BILLINGS — The radio broadcasting world has lost a legend.
Country Music DJ Hall of Fame recipient Lonnie Bell passed away at 98 years old in Billings on Tuesday.
The family recalled memories on Thursday inside Bell's home.
“I remember even as a little boy getting in the car and going downtown and seeing all of the different music stars that would come to town," says John Bell, Lonnie's son. "You just remember being around all of these people that you heard on the radio but were also friends of my fathers.”
Born Richard Bell, the Charleston, West Virginia, native teamed up with boys in the neighborhood to start a band.
Bell sang in and around coal mines with friends to earn extra money for his family during the Great Depression.
"He was sort of a child prodigy by the time he was 13 or 14 years old singing in the coal mines," John Bell, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, says.
After discovering a passion for music, Lonnie Bell continued to sing and play instruments before joining the Navy in 1940.
But he was only 16 years old at the time, so he signed up under his father's name, Lonnie Bell.
The name stuck.
After serving 20 years in the Navy, Bell decided it was time for a change.
He moved around a bit before settling down in Billings, starting in the Hawaiian islands before heading to the West Coast.
Bell ended up in Billings where he worked as a country music DJ for decades.
“I guess 70 years would be an easy number. I guess as a musician you could even say 90 years," John Bell explains.
Lonnie Bell was able to jump-start many now-famous country singers' careers.
John Bell explains that at that time, music artists would need to call radio stations and request their songs to be played.
Artists aimed at earning a spot on the Top 40 list but weren't able to get there without their songs being played.
Lonnie Bell would play artists like Alabama, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn, who all became famous following Bell's help getting their songs heard.
“We went to his 2005 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and it was kind of interesting. At the last minute, Dolly Parton came in and sat at our family’s table. One of my daughters, Molly, looked at me and said, ‘Geez, Grandpa’s kind of a big deal, isn’t he?’ and I said, ‘Yes, honey he is,’" John Bell says. "I had grown up with that here in Billings, and many of my kids had not seen that or been around that, and so that was kind of special for our family."
A former radio colleague, Rockwell Smith, says that while he only worked with Lonnie Bell for a few years, he left a lasting impression.
“There’s nobody that you can really compare Lonnie to. He had his own way of doing things. When it came to doing commercials on the radio, you couldn’t give him a script. He would just ad-lib for however long it was,” Smith says. “Lonnie was Lonnie and people loved him, believed in him. He lived what he did. Lonnie and country music are synonymous."
A legend that is leaving a legacy to live on.
John Bell says the service is for family and friends, but they are thinking about putting together a public event in the spring.
In lieu of flowers, the family is asking donations to be made in Lonnie's name to the March of Dimes or the Shriner's Hospital.
“Dad had two special connections, one to the March of Dimes. Many people know that for years he ran the March of Dimes horseback ride. So we’ll have a fund to donate to the March of Dimes. Dad was also a member of the Al Bedoo Shrine, so we’ll have a fund to donate to the Shriner’s Hospital as well in the name of Lonnie Bell."
A donation fund is being set up.
“Dad loved the ranch and cowboy culture here in Montana, and I think the farmers and ranchers were very special to him," John Bell says. "As were the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations to him, and all of the people in and around Montana, and I think he was happy and proud to be a part of that community."