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Tommy Jett Biography
By Suzanne Williams and Eugene Harold Coleman, Sr.
There is a Scriptural truth that says, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord.” During his early years, that didn’t seem to be true for Tommy, but after investing some 44 years as a professional broadcaster in the Chattanooga market, that admonition has become a reality.
Every occurrence in his life eventually became a part of the catapulting experience that has made him the influential and unique person he is today. Tommy never imagined what a powerful influence his personality and music would become to generations of people in the Chattanooga and surrounding areas. People of every profession grew up listening to “the fastest jet in the radio airwaves on WFLI.” Many later tuned in to his now famous “Night Train.”
Tommy did not grow up in abject poverty; neither was he privileged. His beloved mother, Annie, excelled as a piano teacher and choir director in their local church. His dad, Jim Grady, owned and operated his own grocery store in Old Hickory, Tennessee. Tommy, the youngest of six children (1 sister died as an infant) was born into a close-knit family. Despite various hardships and significant age differences between Tommy and his siblings — brothers Wash, Edward, and Hobson and sister, Marian — there has always been a deep emotional bond and love for each other that remains to this day.
At age two, a life-changing incident happened that not only affected Tommy but his entire family. Brother, Hobson, became gravely ill with a crippling disease that left him unable to walk. Hop’s illness created a new dimension of needed care that left little time for Tommy and his siblings’ care. A difficult decision was made for Tommy to stay with his Uncle Staley, Aunt Mae, and their grown daughter, known lovingly as Aunt Dee Dee. His presence was a welcome and special gift to these loving relatives. Uncle Staley became a great influence to this young boy. Tommy explains, “Uncle Staley had a special way of making work fun. We would be hoeing corn and at the end of the rows he would stop and tell me to rest a minute and have a cool drink of water. Uncle Staley was also the one who created my love for fishing and hunting and is the reason I collect guns today.” Young Tommy became Uncle Staley’s little shadow.
Two words best describe Tommy’s family – LOVING and LOUD. In later years, family gatherings at Mother and Daddy’s house would get quite noisy as the excited and animated siblings attempted to talk simultaneously. This familiar chaotic chatter seemed to bring a certain enjoyment especially to the brothers who found great pleasure in fervently debating controversial issues and in teasing their exasperated dad.
Tommy, his three brothers, and sister all had very distinctive and differing personalities. Oldest brother, Wash, was 19 years old when Tommy was born. Lovingly referred to as “Big Brother,” Wash with his mother’s infectious laugh and smiling eyes, served as the “larger-than-life” patriarch of the family. With every visit, he came bearing gifts, especially batteries, for his excited and grateful nieces and nephews. Generous and energetic “Big Brother” brought joy and laughter wherever he went.
Although probably the least vocal of all the siblings, many family members will attest to the fact that brother Edward has stood by and encouraged them through their toughest and darkest times. During Hop’s lengthy illness, Ed, as a young boy, was left mainly to care for himself. Perhaps this experience unconsciously served to motivate him to give to others what he needed most as a child himself – to be there for others when life is the hardest and loneliest. Ed is and always has been more than a brother to Tommy – he is a close friend and confidante. Despite living three hours apart, they still visit each other as often as possible and spend much of their time together reminiscing about their earlier escapades and humorous family stories.
Marian, simply known to the family as “Sister,” is like a second mother to the group. Through all the years, her watchful eyes and loving heart has consistently kept a steadfast check on all her brothers and their families. Known for her strong character, spiritual walk, and faithfulness to the Lord, she remains the moral compass that sends many a prayer to heaven for Tommy and all of her loved ones. Her selflessness and giving nature continued to show as Sister kept a constant vigil on their beloved mother during her last years on earth.
Tommy’s brother, Hobson (who Tommy called Hop), was a powerful influence in his life. Tommy brags that Hop never let his handicap dampen his spirit and zest for life. “Hop had a gift for loving people,” says Tommy. “I would drive to the courthouse to pick him up where he served as DeKalb County’s Circuit Court Clerk. An hour would pass before I could get him in the car, because every person who knew him wanted a part of his time. Hop loved and enjoyed helping people. He taught me that love and dignity of other people.” In 1962, Hop was named the Handicapped Person of the Year by Tennessee’s Governor, Buford Ellington. After Hop’s untimely death at the age of 50, the county commissioners of DeKalb County placed plaques engraved with his likeness in 2 courthouse flower gardens in remembrance of his sacrificial and unselfish service to the county and its residents. The passing of this beloved brother was perhaps the greatest devastation Tommy has ever endured. The pain from this loss remains close to his heart.
Tommy’s appreciation and love for music has always been evident in his life. As a youngster, while others were interested in sports, Tommy studied music. His musically talented mother was instrumental in giving birth to this great love. After graduating from DeKalb County High School, he decided to pursue a radio announcer career. Close friend, Dale Cantrell, accompanied him to Mid-South Broadcasting School in Nashville where they were roommates while attending school.
Tommy’s instructor, Jim Kent, became his mentor. Tommy remembers, “Mr. Kent was the most professional broadcast talent I ever knew — a man of such character, integrity, and principles. Previously a foreign war correspondent plus experience at 2 major Nashville stations, he was awesome in the eyes of the young announcers. One day, Mr. Kent shared that he had entertained the idea that I needed to choose another line of work because of the way I read the copy presented to us just like I had heard other radio announcers do. But with Mr. Kent’s training and continued mentoring, I started to find my own style and graduated from that school.”
Tommy’s very first radio job was at a fledging radio station in Chattanooga, Tennessee – W.F.L.I. This new and innovative radio station, owned and operated by Billy Benns, provided a new jukebox sounding format with its up-tempo rock and roll music — known as “The Top 40 with Less Talk” with the signature saying, “You’re listening to the fastest jet in the air on WFLI Radio.”
Benns hired young, inexperienced radio personalities giving them new, catchy names. If a new employee didn’t work out, a replacement would come in and inherit the same name as the announcer preceding him. Tommy Jett started out as Tom Wayne. When the permanent person for his time slot was named, it was to be Jimmy Jett. Tommy worked hard and long and struck up a friendship with Mr. Benns and made personal appearances with his boss. A young man, who later would be known to the WFLI audience as Johnny Eagle, was serving as program director of the radio station. He called Tommy into the production room where he gave him the good news that Mr. Benns wanted Tommy as the permanent host of that 3-hour air shift and was to be renamed Jimmy Jett. But because Mr. Benns knew and liked Tommy, he wanted him to keep his real name. So from that day forward, Tommy Jett was born.
Tommy provided a very upbeat radio show causing his audience to accept him immediately. At the height of his career at WFLI, 8 out of 10 radios turned on in this market were tuned to Tommy Jett during his afternoon drive-time shows as well as the “Night Train” program. According to the “Pulse” Survey, Tommy’s radio program experienced new heights of success.
His life was soon consumed by his radio career at WFLI, and it paid off tremendously. Rock-and-roll was something brand new during his early years. Johnny Eagle created the Jet Fly Spectaculars, bringing new rock and roll stars into the community. Tommy served as host to those programs in addition to personally sponsoring concerts with greats such as Dion.
In 1970, Tommy left WFLI to attend engineering school where he obtained a first-class FCC license. Upon his return, Bill Nash, general manager of Country Giant WDOD, asked Tommy to join his staff. Tommy reminded Bill that he was a rock-and-roll disc jockey but Bill’s invitation stood and Tommy was allowed to be a rock-and-roll disc jockey on a country station. “I became a member of the WDOD staff when it was becoming cool to be country.” Nash became a trusted friend and confidant to Tommy. A total of 16 years was spent at WDOD. Tommy recalls, “Bill Nash saved my career with his invitation to work with him and allowed me to start again.”
During an interim period, Tommy spent time with Jerry Pond at WDXB for over 5 years. He signed a brand new FM station, WSGC. WSGC was the first real oldies FM station in the Chattanooga market. Owned by Marshall Bandy, a local attorney and businessman from Ringgold, Georgia, Tommy was hired to do his drive-time show before the station was signed on the air. Plans were being made to sign the station on the air for the first time and decisions about how to set the precedents for this unique time was being bantered around by the new executive staff. A consultant kept pushing for Mr. Bandy to bring in Wolf Man Jack, but the local executive committee argued for Tommy to be the first legitimate voice on the air of the new station. Marshall Bandy made the final decision in Tommy’s favor. So on March 1, 1989 with scores of people around him, Tommy Jett slipped into the brand-new control room awaiting the minute hand to reach its place. He had requested this writer to create a script for the very first presentation, but when the time came, the material became only a guideline as he spoke from his heart. All 3 television station news crews along with reporters from both newspapers and some 100 guests gathered to witness this momentous occasion.
Tommy made several lifetime relationships from that time including Randy Black who worked with Tommy when he went to WOGT, Oldies 107.9, as co-host. Tommy was invited to join the staff at WOGT by Danny Brown, General Manager of all the Citadel Stations here in Chattanooga. Tommy was drawn to the WGOT family because of the character and integrity of Danny Brown and his staff, directed by Big Al McClure, program director. “Because of Danny and Al, I was able to slide right back into my element. I re-birthed my ‘Hey Now’ slogan and many of the special personality traits I created in the first go around with this music,” said Tommy. “I am so thankful Danny recognized the great possibilities that could happen with his radio station combined with my experience.”
All these encounters and experiences of yesterday have made him the man he was and is. Tommy says, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was generally positive in my approach to life. If there was anything that couldn’t be done, I didn’t know it. The positive examples in my life taught me that anything could be done if I really wanted it to happen.”
Tommy keeps his hand on the pulse of the community with his Tommy Jett Music Machine where he brings his music and entertainment to reunions, weddings, and other parties. His favorite part of those shows is when the people come up to him and share their past “Tommy Jett experiences and stories.” He continues to love all aspects of his career choice – the music, opportunities to bring joy to others, and having a voice through radio.” The veteran radio personality loves what he is doing as much now as when he started 44 years ago. He tries to give back to his beloved community through opportunities such as volunteering for the Walker County Sheriff’s Department Annual Stocking Full of Love program and considers Sheriff Steve Wilson and his staff as dear friends.
Tommy has also touched the lives of every major local entertainer in the area. He created the Tommy Jett Entertainer’s Reunion and invites all entertainers, from musicians to broadcast celebrities, to participate each year. This program allows entertainers to come together each year to celebrate their contribution to the entertainment industry and serves as a means to share their lives while raising tens of thousands of dollars for various charities throughout the community.
Tommy Jett will go down in history for a legacy that will last beyond his lifetime. He along with the late Larry Mason and this writer initiated the idea that became the Carpenter’s Cowboy Church of Chattanooga in 1995. Since its inception, the church has realized some 3,200 decisions for Christ. The church ministry was an outgrowth of the Tommy Jett Entertainer’s reunion and provides a wonderful ministry to many, especially entertainers. Many local entertainers participate in the outreach ministries of this church free-of-charge, which also gives these gifted individuals an opportunity to minister with their own God-given talents.
Tommy Jett has a silent co-chair to his success. This person has become his confidant, his best friend, his greatest supporter, and his best cheerleader. For over 24 years, his wife, Charlene has stayed by his side. Other family members include children, Chad and Chandra and 4 grandchildren — Jake, Chase, Krista and Casey. Tommy remains close to his brothers and sister along with their spouses and many other family members, especially nieces and nephews. His family will always be an integral part of his life as well as him being a large and important part of theirs.
No matter where he goes or what accolades are heaped upon him, Tommy reaffirms that his career would be nothing if it were not for his loyal audience. “Without them, there is no me,” he humbly admits. “I am so appreciative to Russell Hill for making this website possible, allowing me to reach out to the people whose lives I have affected in some small way. We hoped this website would provide people an opportunity to reminisce, view photos from my personal collection, or maybe just feel nostalgic,” he says.
And of course, Tommy Jett’s final inspiring words to every radio show seem so fitting for the end of the bio — “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you will be among the stars, and remember, T.J. Loves You!”