I was in the tenth grade of high school when I ventured one Saturday to the local radio station, WHPB, in nearby Belton, South Carolina. It was a few minutes drive from my home in Honea Path and I drove my old 1942 Willys army jeep to the station parking lot.
Being the weekend, there was only one person there—the on-air DJ—who was doing his shift. Through the glass control room window facing the outer lobby, he motioned me inside.
I introduced myself. He was a friendly fellow and introduced himself as Charlie Moore. It was a quiet time at the studio and he engaged me in conversation. I told him I was in high school and wanted to work in radio part-time. “How do I get a job here?,” I asked.
Learn the ropes, Charlie responded. Then he handed me the opportunity of a lifetime. I was welcome to hang out and watch what he did. Maybe if I picked enough skills, I could get hired at the station. That’s all I needed to hear.
Every weekend in the following weeks I joined Charlie Moore on his shift. I learned a few things about him that I used to my advantage. When he wasn’t working at the radio station, Charlie was on the road singing bluegrass music. Musicians made little money performing in those days and Charlie needed the salary from the radio job, as well as the station’s studio facilities to record his music.
I also noted that Charlie was always tired and was taking amphetamine pills. I soon learned that if I could run the audio board and play the records, it would allow Charlie to lie on the couch and catch catnaps between records. I had found my entree.
I became so proficient at letting Charlie sleep that I would often wake him just before he had to go on the air. I’d hold a microphone over him while he lay on the couch, and he’d introduce the next record.
I quickly won a friend in Charlie Moore, who appreciated a young kid doing all the dirty work while letting him catch a few winks. As I gained more skills, Charlie had me run the audio board and record his music in the studio. Whether the station management knew or didn’t know about these recordings, I’ll never know. But on weekends, when no one else was around, the studio would suddenly fill with bluegrass musicians.
In the studio at WHPB, we had a classic RCA 44B ribbon microphone in a small studio connected to an RCA board and Roberts and Magnacord reel-to-reel tape recorders. It was a similar set-up in that era to the Sun or Stax Studios where some great music was being recorded only a few hours away. Performers could stand all around the big microphone and sing. I recorded hours of mono recordings of Charlie and his band members.
It would be forty years later before I would learn that many of those players were members of Bill Monroe’s great band, the Blue Grass Boys, and the tapes were made into recordings that are still played on jukeboxes to this day. Charlie Moore told me very little.
I had completely lost touch with Charlie Moore and when I began to look into his life. I was surprised at what I didn’t know. When we worked together, I knew nothing of his major musical and songwriting talent. I knew him only in the context of the radio station.
Searching on the Internet, I discovered that Travers Chandler, a professional bluegrass musician whose band, Avery County, is based in the Asheville, North Carolina area, has written about Charlie Moore. In fact, Travers Chandler revers Charlie, crediting him as a major influence in his own career. I called Travers to ask about Charlie.
“When I heard him sing on Truck Drivers Queen, I knew I wanted to be a bluegrass entertainer, but even more importantly I wanted to SING like Charlie Moore,” Travers told me. In fact, Traver’s band, Avery County, was named as a tribute after a Charlie Moore album by the same name. Travers never knew Charlie personally, but his father did. They were drinking buddies.
When I worked with Charlie Moore at WHPB, he was in his late 20s. Only a year or two earlier, he had teamed with Bill Napier, a former member of the Clinch Mountain Boys. Moore and Napier signed a recording contract with King Records and began performing on television in Greenville and Spartanburg S.C., and in Panama City, Florida.
I remember watching Charlie on television early in the morning before going to school. It was hard for me to grasp his grueling life and his constant working schedule. He would be up at 5 a.m. to do the TV show and then out in the evening to play personal appearances. On weekends, he would work at WHPB. At least I better understand why he was always tired and taking those pills.
Charlie never introduced me to the musicians I recorded, but there’s a good chance I also recorded he and Bill Napier. “I know there were lots of people who recorded in Belton at WHPB who were members of Bill Monroe's band. Many essential recordings of legends were made in places like Belton, and at little radio stations in Virginia and North Carolina,” Travers told me.
“I know that Carl Story recorded some there in the 1960s and there’s a good chance that you recorded a bunch of stuff there that ended up on vinyl that people seek out today. I have to believe that Charlie had a hand in it, because Charlie and Carl were tight at one time,” Travers continued.
“You didn't know then what you were part of. It was legendary. At that time, musicians were starving to death. The tapes recorded at the radio stations would be sent to the record labels the artists were working with and they would be pressed and released. Typically as 45s. A lot of times, it was just a wink and nod with the stations. Sometimes the stations were fine with it.”
At the time a lot of bands were working out of radio stations. In the late 50s and early 60s, bluegrass music almost perished. If an artist was making a record, it was on a shoestring budget type deal where little or no money was provided for recording or expenses or anything else.
Travers told me that even Bill Monroe didn't make much money in those days. “Bill was a stubborn man. He had a painful childhood. He was guarded in everything he did. He didn't trust anybody. And he was not a businessman. It wasn’t until the mid to late 1960s that he trusted someone enough to be his manager did he make any money.
“As to his band, back in those days it was a lot of swap and go. In the early 60s, somebody would leave the Stanley Brothers and go to work with Charlie and Bill Napier. Then they’d go work for Monroe or Stanley, then they’d get tired of that and come back. That’s just the way it was.”
Charlie Moore was close friends with Carter Stanley, one of the Stanley Brothers. “Carter was Charlie’s idol. Charlie wanted to be just like Carter. Both went out the same way. Carter drank himself to death at 41. Charlie drank himself to death at 44,” Travers said. “When Charlie and Bill Napier broke up in about 1968, Charlie went to radio full time and became an MC at bluegrass shows and festivals. Charlie remained tight with everybody. He was friends with Ralph Stanley.”
Travers said he talked with Ralph Stanley about Charlie. “Ralph said my brother and Charlie Moore were the two greatest songwriters I've ever seen.”
Ironically, the great James Brown, who was also on King Records, ran the audio board for Charlie and Bill Napier in the Cincinnati, Ohio studio in the early days.
“Charlie would arrive at King and have to record 12 songs and wouldn't have any material,” Travers said. “Charlie was worn out. There was a coffee shop across the street and Charlie and Bill would go over there, sit down, and Charlie would write songs on a napkin. In an hour or so, he'd have 10 or 12 songs and they'd go the studio and work with the band. Bill Napier would come up with the melody and then they’d cut the record.”
In the mid 1970s, Charlie continued to struggle in the U.S. but began to find a following in Europe in places like Belgium, France and Holland. His luck, however, ran out. He began drinking heavily and looked old and frail by his early 40s. Charlie became ill on the way to a show in West Virginia. Taken to a hospital, he went into a coma. He died on Christmas Eve, 1979.
Ironically, Charlie Moore gave me an entry into an industry that became my life’s work, but I never knew his story until I hit my 60s. I only knew him as an incredibly nice guy who took the time to help a kid. Little did I know that he was a brilliant songwriter and musician and would leave behind stacks of unrecorded songs.
Bluegrass musician Jimmy Martin told Travers Chandler that Charlie Moore was one of the greatest singers ever in bluegrass and country music. Charlie could have been a country star in the 1960s, Martin said, but he refused to stray from what called his old time “hillbilly” music.
“Charlie almost came along at the wrong time,” Travis noted. “There was money to be made in those days. But he was always a step behind. It was a hard luck career.”
My work at WHPB won me a South Carolina State Broadcasters Association scholarship to the University of South Carolina. It was my ticket out of the tiny town of Honea Path. After I left in 1966, I never spoke to Charlie Moore again. It took nearly 43 years for me to learn his story.
The only known live performance footage of Charlie Moore.