IF YOU WERE A TEENAGER IN 1960s CHATTANOOGA, CHANCES ARE YOU LISTENED TO TOMMY JETT ON THE RADIO.
AT 74, HE STILL LIVES FOR SHOWTIME.
BUT HE'S GOING THE WAY OF THE DISCS HE USED TO SPIN.
By Tyler Jett
Photography by Maura Friedman
Under the Dixie Freeze overhang, away from the fathers inspecting classic cars and the mothers tapping their feet to oldies music and the teenagers flirting in the parking lot, a thin old man leaned on a cane, alone.
Tommy Jett, 74, a member of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame, used to be at the center of the National Cornbread Festival’s car show. But this spring, after hosting the event for 10 years, Jett watched a younger DJ hold the mic. He came to the show anyway. He didn’t want to disappoint his fans.
“That’s been a Tommy Jett city for about 50 years,” he said of South Pittsburg. “They’re just good people.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Jett was an afternoon drive-time legend on Chattanooga’s WFLI radio. Don’t call him a DJ, though. He was a “personality,” the voice of a generation, the guide to music and beyond, a pipeline to the stars, a walking espresso shot who brought the airwaves to life with crude humor and fast talk.
He appeared at concerts, birthdays and bar mitzvahs for pay. In the heyday of AM radio in the middle decades of the 20th century, every city had a Tommy Jett. Now, in failing health, Jett stands on the outskirts of fame.
Last month, outside the Dixie Freeze, some old friends stopped by to catch up with Jett. But for most of the evening, people walked past him as songs like Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” blasted through the speakers.
“Hey,” a man in his 60s said, approaching Jett at the car show. “Are you that DJ?”
Jett nodded, shook the man’s hand and prodded him with questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? Did your family listen to the show?
Later, Jett searched the parking lot. He recalled another fan asking him to sign a car window, but he couldn’t remember what the vehicle looked like.
He walked toward a group of men standing next to a black hot rod.
“Excuse me,” he said.
A man leaned in to hear Jett over the oldies music.
“Did I autograph this car for you?” he asked.
For a beat, the men just stared. They considered Jett’s rings, his shades.
“No sir,” one man answered, finally. “You did not.”
Stooped and shuffling, Jett left the show.
In 1961, the year of the Freedom Riders and the Bay of Pigs and the debut of the Beach Boys, Tommy Jett hopped on the air for the first time. His high-pitched voice introduced rock ‘n’ roll to Chattanooga teenagers.
“Tommy Super Jett heeeeere! Swish in the sky for the big Jet Fliiiii! Your ever loving leadeeeeeeer!”
Over the years, girls asked him to give a shout out to their boyfriends, knowing they were listening. Men who shipped off to Vietnam heard his voice on quiet nights in the jungle and thought of home. High schoolers hid under the covers with transistor radios turned down low, afraid their parents might hear.
Jett’s show, “Night Train,” brought people together. They talked about him and the music he played in school cafeterias, offices and drive-ins. But with time, the prominence of shows like his has eroded.
Today there are 67 stations in the Chattanooga area competing with Internet and satellite radio. There are no local radio personalities, no guides. Many stations rely on pre-set playlists. They don’t hire Tommy Jetts anymore.
Technology has created options, and options — while good in many ways — chip away at shared experiences.
“Tommy Jett is a dying breed,” said his co-host, Evan Cruise. “People like that, they’re a dying breed. They’re coming through, and that’s it.”
And if you ask Jett, he’ll say this is a bad change. He’ll talk for quite a while about how it used to be, how it will never be again:
“This city is full of radio stations. Most of them are duds. They don’t have anybody with talent. … I don’t call that radio. Computers have ruined radio. Why would you listen to a radio when you have accessibility to any song in a manner of seconds? … There ain’t going to be anybody left. The kind of show we do should last until infinity.
“But I’m going to die.”
Tommy Jett was born in 1940 in Old Hickory, Tenn., as Tommy Reynolds, the youngest of six children. He was surrounded by music. His mother taught piano and his brother sang.
He loved music, loved how a couple of instruments and a man’s voice could change how he felt, how he thought. Really, though, more than the actual sounds, he loved the feeling of being an entertainer.
He wanted everyone to look at him, to notice him, to care what he had to say.
He idolized famous broadcasters like Wolfman Jack, who created on-air identities and cultivated their own celebrity. He loved the Wolfman’s scratchy voice, how he howled on the air and instructed his listeners to get naked.
At his first job out of school at a fledgling AM station in Chattanooga, he called himself Tommy Wayne, replacing his last name with his middle name. But the station’s owner told him it had to go. The owner wanted all his DJs to use flight-related names, and he turned Tommy Wayne into Tommy Jett — as in, “Tommy Jett of WFLI Jet Fli.”
The name stuck. So did he.
Jett became popular for his midnight show. He drank beer on the air, talked to listeners on the phone and joked about his sexual escapades.
“I don’t know anybody who didn’t listen to him back in the ’60s,” said his wife, Charlene.
She and Jett went on their first date about 35 years ago, back when everyone in the room fixed their eyes on him. He was tall and slender with long, black hair. He took her to a lounge that night, but they barely talked. Fans swarmed Jett and asked for stories.
Hey now, Tommy Jett. What was Fats Domino like?
“Great guy! Super nice guy! He was about three sheets to the wind. I probably was, too!”
And what about Little Richard, Tommy Jett? What’s he like?
“Wild! Crazy! Just real hyper! You would have had to have been there in the moment. And I’m pretty sure he was high on something! Probably cocaine! A lot of them are, man!”
And James Brown? What about him, TJ?
“He changed when he got older! He got harder to get along with! When he got the ‘Godfather of Soul’ and got into the Black Power movement, he changed. He wasn’t the same James Brown!”
Tommy and Charlene never made it to dinner that night. To hear her tell it, after 33 years of marriage, she’s still trying to make it to that dinner with him, one on one, without any distraction from outsiders.
Jett wishes he had given his family more attention back then. But he needed to cultivate fans, he said. For an entertainer, relevancy is oxygen. And Jett can’t stand the thought of suffocating.
It’s 5 p.m. on Tuesday, an hour until showtime.
Elbows wobbling, knees wobbling, Jett lifts his frail, pale frame off the couch. He grabs his cane. Some hairs combed over his bald scalp, pens in his chest pocket, he’s ready to go.
But before he goes, before he gets, before he splits, Jett shuffles into his kitchen.
The sunglasses are mandatory. He doesn’t remember exactly when that started, but they became part of his signature look in the ’60s, and he almost never goes outside without them or his eight rings.
They make him feel like a star, like his hero, Elvis. His show on WAAK FM in Ringgold and WOOP FM in Cleveland is also livestreamed with a webcam on his website, tommyjett.com. What if viewers see him without the sunglasses? What if viewers don’t like what they see?
Though Jett doesn’t draw a big audience anymore, people of a certain age still remember his shows. Rick Davis, a local jeweler who used to listen to him as a teenager, remains a loyal advertiser. Others approach Jett on the street. They yell his catch phrase, “Hey now!” Or they tell him about a concert they watched him host when they were in high school. Or they tell him about listening to “Night Train” while on a date.
And almost every time, Charlene said, Jett will smile, say thanks, and start talking, and talking, and talking, to the point where the fans are the ones being polite, just waiting for the famous DJ to stop.
“Tommy has a fear of people forgetting him,” Charlene said. “He needs to be in the public.”
Jett left “Night Train” when WFLI started losing its audience to the new FM stations. Over the next 30 years, he worked at five more stations before getting fired from 98.1 WLND in 2009.
“They had some s*****-a** manager who wasn’t worth a d***,” Jett said. “Nobody liked him. This is a young man’s business. When you get past 40 years old, they don’t want you on the air.”
Soon after, Jett joined WAAK FM and launched his website. The owner of WOOP FM later asked to broadcast Jett’s show, too.
Somewhere on the road between his home and the WAAK FM station one night, Jett studied his hands. They’re all knuckles, skinny bones and silk skin now. The rings he’s worn through the years don’t quite fit.
“This one here,” he says, sliding a ring down his finger without any resistance, “I have to be careful.”
Jett points to another ring.
“This one,” he says, “I almost lost yesterday. See how loose it is?”
His body has changed a lot since his car crash two years ago.
While driving, he had a stroke and lost control of the car.
The impact fractured two bones in his neck and one bone in his back, and the broken vertebrae pushed a disk in his neck out of place. During surgery to repair the damage, a doctor accidentally pinched Jett’s esophagus tight, he said.
Jett didn’t know what was wrong, but he couldn’t eat or drink. His throat was like a clogged straw, and he had to spit his food back up during every meal. Eventually, doctors fixed the problem, but his body wasn’t used to nutrients anymore. Soon after this second surgery, his kidneys failed and he slipped into a coma.
“Everything in him shut down,” Charlene said.
A doctor told her that if Jett didn’t improve soon they were going to take him off life support. Hundreds of people flooded the waiting room at Memorial Hospital. Friends came from Tennessee, Texas and Florida. Others called the hospital for daily updates, overloading the switchboard.
Charlene’s sister went to their house and hid all of Jett’s possessions so Charlene wouldn’t see them when she came home. Her son picked out a pinstriped suit Jett could wear in his casket.
Old friends from the radio station brought a CD player into Jett’s hospital room and set it down next to his head. They played old “Night Train” episodes so that, in his last moments, the sounds of Jett on the air would fill his room.
But he survived.
Five days after he slipped into a coma, Charlene said, “Tommy’s eyes just popped open.”
Jett calls it divine intervention. God wants him on this Earth.
Jett thinks maybe he’s here to share his story, to tell people that miracles are real.
He doesn’t like what the crash did to him. He’s not as sharp as he once was. He forgets where he put stuff. He forgets his friends’ names. He tells the same stories every week on the air. He lost 55 pounds after the crash, and he can’t seem to gain it back. He can’t taste food. He walks slowly. He doesn’t hear well. Each week, at the end of his show, he feels exhausted.
And his voice? The voice he trained for years, the voice that could go so fast and so high and made him famous? That voice is never coming back. His lungs are weak. When Jett goes on the air, his co-host pumps the volume on his mic up so listeners can hear him.
“I’m not as good as I was back then,” Jett said. “I was hot s***.”
One minute until showtime. Jett sits in front of his mic, his head bowed.
His right leg is bouncing. He feels anxious.
He always feels anxious. Every word Jett says will travel for miles, and people expect him to be great, to be entertaining. And if they don’t expect that from him, he sure does.
For most people, image isn’t a concern in old age. The sagging skin, the creaky bones, the lost memories. It’s all just accepted, a normal part of life. Not for Jett.
When a friend noticed that Jett seemed depressed, he offered to write a biography, which Jett believes will come out in the next few months. The book gave him a sense of purpose.
On Tuesdays, Jett can’t wait for that night’s show. And then, once the show has wrapped, he can’t wait for the next Tuesday.
“If I had my way,” he said, “I would die behind one of those mics.”
So if he can just make it to the start of the show, if he can just squeeze those first few sentences out of his mouth, he’ll relax. And when he gets to that point, it’s all good. Better than good, even.
Once he gets rolling, rhyming and joking and telling old stories, the world drifts away.
The physical pain? Gone. The memory problems? Gone. He’s 20 years old again, it’s 1961 again, and for two hours he’s in control annnnnd …
It’s 6 p.m.
Theme music is playing. A disembodied voice is announcing Tommy Jett and his co-host, “the outlaw of the airwaves: Evan Cruise.”
Jett, his sunglasses in place, looks up. He stares forward. He swallows. He exhales: