Bass Man and Television Pioneer: Walter Hearne, a Professional Musician with an Early Morning Job
An instrument the size of a full-grown man looms in the corner of Walter’s Hearne’s home by the window, holding vigil. The elephant in the room played a pivotal role in the life of a man who went from working in a casket factory to the first television station in eastern North Carolina. Not to mention getting a tantalizing job offer from a household name in the bluegrass and country music realm.
Born and raised in Edgecombe County, in Macclesfield, Hearne was clear about what led him to play his first instrument.
“Girls. I wanted to play in the band so I could be noticed,” he says.
He got a guitar first. “My brother had a guitar, but I had to buy one. I believe I was fourteen,” he remembers. “My brothers were all in service. My three older brothers were gone and I was at home. I was drafted, but they already had 3 out of our family so I didn’t have to go.”
Thankfully all of the Hearne boys made it home from World War II safely.
When he was 16, Hearne says, he got an old Ford from his uncle, and in turn, that got him a job at the casket factory in Pinetops. After he was a part of a band, they were asked to play for Christmas parties there.
But Hearne began going over to dances in Fountain even earlier, when he was 14 or 15 and started playing in bands when he was about 17. The first band he played in was the Carolina Country Boys. The band members had all gone up north to work in a factory, and when the war started, they came home. The band wanted a bass player, and although Hearne didn’t own one, he didn’t let that stand in his way.
He explains: “My first bass was a cello. The guys wanted me to play so bad with them–they come back from Maryland to Macclesfield, they wanted a bass man, and so they got me, and a cello was all they could find. So I learned the chords on the cello. And in less than a week they found a beat up stand up bass, and I traded it. It had pictures all over it. Queen Elizabeth and all that, because it was so bad.”
But soon after, the owner of a music store in Tarboro ordered a Kay bass for him, and it’s the one he still owns, standing like a watchman in the corner of his living room, and life.
“When I got that new one it smelled so good!” Hearne remembers, like it was yesterday.
His wife, Louise, chimes in to say he was playing that bass when she met him, and she was still in high school.
Hearne was playing with his band after a baseball game at a small stadium at a crossroads called “Appie,” in Greene County.
“I had just gotten my driving license,” Louise remembers. “And I was driving around a lot with my friends. My mother had bought me a new car. We happened to drive by the ballpark, and there was this stage, all lit up, and a band up there. So naturally we pulled in. And there he stood as a member of the band on the stage. They happened to take a break and he came down off the stage. And of course he headed for the girls. So we introduced ourselves and he wanted to know where we lived and all about us. And I said I cannot possibly give you directions. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll take you home. You just follow me in your car after the show.’”
And that was the beginning of a love story that has lasted for nearly 70 years.
The relationship he had with his beloved bass, however, almost ended soon after it began.
“I went to play in Virginia,” he says. “They had a show on Saturday night on TV or radio. And I was up there and had played the first job. Then I played the second job and laid my bass down behind the curtain and walked out to meet Louise’s uncle that happened to be there,” Hearne remembers.
After talking a bit, he thought he should go check on his bass. When he went back to where he left his bass, he discovered a man was attempting to switch his bass with another. “I come back just in time. I wouldn’t have known it until I got home, that I had that man’s old beat up bass.”
Concerning the logistical challenges of playing an upright bass, Hearne says that it didn’t make his arms sore: “I kind of leaned on it. I enjoyed it.”
With no frets, it seems like it would be a bit of a guessing game to know exactly where to play.
Hearne says simply, “If it’s a little flat, you slide up.
After high school Hearne had a job at a farm equipment plant in Tarboro that employed 5900 people. He was at work when he got a call from WNCT.
“They called me and talked to me 30 minutes,” he says. “They said ‘I want you to come tonight and talk to me,’” Hearne remembers. “I went that night–Louise went with me. And they signed me up. I said I need to give 2 weeks notice. They said, ‘Naw, you’ve got to be here in the morning at 5 o’clock.’ From that telephone call the day before, it won’t even 24 hours before I was working out there. And I worked there for 40 years.”
WNCT-TV signed on December 22, 1953, and aired an analog signal on VHF channel 9. For a considerable period of time channel 9 was the only station the people in some 40 counties of Eastern North Carolina were able to watch. Hearne was hired to play bass in the studio band, but also to learn the television business from the ground up: “I was the first one that the manager hired. I went to play music. We had to play live. If something happened to the network, we had to play until it would come back on. We had my bass at the TV station all the time.”
“He started off as the Boom Boy [moving the microphone around] and went to camera,” Louise remembers. “And he really did great with cameras. His last years there he was director. He directed from the control room.”
“It won’t long before they got a film projector and could put something on and play that,” he adds. “They had the morning news. I talked them into bringing Slim Short on and he was out there for 35 years. He hosted the Carolina Today show from 1959 – 1988. We were friends until he died.”
Hearne often manned the television camera for events outside the studio, and that included when John F. Kennedy’s motorcade drove into Greenville in 1960. He tells friends that a furniture store owner asked him to pass out coupons as people went by that day. When Kennedy passed close to him in his convertible and made eye contact, Hearne did as he was asked, and handed him one.
During the 1950s and ’60s, country music began sharing time with the beginnings of rock & roll. Hearne got a Fender electric bass, and Elvis Presley came to play in Wilson.
Along the way Hearne got another job offer from a musician who would go on to co-found the Country Music Association (CMA) and the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).
Louise remembers: “In the year 1955, I was graduating. We were not quite married. He was offered a job with Mac Wiseman. And he debated, back and forth, back and forth. And I really was torn and saddened because I wanted him to take that opportunity. But at the same time, I was graduating from high school and we were planning a future together. So he decided to let it go. Now and then I would ask him did he regret it. And he would say no. But I never know.”
But what Hearne sacrificed in terms of fame playing with a country music star, he acknowledges he gained in stability and a home life, and he continued playing with bands regionally. It was not unusual for Hearne to play in the Raleigh-Durham area until 1am or later and have to drive back to the station and go straight to work at 5am.
He was in a band called the Country Carolinians along with Lebb Brinson, Jerry Dunbar and Clyde Mattocks. They played local dances, television, military NCO clubs, and several times on the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond. They often played on Jim Thornton’s show, “Saturday Night Country Style” on Channel 11, broadcast from Durham and popular in the 1950s and early 60s.
Hearne also played with Buck Jones, a country music performer and DJ on WGTM from Wilson, on a television show called “Sing a Country Song.” Sponsored by “Blue Magic,” at least 13 of the shows were recorded in 1973 and shown on television stations in the region. The last band Hearne played with was from Rocky Mount, the Sundowners.
“We married in 1955,” Louise said. “Our first child was born in 1959. She’s a doctor of music, retired. Our son was born 17 months later. He’s just come back from Mozambique. He’s an American ambassador. So while Walter was doing all this playing, I was raising children.”
Louise, a musician herself, playing piano and organ in church for many years, has a faraway look in her eyes when she says, “He had opportunities. I could not have followed him. It was a hard decision to make, but it had to be made.”
One of Hearne’s favorite musicians was Hank Williams, Sr., who died at the age of 29, following a volatile lifestyle. Hearne will be celebrating 93 years of living on his next birthday. When Louise says, “We’ve had a very good life together,” it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than the fact that the instrument leaning expectantly in Hearne’s living room corner opened a lot of doors for Walter Hearne–and he knew which ones were right for him.