Back in May, Chattanooga radio legend Tommy Jett was inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame. The honor was a long time coming, but that’s not why the story is remarkable. His induction almost didn’t happen, at least not with Tommy alive to witness it.
When the organization’s first round of inductees was announced last year, Tommy was disappointed, though not surprised that he didn’t quite make the cut. Only six living radio legends were elected, including nationally known broadcasters like Ralph Emery, Wink Martindale and John Ward, and Chattanooga icon Luther Masingill. Maybe next year, Tommy thought. In the meantime, he gathered his memorabilia, including his bright red 1960s-era WFLI “Jet-FLI” blazer and planned a trip to the ceremony to reminisce and mingle.
Fate intervened just days before the banquet one April afternoon. Tommy, a longtime diabetic, apparently lost consciousness while driving along a rural north Georgia road. His car went airborne, flipping a half-dozen times before landing in a ditch out of the view of most drivers. Fortunately, another motorist was nearby and saw it happen. Emergency workers were called to the scene, and spent the next four hours carefully removing Tommy from the wreckage, using the tools known as the “Jaws of Life.” Walker County Deputy Bruce Coker, who had worked alongside the deejay during numerous “Stocking Full of Love” Christmas charity events, led the rescue effort. “I thought there was no way we could get him out alive,” Coker said later.
Yet within days, Tommy Jett was holding court in his hospital room, recovering from neck surgery and other procedures. He was determined to make his annual commitments to the Corn Bread Festival in South Pittsburg and his own Entertainers Reunion, both scheduled during the next month. Plus he’d been asked to introduce oldies acts like the Turtles and Gary Puckett at the Riverbend Festival in June. For Tommy, if he was breathing, the show must go on. He made every date, looking more gaunt and gray by the day. He was losing weight at an alarming rate. The once robust, rosy-cheeked rock-and-roller just didn’t have much of an appetite, and he didn’t know why.
It all came to a head in late June. His wife Charlene, who had tried mightily to get him to eat more, called 911. He had lapsed into a coma, and she didn’t know what to do. He was rushed to a Chattanooga hospital on that Friday afternoon, and friends and neighbors started spreading the word: this didn’t look good.
On Sunday, July 1st, the phone calls and e-mails went out. “If you want to see Tommy Jett one more time, you’d better hurry over to the hospital.” He was being kept alive on a respirator, and doctors told Charlene the bad news: he was totally unresponsive. “He will never get better,” they said. Some grave decisions had to be made. That afternoon, she told friends she was beginning to accept the inevitable. By the next morning, his family members should all be in town. Those closest to Tommy could say goodbye. Funeral arrangements were made, a church was chosen, pallbearers were notified.
What happened next has yet to be explained, scientifically anyway. Some longtime radio friends, led by Chip Chapman and Ben Cagle hatched an idea. Yes, Tommy is lying in a hospital bed. He doesn’t seem to hear us, he shows no signs of life, he probably doesn’t even know we’re here telling him how much we love him. But what did Tommy enjoy more than anything else in the world? Being on the radio, playing the hits of course. So the radio guys rounded up a boombox, loaded in some CD recordings of Tommy’s classic WFLI “Night Train” call-in request shows from the 1960s, and cranked it up near the head of Tommy’s bed. All day, all night. When one disc ran out, a new one was put in. Elvis, the Supremes, the Four Seasons, all introduced by Tommy’s familiar “Hey Now” greeting. Budweiser commercials, 1963 news flashes and hit songs, just as they aired on AM transistor radios fifty years earlier.
Monday morning arrived, and to everyone’s surprise and relief, they did not “pull the plug.” Doctors told the family that Tommy had shown slight signs of improvement. Those were visible only to doctors. To the rest of us, Tommy was still in a deep sleep, with no movement. The music played on. “Come on and be my little…good luck charm,” Elvis crooned. Tommy Jett’s lively voice would interrupt between songs: “Nineteen minutes after midnight, you’re movin’ and grooving, with Super-Jett, your ever-lovin’ leader!” ending on a high note few men over thirty could ever hope to reach.
The next day, Tommy began to move his fingers just a bit. By Wednesday, he was blinking his eyes as James Brown yelped in the background. Later that day his eyes began following the movements of his wife and grandkids in the hospital room. Message received: Tommy wasn’t ready to “check out” just yet. He still had some living to do.
By Friday, five days after his old deejay pals came by to say goodbye, they returned to witness what can only be described as a miracle. There was Tommy Jett, still listening to his old radio shows, but now able to speak, laugh, and express his thanks. Was he able to hear the music while doctors and family were discussing his planned exit from this life? No one, not even Tommy can be sure about that. One thing is for sure: it didn’t hurt. And if anyone wants to attach a little healing power to the sounds of rock and roll, so be it.
By the spring, he was driving again, appearing at Corn Bread Festivals and Entertainers Reunions, and putting together an eye-catching outfit for his induction into the 2013 class of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame on Saturday May 4. He was determined to make it this time, and deliver the acceptance speech his friends thought would never take place. Yes, his appearance would be accompanied by sound clips and music from his old radio shows. After all, it’s his lifeblood.
Tommy is quick to credit his faith and his doctors for bringing him back from the brink of death’s door. Charlene says, “We give much credit to the doctors, like David Denman. And Tommy and I know the real reason he is here is God.” But the man who loves his fans like no other radio personality can’t hide a smile when it’s suggested that maybe rock and roll had something to do with it. “There’s nothing like music,” he says. “It’s been a big part of my whole life.”
As for me, I’m instructing my family to keep some Tommy Jett CDs handy, just in case I’m ever the subject of those serious hospital conversations. Crank up “TJ the DJ” for me. That might make me want to stick around a while longer too.