Professor Kingfish (Bill Marrs) and Little Richard (Dick Ellis) co-hosted a highly popular weekday morning radio talk show heard over WJCW in the 1960s and 70s.
In 1979, Dave Hogan (current WJCW morning show co-host and personal friend of the Marrs family) and Red Pitcher (former WJCW news and sports director) interviewed the professor. “My life began on December 3, 1910,” said Bill, “when the stork dropped me on Pea Ridge (near Bucksnort and Skinem, Alabama) beside a stump where Ma found me.”
The Marrs family was comprised of five boys and two girls. According to Bill: “Dad was one of the greatest foxhunters that ever blew a horn. One of his dogs was named Doodle, a lemon and white hound that ran so fast we had to put weight on him to slow him down.” As Marrs grew older, he earned three dollars a week washing dishes in a local restaurant. After high school, he opened Bill’s Pie and Sandwich Shop that also sold plate lunches for a dime.
Shortly into the interview, Kingfish unleashed the first of several jokes: “An old man was fishing illegally when he spotted the game warden approaching him. He pulled his fish to the surface, looked at the officer and said, ‘I’m not fishing. I’m just teaching him how to swim.’”
During the Great Depression, the restaurateur sold his business, deposited the money in a local bank and lost it when the institution declared a “bank holiday.” He started over, working until he acquired enough money to open another business.
In 1932, Bill met and married the love of his life, Pauline “Polly” Scott, eventually having two daughters, Patsy and Sandra. Bill decided to give radio and newspaper writing a try: “I appeared on WKSR radio in Pulaski with a 15-minute afternoon program called ‘The Kingfish Column of the Air.’ In 1938, I began writing a hunting and fishing column for the Pulaski Record. Later, I wrote an outdoor feature, ‘Now You Tell One,’ for the Nashville Tennessean.”
The family moved to Johnson City in 1948 to manage College Inn located in the Foremost Dairy Plant. They immediately fell in love with the lush natural beauty of East Tennessee. Bill’s moniker changed from Kingfish to Professor Kingfish when Middle Tennessee State University made him an honorary professor. Marrs and Wade Bulla ventured into the sausage business, naming their product Mr. Sausage. It was advertised as “Whole Hog or None,” meaning it was made from ham, shoulders and tenderloin, not scraps. Bill said it was so good “it would make a tadpole smack a whale.”
The professor suffered a heart attack that rendered him inactive for about six months. He sold his share of the business to Bulla and began painting landscapes and taking photographs of the area. He became quite good at both endeavors. When Bill recovered, he went to work for K-Saver Stamps, owned by Oakwood Market in Kingsport.
A turning point of Kingfish’s life occurred when Mr. Hanes Lancaster, Sr. (WJHL radio and television owner) offered him a hunting and fishing radio program. On the first show, Eddie Cowell introduced him to his listening audience saying that Pea Ridge’s loss was Johnson City’s gain. The Skipper Shop (103 W. Market) was the sponsor. This eventually led to Bill’s hosting a live hunting and fishing television show, “Outdoors with Professor Kingfish.” He remained on television for ten years appearing on WJHL and WCYB (Bristol).
Not long after WJHL radio was sold and the call letters changed to WJCW, Marrs met Dick Ellis: “I was struggling with my early morning 30-minute outdoors show so Dick came on the air to help me. Reeves Kinkead (Hospital Pharmacy) heard us and agreed to be our sponsor. Dick adopted the name Little Richard for the new program.”
The early morning talk show featured a diversity of subjects ranging from girdles to wigs. Bill’s role was to simply depict his naturally relaxed country boy image. The awesome twosome conjured up an assortment of real and imaginary characters and stories for their faithful fans. Listeners became acquainted with Aunt Sukie, Cousin Herbert, Uncle Zeb, Pug Ugly Adams, Cousin Floy and Uncle Isaac. The wholesome country boys used no scripts and even adlibbed commercials. On their “Dog-Gone” segment, they located lost dogs, mules and husbands.
The show became immensely popular. Because of Bill’s fragile health, the station provided a means for him to broadcast from his home in Backlash Acres (Edgehill Circle). Once during a hospital stay, he spoke over the radio from his bed. Listeners found it hard to believe that Bill was broadcasting from home and Dick from the radio station.
The colorful Kingfish let loose another yarn in the interview: “A fisherman came by the station to tell us that he had caught a six-pound bluegill. We told him that bluegill don’t grow that large and asked him what he used for bait. The man responded, ‘a three-pound grasshopper.’”
In late summer 1973, Professor Kingfish and Little Richard began occupying a booth each year at the Appalachian District Fair. Each was decked out in overalls, blue shirt, straw hat and shoes that actually had cow manure on them. Hoards of people drifted by the booth to meet their radio celebrities.
During the interview, Bill promoted a strong faith in God, good work ethics and a love for the outdoors. He indicated that he had lived a wonderful life and was blessed with a great family and friends. Little did Dave and Red know when they concluded the interview that Kingfish would pass away just six days later. Immediately after his passing and for the next 32 years, the annual “Professor Kingfish Gospel Sing forthe American Heart Fund Association” conducted a successful gospel singing fundraiser in Gray.
Professor Kingfish has left us, but his colorful homespun legacy lives on in the memories and hearts of those who loved him. (Thanks to Dave Hogan for providing a copy of the interview and Patsy Marrs Wilson for sharing supplemental facts and photographs of her late father.)