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Ann Rochelle

A legend in her own time

Posted: February 19, 2018 4:40 p.m.
Updated: February 20, 2018 1:00 a.m.
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Above, Ann Rochelle, third from the right, with the Slim Mims band.

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Ann Rochelle has lived an interesting life but even so, never expected to see parts of it documented in a book.

The Camden native, who is well known in Bishopville for her years working at local radio station WAGS, said she went to visit family friend Tracey Bedenbaugh a few months ago.

“While I was there, she showed me a book written by Ray Thigpen about country music in South Carolina,” Rochelle said. “I remember Ray came down to WAGS one day when I was working there and interviewed me. I had no idea I would be included, much less have my own chapter in his book!”

Rochelle said she is honored to be included in “S.C. Air Resonant with Country Music.”

“Tracey gave me her copy of the book, but I would love to get my hands on more copies,” Rochelle said. “If anyone knows how I can get some more copies, please get in touch with me, as I have several friends who want to get a copy.”

Rochelle said anybody who loves country music will love this book. “There are chapters on several local musicians, including Slim Mims, Jim Nesbitt, Lewis Price and, of course, me,” she said.

Larry Klein, host of the Bluegrass Sound on S.C. Educational Radio, says in the book’s introduction that Thigpen was “a true student of genuine country music in South Carolina...He is without a doubt one of the most knowledgeable sources on the history and evolution of country music in this region.”

“S.C. Air Resonant” provides firsthand accounts of some of the state’s legendary country music figures.

Thigpen, who had his own show, Ray’s Country, on WAGS 1380 AM in Bishopville for a while, died in 2008 and did not get to see his book published but his brother, Bobby, made sure it did.

“This book contains a part of the history of this great state of South Carolina that would never have reached the public without the tireless efforts of Ray Thigpen,” Bobby Thigpen writes in a foreword.

What follows is an excerpt of Chapter 39, the chapter on Ann Rochelle.

A native of Camden, Ann Rochelle was 10 years old when she began her musical career. Her mother showed her two chords on the guitar and she fell in love with country music. When she was 11, she was in the hospital having a tonsillectomy. This seemed like the end to a little girl’s singing career.

Little did she know that she would go on to make a record in Nashville as well as become a disc jockey and band member.

When Ann was a teenager, she played on WPUB AM in Camden with a local band. Ann participated in a talent show promoted by Arthur Smith and finished first, ahead of more than 40 different acts. She was later told by Sonny Smith that she was being considered for the female lead for Arthur’s television show.

Ann started playing in a band in the late 1950s. When they decided they needed a bass player, they looked at her and that was the beginning of the electric bass portion of her career. She felt her bass playing was instrumental in getting her started with Jim Nesbitt and Slim Mims.

Ann and a band would make a tape during the week and it would be played on WAGS in Bishopville and on WLCM in Lancaster in the early part of her career. She had no idea then that she would one day become a disc jockey for WAGS.

Ann entered a fiddlers’ convention with a local band in Charlotte, NC. There were different categories for singers, fiddlers and groups to participate. She won best overall vocalist, best guitar player, and her group won best trio.

Also, in the late 1950s, Ann entered a contest sponsored by a flour company. The winner would have the opportunity to sing on stage at the Township Auditorium with a Grand Ole Opry Package Show with Johnny Cash, the Carter Family and Johnny Horton.

Ann didn’t think she a chance of winning, but win she did and was presented a trophy that night by the late Johnny Horton, which she still cherishes today.

In the early 1960s, Ann was picked to be on the Slim Mims Dream Ranch Boys and Girls television program on Channel 13 in Florence. During that time, they played live performances at night and weekends. They also had a Sunday morning program from 7-8 a.m. in Florence, entitled “Hymns from the Hills.” Ann had to get up at four in the morning and drive from Camden to Florence for both programs, resulting in her living with Slim Mims and Patty Fay for a short time.

After a while, she went on the road with Jim Nesbitt, playing package shows. Nesbitt’s band consisted of Claude Phillips on the drums, Junior Gainey on guitar and Ann on the bass. She played shows with Sonny James, Conway Twitty, Marty Robbins and backup for Dottie West and Stonewall Jackson.

The band did a four-day package show with Sonny James, Conway Twitty and Linda Manning. Ann relates an experience of one night:

“That was the night we backed Linda Manning and Conway Twitty’s brother-in-law, Joe Lewis, who borrowed my electric bass amp. I still have that bass amp. He was killed shortly after that...We played the entire southeastern coast, especially NCO clubs for the military servicemen, with Jim Nesbitt as well as the Dapper Dan’s Band. We backed Lynn Anderson, Connie Smith, Jim Ed Brown, Freddie Hart and numerous other stars of the day.”

Ann also describes an encounter with Loretta Lynn:

“I had the opportunity to play with Liz Anderson, the mother of Lynn Anderson, as well as the composer of Merle Haggard’s Strangers. In the late sixties, the Wilburn Brothers, along with Loretta Lynn, who was part of their show at the time, came to Camden to do a show. Since I was the disc jockey I went backstage to meet Loretta. She immediately took to me for some reason and I held her purse for her while she performed on stage. I was nervous because I knew there was a lot of money in that purse due to the fact that Loretta had been selling alot of records! Somebody brought each of us a Coke and a box of popcorn. Loretta ate hers and then started eating mine! About a month later, they played in Sumter and Loretta wanted me to play backup guitar with her but Doyle Wilburn refused since I was not a Union musician. Loretta, however, was not to be bested. When she was singing, she called me on to the stage on the chorus with her!”

Ann was also in the bands, Country Classics, Regency and Musicaires. She was a country music disc jockey and sales rep for WAGS from 1967 until June of 1990. She is believed to be the first female disc jockey is South Carolina. When she started working for WAGS, her boss said, “This knob is for this turntable, this knob is for the other turntable, this one is for the mike, this one is for the intercom, and I will be in my office.” That was her basic training in radio.

Ann never had a problem with words and rarely did any planning on what she would say on the air. This was a job she loved regardless of the low pay, for she was thoroughly enamored with country music.

Ann remembers:

“I recorded a record in the seventies in Nashville at Fred Foster’s Monument Studios. A friend, by the name of Bill Leffring in Camden, contacted me with three songs that he had written and asked me to learn them. I put music to the lyrics and recorded the songs on an old eight track recorder at home. Then I went to his business and asked him to listen to them. He set up a recording session for me with some topnotch studio musicians in Nashville...I was scared to death but we only had to take a few cuts.”

Her record was sent to the Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia. They liked the record and booked Ann on the jamboree, where many country stars had gotten their beginning. But Ann realized she was getting burned out and was at heart a homebody. She told Bill Leffring that he had sunk enough money into someone who no longer had intentions of going on the road to try and become a star.

Ann also sang once with Connie Smith in Hartsville. She remembers:

“I met Connie Smith when she flew into Hartsville for a performance. Since Connie had not eaten and all the restaurants were closed, I took her to Johnson’s Restaurant, knocked on the back door and said, ‘Open up! I have Connie Smith out here in my car and she is hungry!’ They opened the restaurant for us and David Johnson fixed her a salad. He told her that the next time she came back through Hartsville, he would have a steak waiting for her!”

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