By Lee Davis
Lots of young boys want to grow up to be policemen, firemen, cowboys or professional baseball players.
I wanted to be a radio broadcaster – or actually, one radio broadcaster in particular.
Every adult I knew listened to him in the morning as they were preparing for their day. I listened too and while some of the jokes went over my head, he was funny, entertaining and played some pretty cool music. He and his partner, Tommy Charles, had just started a new station named WAQY – they called it ‘wacky.’ Even a kid couldn’t forget call letters like that.
Before long, I wanted to be that funny man on the radio. My bedroom became a make-believe studio. The backend of a flashlight was my microphone, and two old shower curtain holders tied together by a string made my headset.
My imagination took me many places in those times, but I never dreamed that 30 years later I would be working side-by-side with Doug Layton.
When Doug, a long-time resident of Vestavia Hills, passed away July 15, my thoughts immediately turned to how his life had touched so many – including people who never met him.
I was fortunate to have it both ways: I had the opportunity to work with Doug, but he also affected my life long before I met him. As a regular listener to Layton and Charles, I stopped liking the Beatles and their music because Doug and Tommy said one of the band’s members had boasted that they were more popular than Jesus Christ. The duo refused to play the Beatles’ songs on their station. Doug and Tommy received a lot of international attention for taking that stand. In truth, Doug didn’t like to talk about that phase of his career. I think he took his stand for reasons of faith, not fame or fortune. And even years later, he wasn’t interested in capitalizing on the event.
The beginning of Doug’s greatest impact may have come in 1969, when he joined John Forney to become the color analyst for University of Alabama football. In an era when televised games were few and far between, Doug’s vivid descriptions of the action and excitement on the field gave fans an invaluable link to Crimson Tide football at its peak under Coach Paul Bryant. His calls of exciting wins over Ole Miss, Southern California, Tennessee, Auburn and many others are still part of Alabama football lore.
Sometimes overlooked is that Doug also was the voice of Alabama basketball for many years. His dramatic radio call of the Crimson Tide’s upset of Minnesota in the 1973 National Invitation Tournament helped galvanize interest in basketball in the state.
Ever the entrepreneur, Doug – in a precursor to ESPN – created a regional television network to carry Southeastern Conference basketball games on a weekly basis, bringing the sport to an audience that rarely saw it on live TV.
But while thousands knew Doug’s public persona, far fewer knew him away from the microphone. He was the ultimate family man. In addition to having a wife and two children, Doug was the oldest of six siblings – the ultimate big brother.
“Doug was my hero,” Delores Andrews, his sister, said. “From the very beginning to the very end, he was always looking out for us.”
Doug’s interest in performing came at an early age, according to Andrews.
“As little children, we were putting on plays all the time. Doug would be The Shadow or The Green Hornet and I would sing,” she recalled. “Like any brother and sister, we would fight, but it was always in good fun.”
Andrews said that Doug’s interest in sports also came at an early age.
“When Doug was young, he was in the backyard trying to throw the jump pass like (former Alabama star) Harry Gilmer and I would catch,” she said, laughing. “But then Doug decided that I was better at throwing the jump pass than he was.”
Doug may not have been the next Gilmer, but he was a football star at B.B. Comer High School in his hometown of Sylacauga.
By the time I came to work with Doug at a local sports radio station in the early 1990s, he was already a legendary figure in the local media scene. I was the rawest of rookies. By good fortune, my desk in the office was next to his, so we quickly became friends. One day, he invited me to sit in on his daily broadcast. “Who knows? I might even let you talk,” Doug said with a wide grin. I was thrilled, but mainly I wanted to watch, listen and learn.
For three hours in the studio, I watched and listened as Doug told jokes, reported the sports news and interacted with his audience members – rational and otherwise – who called in to his program. His performance was seamless. He was never flustered or at a loss for words. During a commercial break, Doug whispered to me: “Remember Lee, regardless of what they say, always give them something to smile about. This is your chance to make their day.” I never forgot that advice.
More impressive was what Doug did after his program concluded. As usual in the days before cell phones, there were a slew of voice mail messages on his office phone. Some were from friends and relatives. Many more were from strangers who wanted to have a private chat with the man they had just been listening to on the radio.
Even though his working hours were flexible, Doug wouldn’t leave the office until he had returned every call.
And maybe that was Doug Layton’s real magic. He never forgot that even through all the contacts he made over the years – with coaches, athletes, celebrities and the media; it was the feelings of regular people that were the most important.
That make-believe studio from long-ago only exists in my memory now. But my memories of Doug Layton will last much longer – the legacy of a man who taught all around him that there is always a reason to smile. ϖ