Snuff Garrett, DJ, Rocked the World

By Lynn Walker - April 19, 2004
           When rock rolled into Wichita Falls, Snuff Garrett rode in on the wave. Just after Bill Haley's Comets streaked across America's consciousness and Elvis Presley slipped into his blue suede shoes, Snuff hit town like a riff on a Stratocaster.
           The year was 1957. He was a hot shot record jock, an unabashed promoter and a kid with a gut feeling that rock 'n' roll was here to stay.
           For more than two years he sat in a storefront window at 825 Indiana St. spinning the platter and talking the patter. He ushered a generation of bobby-socked, duck-tailed, poodle-skirted teenagers into a rim-shot, backbeat world of party dolls and Peggy Sues - and showed them rock was the cure for the summertime blues.
           His nightly sign-off became part of local lexicon - "Come a-foggin', cowboy!" His real name is Thomas Garrett. He wasn't quite 15 when he started hanging around KLIF-AM in Dallas, the station where Top 40 radio was born. He hadn't turned 20 when he landed the job at KSYD radio in Wichita Falls after a short gig in Lubbock. "It scared me to death sitting in that window," Garrett said this week in a phone conversation from his ranch in Arizona. "I didn't know if they were going to wave at me or shoot at me."
           He spun the 45s during the crucial afternoon "drive time" and came back to work the late shift - seven hours a day on the air. He ran the Hop Stop & Record Shop downtown, a non-stop sock-hop where kids could do the Bunny Hop and the Creep. He had an afternoon music program on KSYD-TV (now KAUZ) and often joined famous country jock Bill Mack on his Saturday radio show. "I don't think I slept until I was 28," Garrett laughed.
           Then there were the stunts. "They asked if I could sit in Renault stuck on top of a pole. I said, sure - why not." Garrett stayed on the pole a week as a promotion at an automobile dealership. "They loved it," said businessman Larry Robb, who was among Garrett's fans and friends here. "He was crazy. The kids loved him."
           Years later, cowboy star/entrepreneur Gene Autry asked Garrett about the stunt. "What did you do for food?" "They sent a bucket up," Garrett said. "What did you do when nature called?" "They sent a bucket up." "Well," Autry laughed, "I hope you didn't get your buckets mixed up!"
           Another stunt has bittersweet memories for Garrett. An automobile dealership wanted him to see how long he could stay on the air without sleeping. He made it 121 hours. An old friend from Lubbock drove in to lend some moral support - a lanky kid with black horn-rimmed glasses. "Buddy stayed with me a long time that night. We just sat and talked while his wife slept in the car. That was the last time I ever saw him."
           Buddy Holly, whose short career became a legend of rock, died in a plane crash a few months later. "Buddy came down a lot. He'd be on my television show."
           Garrett said he rented a little house on Pearl Street and he and Holly spent many nights there talking about the music, the future. "I got hold of the first copy of 'Peggy Sue' (Holly's signature hit) and played it over and over on the radio one night," Garrett said. "I'd say, 'Here's Patti Page' - and I'd play 'Peggy Sue.' I'd say, 'Here's Perry Como' - and I'd play 'Peggy Sue.' Man, the phones lit up!" Wichita Falls was the first town where "Peggy Sue" was ever played on the air, Garrett said.
           "After Buddy died, I sat one night in a hotel room in London with the Beatles. They wanted to hear everything about Buddy. He was their hero. There never was anyone else like Buddy."
           But there were others who gravitated to Garrett in his Wichita Falls days. "Trini Lopez played at the club out at the base. We spent a lot of time together," he said. Lopez later hit it big with the songs "If I Had a Hammer," "Lemon Tree" and "La Bamba." Marty Robbins stopped by, too. "He was on the Camel Country Caravan. He'd come by the television station."
           Garrett also recalls some up-and-coming actors he spent time with here. "Russ Tamblyn was stationed at the fort (Fort Sill). Dennis Hopper came up to visit him and we sat in a restaurant and talked."
           Hopper had already done roles in "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" and a decade later would direct and act in the breakthrough movie "Easy Rider." Tamblyn starred in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (his daughter, Amber, is Joan in CBS's Joan of Arcadia).
           Garrett left Wichita Falls for the West Coast hoping to hit the big time. He got a job with Liberty Records and persuaded the boss to make him the A&R (Artist & Repertoire) man. "He convinced them to give him a shot at the big job and they told him he had to prove himself," Robb said. "He found a kid named Bobby Vee and recorded about four back-to-back hits."
           Vee became an early rock balladeer who hit the charts with songs like "You're Sixteen, You're Beautiful and You're Mine" and "Devil or Angel."
           Garrett stayed with Liberty seven years and left with several million dollars in his pocket. "Snuff couldn't read a note of music, but he had an ear for what worked. He was a visionary," Robb said. "We went to visit him once. He had bought a mansion in Bel Air. There were the Everly Brothers sitting on a couch."
           Later Garrett produced records for the son of comedian Jerry Lewis. As a result, Gary Lewis and the Playboys had a string of chart-busters ("This Diamond Ring," "Everybody Loves a Clown") that sent Garrett into the stratosphere of the music business.
           Garrett approached a neighbor about producing her solos. Those songs - by Cher - became hits: "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," "Half Breed" and "Dark Lady."
           Garrett began trying to retire when he was 30, but couldn't stay away from the business. In the 1980s he composed or arranged the scores for Clint Eastwood movies ("Bronco Billy," "Every Which Way But Loose") and Burt Reynolds films ("Smokey and the Bandit II" and "Cannonball Run").
           Garrett's success in music and other ventures - he owned land where DFW International Airport was built - enabled him to indulge his real passion. "I'm just a dime store cowboy," he confessed.
           He became friends with western matinee idols - Autry, John Wayne, Roy Rogers. "Roy was like a father to me," he said.
           "You wouldn't believe his place," Robb said, referring to Garrett's Arizona ranch. "The walls are covered with original western art and movie posters from the old westerns. Every one of those posters is an original and they're signed by the stars." The costumes those stars wore are in glass cases in Garrett's living room.
           Robb said Garrett doesn't talk much about his philanthropy, but said he's been a major backer of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
           Garrett never cut ties to Wichita Falls. He married a young woman from here and the union produced two daughters before it ended. He stays in touch with old friends like Robb and Vinson and plans to come back for a visit this summer.
           At 65, Garrett is slowed by health problems, but he still keeps his hand in the business. He produced an album of favorites by an old friend, the late Rex Allen, and he owns the rights to many of the songs of the golden era of rock 'n' roll.
           Despite all he has done and all the people he's known, Garrett has clear, fond memories of Wichita Falls.
           A recent stroke weakened his speech, but he can still muster enough voice to belt it out after nearly a half century - "Come a foggin', cowboy!"
           Snuff Garrett said he ran into another man with ties to Wichita Falls several years ago. "I'm the guy who replaced you on the radio show there," the man said. That man never became as popular here as Garrett. His popularity came a few years later as a comedian. His name is George Carlin..."

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