Country music legend Bill Anderson remembers the night of Aug. 27, 1957, as though it was yesterday.
I thought I was just getting away from the heat in my room, remarks Whisperin Bill in his trademark mellow voice. I was changing my life, and I didnt know it.
The would-be songwriter was 19 years old, living in a three-story hotel in Commerce, Ga., and working for $50 a week as a disc jockey at local radio station WJJC. Suffering from the inadequate efforts of his air conditioner, he picked up his guitar and headed for the roof. Sitting in a lounge chair, he began to compose a plaintive ballad of a lonely man surveying the shimmering Las Vegas strip.
My dad said, Son, I shouldve known that you had the imagination to be a songwriter if you could sit on top of that little hotel and look out on Commerce, Georgia, and write, The bright array of city lights as far as I can see, Anderson recalls. There might have been a couple of traffic lights in Commerce at the time.
He called the song City Lights and soon a version of the tune reached the ears of top Nashville, Tenn., vocalist Ray Price. Sensing a hit, Price recorded City Lights and the song stayed on the top of the charts for 13 weeks.
It was the big break Anderson needed for NashvilleAmericas country music capitalto roll out its welcome mat. And although he packed his bags, in a sense hes never moved away from Commerce.
It was the first time that I felt I belong here, he says of the town of 4,100. I had no roots there other than the fact that I was there the day we (started up) a brand new radio station.
Those three years I knew everybody in the whole town. Id sign on at the station at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, and the guy from the bakery would call and say, Ive got some hot apple turnovers down here. You want me to bring you some?
Though baked goods are no longer delivered daily to Andersons doorstep, the affection Anderson felt for Commerceand vice versahas never diminished. Simple and straight to the point, the people of the town love him, says Gerald Jordan, who was just an infant when Anderson would join his family for dinner. The older people who remember him when he was on the radio just flock to see him. Hes still down to earth.
Although Whisperin Bill joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1961 and has penned hits for a whos who of artists ranging from Brenda Lee to Tracy Byrd, Jordan says with pride that the adopted hometown boy never outgrew them. Hed send us his records and stay in touch. When hed travel down to see his folks (in Atlanta), hed usually stop by for a visit.
The town unveiled a monument in 1977 that commemorates Andersons 1975 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
And in 1997 the country artist returned to Commerce to perform at the 40th anniversary of the radio station. We named a street after him when he came to town that year. Bill Anderson Boulevard runs right by the radio station, offers Jordan, whose family now owns WJJC.
During his concert, Anderson was so overcome by the kindness Commerce had shown him that I got carried away on stage and said, Do you want to do this again next year? the singer recalls.
We didnt take long to accept his offer, chuckles Jordan. Over the course of the next year, Anderson worked with local leaders to establish an annual benefit concert featuring some of the performers well-known friends. I told them that we should do something that would keep the money in the community, explains Anderson.
In 1998, concert funds were used to purchase new seats for the Commerce Cultural Center. Since that time, proceeds from the event have gone toward building a performing arts center to be used jointly by the local high school and the community.
Although he is active as a touring artist, Grand Ole Opry mainstay, and songwriter, Anderson looks forward to his annual June reunion with the folks of Commerce.
They just kinda adopted me, he grins.