I missed a few days of work last week and during that time – an intimation of mortality, I guess – my friend Lee Davis passed away.
Lee had hundreds of friends and probably didn’t make the distinction between “close” and “occasional.” He liked most people and treated them well, so you couldn’t tell the difference. For the last 10 years or so, Lee had worked less in sports and more as a conservative talk-show host at various stops around the radio dial in Birmingham, so I saw him less. His opinions were rarely my opinions, but you never questioned his sincerity. He wasn’t going to shop his principles for rating points, or – even in these acrimonious times – to hold a personal grudge over a political position.
We were closer when Lee was part of a bustling sports radio scene in Birmingham around 20 years ago, co-hosting a midday show called “The Sports Jamboree” with Randy Armistead (who passed away last year). Times change, and sports media has changed profoundly, so to confess to a soft spot for “Sports Jamboree” isn’t to say that today’s proliferation of sports talk in both Birmingham and Tuscaloosa is better or worse. There are plenty of good shows on the air these days.
Davis and Armistead (who will be “Lee and Randy” from this point) were different. They weren’t the titans of talk radio in the market. Paul Finebaum was already a fixture, laying the foundation for the mighty empire he rules today. They were throwbacks to a different time, an Alabama fan (Davis, fanatically) and an Auburn fan (Armistead) who’d been born and bred in the over-the-mountain suburbs of Birmingham. They talked on the radio the same way that they’d have been talking at Gus’s Hot Dogs or Niki’s West over lunch if there hadn’t been any microphones present. They didn’t aspire to take their show “national.” They just enjoyed what they did, which was mainly to talk about local stuff that they found interesting.
That meant plenty of Alabama and Auburn talk, of course. Davis was a deep Alabama fan. He could cite reams of statistics, especially about the Crimson Tide teams of Bear Bryant. People who tried to stump him usually failed, but it wasn’t the sort of computer-based analytics that statistical wizards can recite today. It was knowledge that you only get as a young boy or girl, poring over those statistics – Most Touchdowns! Most Passing Yards! – out of sheer love. He also had an enduring soft spot for the players who had been part of those teams.
They’d also talk, with actual interest, about other local sports. They gave college basketball some rare and much-needed air time. They would host prep coaches. One of my favorite “Sports Jamboree” shows ever was when the guest was Sterling Brewer, the announcer for the old “Saturday Night Wrestling” shows on WBMG. Brewer, a thoughtful man who had come from a hard-news background, didn’t simply regale the listeners with stories about the time Tojo Yamamoto whacked the hero of the week with a wooden shoe. (This happened often.) Instead, he reflected as a man who knew what wrestling was about but cared enough for his audience not to insult them, to treat it all seriously. Randy and Lee did the exact right thing with that interview – they let him talk.
I wasn’t a frequent guest (because I was frequently on with Finebaum, I think) but I enjoyed the appearances. You could talk about anything and they’d let you go. They’d even take an interest.
Even if someone did such a show today, it might be played as an Alabama/Auburn screamathon. Randy and Lee indulged such callers, but with respect. They also had callers that wouldn’t have fit on most other shows. Somewhere out there, I am sure that “King From Birmingham” still carries on the lonely fight for more female umpires.
I’m sorry that Lee is gone, because he was a good person. And I’m sad that those times, inevitably, are gone, because you don’t have to have much exposure to the world today to know that they are gone for good.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.