King of Border pitchman
Interview by Jason Gross (Sept 2002)I first encountered Dallas Turner at the New York Lincoln Center's 18th Annual Roots of American Music festival in August 2001. On that warm, breezy afternoon, the 74-year-old Turner presented a recreation of the Mexican border radio, which he had been a part of for over forty years (beginning in the early 1940's, when he was in his teens) as an announcer and advertising pitchman. Because of less-strict laws governing the Spanish airwaves, many an entertainer and businessman looked to the border stations beginning in the 1930's as an outlet to spread their name and their wares. Turner himself garnered his trade by working everywhere from freak shows, burlesque and Vaudeville as well as the occasional stint as everything from a recording artist, songwriter and hypnotist. His real love and passion was always for radio ads where he would attract thousands of customers to heed his call, even finding admirers in the form of Burl Ives and Eleanor Roosevelt as well as working with other notable radio personalities such as Wolfman Jack. In the mid-'80's, when the border stations came under stricter control and shut down, Turner still taped his own programs for another ten years. Since then, he's done the occasional appearance on the airwaves and the nightclub bookings with protégé Sourdough Slim as well as practicing Metaphysics. I had a chance to talk to Turner over the phone from his Nevada home early this year about his extraordinary career. He welcomes any and all correspondence at P.O. Box 7474, Reno, NV 89150-7474
PSF: Could I hear one of your famous radio pitches?
This is probably one of the most famous pitches I've ever done. I had this on the air for four years. This would sell for Loren J. Rowell and his LR Tablets. In four years, he made over $100,000 a year on this one pitch. We didn't have any 30 second spots for these pitches. Our pitches would run about five minutes- some of them even ten or fifteen minutes. I will never forget the first time that we tried it and it just knocked them dead and it continued to do so all through the years."Friends, will you please give me your serious attention because I'm going to tell you something that's going to truly change your entire life. So please listen carefully."That's the way we would do it. And I was just ad-libbing that. But that was one pitch that I enjoyed so much that I memorized it. I also did one for Club 69, a lonely heart's club and an erection enhancer and a flatulence cure. Some of these pitches were hilarious. We sold a hair-grower on the air and I never will forget how we'd say 'when you walk down the street, do little children point at your shiny head and laugh? Go home and see your friends tonight- they're snickering right now because you're bald. They can't wait for you to get outside your home and make fun of you.' Why, the man would be ready to come through the radio and get you. But you had to do something to create interest.
"Do you ever suffer with a backache? Does rheumatic stiffness himper and hamper you? Let me go further- do you ever have pains in your legs? Do you ever notice puffiness under your eyes? And do your ankles ever swell at the end of the day?"
"Friends, if you suffer from any of the terrifying symptoms that I have just mentioned, don't make the terrible mistake of neglecting your body because your precious health is truly the most important thing in life. You have about fifteen miles of kidney tubes and filters in your body and they're placed there to do the all-important job of carrying off excess poisonous waste matter from your blood. Now, if your kidneys are not functioning properly, you may be suffering, as I said, from any or all of the miserable symptoms that I have just mentioned."
"Now, the question is what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do to help your kidneys carry off these venomous poisons? I know that many of you tried various patent medicines and you haven't had good results. Well, let me give you this wonderful, comforting message. I will make this personal guarantee to you here and now. If I fail to bring you real satisfying relief for your suffering, my amazing scientifically-compounded formula will not cost you one single penny."
"And now you're asking what sort of remarkable medicine I can offer you to do this job. And I don't blame you so let me explain. I don't need to tell you about the great strides forward by modern medical science during and after the last war. And in keeping with these strides comes a new scientifically compounded formula that we shall call "L.R." Now please- do not look for my amazing scientifically compounded discovery in any drugstore in the world. Only I can bring you this product direct from my laboratories."
"Get a pencil. I'll wait for you to get a pencil because I want to send you real satisfying relief. Now friends, to get my truly fine medicine for your suffering, just rush your name and address to L.R.. Did you get that address? That's L.R., Radio Station XERF, Del Rio, Texas 78840. That's L.R., Radio Station XERF, Del Rio, Texas 78840. When the postman delivers your big bottle of 112 super-powered L.R. tablets, then and only then deposit the small sum of $3.98 plus a few cents C.O.D. and postage charges."
"Use my amazing discovery for ten full days! Then, if you can honestly say that you have not received the blessed relief that I told you that you would receive, write three words- "I'm not satisfied." Every penny of your $3.98 will be returned at once, no questions asked. Now, here's the address again- take it down! Get that order in the mail not later than midnight tomorrow night to: L.R. (just those two initials please), L.R., Radio Station XERF, Del Rio, Texas 78840."
We realized that we couldn't compete with all of the other stations so we had to have pitches that were unusual, would make people laugh and they had to entertain people. The way one man put it to me when I first went to the border, he says 'Dallas, we're not hiring you to sing. And you can B.S. these people but don't you lie to them.' That was the secret of it- you would B.S. the people to make them laugh and you would entertain them royally. But you would never lie to them because everything that you sold did carry a money-back guarantee. And if they were not happy with it, they got their money back with no questions asked. If the advertiser didn't refund the money, the radio station would refund it themselves and then go after the advertiser.
There were only three things that would sell on the border (radio) and that was health, sex and religion. We had the Happy Relief Toenail Adjuster- there wasn't any demand for anything like that. How many people have an ingrown toenail? Very, very few. But if a man is impotent, he will pay any price to find something that will work. Or if it's religion, (they want) peace or success. And everybody wants good health. But you've got to get something that really is different. If it's something that they can go into an ordinary store and buy, they won't buy it from ya.
PSF: Tell me about how you got involved in broadcasting.
I was an orphan boy from Yakima, Washington, given away as a baby to a religious fanatic, a woman preacher, who drug me all over the West. In Nevada, she stumbled upon some ranchers by the name of Turner who adopted me. I grew up as a cowboy on the ranch. I learned to play the guitar and sing. A hobo came along when I was about six years old and had a beautiful Martin guitar and so my Dad traded him my old hand-me-down guitar. So I would sit around at night and I would listen to the Mexican border stations because you could hear them any place in the United States. So I was inspired greatly by Cowboy Slim Rinehart who was my favorite singer as a boy and who has always been my favorite singer. Later when I met him, why he was nice enough to get me on the Mexican border station.
I'd sit there at night and I'd try to imitate the people I heard on the radio. I learned to play the guitar by listening to Jimmy Rodgers and Gene Autry phonograph records. So when I was a teenage boy, I got bucked off a horse and got my back broke. So that wound me up as a cowboy. I decided that I'd probably do better by riding down the airwaves with my cowboy songs. So I struck out and by golly, I landed a job on the radio. I was determined to be one of the greatest pitchmen in the world and I guess I have because it's been said that I've sold over a million dollars worth of merchandise by mail.
During my career, I advertised for many national companies like the Rockdale Monument company (we sold tombstones), D-Con Rat Poison, Sunway Vitamins, a state financial company where we'd loan money by mail, American School so you could go to school at home, Stock Brothers Nursery, Allied Chick and McCray Hatcheries (that's where we sold baby chicks by mail). I also sold diamonds for Frank the Diamond Man- simulated diamond engagement rings. There was also The Lord's Last Supper Tablecloth, a cross of Jesus that glowed in the dark, guaranteed insurance from Mutual of Omaha, Banker's Life and Casualty Insurance and Sterling Insurance and many, many other national advertisers.
I pitched a lot of strange things too. I pitched false teeth by mail- you sent a dollar and your gum impressions in and then you could order your dentures by mail. I sold aphrodisiacs, erection enhancers, feminine hygiene equipment (with free enema attachments if you ordered before midnight that evening), lonely hearts clubs, hemorrhoid medicine, rectal itch formula and believe it or not, a cure for noisy and stinking flatulence. So we sold just about everything you can think of by mail. They didn't hire you to sing on the border stations.
The last border station went off the air in 1986 and I was on the air then. Through the years, I watched the stations go off the air one by one. They just refused to let us broadcast in the English language anymore so the stations went into the Spanish language and that was the end of border radio as we know it.
As I had mentioned earlier, Cowboy Slim Rinehart was in my opinion, the greatest pitchman that border radio ever had. I was good friends with many of the great border radio pitchman and sadly, they have passed away as the years have gone by. Now I am the only living Mexican border radio station personality. All the rest of them are gone.
Of course among the cowboy singers, none was as great as Cowboy Slim Rinehart as I keep telling you. He was my idol and the one and only true king of border radio. And then Nevada Slim, Yodeling Slim Dallas and Cowboy Dallas Turner- that was all me. The reason I had to do that (was because) I was pitching for three different insurance companies at the same time. On station, I'd be pitching for Bankers' Life and Casualty Company as Nevada Slim. Then I'd maybe be broadcasting on another station and I'd have to use the name Yodeling Slim Dallas with another insurance policy that I was selling. And then on another station, I'd have to use another name.
PSF: Could you talk about the people that actually started these border stations?
Of course, the border radio as we know it was started by Dr. John R. Brinkley. A real honest-to-goodness M.D. from Milford, Kansas. He had a station there and when he began to perform goat-gland operations on men with prostrate trouble, the government got after him so he moved to Mexico and opened up a station in Mexico, right across the border from Del Rio, Texas. This station carried my broadcast for over 25 years. His medical operation actually worked too because I talked to a number who had the operation and they all swore that it was an honest-to-goodness operation- they had no problem with erections or anything like that as a result of this fabulous operation.
Then there was Dr. Norman Baker. He had XENT, the Naked Truth station in Laredo, Mexico. Then we had C.M. Bres, he was at Piedras Negras, Mexico and Will Branch who was the greatest radio station builder and designer that ever lived. He designed and built all of the Mexican border stations. Second to him would have been Carlos Vincente Rodriguez- I knew him real well and worked for him at XENT. George Rivera, he had a station in Tijuana. Arturo C. Gonzalez, he was the last manager of XERF, owner and operator- it was the most powerful station in the world at 250,000 watts clear channel with a directional antenna. Before Arturo took the station, my friend Don Howard had the station. He lived in Del Rio, Texas- he was a fabulous announcer and if we wanted to call a man 'Mr. Border Radio,' it should be him.
PSF: I heard that you spent a month in burlesque as a straight man.
That was to get experience pitching. And also at the Human Oddities show- that's a freak show as you know. When I was doing the pitch for the Oddity show, I had to learn it. The man who hired me was A.J. Budd. He had West Coast shows. He had one guy who could teach me the pitches and he said if I could do the pitch as he could do it, I'd have it (the job) because as crazy as it sounded, it would work. So he taught me the pitch and I would stand outside and say: "Ladies and Gentlemen, inside this very tent, we have man that's 16 inches tall. You're gonna see the world's smallest man, on exhibition for the very first man. And they have a woman in here with a head the size of a lemon.' I would hold a lemon up then and would go on to other things. But then when I got them inside, it worked like this- I would point to the midget who was about 3 feet tall. I'd say 'I told you that I had a man in here 16 inches tall. Now, you didn't believe me, did you! You thought that I was lying to you. Well I think you'll agree that this man is at least 16 inches tall.' And they'd begin to believe me. Then I'd say 'Now, wait a while- I'll give you your money back if you want it back. But I don't think you want it back because I think you'll want to bring your friends in here to see a man that's 16 inches tall. Will you go out and tell your friends that we have somebody in here who's actually 16 inches tall and they can see him?' And you know, they got to doing it. It worked that way.
And the woman, she was a pinhead. I would say 'Now I told you that I had a lady in here with a head the size of a lemon. I'm sorry I exaggerated because actually her head is the size of a Texas grapefruit.' (laughs) And we also had the world's fattest boy and the tattooed man and different things like that. I did that for a month, just to get experience with pitching in person.
In burlesque, I sold sex books and also worked as a straight man and then wrote suggestive comedy songs. The experience that we had was invaluable because almost everybody that come to the border had either worked the Vaudeville circuit or burlesque or at a carnival. I got a lot out of it and became a pretty good pitchman.
PSF: I've heard that you worked as a recording artist and actually wrote 200 songs in six days. Is that right?
Yeah, well I recorded almost 300 songs in six days. We recorded all day and we put out 8 or 10 albums of me. They sold pretty good. I made about $50,000 on the records that I recorded, which was pretty good at that time. So many of my friends were entertainers and they wound up in the poor house and (they'd) drink themselves to death. I didn't want to wind up like that. So I preferred to be a businessman more or less and I worked at it that way.
PSF: You also worked as a songwriter too for other people.
Sure, I wrote lots of songs. Jimmie Davis recorded my songs, the governor of Louisiana who wrote "You Are My Sunshine." I had songs recorded by Johnny Horton, who also recorded "The Battle of New Orleans." Chet Atkins and other, lesser-known people recorded my songs too.
But I never had any desire to become a superstar. While everybody else wanted to be on the Grand Ole Opry, I preferred to be on border stations. We had coverage of the whole world. When I came on the air and I'd say "You're listening to the radio station heard in every state in the nation," that was exactly the way it was.
PSF: Could you talk about Wolfman Jack? You had said that he worked for you for a while.
Well, he certainly was a very, very fine person, I'll tell you that. My conversations with him have always been very interesting. He was quite a businessman you know because he had managed XERF and XERB later and operated that out of Hollywood. He had his programs on and they were very, very successful. In his own natural voice, he had a beautiful speaking voice. So he would introduce a lot of the programs that were on the air, including mine, in his natural voice. But the last time I saw Bob, his voice was quite different. He had used the Wolfman voice so long that he just naturally talked like the Wolfman. He used to listen to the border stations when he was in New York and he always wanted to be on one. He was on in Shreveport for a while before he came to XERF. I wasn't there in person when they had the machine guns and different things like that.
PSF: What machine guns?
When I first went to the border, Cowboy Slim Rinehart and I went over to the studios and we ran right into a couple of machine guns. You had guards that would guard the stations at night. They had to make sure who we were. When they saw it was Slim, they broke out in a smile and received us with open arms. But I remember that one night, I was on XERF live and a girlfriend came over to see me. They had her outside with a machine gun in her face. They marched her back out of there. You had to be very careful because there were people who could bring you down. You had no idea what we went through. Rival stations would be jealous of you due to your power (wattage).
PSF: You turned down a movie career after doing screen tests for a studio (Monogram Pictures, 1947).
Well, the whole thing is that I had to do 120 one-nighters (personal appearances) and with no guarantee of anything. You just go from theatre to theatre were they were running your movie. And if the theatre manager didn't want to pay you, you wouldn't make anything. Maybe he'd let you sell songbooks, maybe he wouldn't. So you didn't know what you were going to make. That was the reason that I turned it down. I've never been sorry actually because within five years after that, the B-Movie Westerns were over.
PSF: You make a distinction that you've never been a disc jockey. Why is that important to you?
Never have and I won't be. I was talking to Cowboy Slim Rinehart when he first went to the border. He says "one of these days, singers like you and me will be nobody because they'll put people on to play records. When that day comes, I'll put my guitar in the case because I am going to be damned if I'm going to turn around and go into a business that will knock musicians out of work."
The purpose of the disc jockey was to eliminate the competition. You see years ago, every radio station of any size had their own orchestra, their own entertainers and things like that. When the disc jockey come in, they'd fire all of their entertainers and musicians and they won't even let these people get on the radio today to advertise their gigs or their dances. So I have no use for people like that. Now you see why I wouldn't want to be a disc jockey. I have too much respect for the union and I have too much respect for my profession to do that. Why should I turn around and plug somebody else that never done anything else to help me?
PSF: So you don't want to have disc jockeys anymore?
No, I say there's room for disc jockeys. But there's also room for live musicians. Most people in the folk field, they say that we're all militants and we probably are in different ways. Woody Guthrie was very, very bitter against non-union organizations. But I don't know that he ever done anything for the musicians or either Pete Seeger. They'd go out and help the coal miners and the farmers and people like that but to hell with the people in their own profession. If I had my way, there would be pickets outside the door of every radio station in America and they would be forced to put live talent back on the air. Not for me because I wouldn't go on any of those stations anyhow. It's over with and I realize it and I had my day. But I think of the young people today that can't even get on the radio. The talents and the bandleaders that have to go out here and give music lessons to make a dollar because they can't get any publicity about their dances or their gigs. I think it's a disgrace. I think there's room for everybody though. They (the stations) could take a few hours a week to put local talent on so they could have an opportunity.
PSF: You worked as a hypnotist and a mentalist (psychic) too?
Yeah, that's true. I had a gambling problem in the '50's. I tried every way in the world to quit and nothing seemed to work until I became interested in hypnotism. I was hypnotized and by golly, it worked. I didn't even know how to shuffle a deck of cards or anything else. So I got pretty interested and picked it up and did pretty well with it. Then I worked for schools and different places on the road and that worked out pretty well- this was about 1958. I practiced stage hypnotism in South Carolina for about six months and held classes showing people how to do it. I got pretty good at it.
Of course with mentalism, I did that along with the same thing. Some places were passing very strict laws on hypnosis and I didn't deal in therapeutic hypnosis or anything like that. In Nevada for example, you have to have so many years in college to practice hypnotism here. It really isn't worth the hassle.
PSF: How has the advertising industry changed from when you started out?
Of course, it's quite a bit different. Although one of the most popular talk shows in America is Art Bell, which is produced in Nevada and all of his advertisers are patent medicine companies. Pitches that were similar to the border (ads) in ways. They say history does repeat itself. Some of it (ads) is pretty good now because it's working. Anything that works, I'm 100% for it.
PSF: When the border stations shut down, it was when they became Spanish-only stations?
They became Spanish stations and in 1986, the last one was forced off the air. They had an awful bunch of preachers on there, a real bunch of fundamentalists. They just got out of hand. That's what really caused all the problems I think. For example, Mexico is a Catholic country and people who go down there to broadcast ought to remember that it's a privilege to broadcast on a radio station. And we should not use it to condemn a person because of their religion or their race. There was one preacher that came on and condemned Mexicans- he said "there isn't one of them that'll go to heaven when they die." It was things like that which caused all the problems.
PSF: What did you do after these stations went off the air?
I didn't work on any stations after that. I threw together a cowboy program and syndicated it- 110 stations accepted it. Some of them were FM stations- they won't get outside the city limits in most cases. So you couldn't make no money.
For the programs, I would just take my guitar and sing. Then they would write in for a free gift and when they wrote, I'd send them ads about my songbooks and things like that. Doing that, I kept one station for 10 years. Some of others didn't hardly do anything so I withdrew the offer very, very quickly. It had just played out.
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