WGRM - Greenwood

Before the 1950s, relatively few African American voices were heard on the radio in the South. A major exception was live broadcasts of performances by gospel groups. During the 1940s this building housed station WGRM, which featured gospel music on Sundays. One of the most popular groups was the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers of Inverness, Mississippi, which included Riley King on guitar. King later became known as “B.B.” while working in Memphis.

Radio broadcasting took off in the United States in the 1920s, but for the next several decades the voices of African Americans were largely excluded. Notable exceptions were the character “Rochester,” played by Eddie Anderson on the Jack Benny Show, which ran from 1932 to 1955, and harmonica player DeFord Bailey, one of the first stars of the country music program Grand Ole Opry, which began a radio broadcast in 1927 over Nashville’s WSM.

Another exception was live broadcasts of gospel music, including a CBS network show that featured the influential Golden Gate Quartet that debuted in 1940. The group’s programs had a major influence on young Riley King, who much later adopted the nickname “B.B.” In the mid-1940s, King (b. 1925) was singing lead and playing guitar with an Inverness-based gospel quartet, the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers.

The group broadened their popularity through live Sunday afternoon broadcasts over radio station WGRM, which emanated from this building. King eventually became frustrated with the other quartet members’ reluctance to pursue a professional career and decided instead to focus on blues. In 1948 he moved to Memphis, where he found work as a disc jockey on WDIA, the first station in the United States to feature all African-American on-air personalities and broadcast content.

WGRM first went on the air in Grenada in 1938 and moved here in 1939. At the time it was one of only nine radio stations in the state. Most programming on WGRM was provided by the Blue Network, owned initially by NBC and after 1943 by ABC, with several locally produced music programs, including the one featuring King’s gospel group running on the weekends.

By the mid-1950s WGRM had moved to North Greenwood, and this building was occupied by WABG radio. In rural areas radio stations often doubled as recording studios, and the Greenwood-based band of pianist Bobby Hines recorded in such a setting, according to his guitarist Brewer Phillips. Recorded at WGRM were Matt Cockrell and L. C. “Lonnie the Cat” Cation, accompanied by the Hines band with talent scout Ike Turner also on piano. Both saw release in April 1954 on Los Angeles-based RPM, B.B. King’s label at the time. Cation’s single “I Ain’t Drunk (I’m Just Drinking)” later became a blues standard via covers by Jimmy Liggins and Albert Collins.

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