Country showman Johnnie High, 80, loved to make stars of others

NORTH RICHLAND HILLS -- Starmaker Johnnie High, who enjoyed helping other people shine at his iconic Johnnie High's Country Music Revue for more than 30 years, died Wednesday afternoon at home, his family said.

His Opry-style show launched the careers of Nashville superstars including LeAnn Rimes, Gary Morris, the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack and many others.

Mr. High also made it possible for many North Texans with day jobs to live out their dreams onstage on weekends before members of a legendarily loyal audience, some of whom attended the show faithfully for years.

Mr. High died of congestive heart failure, his granddaughter said. He was 80.

"It's hard to let go of a man who has done so much for this industry," said longtime friend Bill Mack of Fort Worth, the "Midnight Cowboy" of country radio who now has a satellite-radio showcase.

"He was determined to help people get into one of the most complex businesses in the world."

Mack said Mr. High's professionalism was legendary.

"His shows always had a lot of class."

Free performances

Mr. High was born May 1, 1929, in Central Texas. He grew up in McGregor, and music was a major interest from a very early age, music journalist Dorothy Hamm said. He acquired a $6 guitar and when he was 13, hitchhiked to nearby Waco to audition for a radio show.

The station manager told him to get a better guitar, practice two hours every day and come back in a year, Hamm said.

Mr. High followed the advice, and when he was 14 he was given his own radio show, which was broadcast live, 6 to 6:15 a.m. five days a week, Hamm said.

"He went down at 6 in the morning and performed live for free every morning," Hamm said. "He didn't know you were supposed to get paid."

For several years, he was at the radio station, singing and accompanying himself on guitar. He collected words to songs from Country Song Roundup, a magazine that published lyrics, Hamm said. He couldn't read music nor did he need to. As with many other country musicians he played guitar by ear. He said he never missed a show nor was he ever late.

"He seemed to operate at a faster pace than everyone else," Hamm said. "He would read a book in a night. He seemed to get a lot more life in than everyone else."

Mr. High and Wanda Davis met and married in 1948 in Waco when they were still teenagers.

The revue

Mr. High began his country music show in 1974, when he and dance teacher Chisai Childs of Fort Worth bought and refurbished Grapevine's Palace Theatre. Five years later, Childs moved to Branson, Mo., and Mr. High opened his Saturday night show at Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth. It stayed there for 13 years before moving to Haltom City's Shannon Auditorium.

In 1995, Mr. High bought an old movie theater in Arlington and created the Arlington Music Hall. His dream of a permanent home for the show was complete.

"It just filled your heart every week to see that show," said Patsy Seeton of Arlington, who was a longtime revue fan and volunteer usher. She and husband Lee attended for 35 years, she said.

"We started going to the Grapevine show after we saw it advertised in the paper," Seeton said. "We became friends immediately and it just became a weekly thing."

Wanda High and their daughter, Luanne Dorman, worked behind the scenes at the revue. Granddaughter Ashley Smith, however, performed from age 8 onstage with her grandfather and has been hosting the show with him for several years.

Mr. High hadn't been to the revue for a month, Smith said, but before that he was seated in the front row every Saturday although he could no longer be onstage.

"You know how he was -- he had to make sure everything was running smoothly," Smith said.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Wednesday night. Smith said the revue will be dark Saturday night.

"We decided it was about Pa-Paw now, so we'll have a weekend to remember him and not have a show," she said.

She and her mother were at the Highs' home Wednesday afternoon when he died. He had been hospitalized twice during the past month for congestive heart failure, she said.

"We were all here, but we didn't realize that this was the day," Smith said.

Jon Rutherford of Lewisville, a vocalist and longtime revue regular, said he met Mr. High in 1995 and within a couple of months was performing on the show and receiving the polish and performing tips that Mr. High dispensed.

"He was like my father," Rutherford said. "What I do is because of him. He encouraged me and gave me an opportunity to do what I love."

Staff writer Mitch Mitchell contributed to this report, which includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

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