By Lee Davis
Tom York didn’t start out with a vision for a local morning television show. It just happened.
York, a Florence native, was working at a TV station in Memphis when he was hired away by WBRC in Birmingham in 1957. The station, a CBS affiliate at the time, was transitioning ownership to Taft Broadcasting, and major changes were in the works.
One of them included the possibility of airing a local morning show.
“I was the last one hired,” York said. “So that meant I got the morning shift. The station management told me there was an open hour between 7 and 8 a.m. and asked me what I could do with it.”
The answer would make York a television icon.
For the next 32 years, York’s program – titled simply “The Morning Show” – would dominate the ratings in Alabama’s biggest market. The formula was relatively simple: Give viewers the latest news and the weather, and add entertaining talk in between.
But York didn’t want to be a single talking head.
“We hired a young lady so I’d have somebody to talk to on the show,” York recalled. “Jeannine Johnson, who worked in our production office, became our first co-host.”
Some of “The Morning Show’s” early features would seem quaint today. An early staple of programming was showing film of people walking the streets of downtown Birmingham.
“That was one of the most popular things we did,” York remembered.
The show underwent a change the following year, when Pat Gray became York’s television partner.
Gray’s addition to the Morning Show accelerated its climb in the ratings, and it also created some confusion. By coincidence, Gray’s husband was also named Tom York – so many viewers got the idea that the pair they saw on the air every morning was married to one another.
“Some people still think Pat and I were married,” York said, laughing.
In many ways, “The Morning Show” set the pace for what the community was talking about. During the fitness craze of the early 1960s, hundreds of viewers began their mornings by exercising with York and Gray to the sounds of the new “Chicken Fat” workout song that was commissioned by President John F. Kennedy and recorded by Broadway performer Robert Preston.
“Pat Gray looked a lot better in leotards than I did,” York said, smiling.
“The Morning Show” also was a destination stop for network stars promoting their own programs. When WBRC was a CBS affiliate, “Gunsmoke” stars Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone were guests on the set. In the years that followed, virtually any celebrity visiting Birmingham found themselves on “The Morning Show.” Some notables York interviewed included Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell and sports stars such as coaches Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan and baseball legend Willie Mays.
In 1963, Gray moved to other assignments at WBRC, and Fannie Flagg – later a star of stage and screen and a best-selling author – became York’s Girl Friday. Through all the changes, “The Morning Show’s” ratings remained strong and consistent, even after the station changed affiliation from CBS to ABC. The program was also expanded to two hours.
“The local slant of our show was part of what made it work,” York said. “We tried to cover as many local people and events as we could. I was also producer of the show, which gave me a lot of input as to content. We were pioneers in local television, and management allowed us to be creative.”
Sometimes being local meant tossing good natured barbs at the city’s political leaders. When the ambitious Red Mountain Expressway project ran into numerous delays in the mid-1960s, York and his staff composed lyrics – written to the tune of the hit song Winchester Cathedral – lampooning officials for the slow progress.
“I still get requests for the words of that song,” York said.
Hosting and producing a five-day-a-week morning show consumed much of York’s time, but it wasn’t his total body of work at WBRC. He also delivered a daily sportscast. A favorite assignment of York’s was hosting the “Dialing for Dollars Early Show,” during which viewers chosen randomly from the Birmingham telephone directory could win cash by correctly identifying the “count and the amount.”
“People told me they would be nervous, sitting by their phone, hoping it would ring,” York said. “Not that many people won money, but everybody had a good time.”
York was also busy away from television. He was instrumental in the founding of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and served as master of ceremonies at the induction ceremonies in the hall’s early years. He also worked to initiate the Birmingham Touchdown Club.
While different co-hosts would come and go, York remained the lynchpin of “The Morning Show” for more than three decades. Finally in 1989, York retired after 32 years at the helm.
“As television became more corporate, it was less fun,” said York, now 92 and living in Hoover. “Back when we started it was more fun. Now it’s much more of a business.”
For all of his accomplishments, York doesn’t hesitate to name his favorite: Marrying his wife, Helen, on Christmas Eve 1947.
“We met in a college classroom and have been together ever since,” York said. “The key to being married for 69 years is by saying, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
York also takes special pride in his daughter Karen, who taught at Mountain Brook High School for 25 years, and son Byron, a respected political commentator.
“I’m one of the luckiest people in the world,” York said.
And for 32 years, Birmingham television viewers were lucky to have Tom York.