When they were through introducing just about everybody there in the Moose Lodge in Monroe, N.C.—the Door Closer Capital of the World—and were finally down to Joe Ross and Spud Smith, who were co-chairmen of the festivities, Bill Benton, the M.C., brought forward the man they really were all waiting to hear. "And now, ladies and gentlemen," Bill Benton said, "the Mouth of the South." Bill Currie rose and, following the sound of his voice, found his way to the microphone.
Lord, but that old boy can talk. He makes 125 speeches a year, sometimes three a day. They can be folksy and amusing, like the one here in Monroe for Industrial Appreciation Night. They can be inspirational and uplifting, if the audience is, say, for the high school lettermen. Currie can make the boys cry and the parents, too, and sometimes the teachers. And for a few more dollars the Mouth of the South will cry himself. "I can cry as good as old William Jennings Bryan himself," he says. His speeches before stag assemblages are steeped in vulgarity and keep the boys guffawing to each other in the men's rooms for the rest of the week.
If a preacher asks Bill to come over and address a church group, Currie is just as liable to come over and preach. He gives hell to the Episcopalians and hell and brimstone to the Baptists. "The hand of God is upon this man," the Baptist minister cried out after Currie had let his congregation have it. Currie agreed. The hand was, in fact, oppressive. Currie was still hung over from the night before.
He does all this speaking on the side. For a steady job Currie handles two sports shows a day on WSOC-TV Charlotte, interview shows with various North Carolina coaches and a dozen or so play-by-play football games a year. Last season he did 74 college basketball games. Mostly he works alone, without a color announcer. "A color announcer," Currie says, 'is a guy who is paid to talk when everyone goes to the bathroom."
He undoubtedly is the most controversial and popular (or unpopular) sportscaster in the South since the late Clure Mosher and probably the most famous college announcer in the whole country. WSOC pushes him like he was the hottest thing since Hadacol. There are 109 billboards with Currie's face on them in the Charlotte area, which is about one Bill Currie billboard for every 3,000 people. His picture is on most of the packs of matches in town as well as on restaurant sugar-cube wrappers, making him, he says, "the Charlotte area's last line of defense against LSD." Next they are planning to put his face on catsup envelopes, and an entrepreneur wants to use Currie's name for a new restaurant.
While the face is all over Charlotte, the mouth is all over North Carolina. Currie's games are broadcast on the Tar Heel network, which is the largest state college network in the nation and which includes as many as 62 stations. Currie's voice wafts into every membrane of the Tar Heel State, from those shiny coastal resorts through the amber waves of tobacco and pines of the Piedmont into the crevasses and moonshine hollows of the Blue Ridge.
Currie's Tar Heel network is, theoretically, a vehicle of the University of North Carolina, but that turns out to be only a point of wireless embarkation. After he is through blocking out the Tar Heel schedule Currie scouts around and fills up every free night with any other game he can unearth. Duke, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Davidson, even into South Carolina for Clemson or Furman—it doesn't make any difference. The Mouth of the South broadcasts them all.
The rest of the time he is speaking in person. The night after the Moose Lodge in Monroe it was Gastonia, and then Greensboro. He's knocked 'em dead in Kannapolis, Shelby, Paw Creek, Spring Hope, Scotland Neck and Haw River. The Fourth of July he was the star in the parade at Faith. He even has his own agent now and once he even dared follow Norman Vincent Peale's act. Most places, of course, they know him well before he gets to town. They knew him in Monroe, for instance, because there is a group of 30 or 40 basketball nuts who gather regularly to hear every single Tar Heel game. Someone keeps the pictures of the Atlantic Coast Conference players and the statistics of the game on the blackboard, but the rule is that cathedral silence must be maintained when Currie is doing the play-by-play. For one thing, he is so unpredictable no one wants to miss anything. The other thing is the game.
It is the same way at banquets. Here one minute in Monroe he is spewing folksy old stories about cows and country stores and commodes. He says "tater" and "down the road a piece" and "from tooth to toenail" and "more money than a show dog can jump over" and things like that, but just as quickly he might start quoting Shakespeare and Spinoza and poet laureates of the state and not only quoting Milton, but citing where the quote came from in Milton, as he had done the night before in Charlotte. The words suddenly pour out as if they came from a thesaurus. "What are you doing to me?" one distracted listener wrote Currie. "One minute you're saying, 'He done turned it over,' and the next minute you are describing a man's look as 'imploring' or 'woebegone.' "
And Currie regularly uses even better words than that. Yes, indeed he does. In fact, realizing that it will be impossible for him to keep up this broadcasting pace for too many more years, Currie eventually wants to retire to the academic cloisters. Unfortunately, before he can become a professor he will need to return to college for another semester or so to gain a bachelor's degree.
He is, however, a true man of learning. Last winter, in those occasional moments between games, he managed to read and study every word that Plato ever wrote. He has read most of the great classics and philosophers. He owns six sets of encyclopedias. "On a rainy day," he says, "all the book salesmen get together and say, 'Let's go see Currie and make some money.' " He is writing a book himself. It is a literate, somewhat vulgar, somewhat disjointed collection of reminiscences and thoughts. It is thoroughly entertaining, and a publisher is panting with anticipation, waiting for Currie to finish it.
His knowledge of the basics and nuances of the major religions is such that he is often referred to as "Reverend Currie." Feeling that they would put him in his place, members of the ACC Sportswriters Association asked him to give the invocation before their annual meeting. Though stunned, Currie promptly rose, shifted to his best preacher's voice and, one by one, graphically asked forgiveness for those present. To wit: "Please forgive Bill Jones for trying to pick up the blonde waitress in Durham last October 12...." They never asked him to do the invocation again.
More seriously, the Reverend has not only read the Bible in its entirety, but he has also read the Book of Mormon. He spends long road trips discussing religious philosophy with Dean Smith, the erudite North Carolina coach. "Bill puts a lot on," Smith says. "The truth is, he is really one of the deepest men I have ever met."
Because he is more entertaining and offers a greater variety in his choice of subject matter, he attracts a wider range of listeners than do most sports announcers. Women are among his greatest fans. A man came up to him before he spoke at a Charlotte banquet. "My wife isn't so smart," the man said, shaking his head, "but she thinks you're the greatest announcer around."
"Well, I think she's pretty smart," Currie replied, "except I wonder how she got stuck with you."
"Y'all come up to Charlotte any time at all you want to kiss me," he told the claque of female admirers who surrounded him after his speech the next night in Monroe. "Look," he explained later, "women are just as loyal, and they count just as much in the ratings as all the guys who know the earned run averages."
However, the Mouth of the South is not to be confused with your matinee idols. He has a pleasant country visage, with a full head of sandy hair and blue puppy-dog eyes. He tends to chubbiness when not on his Metrecal and bourbon diet ("No, madam, I don't mean the two together"). He is 43 and possesses no athletic ability whatsoever. He prefers a golf cart when he plays, which he does all the time, diligently but without discernible improvement.
He is the first to admit that he is, technically, not much better as an announcer. "First of all," he says, "I'm just too damn southern. A really good announcer, one of those guys with the rolling sonorous tones, told me once: 'Currie, your voice sounds like it just dropped the reins and came up out of the furrow.' " His voice is a little lower now from all the work it has gotten, but he used to sing high tenor with a gospel quartet for the noon hymn of the day for the sick and shut-in in High Point. Actually, his success strictly is in what he says, and there are no listeners neutral to Bill Currie. Like him or not, he is a voice in the crowd of all those Brylcreemed, Barbizoned, toneless mastiffs who wallow in the sameness and statistics of sports "audio."
The folks in Catasaqua, Pa. chipped in last year to obtain the Carolina basketball broadcast, since one of the Tar Heel stars, Larry Miller, comes from Catasaqua. "They loved him at home," Miller says. "Sometimes they weren't quite sure what Bill was doing—it's kind of a different broadcast he gives you—but he was a big hit, and they're bringing all the games in this year.
"You know, on the team Bill—he makes us call him Bill instead of Mr. Currie—is thought of strictly as one of us, and I think he's the greatest guy on the team. You can talk to him about anything, no matter how personal. He's like an adviser, and yet he's one of us. Of course, that kind of lulls you when you go on the air with him. He doesn't ask what you're used to. One time he was interviewing me with Bobby Lewis, and all of a sudden he said, 'Do you think you're as good as you're supposed to be?' Now what do you say? But he got me out of it. He never leaves you embarrassed for too long."
"Sports announcers nowadays are about as colorless as a glass of gin," Currie says. "They are so immersed in themselves, so determined to pontificate about what really is nothing more than a game that they have forgotten that sports are supposed to be fun.
"Most of them are like a bunch of barbers cutting each other's hair. They emulate each other and fawn over each other on the air, and the same dull, successful ones show up everywhere. It is just as Matthew wrote: 'Unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.' The broken-down old ballplayers are the worst, but almost all are equally appalling. Do you notice how they always say thank you to each other every time? You know, like: 'What do you think of that, Fred?'
" 'Thank you, Jim. He's one of the hardest runners we've seen in this great game of football in a long time.'
" 'Thank you, Fred.' That's what they call an analysis. I was watching some golf tournament the other day, and one of those guys, Beard or someone, sinks a putt. He sank a putt. But on television now such an earthshaking event veritably beggars analysis, so they sent it right down to Cary Middlecoff. I'll never forget it. He says: 'Thank you, Jim. Yes, that was a real pressure putt. A key one. And, Jim, he's one of the grandest guys on the tour. Back to you.' If this is really what is wanted, I guess there is just no hope at all for a bull artist like myself."
He leans back and easily talks of himself, as candidly and critically as he would of some strange foreign object. The public happy-go-lucky image is as severely juxtaposed to the private man as his country drawl is to his fluid command of the classics. Currie's ulcerated stomach has hemorrhaged four times, the last one being almost fatal. He is separated from his wife. Unduly fearful of hoodlums, he carries a loaded pistol most of the time. His office is dominated by a huge, macabre 5-foot-by-4-foot picture of himself lying flat out in a splendid half-closed coffin. He is winking. (The picture so frightens the janitors that they will not enter his office to clean it up.) "Bill is on about 90% of the time," says his close friend Jack Callaghan, the station's program director. "You have to be prepared when suddenly he isn't." Yet, despite some dark thoughts, Currie—who has undergone extensive psychiatric treatment—always is fully in command of himself. Hepossesses great self perspective. He is very contented.
"I really can't announce," he says, "I just try to project warmth and folksiness as a defense mechanism against trying to do it the right way and failing. I am not really this easygoing, you know. The first time I spoke in public I had to absolutely force myself. It was just the high school debating team, but to me the audience looked about 50,000 and all of them Popes. I wasn't any better when they first put me on the radio in High Point, but they gave me $10 a game, and it was root hog or go hungry. Basically I am timid and shy, so every time I am in public it is unnatural for me."
Currie possesses almost total recall—if he likes something. And, indeed, once he memorizes something it never leaves his mind but just falls into a deep recess, where it lies dormant among the other miscellaneous information there until a cue in conversation or a ball game suddenly makes it surface, intact. His most stirring and most requested renditions are of Casey at the Bat, Dangerous Dan McGrew (legitimate and blue versions), If, Thantopsis and various Biblical and Shakespearean passages; but his full repertoire includes ditties, homilies, nonsense rhymes, aphorisms—homely and wise—slogans and more than 1,000 songs. He figures he can sing almost any song that has been high on the Hit Parade since 1935.
Currie assimilated many of the poesies from his parents, both of whom were given to such expression. His father, William Hay Currie Sr., was a traveling salesman specializing in soap, pianos and zithers. His favorite adage was: "Don't get mad, get even." He bought a circus once, but tired of it, strolled away from it somewhere in Arkansas and came to High Point, where he settled down to sell insurance and marry Margaret Billings of Durham.
Bill was an only child, a good student, but a better journalist. At 13 he was on the staff of the High Point daily, The Enterprise. At 14 he was making up the paper, and at 16 he was able to earn a full scholarship to nearby Catawba College as the school's sports publicity director.
The war interrupted, and he never did come back to Catawba. Anyway, because of his close identification with Carolina, most people perfunctorily assume that Currie went to Chapel Hill. Unless pressed, he avoids the subject so as not to discourage the assumption. After the war (he was a commissioned bombardier who never left the States) Currie came home to be a police reporter on The Enterprise. As far as the police were concerned this meant keeping a reciprocal eye on Currie. "I have a habit of getting mad when I sit down at a typewriter," he says.
One day a lady of little refinement was honored with a disorderly conduct fine for threatening a neighbor's children that she would "stomp their guts out." When she inquired, Currie told her that he did indeed plan to put her name in the paper. Whereupon she replied that she would "stomp your guts out, too." Currie rose to protect himself from her umbrella swipe and fell down the courthouse stairs. Shortly thereafter he became sports editor.
He was no less immune to trouble in that capacity. He wrote that the High Point star pitcher had broken training. The pitcher threatened Currie for that, and when Currie reported the threat the pitcher was suspended by the Dodger organization for the balance of the season. This did not sit well with either the pitcher or the populace. The home-town folks overturned Currie's car. Luckily he was not in it. Instead he was in the process of getting mugged by the pitcher himself down near the third-base line. He later was lucky to escape from an ugly mob brandishing knives and blackjacks. The constabulary, who had not always approved of Currie's journalistic instinct, found more important matters with which to occupy themselves during these incidents.
It was about this time that the South first began to hear its Mouth on the radio. Soon Currie was doing the play-by-plays of the minor league club in Winston-Salem for the magnificent sum of $2 a game, home or away. It was in Winston-Salem one afternoon that the pitcher, who was also the team's playing manager, was getting hit hard. The manager signaled the bullpen for a replacement for himself. "John Carey has just relieved himself on the mound," Currie told his fascinated listeners. Nevertheless, he was able to develop his first Tar Heel network during this period, and he even obtained backing and built his own station in High Point—WNOS. He covered every sporting event in the state, even doing the play-by-play of a marble tournament. He sang gospel and hillbilly, strummed a guitar, sold commercials, deejayed and managed the station. He also took some editorial positions. In short order Currie came out against the school board, the United Fund and the temperancemovement. These attacks may best be described as brave but foolhardy.
Currie promptly was sued by the United Fund, vilified by the school board and financially pressured by the temperance interests. When Currie broadcast in favor of liquor stores for High Point his advertising precipitously dropped. He decided it was time to sell the station, but one day, just before he left, Currie drove over to Greensboro. He parked outside the package store that was closest to High Point. There he noted down the license number of each vehicle that drove up sporting the bumper sticker: KEEP HIGH POINT DRY FOR CHRIST. Currie then checked his list with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and read the names of the liquor purchasers over the air. The list included two ministers, several deacons and Sunday School teachers and a wide variety of advertisers who had removed their commercial messages from WNOS rather than associate their product with an advocate of the demon rum.
Currie sold the station for a dandy profit, then promptly went broke when he bought two weekly papers. He was able to stay one step ahead of the bank only because he and a friend, equally insolvent, would trade $500 checks with each other each Friday. The checks, drawn on distant banks, took several days to clear, giving Currie and his friend time to restore their balances, get in debt again, exchange checks and repeat the sequence.
To create some interest in his moribund gazettes, Currie hired a clairvoyant to try to solve some of the more enchanting High Point murders. The effort failed, but it led Currie into writing true murder mysteries for most of the nation's leading cops-and-robbers journals. He still maintains this sideline, and his official WSOC biography notes proudly that Currie has been "termed for this endeavor by Charlotte Police Chief John Ingersoll as a 'muckraker.' " He has, however, actually been incarcerated only once, when he set up a sort of murder-case Tar Heel network for a celebrated trial.
What Currie did was bug the courtroom. He was broadcasting the proceedings all over the state until someone squealed to the judge. He was angry enough, but when he called Currie to the bench and learned that the offending wire ran directly under his own chair, the judge became infuriated and dispatched Currie to jail for contempt. Currie was, however, providently lodged in the cell next to the famous defendant himself and came away with a real "inside" scoop for his listeners.
Currie finally abandoned his papers and went to Raleigh to manage station WRAL. He stayed there for seven years, taking it to No. 1 in the market. He also continued to do play-by-plays for the Tar Heel network, though he no longer ran it, and he became convinced that he would rather announce than manage. So one day his boss, an earnest proponent of civic responsibility, demanded that Currie lend his local prominence to the Civitan Club by assisting in the organization's fund-raising, door-to-door toilet paper sale. Currie said he would buy $25 worth of toilet paper himself, which would be more than he could sell. "I am just one of these people who can't sell toilet paper," he explained. The boss would not relent. So, over toilet paper Currie quit.
He went to a station in Wilson, reformed the crumbling Tar Heel network, and then shifted it to WSOC's aegis when he moved there four years ago. Three of those four years he won the state's Sportscaster of the Year award; he also won it in 1959. No other announcer has ever won it twice. He has also won an award in Charlotte for his work with youth. He does not talk much about that, though, for it would embarrass his supposed posture as a cynical reprobate.
There is little else that he will not talk about. Despite his reputation as a big mouth, however, Currie is better defined as a conversationalist—which is to say that he knows how to listen. His interviews are good, because he asks provocative, different questions and then shuts up if he receives a response in kind. "People like to listen to me, I think, because I communicate," he says, sliding into his secondhand Lincoln Continental, pistol at his side, off for another speech. "The world at large is being taken over by what I call club talk. This concerns an endless babble about three subjects: golf, cards and the Saturday-night dance. I play golf, I play bridge. I play gin rummy. In high school, anyway, I was voted the best dancer in my class. Games are to be played. Music is to be played. They are not to be employed as the human race's last means of communication.
"But club talk is taking over the country. Sports announcing is basically just amplified club talk now. The corporation man is spilling over into it. For instance, symptomatic of the organizational man in both sportscasting and writing is the overemphasis with the damn coach. You must glorify the executive, not the performer. Everything is concentrated on the managerial aspects. I want to talk to the players. I want to bring these kids onto television and show that they are not jockstraps with numbers on their backs. Tell about them—not just what they did, but who they are. Those are people out there playing games. They have parents and girl friends. They run out of money, flunk courses and occasionally get in trouble. Don't give me statistics. They appeal only to the 5% lunatic fringe of sports fans who know all the damn statistics and records anyway. An announcer is covering an event—the complete scene. He should tell you what you're missing. Paint the whole picture.Tell 'em what the band is playing, how the hot dogs taste and what color drawers the cheerleaders are wearing.
"Now I don't think it is all the announcers' faults. Primarily it is the directors, the real organization men. They are technicians. That is how they develop. They have no concept of entertainment. Just techniques. What they try to say on television now is this: look at us, we have all this fantastic equipment and incredible technique, and we are going to show you sports fans this afternoon that we can use every goddam bit of this equipment, incidentally bring you the game and not mess it up.
"This is heresy, I know, but I question the rationale behind using the instant replay and the isolated camera and all those things all the time. Now who on God's green earth really wants to see, in slow motion, how the tackle moved out? Now you think about that. People have been going to football games for 100 years, and no one has yet watched a tackle. Why? Well, tackles are dull things to watch. Television says, now we have this isolated camera and we are damn well going to show you how the tackle moves out. They say it will heighten your understanding of the game. Maybe, but not of the event. All this wonderful equipment, and they concentrate on the wrong, dull things. Maybe I'm wrong, but it bores me. It bores all the women and a lot of men not in that lunatic fringe. The best way to execute me is to bore me. No wonder everybody drinks so much."
Of course, as Currie accuses others of not being entertaining enough, his detractors accuse him of being too entertaining, at the expense of the action. "If I ever neglect something on the field, then I admit it, and I am wrong," he says. "Don't mistake what I say. I don't pretend that my style, my banter is anything but the glockenspiel in the band. It is nothing but the dingdong in the din."
Currie's rule of thumb is the later the game, the closer the score, the fewer the jokes. But if it is a rout, there is no telling to what lengths he will go to avoid getting too involved with the insipid action. He'll recite a poem, say hello to somebody in an Elks Club somewhere, speculate on his chances of reaching the men's room soon or just plain entreat his audience to bear with him and this awful contest. "Hang on," he'll say, "and I promise to tell a funny soon." Or, "Don't y'all leave now folks, 'cause I'm liable to goof up something soon, and you shore don't want to miss that."
For that matter, Currie enjoys his flubs as much as anyone else does. In his office, on a wall across from his funeral portrait, he has posted this sentiment by a fellow North Carolinian, Josh Billings: "The glory consists not so much in winning as in playing a poor hand well." For a guy who earns his living talking all the time with a voice that sounds like it just dropped the reins and stumbled out of the furrow, this is a very apt motto.
It is also, really, a very moral expression—as, in fact, Currie is a much more moral man than he likes to let on—just a cool, card-playing restatement of that corny old saw that decorates the office walls of corny old coaches everywhere. In Bill Currie's case that would read: "When the great scorer comes to mark against your name He writes not whether you won or lost, but how you called the game."