Personal recollections of Tandy Clinton Rice, Jr. — colorful and endearing — came without hesitation this week in Franklin as individuals captured the magic of his spirited youth, exceptional athleticism and creative genius for promotion.
Mr. Rice, a sixth-generation Williamson Countian, died Monday at a Nashville hospital of complications from a brief illness. He was 76.
The founder of Top Billing, Inc., Mr. Rice was known nationally for his tenacious and skillful promotion of country music performers, whose ascent in the late 70s and 80s paralleled Nashville’s steady rise to its present and unrivaled musical zenith.
He represented Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner and Jim Ed Brown, but he spent a great deal of time with Southern comedian Jerry Clower.
Bright-eyed, smiling and full of boundless energy for others, Mr. Rice’s life story has all the makings of a great Southern novel, if only it was fiction.
A native son
Born to a family whose reputation was set early in Franklin history, Mr. Rice was the great, great grandson of John B. McEwen, Franklin mayor at the onset of the Civil War.
According to his distant cousin Nashville attorney Dudley West, the McEwen heritage was an ever-present strength for Mr. Rice.
The new McEwen community in Cool Springs is named for his family’s patriarch.
But it was the stellar reputation of Mr. Rice’s father, one of a handful of physicians in the small town of Franklin in the years leading to World War II, that provided nurture and support as he made his way through school.
The Rice family, along with the West family, shared the experience of life on a quiet street just south of Franklin’s Main Street.
Childhood living on Lewisburg Avenue in the ‘50s was not just idyllic but a sort of “Camelot,” said lifelong friend and neighbor Eunetta Kready this week.
She and others attribute Mr. Rice’s style and passion to a bygone era.
“Tandy grew up across the street from me on Lewisburg Avenue, and later in life we all realized that Lewisburg Avenue was Camelot,” Kready said.
The historic district today boasts the homes, which once belonged to the Rices, the Wests, the Armisteads, the Andersons, and the Campbells, and Kready explains how parents watched out for one another’s children who were welcome under all circumstances.
“The Rice home was always open and the rockers were on the front porch. I can remember going inside one day, there was a cat sitting in an open drawer that had just given birth to kittens,” Kready said, adding that Frances Rice a remarkably kind and gracious Southern lady.
Mudfights, baseball games in the front yard and late afternoons making long clover chains used to scare the one or two cars that ventured down the quiet street, are her vivid memories.
She also remembers the antics of Mr. Rice and the gang of children of all ages that ran together in those days: Bill Bethurum, Becky Waldrop, Bill Armistead, Marie Jordan and Catherine Brent and the West boys, Dudley and Tommy, and Margaret Martin and Lillian Stewart.
“I remember him when I was 4 or 5 and he was 16 or 17,” said Bill Armistead, Battle Ground Academy board of trust member and retired attorney.
“He lived diagonal across the street from my grandmother Mattie Armistead on Lewisburg Avenue.”
The friendship, Armistead said, was solidified when they served years ago on the BGA board together, although Mr. Rice graduated from Franklin High School.
It as the mutual affection for family that Armistead said he will always appreciate.
“He was just one-of-a-kind. He was a great person and I’m going to miss him.”
Likewise, Dudley West, who also grew up on Lewisburg Avenue, just a few houses away from his relative, has found solace this week in knowing that Mr. Rice’s legacy is rooted in “important” traits, exemplified first by their parents.
Loyalty, he said prevailed above all else throughout Mr. Rice’s life.
“If he was your friend, he was loyal and interested in you.”
This permeated the small town of Franklin, this sense of standing by one another in good times and bad.
And, in one of Mr. Rice’s toughest moments, just after the tragic loss of his son Clinton in an automobile accident, he turned to another local icon for strength.
Coach Jimmy Gentry, who was a comfort to Mr. Rice and his family years later in the 1980s when sadness fell on the Lewisburg Avenue home where Mr. Rice was raising two daughters and his teenage son.
The moment he learned of the automobile accident he telephoned Coach Gentry asking him to come and be at his home, minutes after a sheriff’s deputy delivered the news of the tragedy.
It was for Mr. Rice a relationship born from his youth as student athlete under Gentry at FHS.
“Tandy was a great athlete. He won the state championship for Franklin High School in track in the one-mile relay,” Gentry said. That garnered him an induction into the Franklin High School Athletic Hall of Fame several years ago.
Kready also remembers the accomplishment in what were called the Banner Relays, an athletic event sponsored then by Nashville’s afternoon newspaper.
Gentry said he enjoyed the victory with his young student in 1956 and the two remained close forever more.
“He’s a guy that knew no stranger. He had a kind word for everyone,” Gentry said.
“He was also an expert swimmer and was on the swim team at The Citadel.”
After graduation, he enrolled at Vanderbilt, but as family and friends recall, Mr. Rice was always set on doing things his way.
A short, unsuccessful experience at Vanderbilt University prompted Dr. Rice to enroll his son in the prestigious military training college in Charleston, S.C.
The Citadel, according to Armistead, West and Gentry, was an experience that Mr. Rice described as his bridge to manhood.
“I’m going to miss him,” Gentry said. “Of all the people I’ve ever known I’m going to miss him.”
In later years, The Citadel experience would be one he would reflect on over and over, choosing to give generously to support other cadets.
He helped create the Rice Endowed Scholarship Fund and received an honorary degree, the college’s highest honor.
“Tandy Rice epitomized The Citadel core values of honor, duty and respect,” said Citadel President Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, in a statement Wednesday.
“Many will remember his professional accomplishments, but even more will remember his spirit of giving and helping those in need. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on at The Citadel.”
Calibrating others strengths
While Mr. Rice is described as a headstrong and natural leader, his skill for seeing the gifts of others was his lifelong passion.
He was able to turn that inner passion into a remarkable enterprise, one that tapped into the heart of performers like Parton, Clower and Brown.
Those who knew him through Top Billing, as employees and the receiving beneficiaries of his skill, provide more insight.
Steve Thurman, who owns The Nordell Company, recalled meeting Mr. Rice in 1980, as a MTSU graduate trying to land his first job in the Nashville music industry. Thurman, who grew up in Chattanooga, was vying for a foot-in-the-door at Top Billing in 1980.
Still a close friend of the Rice family, Thurman paid close attention working under Mr. Rice, and at one time left the company for a spot in a competing agency. Within two years, he returned because as he said, “Tandy ran the business the right way.”
Similarly, Franklin resident Susan Freeze who worked at Top Billing at the same time, agreed with Thurman that Mr. Rice’s tenacity and precision made the business a success.
“You always knew how he felt about you at the end of the day,” Freeze said. “If he was mad at you, you knew why, and if he was happy with your work he would tell you. But he never held a grudge.”
In that same era, Franklin’s local radio station, formerly owned by Bill Ormes, changed hands when Tom T. Hall and Mr. Rice partnered with a third individual to purchase today’s WAKM 950. Ultimately, Jim Hayes and Tom Lawrence led a purchase from the partners, but for a few years Mr. Rice came to appreciate the business of radio long after he gave up WTJT.
“When he was on his game, he was the best,” Lawrence said early Tuesday morning after hearing of his friend’s passing.
“He and Tom T. Hall and their attorney were all partners and Tom T. was the majority owner, but Tandy had a piece of it because he was Tom T’s promoter.”
But Lawrence’s memories of Mr. Rice are deeper.
“When I was a kid, he was one of the young people in Franklin that was held up to us, and it was said ‘this is what you need to be,’” Lawrence recalled of the era when the Harpeth River aligned more closely with the city’s limit.
The accomplishments of Mr. Rice are many and remembered one by one.
“He was a judge in the Miss America pageant,” Lawrence said.
He had a charisma that was able to launch even the controversial career of a country boy from Plains, Ga. in the mid-1970s.
Herald columnist and son of Billy Carter described the larger-than-life personality Mr. Rice carried to his hometown of 700.
“I was 16 and can remember him walking in with those snake skin cowboy boots, wearing a bolo tie with two beautiful women he called Tandy’s angels,” said William Carter this week.
“He changed my father’s life. Up until then, he had been a country farmer, gas station owner and run a honky tonk.”
The younger Carter grew close to Mr. Rice over the years, especially because of their mutual friendship with Tom T. Hall, another Williamson County icon.
“A few years ago, I went to a BMI awards banquet and Tom T. was receiving a lifetime achievement award,” Carter said.
“ I noticed Tandy sitting at a table and I walked over and asked him what he thought of the night. I had watched people surrounding him all night and there he was sitting with that beautiful white mane of hair speaking to every person one at a time that was lined up to see him.”
Carter recalled Mr. Rice’s blunt response to his question. “He said, ‘Dammit Carter I love this business. It’s the same as it’s always been, there’s just more money now.’”
A boundless heart
In between making sure his clients continued to achieve the spotlight they deserved, both nationally and internationally, Mr. Rice is said to have embodied a generous spirit for others that is unrivaled here.
“Tandy was just legendary,” West said. “I had a child born with cerebral palsy and I got involved with United Cerebral Palsy and Tandy hosted our telethon for years.”
He noted that the persona most people think of when they recall Mr. Rice is a colorful career promoting top musical talent, but his was a different relationship.
“Tandy and I were pretty close. His father delivered me,” he said, noting that growing up in Franklin was a bonding experience. Ultimately, West served as his attorney.
But West also joked about a time when he had moved back to Lewisburg Avenue and his dog actually bit Mr. Rice’s son in the face following an extended twisting by the younger Rice of the dog’s ears.
“There was never any issue. Tandy wasn’t mad, but rather said he knew there wasn’t anything intentional about it. He assured me that everything was going to be fine between us.”