Chester Smith started his career as a country music singer
and radio broadcaster and built a television station empire based in the Modesto
area that earned him millions and the respect of those he inspired.
He died Friday at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, according to
the tour manager of his longtime friend, country music star Merle Haggard.
Smith became a country music star with his hit song "Wait a Little Longer, Please,
Jesus" and his Northern California radio and television shows in the 1950s.
During his radio-TV announcer days of the 1940s through the 1960s, a who's who
in country music worked with Smith. The names included
Marty Robbins, Del Reeves, Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Hank Thompson, Jerry Lee Lewis
and even rocker Chuck Berry.
Smith went on to create a media empire that stretched the length of the San
Joaquin Valley and beyond, from Bakersfield to Oregon. He owned Modesto-based
Sainte Partners II, which owns and operates TV stations in California and Oregon.
In 2001, Smith completed a two-year project with Haggard.
The country gospel album, "California Blend" revived Smith's singing career
in his early 70s.
"He was a hero in the media industry and entertainment industry," Frank Mull, Haggard's
tour manager, said Friday. "He was someone to look up to."
Smith's roots in the Central Valley were established when his family moved
from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl and settled in a
migrant camp in Tranquility, a small town about 30 miles west
of Fresno, according to the Modesto Radio Museum Web site.
Smith created Northern California's first Spanish-language radio station, and he
later was honored for his work by the Latino Community Roundtable
of Stanislaus County.
In an October 2002 article in The Bee, Smith said all the broadcasters
who made fun of his Spanish programming in the late 1960s and 1970s
missed an essential point.
"Before the Mexicans came to work in the fields, my people
(Oklahomans from the Dust Bowl-era) were the braceros," Smith said.
"And I have always known that the people who work the land end up
owning the land."
In 2002, Smith was honored with the Modesto Area Music Association's
Lifetime Achievement Award. MAMA co-founder Chris Murphy said Friday that
Smith's musical talent on stage was matched by his ability
to be a business visionary.
"It takes a smart businessman to make music successful," Murphy said of
Smith. "He was an icon."
Smith also received the Pioneer Award from the
Christian Country Music Association in Nashville, Tenn., which recognizes
groundbreakers in the areas of music and broadcasting.
In recent years, Smith loved performing in front of audiences at
churches, said Pastor Herb Henry of Richland Faith Assembly of
God in Ceres. Smith was a people person who never forgot where
he came from, Henry said Friday.
Smith was scheduled to perform at Henry's church in July
before he called to cancel because he was too ill, Henry said.
" 'I just want to leave singing and praising the Lord,' he said to
me on the phone," Henry said. "I guess he knew his life was about to end."
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