Published March 4th, 2021 at 6:00 AM14 minute read
Almost everybody knows the Patsy Cline-comes-to-Kansas City story.
Fewer people know the “Cactus” Jack Call story.
Cline died on March 5, 1963. She and three others, flying in a private plane, crashed in Tennessee on their way home to Nashville from Kansas City. Cline and several other country music stars had performed at three benefit concerts to assist the family of a popular disc jockey who had died from injuries sustained in a Jan. 24, 1963 car accident.
That had been Call, known to his listeners as “Cactus Jack.”
Some 48 hours before her own death, Cline had met briefly with Call’s widow Ann and her two sons – Don, 11 and Dan, 8 — in a small backstage room inside Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas.
The singer had bent down to kiss the cheeks of both boys.
“She was wearing pretty heavy lipstick and it just wasn’t anything I wanted to have on my face,” Dan Call, today a professor at a Texas evangelical university, said recently.
His older brother, Don Call, remembers it that way, too.
“I tried to wipe it off and it smeared,” he said recently from his Eudora, Kansas, home. “It was embarrassing for a little kid like me.
“But, you know, if I was a book writer, I always thought, that would be quite a book: ‘The Last Kiss of Patsy Cline.’ ’’
Today the Call brothers’ encounter with Cline represents a brief but still-vivid moment in the tragic sequence of events that arguably nudged the trajectory of their family in new directions. The memory also allows them an opportunity to fill in a blank spot in the familiar Patsy Cline narrative in which their father, who died at age 39, sometimes appears only as “a disc jockey in Kansas City.”
But the country music artists who came to Kansas City that weekend knew all about “Cactus Jack.”
“In those days there were two ways for country music artists to have their music heard,” Dan Call said.
“One was in live concerts and the other was over the radio. Radio was a distribution point for their music and my father was a major player in the whole sequence of getting their music heard.
“My dad really felt a calling to play that music.”
Jack Call worked all the time.
Born in Trenton, Missouri, in 1923, he had served as a U.S. Army staff sergeant during World War II and by 1955 was on the air over KDRO in Sedalia, where he hosted both country music radio and television shows as “Cactus Jack.”
On weekdays his radio programming began just after 6 a.m. and continued throughout the day. At 7 p.m. on Sundays he hosted the half-hour television program “Cactus Jack’s General Store,” for which he built the set.
He read news, weather and held cue cards.
He also met the public.
A newspaper advertisement for an April 1955 dance at the Double B Corral, one mile south of Sedalia on U.S 65, featured the Byrd Brothers and the Drifting Tennesseans. It also mentioned the added attraction of “Cactus Jack On The Drums.”
Through such appearances his father earned a reputation as a friend of younger performers looking to break in, Dan Call said.
“He served as a master of ceremonies at country music concerts, although that is probably too grand a word for it,” he said. “He had done that more at small venues, probably bars.
“But he was adamant about it. He loved what he did and worked hard at it.”
By 1957 his father had moved to KCKN in Kansas City, 1340 on the AM dial. By playing country music over the radio, “Cactus Jack” became part of a long-beloved Kansas City broadcast tradition.
For almost 20 years, from the late 1930s through the mid-1950s, a Saturday night country music review known as “The Brush Creek Follies” aired over KMBC-AM.
During the 1950s KCKN operated as one of the country music radio stations directed by Cy Blumenthal, considered perhaps the first entrepreneur to build a network of large-market country stations.
But for disc jockeys, the industry was fluid.
Ted Cramer, a Country Radio Hall of Fame member who was a competitor of Jack Call’s in the 1950s and 1960s, can testify to the extreme volatility of the Kansas City radio market during those years.
KCKN had prospered during and after World War II by playing big band music during the war as well as vocalists like Rosemary Clooney and Jo Stafford during the early 1950s.
But KCKN suffered when Todd Storz, of Storz Broadcasting – today considered the innovator behind the Top 40 pop music radio format – acquired Kansas City’s WHB in 1954. Storz hired high-profile disc jockeys away from KCKN and soon dominated the local AM band.
Ultimately KCKN’s owner – the estate of former U.S. Sen. Arthur Capper of Kansas, who had died in 1951 – sold the station. Country radio entrepreneur Blumenthal eventually acquired the station in 1957.
“Cy hired Jack Call as his first program director at KCKN,” Cramer said.
With Call, KCKN made a splash with country. Blumenthal, Cramer said, authorized a promotional blitz with advertisements in The Kansas City Star-Times as well as billboards placed around town. KCKN soon distributed sheets advertising the station’s “Fabulous Fifty,” or top 50 country hits, a nod to WHB’s Top 40 format.
The KCKN hit surveys featured photos of the KCKN disc jockeys, including Jack Call, pictured wearing a cowboy hat and sitting behind a microphone,
Still, KCKN was at a disadvantage in the Kansas City market, Cramer said, in part because many of the high-profile Top 40 artists being played by WHB – such as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers – also appealed to country music fans.
“Sometimes you could hardly tell the difference between the country charts and the pop charts,” Cramer said.
“It was a big problem for KCKN.”
In 1959 Blumenthal moved away from the country format. Cramer moved from another Kansas City area station – KANS at 1510 – to KCKN, where he played pop hits for about a year.
“Jack Call and his group of country jocks went over to KANS and they went country there.”
During his Kansas City radio career, Don Call said, his father had operated with a measure of autonomy allowing him to observe an almost fierce belief in the value of individual relationships with both listeners and performers.
“Dad had his way of doing things,” Don Call said.
“When these artists would cut a new album, the norm was to send the album to all the radio stations to get them to play it.
“I can remember sitting in the office with Dad. He would get an album out of the mail, open it and throw the record in the trash. Then he would open another album and throw it in the trash.
“He looked at me one day and he said, ‘You know, if these singers aren’t proud enough of their albums to bring them to the station themselves, I’ll never play them.’
“It was more than just a job to him. It was about having a friendship with these guys.”
Call put a premium on maintaining a personal touch with listeners, as well. The KANS studios were located at Blue Ridge Center, which had opened in 1958. The radio station had been outfitted with picture windows through which shoppers could watch the disc jockeys broadcast.
“I can remember sitting on my father’s lap and waving at the people through the windows,” Don Call said.
That – plus a radio-friendly on-air voice – apparently resulted in an unusual bond with listeners. More than once Don Call remembers his parents accepting dinner invitations from listeners they didn’t know personally and had never met – but who nevertheless believed they knew Jack Call well.
“We were just kids and we didn’t know who these people were,” he said. “But then the next week, while on the air, Dad would say, ‘Happy anniversary to Bill and Gladys,’ or something like that.”
Meanwhile, over at KCKN, its pop music programming couldn’t dent WHB’s Top 40 dominance, and after a year KCKN returned to a country format in 1960.
Cramer remained, this time as program director.
“I hired a couple of jocks and we invented the modern country format,” he said.
“I ran it like a Top 40 station, in other words, with up-tempo production values. It caught on big time and in one month we had beaten KANS.
“Then KANS was sold and it went religious.”
By late 1962 Jack Call was between gigs.
On Dec. 5 he wrote to country star Jim Reeves, who apparently was pondering becoming part of the ownership of a Colorado radio station.
“If you do get it I would really like to go to work for you,” Call wrote to Reeves, according to a transcription of the letter posted on a Reeves tribute website.
“I am a hard worker Jim and the hours mean nothing to me. If you could use me I would like to be your program director and D.J. I know I could program that station just the way you like it.”
But then Call hooked on with KCMK-FM in Kansas City
“Jack went over to KCMK and turned that into an FM country station,” Cramer said.
According to the late Guy Smith, a colleague of Call’s at both KCKN and KANS, Call had approached the owners of KCMK, in those years one of the comparatively few stations available on the growing FM band.
The programming found at 93.3 FM had proved eclectic: In 1961 its listeners could hear, according to one newspaper radio program grid, shows such as “Waltz Time,” “Jazz Session,” “Night Sounds,” “Honky Tonk Time” and “Sounds of Strings.”
Call convinced station owners to commit to a country format.
He also found work for Guy Smith.
“You can see how I loved that guy like a brother,” Smith told The Star in 1993.
Today Jack Call seems an especially forward-thinking example of the vast numbers of post-World War II radio disc jockeys, said Chuck Haddix, director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“Playing country music on FM radio was a bold move on his part,” said Haddix, who also serves as host of the weekend “Fish Fry” programs over KCUR-FM.
“A lot of people back then didn’t have FM in their cars or even in their homes.”
Call also appears to have worked hard to build a personal brand in an industry notorious for its uncertainty, Haddix said.
”Disc jockeys at country or rhythm and blues stations often had short tenures and didn’t have any job security,” he said. “It would not be unusual at all to move from one station to another to try to step up”
Jack Call and Guy Smith started at KCMK in January 1963. But on Jan. 24 Call’s car and a truck collided near the intersection of Sterling Avenue and U.S. 40 in Independence.
He died the next day at old St. Joseph Hospital in Kansas City.
“It was a very difficult time,” Dan Call said.
As Guy Smith explained in 1993, he felt compelled to do something. One of his many contacts in the country music industry was a singer named Billy Walker, a Grand Ole Opry member who had enjoyed a hit, “Charlie’s Shoes,” in 1962.
“I started twisting arms,” Walker told The Star in 1993. One of the arms he twisted belonged to Randy Hughes, who was Walker’s manager – and also the manager for Patsy Cline.
The tribute show took shape. The advertisement in The Star the morning of Sunday, March 3, 1963, listed Walker, George Jones, Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas, Harold “Hawkshaw” Hawkins and Dottie West.
There were to be three shows – 2 p.m., 5:15 p.m. and 8 p.m. – at Memorial Hall. Tickets were $1.50 for adults and 50 cents for children.
Patsy Cline’s name had not appeared in that morning’s newspaper advertisement.
But she was waiting for the Call family backstage.
“I remember a lot of the artists getting down eyeball-to-eyeball with me, and saying nice things,” Dan Call said, recalling that afternoon.
“I remember being patted on the head. A lot of it is blurry to me today.
“But the one who stands out is Patsy Cline. She brought us back to a little secluded place behind the stage. There was no one else there – it was just Patsy, mom and my brother and I.
“I remember vividly how she looked. I remember her white dress and her red lipstick.”
In his brief encounter with Cline, Dan Call gained a new appreciation for the considerable regard such accomplished performers had for his father.
“That was part of the reason why the outpouring of love at that benefit concert was so strong,” he said.
“They really valued what he had been doing for them.”
The country performers who turned out for the benefit concerts, according to Ted Cramer, wanted to pay proper respect to a radio veteran who had stuck with the country format despite all the volatility in the Kansas City market.
“Those of us who program country stations in the large markets have a rapport with the record labels and the artists unlike our counterparts in pop music,” said Cramer, who now is in his 66th year in radio, on the air today at WGGE and WLYQ, both of them country stations located in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
“We are a much closer family and there’s no doubt Jack had a good relationship with those artists and their labels.”
During a 1993 interview Ann Wilson – the widow of Jack Call who by then had remarried – remembered her own encounter with Patsy Cline.
When she met the singer, as Wilson told The Star, Cline was not quite two years removed from her own car accident. In June 1961 Cline had suffered wrist and hip injuries, as well as a laceration across her forehead, after her car had collided with another in Nashville.
“She talked about how badly she had been hurt and how she didn’t know why the Lord had spared her,” Wilson said. “I told her it was because she had wanted to do good for someone else.
“I thought she was a beautiful person, outside and inside.”
To his family, the impact of Jack Call’s death proved seismic.
“When my dad died my mom was a stay-at-home mom, she didn’t even have a driver’s license,” Dan Call said.
Ann had been born in Gentry, Arkansas, in the extreme northwest corner of the state, in 1929, on the brink of the Great Depression.
In the early 20th century Gentry was known for its orchards. After attending formal schooling only through the fourth grade, according to Dan Call, his mother had served as an agricultural field worker, picking cotton and other crops with her siblings.
It was in Kansas City, where she had moved to find work, where she had met and married Jack Call.
After her husband’s death, she obtained her driver’s license. She also found a job in the cafeteria of what is now Nowlin Middle School in Independence.
“It was a minimum wage kind of job,” Dan Call said. “We did get a lot of help; people were very helpful to us.”
Still, he added, “It is a bit of a miracle that we survived.”
Yet their mother was determined to persevere, Don Call added.
“She got her own car and worked at that school for more than 20 years,” he said. “We stayed in the same house and she didn’t retire until the mortgage was paid off.”
His mother, according to Dan Call, also reconnected with her faith, attending services at Maywood Baptist Church in the Englewood district of Independence.
“My brother and I, we were going to church every Sunday and it wasn’t an option,” he said.
“Looking back now, I think some of the seeds can be found there for our future lives.”
Meanwhile, in the years following her 1963 death, Cline’s legend continued to grow. By the 1980s the Call family found itself occupying an unexpected place in popular culture history.
Filmmakers examined the circumstances of Cline’s death in two movies, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” released in 1980, and “Sweet Dreams,” which appeared in 1985.
The latter proved provocative regarding the Kansas City connections in Cline’s death. The film presents Cline, as portrayed by actor Jessica Lange, as a foul-mouthed singer in a troubled marriage.
“That’s right, I’m not here,” Lange, portraying Cline, yells at actor Ed Harris, portraying her husband Charlie Dick during an argument. “I’m out singing in every —-house between here and Kansas City so you can wear $30 silk shirts.”
That didn’t reconcile with Ann Wilson’s memories of the singer she encountered in 1963.
“I’m not saying she wasn’t like that,” Wilson said in 1993. “I’m just saying they didn’t show the beautiful Patsy Cline that I met.”
Also in “Sweet Dreams” Cline is depicted as being annoyed about having to go to Kansas City for the Jack Call benefit concert.
“I don’t believe it,” Lange says. “I got recording sessions starting Friday night; I gotta go to Kansas City to do a benefit for that disc jockey that died last month…”
Charlie Dick, husband of Cline, disputed that perception in his own 1993 interview with The Star.
“The show was no problem,” he said. “It was just because she had been traveling so much. We’d had a pretty hot schedule. She had been in Vegas for 35 days running in December ‘62.
“It wasn’t a case of her not wanting to be in Kansas City. She was just tired of being anywhere except home.”
Cline had arrived in Kansas City, Kansas, at old Fairfax Airport, as a passenger in the four-seat private plane piloted by her manager, Randy Hughes.
Following the March 3 Memorial Hall concerts, foggy weather had prevented Cline and Hughes from leaving that Monday. On Tuesday, March 5, the plane carrying both of them, along with Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, crashed near Camden, Tennessee.
On March 7, Jack Anglin, a Grand Ole Opry veteran, died in a car accident on his way to attend Nashville memorial services.
“I didn’t want to hear anymore,” Ann Wilson said in 1993. “It was enough.”
After the plane crash, there was enough regret to go around.
”Ann felt guilty because of Patsy Cline’s death,” Leonard Wilson, Ann’s husband, said during his wife’s 1993 interview in their Independence home.
“Well, you have a feeling for someone like that,” Ann Wilson had replied. “You just feel, if she hadn’t been here she might have lived, and the rest of them, too.”
It had gotten to Guy Smith, too.
“It still bothers me,” Smith had said two years before his 1995 death. “All we had been trying to do was raise money for Ann.”
His mother, Dan Call said recently, often declined media invitations to discuss her family’s connection to Cline.
But he has often thought of it in the more than half-century since.
“Today, if you go online and look up the name ‘Patsy Cline,’ you see either the name ‘Jack Call’ or the words ‘disc jockey from Kansas City,’ ” he said.
“So our families have been sort of forever connected.”
It’s possible, Call added, that Cline – who had survived her own car accident – felt uniquely connected to his family.
“No one really knows today what was in Patsy Cline’s heart when she came to Kansas City,” Call said.
“But, from what we can determine today – just from that one meeting and the kind words she’d had for us that day – we know she was a wonderful person who just wanted to help.”
Today both brothers believe their mother’s return to her faith influenced them in later years.
Don Call would serve as a minister to congregations in Bonner Springs and Eudora. Dan Call would become an ordained minister in the Assembly of God church. He also would pursue a career in Christian higher education, earning master and doctorate degrees from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri.
Today he directs the doctoral program and serves as a full-time professor at The King’s University, an evangelical college near Dallas and Fort Worth.
Today aspects of his family’s 1963 tragedy are still difficult for him to articulate and understand — chief among them the exact date of his mother’s death at age 83.
“My mom died on Jan. 25, 2013,” Dan Call said.
“With my mom passing 50 years later to the day of my father’s death – I don’t know how to put it into words,” he added.
“It almost has a sovereignty to it. It’s as if God was somehow in all of that, including my mother going back to the church.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.