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Earle Farrell, A Native Texan, Embraced Memphis Radio

No self-respecting Texan would have stood for the imperfect representation of one of the finest books about rural Texas life. You can imagine why a lifelong Texan would have had trepidation about a movie being made of a beloved book, Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove”. Veteran broadcaster Earle Farrell was one of the doubters.

“I thought there was no way they could find the right people to play Gus or Woodrow,” Farrell said. “When I saw the opening scene with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, I thought, ‘Oh my god, they pulled it off.’ They had the mannerisms, the way they moved their hands to describe things.”

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Another movie shot in Texas was the viscerally disturbing No Country For Old Men, a Coen Brothers classic. Farrell was intimately familiar with where a good chunk of that was filmed.

“That was shot in the Davis Mountains,” Farrell explained. “I went to Buffalo Trails and Boyscout camp there, right near the Mexican border. We used to watch immigrants coming into the country in the valley. We hid, figuring they had machetes or something with more of a wallop.”

With his gravely Texas voice — in my mind’s eye — I can imagine Earle Farrell slowly riding a horse into downtown Memphis in 1978, a big hat, spurs, and saddle. Tying the horse off at the hitching post in front of the radio station.

Farrell’s career started in his home state of Texas and he has spent the past 40 years in the Memphis market. He has been in broadcasting, public relations, development, and business. Now he’s the host of The Earle Farrell 4Memphis Show, a lifestyle show about Memphis people, places, and events on The Mighty 990 KWAM.

“Memphis is the coolest place I’ve lived,” Farrell said. “And I’ve lived in Canada, Mexico, Dallas, and Austin. I knew Elvis lived here. He died right before I came to Memphis.”

During his time in Memphis, he’s interviewed Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sam Phillips.

“I got to know everybody in Memphis,” Farrell said. “Memphis people are interesting. They will shun you if you’re a prick. If they like you, they love you. If they don’t, they won’t say anything bad, they’ll just have nothing to do with you.”

One of his favorite encounters with a celebrity was when he had dinner with actor Anthony Quinn, star of Zorba the Greek, and Lust for Life, among many others.

“I knew a guy who owned two restaurants and one was the Riverside Grill near the Orpheum Theater in Memphis,” Farrell said. “It was a grand theater where Broadway shows would appear.”

Farrell said Zorba the Greek was at the theater and the owner of the Riverside Grill asked Farrell to join him and Quinn for dinner. Farrell said Quinn had a huge voice and talked very slowly.

“He was a great storyteller,” Farrell explained. “Quinn is from Mexico and told me he was wrapping fish in a newspaper in Chihuahua, Mexico when he came across an article looking for ethnic actors for a Cecil B. DeMille movie.”

Farrell said Quinn hopped a freight car and made his way to Hollywood where he passed himself off as a Native American who didn’t speak English. DeMille hired him. They started making the movie and about three-quarters of the way through shooting, he started dating DeMille’s daughter, Katherine.

“DeMille told Quinn he was hanging out with his daughter too much,” Farrell explained. “Quinn then let out a huge laugh and said he’d married the director’s daughter. Quinn was bigger than life.”

Farrell said he’s been lucky to interview so many fascinating people throughout his career. “It’s better than being a billionaire. And people love talking about themselves.”

Some of the people Farrell interviewed were less than stellar. “I can nicely say some people weren’t what I was expecting. I’m the kind of guy who tends to forget the negative things. You’ll have to remind me if someone wronged me,” Farrell laughed.

At 72, Farrell is a pretty good judge of human behavior and has come up with a theory about people. “I look at life in two ways; if something doesn’t make sense either you don’t have all the information, or somebody is lying. Those are the only two possibilities. Otherwise things would make perfect sense.”

That sums up every idea I’ve ever had of Texas.

Everybody has lied about something, Farrell explained. Sometimes to make them sound better or to save themselves from a bad fate.

“I was spokesperson for the Sheriff’s department for nearly four years,” Farrell explained. “You always had people dressing up their side of the story. In law enforcement, they’re all lying to you, trying to improve their own story. I don’t do Twitter or anything like that for that very reason.”

Farrell said Memphis is a generous city. People will quickly go out of their way to help someone else. “People will drive up to someone on the side of the road and hand them a fifty dollar bill, just because they know what it’s like to come from nothing.”

Farrell concedes Memphis has its share of crime.

“When we had the riots here a couple years ago, people took over the bridge, but it was peaceful. I think people realized it made no sense to burn down their own neighborhoods. People pleaded with them to not destroy the city.”

He shuns a lot of social media. Farrell doesn’t see it as a positive exercise.

“I think on Twitter and other platforms people are just trying to bait you,” Farrell said. “See how pissed off they can get you, push buttons. I don’t like that, just as I don’t like shows like Jackass, where these kids are intentionally hurting themselves.”

When you tune into Farrell’s show you should expect him to be talking about things you discuss at the kitchen table.

“I speak with authors, artists, entrepreneurs,” Farrell said. “You need people to come to your show who have led a very unique life. I meet interesting people and ask them on the show. They tell me they’re not interesting, but they are. I tell them I’ve met boring people, and you’re not one of them.”

Farrell recognized he might have found a direction in life during high school when the class toured a local radio station.

“One of the guys there said I had a good voice and asked if I’d ever thought about broadcasting,” Farrell explained. “I said ‘You really think I could be on the radio?’ He told me I’d have to lose the accent. I did. I can turn on the voice for radio, making it more homogenized. More colloquial, succinct.”

Farrell grew up going to see a lot of movies with his mother. His father was building natural gas pipelines around North America. He recalled seeing Some Like it Hot, with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe.

“My eyes lit up when I saw that movie,” Farrell remarked to his mother. She said she wasn’t surprised. “What can I say? I saw talent when I saw it,” Farrell said.

He enjoyed westerns but was never into space movies or horror movies.

“I saw The Exorcist when it was at theaters and it freaked me out,” Farrell said. “I knew the devil was around but didn’t know he could get into you. Make your head spin and have all that green slime, make you do stuff.”

One of Farrell’s favorite films is The Old Man and the Sea, with Spencer Tracy, based on Ernest Hemmingway’s classic novel.

“I was just thinking about this last weekend,” Farrell said. “As you get older your perspectives change. I feel so differently about that film now than I did when I was a kid. When I was young I couldn’t understand how somebody would risk his life for a fish. I thought it was pathetic. I think I understand why the old man fought so hard. The sacrifice.”

The first time Farrell heard Elvis Presley was in an alley in Odessa, Texas when he was a kid.

“The alleys were like a wonderland,” Farrell said. “People were always throwing away cool stuff like a shovel or tricycle.”

In the alley Farrell watched a man working on his car, back in the day guys still did that. The man was listening to a transistor radio.

“As a natural interviewer, I asked him ‘Whatcha’ doin’?’ He started telling me he was changing spark plugs,” Farrell explained. “Then a song came on the radio. It was ‘Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog.’ The guy said to me, ‘That’s Elvis Presley and he’s going to be big.’”

A few days later Farrell said his family had a small radio on top of the refrigerator at their home in Odessa.

“We’d listen to The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Jack Benny,” Farrell said. “Suddenly ‘Hound Dog’ came on the radio. I turned to my mother and said, ‘That’s Elvis Presley. He’s going to be big’. I asked someone close to Elvis, George Klein, if he thought Elvis would have liked me. Klein said, ‘You both like guns, women. You’d get along great.’”

Odessa, Texas often gets a bad reputation, but Farrell defends his hometown.

Nobody who lived there likes to think of the place as horrible, Farrell said. However, Farrell admits H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger wrote an honest book in Friday Night Lights.

“Odessa was a great place to grow up, a special breed of people,” Farrell said. “A lot of loyal people. Nothing but deserted oil rigs, it wasn’t a pretty place that didn’t have much going for it. With the exception of the world’s largest Jack Rabbit, and a meteor crater outside of Odessa.”

So what kind of music would you associate with a guy that grew up in Texas and moved to Memphis? If you guessed the Bee Gees, you win a bowl of soup.

“I think there’s no better music than the Bee Gees in Saturday Night Fever,” Farrell said. “From the opening scene of John Travolta walking down the sidewalk when the music took over the scene. I was in Dallas when that film came out. I couldn’t believe how people like John Travolta could learn to dance like that.”

His love of music also extends to Barry White and Al Green.

“I met Al Green once,” Farrell said. “At one time Green was a reverend and didn’t perform any of his pop music.”

When Green started to perform again, Farrell said he reached out to Green’s management to see if he could set up an interview. Management said they’d ask and get back to him.

“They called back and said Al Green would love to talk with me and how he’s watched me on television as a news anchor for years,” Farrell explained. “Now that’s a strange feeling when you think about somebody drinking coffee at their kitchen table, watching you on television while they’re in their underwear.”

Jim Cryns
Jim Cryns
Jim Cryns writes features for Barrett News Media. He has spent time in radio as a reporter for WTMJ, and has served as an author and former writer for the Milwaukee Brewers. To touch base or pick up a copy of his new book: Talk To Me - Profiles on News Talkers and Media Leaders From Top 50 Markets, log on to Amazon or shoot Jim an email at [email protected].

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