Don Harris, longtime WBAP/820 AM personality, dies at 75

Posted Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Don Harris, whose deep, resonant voice captivated WBAP/820 AM listeners for more than 30 years, died Monday in Waco. He was 75.

Mr. Harris spent most of his 42-year broadcasting career at WBAP, where he started in 1965 when it was based on Fort Worth’s Broadcast Hill and played mostly big-band music. He was key to the station’s transition to a country format in 1970, and continued there into the ’90s as WBAP made the transition to a news-talk station.

When he retired at the end of 1997, he was doing two non-political talk shows, Good Morning Texas from 5 to 6 a.m., and Hello Texas at noon. Both were among the top five shows in their time slots in DFW when he retired at age 59.

“I watched my dad work until he couldn’t do anything but sit down and wait to die.” Mr. Harris told the Star-Telegram at the time. “I’ve still got life and decent health, and I’d like to enjoy that with my family.”

Josh Holstead, president of the Texas Radio Hall of Fame, announced Mr. Harris’ death on the TRHoF Facebook page. Mr. Harris was inducted into the hall in 1997, and worked with Holstead’s father, Joe Holstead, at WBAP.

Mr. Harris, who was born Jan. 12, 1938, near Meridian, grew up in the Lake Whitney area of Bosque County. He worked on his father’s farm, sharecropping and raising a few cattle. His real love, however, was music, and he listened to WBAP and other stations on a battery-powered Sears radio.

In 1956, at age 18, Mr. Harris attended Elkins Institute in Dallas, earning a radio engineer’s license and landing a job at a 1,000-watt radio station in Wewoka, Okla. He worked seven days a week, spinning records and broadcasting everything from soap operas to baseball games, according to the 1997 Star-Telegram story.

Mr. Harris quickly moved to Cleburne’s KCLE and spent eight years there working to refine his radio voice, which originally had such a Texas accent to it that Mr. Harris said he sounded “like a cross between Gomer Pyle and Jethro.” After eight years of listening to taped playbacks of himself, Mr. Harris developed the voice that has been described as smoky and resonant.

“That deep, rich baritone voice of his just naturally flowed out of him during conversation,” says Tyler Cox, WBAP’s operations manager, who worked with Mr. Harris beginning in 1992. “After Don had already retired, a bunch of us went to the funeral for [WBAP personality] Don Day. I’m standing there with a lot of WBAP alums that I hadn’t seen in a long time, and standing there was a guy I didn’t recognize — and it was Don Harris. … He was just standing there, quietly observing everything. And then he spoke, and you knew it was Don.”

Mr. Harris moved from KCLE to WBAP in 1965, when the station still had a big-band format. When WBAP switched to a country-music format in 1970, Mr. Harris became the morning-show host and helped establish the station’s “country gold” format.

Among the country stars he interviewed were Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton, who kissed him in front of 40,000 people during a concert at Arlington Stadium. But his favorite interview was from the big-band era: multifacted entertainer Jimmy Durante, who “had such an aura about him,” Mr. Harris told the Star-Telegram in 1997.

As WBAP began moving away from its country-music format in the early ’90s and toward the news-talk format it still has today, Mr. Harris continued doing the agriculturally-oriented Good Morning Texas, but his 9 a.m.-to-noon music show evolved into a talk show — although it still leaned more toward news, information and entertainment than political talk.

According to the 1997 Star-Telegram profile, Mr. Harris was disturbed by the format change, but he stayed at the station where he had been for decades. Cox says Mr. Harris played the last song during daytime hours at WBAP: Don McLean’s American Pie, with its refrain about “the day the music died.”

“The following week, he started doing the talk show,” Cox says. “The result was, we got not one complaint about what happened to the music, because Don Harris, that friendly voice that had always been there, was still there.”

In 1994, the 9 a.m. slot would be taken over by Mark Davis, who remained with the station for 18 years and is now with KSKY/660 AM. Mr. Harris moved into the Hello Texas slot at noon.

“While I was sliding into what had been his show, I still saw him every day, and he was the picture of gracious kindness,” Davis says of Mr. Harris, via email. “I’ll never forget that, or the skills he brought to any show he performed. Don’s voice had the kind of comfortable resonance that even though I had just arrived, I felt like I had been listening to him for years.”

Cox and other colleagues say that off the air, Cox didn’t take himself too seriously.

“He had a great sense of humor and loved finding the funny stuff in everyday life,” Cox says. “He was good at poking fun of himself as well. He didn’t have an ego bone about that. The mark of a great person who’s on the radio is, ‘Are they the same off the air as they are on the air?’ And that was definitely Don.”

Mr. Harris, who lived in Meridian, is survived by his wife of 57 years, Teddy; sister, Betty Myers, of Morgan; sons, Keith Harris of Joshua, Kent Harris of Meridian and Kelly Harris of Grapevine; seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Services will be held at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, in the Meridian First Baptist Church. Memorial donations may be made to the North Bosque Helping Hands, 415 S. Hill St., Meridian, Texas, 76665. Lawson Funeral Home in Meridian is handling arrangements.

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

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