matching vest and pants outfit with a nice country shirt for me to wear with boots. I had a brand new, cherry red Guild acoustic guitar, so I felt like my “look” would be flashy enough on stage to get by. Some of the entertainers and Opry orchestra members wore amazing custom-made stage clothes covered in lots of sparkly rhinestones! We were poor newlyweds and couldn’t afford any of that
On the night of the performance my wife was by herself in the audience and we didn’t know a soul there. The place was packed! I had no idea The Grapevine Opry was so popular in this little town which in 1977 was still quite rural. There was plenty of bustling back stage, too with lots of performers and orchestra members talking and tuning up or singing to get warmed up. It was exciting for me and I was nervous.
Despite all the talking, laughing and tuning up back stage, I couldn’t help but notice an old man laying on his side on a couch against the back wall asleep and seemingly oblivious to any of us. He had a scruffy beard and had a hat over his eyes and looked exactly how I imagined a hobo in the song, “King Of The Road” or “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” We didn’t know anything about political correctness so the typical name would be, bum or hobo.I wasn’t sure who he was and I even thought that maybe he was the resident homeless guy and the Opry was just being kind and let him crash there as long as he didn’t bother anyone. It was a little peculiar.
When the show began it was fantastic. Johnny High and Chisai Childs were excellent hosts and both were fine talents. It seemed to me that Johnny ran the show and Chisai was the head of PR and goodwill. You couldn’t help but like Chisai because she was very talented, lovely and personable. The Grapevine Opry was so professional and it was run like a big-time production.
When they introduced me I walked out to the front of the stage with my guitar strapped on and the orchestra behind me complete with pedal steel guitar and lots of fine country players. As I began to sing, my voice was shaky and I was strumming the strings on my guitar rather vigorously because the orchestra was right behind me and there was no microphone on my guitar. My shaky voice turned into a nice vibrato and as I got past the first verse I settled in and relaxed and started to enjoy the moment.
All of a sudden one of the strings broke but because the orchestra was backing me I knew it didn’t matter so I gently pulled it away and it dangled off of the end of the guitar sparkling in the stage lights. The crowd apparently thought that was cool and they applauded and then applauded again later in the song. My wife told me after the show that she started crying when that happened because I handled it like a pro. She was very proud. It was a wonderful feeling and I knew I had done well. Now I could just relax and enjoy the rest of the show.
When they introduced the featured performer named, Box Car Willie, I had never heard of him. I was very surprised when that backstage hobo climbed off the couch, grabbed a guitar and headed out on stage. The hobo was Box Car Willie! There were several of us backstage who were watching from the wings with our mouths open. He was a fabulous entertainer who sang hobo songs about life on trains and could even mimic a train whistle that was very entertaining. What a night!
Note: Box Car Willie was the last performer to entertain on the former operations known solely as the Grapevine Opry Stage in 1985. This is a photo from 1984.
Afterwards, the entertainers mingled with each other along with Johnnie and Chisai and some fans who stuck around. My wife was so happy and people were congratulating me and saying kind things to both of us. I felt like a star. It was such a tremendous experience and it really boosted my confidence. My father was the Chief Circuit Court Judge in Miami, Florida and my parents didn’t approve of me trying to pursue a career in entertainment so this helped validate my efforts.
A well dressed, swarthy looking man approached us after the show and began telling us about his venue in a place called, Branson, Missouri. Branson, Missouri? We had never heard of the place and I suspect that in 1977, not many people had. To us it sounded like it might has well have been called, Nowhere, Alaska. It was totally foreign to us. The gentleman had flown down to Dallas in his private plane and was looking for young entertainers. When he found out that I was also a drummer he was very interested in me being a part of his show and wanted to fly Sara and I to Branson.
I think he could tell that we were nonchalant about the idea, but he asked if he could visit us in the morning at our Little apartment off of Lover’s Lane in Dallas. He arrived at the designated time and he was dressed sharp and well spoken. He was authentic. He made me an offer to come work in Branson, but the $800. dollars a month was exactly what I was making as a disc Jockey at KXVI-AM in McKinney. It seemed like a sideways move and we ultimately thought that I needed to head towards Los Angeles or New York and certainly not into the Ozark mountains, so we declined. He was such a nice man.
About a year later, we picked up and headed 1500 miles west to southern California to try to make it in the entertainment business. I drove a U-Haul truck with our belongings and Sara followed behind in our little Volkswagen. We didn’t have a job waiting for us and we had no idea where we would live, but we had two thousand dollars in our pocket and a big dream. We ended up finding an affordable apartment in Riverside and I landed a disc jockey job within a week and Sara found a job at a bank.
I started auditioning everywhere I could and began landing jobs in restaurants and lounges in southern California. We didn’t have TV shows like American Idol or The Voice in 1977 where the winner gets a million dollars and a recording contract and it was before the show, Star Search hosted by Ed McMahon. The only talent show on TV was a goofy show called, The Gong Show hosted by a wacky little guy named, Chuck Barris. If you were the winner, you received a trophy and a check for $716.32. But I thought that maybe I could get discovered on NBC playing before a national audience.
During the closing credits of the weekly show the announcer would say, “If you would like to be a contestant on the Gong Show, call this number.” So I did. My first audition was in a dank little portion of a large sound stage in Hollywood which, by the way, is not as glamorous as one would think. There were some cameras and lights set up and one at a time various acts went in and played for about five people. After I finished they coldly said, “Very good. We’ll be in contact with you.”
After about six months, I finally gave up hope that The Gong Show would be calling me back. I was playing at a club in Palm Springs a few nights a week and we were barely able to pay our rent and utilities. Then I received a letter from The Gong Show asking me to come to Los Angeles to audition for the producers. I had to re-learn the song, “Desperado” and they were adamant that I edit the song to exactly one and one half minutes and not a second longer.
I arrived at a tall office building and rode the elevator to the top. When I was called into the room there were about four executive-types sitting behind a long table. I recognized Milt Delugg because he was the band leader and musical director and I had seen him many times on the the show. He was also a long time NBC music staple who had worked with the game show, What’s My Line and even did a brief stint as the band leader on The Tonight Show. I stood in front of them as they asked me a few questions and then they asked me to perform. Everything seemed to go fine and they said, “Very good. We’ll be in touch.” Here we go again, I thought.
After several months I figured I just wasn’t good enough to make it on the stupid Gong Show and never told my parents for fear that that would bolster their case against me trying to be an entertainer. I put The Gong Show idea behind me and continued to sing in restaurants and lounges all over southern California in hopes that I would somehow be “discovered.” I kept plugging away.
One morning I walked to the mailbox and in it was a letter from NBC. It said, “We are taping your show this Saturday.” I was shocked! I didn’t even perform that song anymore because I was sick of it. The letter gave instructions on what time to show up at the old, run-down sound stage in a seedy part of Hollywood on Cahuenga Boulevard and what to prepare for. Immediately I started re-learning the tune and either my voice had gotten lower or the song was higher because it was a bit of a strain to hit the high notes. I was a little worried about that.
My wife had bought me some tight jeans with stitching down the side and a fashionable country style shirt. I had my Ricky Nelson hair styled perfectly along with an Errol Flynn moustache and a puka shell necklace. Looking back, we joke that I looked like a seventies porn star.
Backstage all of the talents mingled and NBC provided water, snacks and several long submarine sandwiches to nibble on. We were all starving musicians so everything was consumed with gusto. I couldn’t eat a thing. My stomach was in knots and I was so nervous I had to visit the bathroom at least eight times along with my personal chaperone. Each of us had a personal chaperone to make sure we were where we were suppose to be at the right time and to make sure we didn’t bribe the judges.
Throughout the day each of us were brought out to the studio for an individual rehearsal with the orchestra and Chuck Barris, the host and creator. It lasted all of about three minutes for me. After my audition there was a great deal of commotion as one of the contestants-a very large woman who was doing some goofy dance as an overweight cheerleader-had choked while eating part of the submarine sandwich. The paramedics were in there working on her so I was prevented from returning to the talent waiting area backstage.
My chaperone was instructed to take me to the Green Room where the judges hung out and it was quite plush. It was much nicer than where the performers were hanging out. I was hoping to see Jamie Farr, Pat McCormick or Jay P. Morgan because I watched the show religiously. Maybe I would see Gene Gene The Dancing Machine or The Unknown comic. They never appeared. When things calmed down my chaperone took me back to the talent area and the mood was somber. The woman had died.
We all waited our turn on the show and it was rather quiet back there. I was in the third show being taped that day, so I had one of the longest waits. When my time came my chaperone pushed me out to my spot and Chuck Barris introduced me by saying, “This goes out to all of my Desperado friends… John Lee” I started out by myself on the guitar with my leg shaking and my voice had that slightly nervous vibrato, again. I was just hoping my pants weren’t waving like a flag in the breeze. It sure felt like it. In a few bars the orchestra kicked in and I started to settle down. My only worry was the one high note still in front of me.
The song went well and I hit all the notes. It was exciting and scary and I was greatly relieved when it was over. I received the highest score of ten points from each of the judges for the highest total possible-thirty points. One of the people I competed against was Pee Wee Herman who was part of a four-piece group that sang a novelty tune and danced. They received 28 points. At the end of the show the confetti came down and the balloons fell and I had won! It was incredible and one of the judges, Fred Travolina, came up to me and shook my hand and said, “You are going to be a star.”
I walked out of the gates of the sound stage and there were people there who were excited and wanted my autograph. I had never done that, but was glad to do it. I was being admired by audience members who were mostly girls and I really felt like something big was about to happen. For one thing, I could at least tell my parents that I won a talent competition on national television and maybe they would change their feelings about what Sara and I were doing.
That Gong Show was recorded in 1979, but wasn’t scheduled to air on NBC until sometime in 1980. I was hoping we could hold out financially until then. I was also worried that The Gong Show might be nearing it’s end and my show might never air. Finally, NBC sent me a note with a date when my episode would air.
We didn’t have much money but I thought we should spend every penny we had trying to get someone in the entertainment industry to watch the show. We placed inexpensive advertisements in local musician’s magazines in the Los Angeles area encouraging people to watch a new talent on this Friday’s Gong Show on NBC. The ad was like a “teaser” and was very specific about when to watch.
The night of my show’s airing all of my relatives were watching in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, California and Ohio. The club in Palm Springs where I had been performing brought in a giant screen TV for a “Watch” party. Everyone was excited and I couldn’t wait for 7 o’clock to roll around. Finally, “It’s the Gong Show,” the announcer boomed and Milt Delugg and the orchestra fired up the theme song and I was overwhelmed with anticipation. I wasn’t nervous because I knew the outcome.
About a minute into the show I realized it was not my episode. The judges were different. Someone had made a mistake and another episode was aired. I was devastated. I wanted to cry but couldn’t because there were people there who had come to celebrate with me. It was a very low moment for a 23 year old.
Sara and I had spent all of our money promoting this performance at this exact time. We couldn’t pay all of our bills so in short order the phone got disconnected. I had no idea when or if my show would ever air and never heard a word from NBC. A few weeks later, the show popped up without warning and some of our friends saw it and so did my aunt in Ohio who told my folks about it. It couldn’t have been worse. The only good thing to come out of it was that NBC finally sent me my trophy and my check which they do only after the show has aired.
I continued to plug away performing as a single in restaurants and lounges and eventually all of my relatives got to see a recording of the show that I sent. NBC finally contacted me and said that some TV producers had been trying to call me. They gave me the name of a producer in New York who wanted to invite me to perform on the pilot of a new TV show called, Star Search. He explained that if I could get to New York for the taping, they would love to have me. But they weren’t footing the bill for any of it and I would have to come up with the expense money myself. Of course, we could hardly afford to make it to the grocery store, much less New York. I was going nowhere and getting nowhere.
I eventually put together a three-piece band, a four-piece band and finally a five-piece band with a sound engineer. We played the resorts like Palm Springs and Big Bear Lake and all over southern California down to San Diego. It was fun, but while singing cover tunes in clubs pays money, the record companies were looking for self-contained groups with original material.
We wrote a few mediocre originals and had a meeting in Westwood with a music producer. I also did some recordings solo for writer/producer, Bob Stone who wrote a big hit for Cher called, “Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves.” But none of it panned out and we were really just another southern California bar band. Sara and I had our first daughter, Amy, in 1981 and I was smitten. I knew I had to get away from the band and the bars and make a better life for my family a different way.
We moved back to my home state of Florida with my parent’s help and they were elated that I had given up this whimsical idea of making money with something as trivial as music. I got back into radio as a disc jockey which I had started doing in college to make extra money. My career in radio lasted for 34 years and I also became proficient as a voice-over artist and TV spokesperson.
I retired from radio in 2009 but continue to record voice-overs and TV commercials that run all over the world. Sara and I had five children and we have been married forty years. I have been successful at my craft.
Our daughter, Amy, expressed an interest in music at an early age and since I play banjo, guitar, dobro, mandolin, harmonica, ukulele, drums, etc. and Sara plays piano, there has always been lots of singing and instruments around our home. All of our children are musically inclined and we have not forced it on them. If they gravitated towards an instrument, we would help them and support them.
Our youngest daughter, Lori teaches music in Houston and our middle daughter, Carrie, was the leader of a very fun acapella group at Rhodes College in Memphis. She is now a high school English teacher. Most of our kids have played music for money at one time or another.
I continued to perform in public for a long time as a single, a duo and even in a Bluegrass group for various civic groups, charity events, churches and senior centers just to make people happy and to give back to the community. I’m not as active anymore, but still play around the house every day.
Our daughter, Amy, who was born in California in 1981, has become an internationally known Rock star. She is an amazing singer, piano player and prolific songwriter with her band, Evanescence. She would rarely sing anything that wasn’t original. I have learned a lot from her and I wish I would have pursued things with more originality, but I was having to keep food on the table and had no support from parents. We supported Amy one hundred percent and subsidized her from time to time until she made it.
In 2003, Amy’s band, Evanescence, was awarded the GRAMMY for Best New Artist Of 2003. They also received a GRAMMY for Best Rock Song Of 2003 for their mega hit, “Bring Me To Life” that was featured in the movie, Daredevil. Amy and her group have gone on to sell over 25 million albums and have toured the globe consistently for 14 years. They have been on Letterman and Leno many times. In 2011 she was invited to perform in Oslo, Norway for the Nobel Peace Prize awards honoring three women. She has done quite well and we are very proud.
After witnessing my daughter’s rise to fame and the financial success she has attained, my father finally apologized to me one night when I was 52 years old. He said he didn’t realize that music could be so profitable and was sorry for not supporting me more. I said, “Thanks for saying that dad. But really, I’m fine with it. I have learned that it is much better to be the father of a big star than to actually be a big star.” It is a very demanding job!
I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few years back and my kids panicked a little because they all Googled “Parkinson’s” and read various symptoms related to it. One of them was that with Parkinson’s a patient’s voice tends to diminish and get softer. So for my Christmas present two years ago they arranged a recording session for me to record some children songs that I used to sing for them when they were little for posterity.
We recorded at the amazing Spaceway Studios in downtown Fort Worth and we invited my older brother who taught me how to play guitar. We felt like Rock stars! We did a couple of cover tunes and Amy wrote a beautiful song and I contributed some of the lyrics. Amy’s manager had a meeting with the head of digital music at Amazon and he said he would like to hear some of it as Amazon was interested in children’s albums performed by established artists.
When we finished three or four songs they were sent to Amazon. They loved it. They offered us an exclusive contract and we had a record deal! We invited all of the children to perform on the album and even my grandson and son-in-law contributed. I got to sing, play guitar, dobro, ukulele and percussion and loved every minute of it! It was the most wonderful experience and I was an extremely proud dad.
The album is titled, “Dream Too Much” and was one of the top selling children’s albums on Amazon for several weeks. It even earned a Family Circle award. It may have taken a few years, but I finally got my record contract at the age of 60. I am not going to tour and I haven’t signed any autographs, but I feel highly satisfied. I will try to remain humble.
It was surreal when I drove through the beautifully renovated town of Grapevine Thursday for the first time in forty years and was transported back to that special moment in time here. I was frustrated that I didn’t recognize the old light gray facade of the Grapevine Opry and finally realized that the old facade had been torn off to reveal the even more historical Palace theater. What they have done to Grapevine is beautiful and charming.
As you can see from my story, The Grapevine Opry was a big influence on my life and subsequently my family’s life. It gave me the confidence to take a chance and pursue my dreams. It was life-changing for me and my wife Sara. I may have never made it to the big time as a singer, but I feel like my wife’s and my efforts became a stepping stone for a GRAMMY award winning musician who’s music and lyrics have been a very positive influence on young people around the world.
I was so glad to find your story about the Grapevine Opry and I’m so glad that folks like you make sure that it is remembered. It was a very special place.