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VOL. 123 | NO. 241 | Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cook Leaves Long Shadow in Local Broadcast Community

By Bill Dries

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SERENDIPITY: John Powell, left, and Fred Cook teamed in the 1960s for the popular WREC radio program “The Zero Hour.” The show began when Powell and Cook were thrown together to keep the radio station on the air during a fire at The Peabody hotel, where the radio station was at the time. Cook died this week at age 83. -- IMAGE COURTESY OF WREC-AM

To many Memphians, Fred Cook’s voice was rich and full, and he spoke with authority.

There was a time when that voice seemed to be everywhere.

Cook, who died this week at 83, was on radio. He was on television. He was an actor. He lent his voice to civic occasions in recordings that endure to this day.

Cook was also a model for generations of local broadcasters who followed him into a business known for its volatility.

He continued doing voice work occasionally until last year.

Cook, originally from Waterbury, Conn., came to Memphis after World War II and went to work for WREC-AM in 1950, when the station was still owned by its founder, Hoyt Wooten.

When Wooten put his companion television station on the air in 1955, Cook became Channel 3’s first news anchor. For years, the television work was a side job to Cook’s full-time radio duties.

Cook wrote the copy for a late-night newscast that was 15 minutes long, and he read live any commercials during the show. He also did weather and sports. Later, when the newscast’s time slot was switched and lengthened, Cook’s duties included introducing the late show, an old movie that constituted late-night television fare at stations across the country. Cook anchored Channel 3’s 10 p.m. newscast through 1971.

Among Wooten’s many rules was that the radio station must not go off the air, especially in an emergency, even if the emergency was on site.

Wooten’s rule led to the birth of a radio program called “The Zero Hour” on Feb. 20, 1962. It was the day of astronaut John Glenn’s four-hour orbital flight aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft.

During the day, a fire broke out at The Peabody hotel that caused an evacuation. As firefighters battled the blaze, Cook and another announcer, John Powell, remained on air in the hotel’s basement, talking with each other and playing an occasional record. There was immediate on-air chemistry between the two. Despite the urgency of the situation, Cook and Powell exhibited a calm manner and kept a sense of humor about the circumstances.

The lunch hour teaming was so popular that it became a regular program starting in 1964. “The Zero Hour” was topical, humorous and relevant. But it never dealt with religion or politics. Over time, the two included parodies of popular programs including “Gunsmoke,” which became “Gunfolks.”

Stick to your guns

As the radio station’s manager, Cook also kept its mix of music with information firmly in the jazz, swing and big band category.

Cook was one of the first two radio announcers approached by Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, with a single by a new artist named Elvis Presley. Phillips had worked at WREC as a sound engineer when he started the record label where rock ‘n’ roll began.

Decades later, Cook recalled that Phillips, in 1954, brought him an acetate, or demo copy, of Presley’s first commercial recording that had “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on both sides. Cook listened through a bar or two of Presley’s cover of the Bill Monroe tune before taking the needle off the record and saying the station wasn’t interested.

Phillips took another acetate with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on one side and “That’s All Right Mama” on the other to WHBQ radio disc jockey Dewey Phillips, and Phillips played the side that Cook hadn’t heard.

Cook’s opinion of the record – either side – didn’t change over the years, although a few of Presley’s more mellow 1970s hits eventually joined a music rotation that included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte.

Chatter over the waves

Proving that it was not personal, Cook later worked for Phillips during the 1970s when Phillips owned WWEE radio, the city’s first talk radio station.?

Cook was more than a fan of jazz, swing and classical music. He organized jazz workshops at the Overton Park Shell in the 1950s and later organized jazz concerts at the old Dixon-Meyers Auditorium.

Away from the radio station, Cook lent his voice to various civic endeavors including a 20-year run as the public address announcer at home games of the University of Memphis Tigers basketball team both at the Mid-South Coliseum and The Pyramid.

His recorded voice narrated The Peabody’s twice daily “March of the Ducks” to the hotel lobby fountain. It is also his voice that tells of past visitors to the hotel in a memorabilia room. Cook also recorded a narrative of Tom Lee’s heroism that played on an early audio recording featured in the riverside park named in Lee’s honor.

Cook and Powell returned to WREC in 1980 for a morning show that ran into late 1994.

The radio station moved gradually into a newstalk format. Cook emphasized and encouraged original local news reporting as part of the format.

He also kept the station’s talk shows grounded in an interview format as opposed to the trend of talk shows where the host’s political views dominated.

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