August 8, 2008
By Bob Pinheiro, Modesto Radio Museum
Modesto entertainer and successful businessman Chester Smith passed away today after a short illness at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto. He was 78 years old.
Smith was born in Durant, Oklahoma on March 29, 1930, the son of Louis and Effie Smith who came to California in 1935 after four straight years of trying to make a living in the Oklahoma dust bowl. The family settled in a migrant camp in the small Fresno County town of Tranquillity. He started singing Gene Autry songs in 1939 at the age of 9 on Fresno radio station KMJ.
In 1942 his family moved to Turlock and shortly thereafter moved to Modesto. Smith found his way to KTRB when he was 12 and sang several times on the Children’s Hour hosted by Mrs. Carol Glass, a prominent local teacher. Four years later at the age of 16, he dropped out of Modesto High school and started his own DJ program on KTRB beginning January 3, 1947. He was on the air immediately following the popular program of country music greats the Maddox Brothers and Rose. He sold his own advertising and bought the air time from KTRB. His popularity quickly grew as did his on-air greeting, “This is Chester Smith speakin’ right atcha” which opened each show. (you can hear that sound bite below, number 4). This was the beginning of Chester working for himself. He never received a pay check in his lifetime.
On more than one occasion during his slightly more than 16 years at KTRB he was visited by country greats including Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Skeets McDonald, Little Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Cash and young country singers like Buck Owens, Marty Robbins , Merle Haggard, Del Reeves and others.
Smith was still a minor when he formed a small country music band while at KTRB, and began playing at public night spots including the Riverbank Club House. In the first few years Smith himself was not able to play with his band at venues where liquor was served because he was too young to legally get in. So, his band played without him.
In 1953 he signed a recording contract with Capitol records at the age of 23. Smith’s musical career took off a year later in 1954 when he was approached by Modesto housewife Hazel Houser to record a religious song she had written called “. “Wait a little longer please JesusThey recorded the song together and it was released by Capitol records becoming a hit in the gospel genre. As a result, Smith was named best new talent by the country music disc jockeys that year. 46 years later in 2000, Chester made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry where he and lifelong friend Merle Haggard sang the song together. Through the years, more than 100 other artists recorded the song, one of the most covered recordings ever.
Chester left KTRB in March 1963 at the age of 33 when he received a license to build a radio station in Ceres. KLOC went on the air October 17, 1963 and it was the beginning of the change from entertainer to businessman. He was following in the footsteps of his early inspiration Gene Autry, cowboy singer/entertainer, who turned from entertainer to broadcaster and then businessman. “I’d seen Autry move to the other side of the desk and do a lot better than he ever did singing,” Smith said.
To promote his upcoming radio station, Chester did a daily television series on KOVR Channel 13 for thirteen weeks. It was a live music show, and featured some local musicians, a gospel quartet, and an unknown new singer by the name of Merle Haggard, as well as numerous other celebrity guests who were known at the time.
In exchange for agreeing to do the television series, which he was reluctant to do, KOVR agreed to promote heavily the opening of KLOC, which was quite effective. KLOC radio was 100% country music with gospel insertions.
Three years later in 1966, Smith took the giant step into television putting channel 19, KLOC-TV in Modesto, on the air on August 26, 1966. Operations were located in a new building he built next to his radio studios on Iowa Ave. west of Modesto. He continued to operate both stations until 1981 when he sold KLOC radio and with the monies derived from the sale he built his second TV station, KCBA, channel 35 in Salinas-Monterey which he later sold.
Times were tough for channel 19 from day one recalls Smith. The television industry was beginning the switch to color and the UHF band was mostly barren. Being in the UHF TV band with limited viewers, and not being able to secure a network affiliation, proved almost too much for Smith in those days. Initially, KLOC -TV was a general entertainment station, and was one of the handful of stations that carried the United Network for a month in May, 1967 before it folded.
About a year after going on the air, the syndicators from whom Chester purchased programming raised their prices to that of what the Sacramento-TV stations were paying which was substantially higher than he had been paying. The increased costs forced him to cut programming and to limit the number hours on the air.
Desperate to keep something on the air, he moved his KLOC radio DJ’s into his TV station studios where he focused a black and white TV camera on them and televised their radio shows on channel 19 for several hours each day. Smith later joked that channel 19 actually was the very first MTV (Music T.V.) and no one knew it.
During this tough time, Smith sensed another migration headed for California, not from the Oklahoma dust bowl, but this time from Mexico. He knew that there was no Spanish-language programming on TV in this area which led him to the Spanish International Network (SIN). The Mexico based network had a station in Los Angeles televising their programs, but longed to bring their network to Northern California. Smith and SIN teamed up and the result was the first successful Spanish-language television station in Northern California. “Broadcasters thought a UHF station with Spanish language programming was a “joke,” Smith said. It was a “joke” that eventually made Smith a multi-millionaire.
Channel 19 became a giant in northern California for Spanish programming and increased its power to 5 million watts in full color becoming the most powerful UHF station on the air. It was the original Spanish language station north of Los Angeles and later it became the flagship for all stations in northern and central California and northern Nevada for the network.
The business relationship with SIN lasted 30 years until 1996 when Smith sold channel 19 to SIN for $40 million and stock valued at an additional $45 million. After the ownership change, their business name was changed to Univision and their studios were moved from Modesto to Sacramento and the call letters changed to KUVS.
On the wall of his unassuming corporate offices in downtown Modesto, a young Chester Smith stares from an old poster for his Riverbank dances, cradling a custom-built electric mandolin, a cowboy hat perched on the back of his head. He still has the lanky frame that earned him the nickname “Stringbean” and, thanks to a couple of transplants, a full head of dark hair.
Smith, became a millionaire many times over, but never considered stepping into retirement. He continued to operate his Modesto based company, Sainte Partners II, until his death. Sainte Partners II owned and operated 13 television stations from Oregon to Bakersfield which he personally supervised.
After his successful career in television and radio, he longed for his country music roots and began the most improbable comeback in the history of country music at the age of 72. It started while visiting his Redding TV station in 2002 when he went to lunch with his old friend Merle Haggard, who lives just outside of Redding. He and Haggard decided to record a country music CD and Haggard volunteered his studio at his ranch and offered to produce the sessions.
Haggard guided Smith through a set of old-fashioned country gospel songs — “I let him do it his way,” Haggard said — and sang with him on many of the selections, including a haunting remake of the Roy Acuff classic “Wreck on the Highway.” They called the CD “California Blend” which eventually went to the top of the gospel charts.
“He’s the real deal,” Haggard said. “He’s amazing to me. I admire him. I don’t always agree with him. He p—- me off. We argue. But you can’t argue with his sincerity.”
Haggard recalls in the late ’40s, when Haggard was a teenager living with his aunt and uncle in the Central Valley, he used to sneak into Smith’s barn dances at the Riverbank Clubhouse outside Modesto.
In 2002 Haggard described Smith as a rich man who drives a Rolls-Royce, but he earned his money the old-fashioned way. “No one should shame Chester for doing well,” Haggard said. “He’s a great hero, and we’re short of them today.” “He had charisma,” Haggard said.
“When I went back in the studio, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Smith said. “But it’s always been like that. I just knew I had to do it.”
His guitar playing was rusty, but his sweet voice had ripened over the years. Smith covered songs ranging from contemporary pieces Haggard found to songs Smith remembered from the campfires at Tranquillity. Smith and Haggard made an honest, authentic country record, the kind they haven’t made in Nashville for years and it’s been a success in sales.
Smith, and his wife Ann Lesley Smith, lived in a 25,000-square-foot mansion on 156 acres on a bluff over looking the Stanislaus river just outside Riverbank, CA. Together they farmed grapes and olives. They marketed their olive oil on the internet under the brand name Olivewood Estate. He also owned a 2,800-acre cattle ranch in San Andreas and, until a recent divorce, homes in Carmel and Beverly Hills.
Smith died August 8, 2008 at the Stanford Medical facility in Palo Alto of heart failure. He is survived by his wife Ann-Lesley and three daughters by his first marriage, Laura, Lorna and Roxanne and 11 grandchildren. Burial was at Lakewood Memorial Park Cemetery in Hughson, CA. after private services at St. Johns Chapel of the Valley.
When asked about retiring, Smith would say…. “I don’t want to rust out,” “I’d rather wear out.” His heart wore out today at the age of 78.
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