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OPINION: The ballad of Tommy Kizziah

March 24, 2021 at 5:25 a.m.

School janitors tend to stay in the background, cleaning up after sick kids, sweeping the halls and emptying trash. At 6 foot, 4 inches, dark, with a rugged face and an easy smile, Mr. Kizziah was hard not to notice. The children of Will Rogers Elementary liked him. He could play guitar and sing, which he did on several occasions for school assemblies and special occasions. As kids, we took his talent in stride, never thinking of his past or what could have been.

My memories of Mr. Kizziah were jogged while going through old school materials. I saw his name on a list of school personnel and began looking online into his life. I found his daughter, Sharon Kizziah-Holmes, who lives in Springfield, Mo., and talked to her at some length. She runs a publishing house and wrote a book about her father aptly titled, "A Star That Twinkled, But Never Got to Shine."

Thomas Henry Kizziah was born into a musical family in Rockwood, Tenn., in 1915. His father and older brothers operated a traveling medicine show, performing songs and selling various tonics. The musicians were crucial in getting crowds in the mood to spend money. Tommy, from an early age, wanted to be in the show, but his general looks and one "cocked" eye made many in his family wonder if he wasn't mentally disabled. His mother, Janie, was his defender and kept urging her husband to teach him to play guitar. Janie had chronic lung issues, thought at the time to be allergies or pneumonia. At the urging of doctors, the family packed up and moved to the drier climate of Dickens, Texas, in the summer of 1921. Several years later, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The family then moved to El Reno, Okla., close to a sanitarium to treat Tommy's mother.

Tommy was gifted a used guitar by his father, mostly to appease his wife, but refused to let the boy play in their shows, afraid the crowds would be put off by Tommy's appearance. Still, Janie urged her son to continue playing and singing. He would sing her favorite gospel songs, and she heaped praise upon his efforts. She entered the sanitarium in Clinton, Okla., in 1928, where she would spend the rest of her life.

Tommy's dad started up a new medicine show and allowed Tommy to replace a brother who had married and moved away. Tommy idolized Jimmie Rodgers, "The Singing Brakeman," and often sang his songs during the shows. "T for Texas" was a crowd favorite. His father finally acknowledged the talent possessed by his son and let him be the front man of the band.

The day after his mother passed away in 1929, Tommy hitched a ride to Oklahoma City. He heard that Jimmie Rodgers would be playing live shows there as well as radio broadcasts for 16 weeks. His father refused to take him, so Tommy took his guitar and left, determined to meet his idol. An old man picked him up, and for the price of a few tunes played by Tommy, took him to the radio station. He cajoled the receptionist into allowing him to meet Rodgers. To his surprise, he was led into a room with his idol, and he asked Tommy to play for him. Impressed, Rodgers put him on the air of station KFJF that day and was heard by his family listening to the radio in El Reno. Rodgers couldn't remember Tommy's name so on the air he referred to him as "Sonny." Tommy would use the stage name of Sonny Rodgers for the next few years. Rodgers insisted that Tommy stay for the 16 weeks to perform, with pay, on his radio show. He was given new clothes. A doctor checked his eyes and prescribed glasses, which fixed his wandering eye and allowed him to see clearly for the first time. Rodgers found a show for Tommy's dad to play, which involved some travel between Texas and South Carolina. The work helped the family through the Depression.

The next few years involved a brief stint in the Army, but as he couldn't read, ended shortly after boot camp. He continued playing music in South Carolina for a few years as Sonny Rodgers, then moved to Texas to reunite with family in Lubbock. He formed a band and played many of the clubs in the area. His brother Jack moved to Oregon and Tommy followed in 1946, taking a job at a school, but their real interest was in getting a band together. The brothers met two other musicians and formed a group called "Tommy Kizziah and The West Coast Ramblers."

Country music was the rage in the Northwest and the band played venues in Oregon and Washington, drawing large crowds and attention. Their most popular hit was an instrumental called "Long Tom Boogie," a rocked-up melody of Western swing featuring fiddle, acoustic and steel guitar with a splash of jazz. They ended up on national radio, playing just after the Grand Ole Opry broadcast. On one of the shows, in the summer of 1953, Tommy introduced a little-known singer to his audience, Willie Nelson, who is still a friend to Tommy's family. Tommy rubbed elbows with a number of well-known country-western stars of the era, including Faron Young and Ferlin Husky. The West Coast Ramblers were considered one of the top five country-western bands and backed Marty Robbins, Ray Price, and Johnny Cash in a number of venues.

Tommy married his long-time sweetheart, Frankie Collier, in 1948. The other members of the Ramblers were also family men and Tommy saw what the strain of traveling could do to a marriage. Despite their success musically, the band's finances were not great. Tommy worked janitorial jobs in Salem, Ore., to make ends meet. Frankie didn't like the idea of Tommy traveling, as they had a family, and she was determined that Tommy would be there for the kids. In 1962, Tommy and the Ramblers decided to go separate ways. Tommy took his family to Lovington, N.M., to be close to Frankie's family. He got a school janitorial job in nearby Hobbs, eventually working up to a supervisory position. He earned a reading and writing certificate and watched his daughter graduate high school. In 1983, Tommy got a call from New York asking him to perform at The American Place Theater. The Vi-ton-ka Medicine Show was an off-Broadway recreation of the old-time medicine show, and Tommy's performance was hailed by one New York newspaper as "infectious and would sound fresh in any era." It was a fitting tribute to Tommy's last appearance on the big stage.

The kids sat on the floor of the gym, eagerly waiting for the program to begin. He walked out with his guitar, singing "Make the World Go Away" in a soft, deep voice, followed by many other tunes the children would know. It wasn't The Cottonwoods or Aumsville Pavilion in Oregon but seeing the smiles on the kid's faces was good enough for now. Tommy Kizziah chose a different road; dreams diminished, but happier than most.

-- Devin Houston is the president/CEO of Houston Enzymes. Send comments or questions to [email protected] Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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