Davie Lee White: Early Rockabilly Drummer Became A Top Country And Gospel Music DJ
Davie White’s father thought his son was a conscientious student who liked rising early to get ready for school. Often, Davie would be up and half-dressed when his father awoke. Andrew White didn’t realize that he was catching his son undressing for bed after a nightclub gig.
“He would sneak out and would just be coming in,” laughed his wife, Lou White. “So, he would have to get dressed again and go to school without any sleep.”
Davie Lee, as he became known professionally, began performing at KDNT, his hometown radio station in Denton, Texas, when he was 13. By 18, he was the drummer for the rockabilly band Sid King and the Five Strings and a disc jockey at KDNT where singer Willie Nelson was in sales, Bill Moyers did the news and Pat Boone was a regular guest.
He left the band in 1968, to join a “dream team” of jocks at the premiere country music station in the St. Louis market, WIL Radio. In 18 years at WIL, the Country Music Association ranked Mr. Lee among the top five country DJs in the nation seven times. He went on to gain success as a gospel disc jockey and as a voice-over artist. Perhaps his most memorable pitch was one that drove the thirst of millions: “This Bud’s for you.”
Mr. Lee, whose deep Southern drawl became one of the most recognizable voices in St. Louis, died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, at the Festus Manor Nursing Center in Festus, Mo. He was 80.
A memorial service is being planned.
A Rockabilly Boy Band
Even some of Mr. Lee’s most ardent fans didn’t know that he was a “rocker” before rock and roll had a name.
He was featured on KDNT Radio in Denton as a member of DJ Pete Burrows’ Range Riders Country Band when he was 13. In 1952, he was recruited by a childhood friend, Sid King, to become the drummer for one of the nation’s earliest “boy bands.”
"When I joined the group, they said `You've gotta play drums.' I'd never played drums," Mr. Lee, a vocalist told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996. "I was never a real good drummer, but I was loud and could keep a beat."
Sid King and the Five Strings, originally called the Western Melody Makers, were all neighbors in Denton. The band signed with the Texas record label Starday in the early 1950s. They soon switched to Columbia, a major label. The company dressed the boys in $400 rhinestone cowboy suits and marketed them as a brother act.
“All of a sudden we were Dave King, Sid King, Mel King, Kenny King and Bubba (Billy) King,” Mr. Lee said.
The Five Strings played the Big D Jamboree in Dallas and the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, then rivals to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. They were dubbed “The Youngest Band in the Land” by Billboard in 1955. In 1956, they were voted Billboard's Top Ranked Show Band.
For most of the ’50s, the band shared billing with performers who would become musical giants, among them: Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, George Jones, Pat Boone and Elvis Presley.
All of the “King” boys were raised on country music, but WLAC, a Nashville R&B station, introduced them to artists such as Fats Domino, the Platters, the Coasters, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
Like many other groups of the era, the young band was breaking new musical ground; and Mr. Lee said Columbia didn’t know what to do with the evolving sound. Nevertheless, the group made its mark throughout the ’50s with novelty songs like Who Put the Turtle in Myrtle's Girdle and Drinking Wine Spoli Oli, one of the songs written by Mr. Lee.
In the late '50s, the band opened its own nightclub, the 21 Club, in Conroe, Texas.
To Hollywood and Back
By 1960, Mr. Lee had left the Five Strings and gone into radio full-time. His first year on the air at KMCO in Houston, he was named “Mr. DJ USA.” The award propelled him to Nashville, where he went on the air at the venerable WSM and sang at the Opry. He later worked at Texas stations in Conroe, Austin and KVIL in Dallas, where he made the cover of a teen magazine and was named Country Music Gentleman. He moved to St. Louis to become one of WIL’s first on-air personalities and one of its most influential voices.
“He had a huge, huge following of listeners,” marveled Joe Stephenson, a sales manager at WIL from the mid ’70s to the mid-’80s.
Once during a sales promotion, Stephenson recalled, Mr. Lee was broadcasting from a nearby location, imploring people to visit a West County car dealership. A man soon stopped by and said he wanted to meet Davie Lee and buy a truck.
The sales manager quickly got Mr. Lee to the showroom.
“The guy bought the truck on the spot,” Stephenson said. “I was just absolutely flabbergasted; and the sales manager was about jumping out of his skin he was so excited.”
His influence extended to enraptured youngsters. One was Terry Fox, now with KQQZ 1190 AM, who said he wanted to be in radio since fifth or sixth grade. When Fox went to KUSA in 1986, Mr. Lee was there.
“He said ‘Young’n, I remember you used to hang around WIL’,” Fox said. “He was a great influence. He was very nice, very open and fun. He was a great influence, a legend.”
After leaving WIL, Mr. Lee headed to Hollywood to do advertising voice-overs. He did more than 3,000 commercials for various sponsors, including the Budweiser spot for Anheuser-Busch.
“It was kind of humiliating going to all those cattle calls and being looked over,” he told the Post-Dispatch in 1991. ''But it was great fun.''
From 1989 to 1996, Mr. Lee worked the overnight shift at KUSA and hosted a popular Sunday morning gospel show.
The transition was easy for a man who grew up on southern gospel, from the Oak Ridge Boys, with whom he once sang, to black gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
“He liked black gospel,” said his wife. “He liked the energy in the black churches.”
Mr. Lee later managed station KHAD in DeSoto, before returning to gospel music at WEW in St. Louis from 1998 to 2002, where he also read favorite Bible stories. Each year at WEW, he was voted the market's top Southern Gospel Music DJ. He also worked as the voice of Internet-based of steelradio.com.
In 1999, Mr. Lee was nominated for the Country Disc Jockey Hall of Fame and was inducted into the St. Louis Radio Hall of Fame in 2005.
Davie Lee White was born Jan. 22, 1934, the youngest of Jessie Dikes White and Andrew White’s three sons.
As a young man, he tried getting a tattoo representing his childhood nickname: Mouse. It was never finished because he said the process was too painful.
Margaret “Lou” Owens, a Southwestern Bell Telephone operator, had never listened to Mr. Lee on the radio when one of her friends convinced her to go with her to WIL to get his autograph. He later tracked her down through her chief operator. They were married on Aug. 23, 1970.
Mr. Lee attended college in Denton for about a year, before diving into a music career that he would never voluntarily relinquish.
“Davie always said that he was the luckiest man in the world because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do,” said his wife.
Mr. Lee, a masterful storyteller whose signature sign-off and favored autograph was “sleep warm,” was preceded in death by his parents and two brothers, Elden White and Earl White.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Lee’s survivors include a son, Jay White and a daughter, Donna (Steven) LaBruyere, both of St. Louis, and two grandchildren, Cody LaBruyere and Kellen White.