Charles Billings, a beloved voice on this station in the 1980s and early '90s, died Tuesday in Memphis of sudden heart failure. Known for his silky, southern-accented baritone, Billings had both a vast knowledge of classical repertoire and a passion for performing it. After leaving WKNO, his operatic voice could be heard in churches throughout the city. He was 62.
"Charles, for so many of us, was WKNO," says marketing manager Sally Stover. "Particularly in those days, in the '80s and early 90s, he was the first voice you would hear in the morning and very often he would still be on the air, it felt like, when you were driving home in the afternoon. I mean, he just was the voice of WKNO."
Charles W. Billings grew up in Memphis, graduated from Treadwell High School and studied vocal music at then-Memphis State University. That love of music brought him to this station.
For classical music hosts Kacky Walton and Darel Snodgrass, who followed in his footsteps, he was an outstanding role model.
"Really I consider him to be my mentor as a classical music announcer," Snodgrass says. "He was the one who showed me how you should put a show together."
Walton remembers his kind phone calls of encouragement as she began her career as a classical broadcaster. But even before getting the official thumbs-up from her predecessor, she was enamored with his occasionally outside-the-box programming.
"When I first moved up here, my brother listened to WKNO," Walton says. "And he said, 'Oh, there's this guy Charles Billings in the morning. He's so cool. He plays the Pirates of Penzance version with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. Like 'Poor Wandering One.' He would play that from that album all the time. And I thought, 'Well, that's neat!'"
After leaving WKNO, Billings took his golden sound to New York for a spell. Then he returned to his hometown. For years, he worked as a music director at various churches. He retired from Farmington Presbyterian last August.
Employees of this station remember Billings for his generosity of spirit, offering to sing at funerals or weddings or sending notes in his immediately recognizable handwriting.
For many years, he appeared frequently on local stages, taking on bravado roles such as El Gallo in The Fantasticks or relishing a chance to play the baritone bad guy; Captain Hook in Peter Pan was a personal favorite. Carla McDonald, who became friends with Billings while performing in a musical at Theatre Memphis, said he had a wicked sense of humor and a 'Cadillac of a voice.'
"And I don't think he even knew how it happened," she says. "I think he just opened his mouth and it just came out. And I have never heard anything like it since."
A visitation for Charles W. Billings will be held 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, at Canale Funeral Directors, 2700 Union Avenue Extended.
A memorial service will be 10 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27, at Calvary Episcopal Church, 102 N. Second Street.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported the wrong high school for Billings. His alma mater was Treadwell High.