Billings radio deejay Lonnie Bell has a lucky streak that's lasted more than five decades.
Bell gave the go-ahead for an unknown Charley Pride to sing with his band at the Horseshoe Club in 1966 and made a $100 tip from Johnny Cash in the early 1980s at the Shrine Auditorium for recognizing Cash’s mother in law, Mother Maybelle Carter, and giving her a “good build up in the intro.” But one of the biggest moments in Bell’s 50-plus decades as a country deejay was hiring Loretta Lynn to sing with his band in Vancouver, Wash., in 1960. Bell, who is now a deejay with KGHL Radio, paid Lynn $25 to make the 75-mile drive from Bellingham to Vancouver to sing with his band at the Range Hall.
It was 9 p.m. on a Wednesday when Bell first heard Lynn sing at the American Legion Hall in Bellingham. Bell said he and the bartender were about the only people in the club.
“The band was downstairs, getting ready to go on. I looked at her and thought, ‘Man, if she can sing a lick, I’ll hire her immediately.’ She was so pretty,” Bell said. “When she started singing, I went bananas.”
Bell has seen Lynn perform several other times over the years, twice in Billings, and another time in Branson, Mo., where he was invited to sing a duet with her on stage.
“It just absolutely thrills me to death to hear her sing,” Bell said.
His favorites by Lynn are “One’s on the Way” and “Blue Kentucky Girl.” There are no guarantees that Bell will be invited on stage with Lynn at her performance Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Alberta Bair Theater. But through efforts by Bell’s employer, Taylor Brown, Bell and his wife Marty received complimentary tickets to the show.
Talking with Bell is like opening an encyclopedia on country music. He got his start as a deejay in the Navy in 1953 when Bell was stationed in Honolulu. He worked at the only country station on the island. He’s been playing country music on the radio ever since.
Born in Madison, W.V., not far from where Lynn grew up in Kentucky, Bell said his mother set him to singing at a beer hall that opened in 1934 after Prohibition ended. Bell was 10 years old when he learned to strum the guitar and sing songs like “T for Texas.”
“My mother didn’t approve of that beer hall one bit, but she said if you go over there and sing, those coal miners will give you money,” Bell said.
Bell served in the Navy for 20 years, most of which was overseas. He enlisted in 1940, lying about his age at the time, which was 16.
Bell does a Sunday radio show on KGHL from 8 a.m. to noon on the AM station. He first came to Billings in 1964 to become a deejay for KOYN Radio. His show is simulcast on the Wolf 98.5 FM and streamed online, drawing phone calls and letters from fans as far away as Amarillo, Texas, and Glastonbury, N.J. Brown said Bell will bring in a thousand CDs, spread them across the counter in the studio and start playing classic country and bluegrass, some of which dates back to the 1940s. Brown said one of the major reasons he bought KGHL in 2010 was because of Bell, who is in the Country Radio Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
“Lonnie is 88 years old and still does a four-hour live show in Billings. We are very proud of that,” Brown said. “He keeps saying he’ll retire when he’s 90.”
Brown is so taken with Bell that he is published Bell’s life story with help from Bell’s son and nephew, John Bell and Harold Hollingsford. The 400-page autobiography, “Slidin’ Along with Lonnie Bell” will be available in December.