Blackshear/O.L. Price Ex-Students Association

The Mighty, Mighty Panthers

Tony Von 1924-1979

For two decades, Austin was home to original ‘T.V. on the Radio’

Honky Tonk
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By Michael Corcoran
AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Monday, April 23, 2007

“This is Tony Von, T.V. on the radio, in living color.” The mellow, mesmerizing voice rolled out of the 1260 slot on the AM dial at 4 p.m. every weekday and at 2 p.m. Saturdays from 1954 until tragedy silenced it in 1979. His real name was Tony Von Walls, and his radio nickname was “the Master Blaster,” but most everyone knew the irrepressible KTAE disc jockey and soul concert promoter as T.V., one of the most significant voices of Austin’s African American community.

When the wild sax of Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” Von’s opening theme, came stroking out of the speakers, a community gathered together, if only spiritually.

Through his radio show, Tony Von Walls, ‘the Master Blaster,’ became one of the most important voices in Austin’s African American community.

More on the Austin Music Memorial

He played gospel and blues side-by-side, just as nightclubs and churches were often next door to one another in East Austin. But more significantly, at a time before cell phones and pagers, Von was how Austin’s black community knew what was going on. He’d plug shows, give birthday greetings and announce events, often in free-form rhyme. “Tony was black radio back in the day,” says local blues artist Major Burkes, whose hit song “Break These Chains” got its earliest airplay on Von’s show. “Communication was sometimes quite difficult back then so I’d listen to T.V. to see where I’d be playing that night.”

When the Austin Music Memorial, a collection of engraved discs, unveils at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in March 2008, the honorees should not only be musicians, but important figures who made contributions as club owners, disc jockeys, journalists and record store owners.

Tony Von performed all those duties. He opened the Show Bar and a record shop on “the Cuts” (popular slang for East 11th Street) in the early ’50s. After selling the club to Charlie Guildon (who would later open Charlie’s Playhouse on the same block) in 1955, Von moved full time to Taylor, where he opened another record shop that he could plug on the air. He also brought such acts as James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner to Doris Miller Auditorium, and occasionally wrote for the Capital Argus, a black publication.

“Tony yielded a lot of power,” Burkes recalls. “He had all the connections.”

On the air, however, he was the personification of laid-back. “Be cool, be back and remember one fact: We love you,” is how T.V. signed off each day.

A native of Dallas, Von moved to Austin to attend Sam Huston College. Back in Dallas after graduation, Von got his start in radio at KLIF, but was reportedly fired by radio legend Gordon McClendon because Von wouldn’t embrace the “Jackson the Jiver” persona McClendon had devised for him. Von made a better impression on KTAE owner Gillis Conoley who was looking for a replacement for Jukebox Jackson in the afternoon. KTAE specialized in country and rockabilly, but the station also made time for R&B and Spanish music (Chicano DJ George Martinez followed Von’s show for 10 years).

In a 1977 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Von laid out the inclusive philosophy that made his show a forerunner of community radio. “I have always believed in playing anything by everybody, anybody and nobody,” he told writer Ronald Powell.

Two years after the Statesman story was published, Von met fate in the form of ex-con James Earl Pullins. Von was working in his record shop on East Walnut Street the evening of June 20, 1979, when an intoxicated Pullins stood in the middle of the street and fired a shotgun in the air. Von got his pistol and told Pullins to put the shotgun away and Pullins moved on down the street. He returned a couple hours later, however, and found Von in the Soul-Ful Club across the street from his record shop. One blast from the shotgun killed Von.

Having served two prison terms for armed robbery, this third strike against Pullins ensured a life sentence so prosecutors didn’t try him for murder, thinking his guilty plea on an aggravated assault charge would put him away for good.

But after only 10 years in the joint, Pullins was paroled in 1990 because of prison overcrowding. Three years later, he was found shooting a stolen gun in the air in San Antonio and sent back to prison.

This many years later, Tony Von is not quite as big a local black radio icon as Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst or the great gospel announcer Elmer Aikens, who both worked for KVET.

The hip Brooklyn band TV on the Radio doesn’t even know about the original, having taken their name from British DJ Tommy Vance, who has appropriated the “This is TV on the radio” catchphrase born on the second floor of a building in downtown Taylor 53 years ago. “Austin truly was ‘the live music capital of the world’ back in the ’60s,” Burkes says. “These days, it’s not even close to how much music was going on in East Austin, and Tony Von had a lot to do with it.”

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