October 18, 1928 – June 11, 2014
Farewell to ‘Fatha’ Thimes
Local radio legend passes at 85; services Tuesday at New Sunny Mount
By Kenya Vaughn
Of The St. Louis American
“He would say, ‘Fatha, Fatha … serving my children – with the music,’ and that’s what he did,” Denise Thimes said. “There was a time when we couldn’t get the information unless it was through black radio or the black paper, and my father was a part of that.”
St. Louis lost one of its last living patriarchs of black radio on Wednesday, June 11 when Lou “Fatha” Thimes passed away at the age of 85.
“There weren’t that many before him,” said Bernie Hayes, longtime radio personality and American columnist. “You had Spider Burkes. You had Wiley Price II. You had E. Rodney Jones – who came around the same time as Lou. He, George Logan and Gabriel were the ones that set the trend for black radio in St. Louis as we know it.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, Fatha Thimes began his career in radio in Okinawa, Japan in 1952 while stationed there with the U.S. Army.
“You remember that movie ‘Good Morning Vietnam’?” Denise said. “My dad’s journey in radio began sort of like that.”
His journey could have very well ended with him being assigned to share music and information on the radio. He had aspirations of becoming a comedian.
Lou left the Army and went on the road as part of a comedy team called “Lou and Blue.”
They toured the “chitlin’ circuit” and even made it to the legendary Apollo Theater stage. But with a growing family (that would ultimately include seven children), he needed to provide a steady income for his wife Mildred and their children.
In 1956 he returned home and signed on as “Fatha Thimes,” blending his quick wit and comedic experience with the blues.
St. Louis urban radio would never be the same.
“Dad set that precedent as far as what kind of personality you were supposed to be on the radio,” Denise said. “My father laid it down – he was the foundation and a pioneer.”
By the time Hayes arrived in St. Louis in 1965, Fatha Thimes was already helping carve the niche of what would be known as “urban radio.”
“He opened doors for me and everybody else who came behind him – two or three generations behind him,” Hayes said. “He opened the door for African-American announcers, male and female, on the air right now – and plenty of them don’t even know that he’s the reason they have the opportunity.”
‘He influenced a lifestyle’
In the “here today, gone today” atmosphere of radio, Fatha Thimes’ iconic on-air career lasted nearly 50 years – and he apparently loved every second of it.
“He was so funny,” Hayes said. “Who could forget him trying to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to people? He would announce that he was going to do it in the next segment – and the response would be, ‘Oh Lord, Lou’s gonna sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ He sounded so awful, and he laid it on to make it worse.”
By the 1960s, his afternoon blues spin session was considered by many to be the “can’t miss” radio program.
“He influenced a lifestyle,” his son Lou Thimes Jr., also known as “The Real JR,” said. “He made you love him, no matter who you were.”
Fatha Thimes worked for both the first and the second radio stations in the area that catered to an African-American audience. He would end up lending his signature voice to a handful stations over the course of his career. He outlasted most of them.
“If I had a dime for everyone who told me, ‘Honey, I cleaned my house a many Saturday mornings listening to your daddy,’ I would be rich,” Denise said. “If I had a nickel for everybody who said, ‘This is my son – and your father is to blame for him because of the music he was playing,’ I would be even richer.’”
“They loved washing their cars to him,” JR said. “They loved cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to him.”
Fatha the mentor
When Hayes came to St. Louis from Chicago, Thimes helped him navigate the market and the two became lifelong friends.
“He knew how to deal with the adversity in media – people who weren’t kind to African Americans,” Hayes said. “He knew how to transcend that hatred.”
“Lou influenced everybody,” said Doug Eason, who was Fatha Thimes’ boss during his KATZ days. “To know him was to be influenced by him. I never met anyone who didn’t love him.”
Aside from his children, he was loved most by those he mentored – including his son, JR, who would go on to be a popular radio personality in his own right.
“He was on KATZ AM, and I was on KATZ FM,” JR recalled. “He would stand outside the studio just to kind of hear me. My father was a professor of radio. He taught and inspired a generation of people.”
Sylvester “The Cat” Caldwell of Majic 100.3 FM was taught the radio ropes by Fatha Thimes. As an underage teen he maneuvered his way into Substation 8 nightclub, where Fatha was hosting a live broadcast, and asked the veteran DJ to take him under his wing. The two would grow as close as father and son.
“He taught me about being a people person,” Caldwell said. “About being in the community – and having a connection in the community.”
Caldwell was happy to admit that his long-running “Slammin’ Jammin’ Oldies Show” was a mimic of what Fatha Thimes did with his blues show – and his way of paying homage.
He was also a politician, a businessman, a promoter and a staple in the community who used his celebrity to support initiatives and programs – most notably the Annie Malone Children and Family Services Center.
“My dad was a cultural icon because so many people loved him,” JR said. “He taught me that in order to be a personality, you have to connect with people – they have to have an emotional connection to you. And you have to use that to give back to them.”
He signed off in the 1990s, but people never forgot how Fatha Thimes made them feel – which was made apparent during one of his last public appearances.
“We took him to see Wynton Marsalis at Powell Symphony Hall last October,” Denise said. “His birthday and Wynton Marsalis’ birthday are the same day – October 18.”
David Steward, founder of World Wide Technology and the philanthropist who made the Marsalis show possible, knew about the coincidence.
“David Steward had everybody in Powell Hall sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to my dad for his 85th birthday,” Denise said. “He was like a little kid when he got in the car. He was like ‘D., did you hear all the people singing to me?’ I was like, ‘I heard them, Daddy.’”
Lou “Fatha” Thimes Sr. will lie in state 4-8 p.m. Monday, June 23 at St. Luke Memorial Baptist Church, 3623 Finney.
The visitation will take place from 8-10 a.m. Tuesday, June 24, at New Sunny Mount Baptist Church, 4700 West Florissant. The funeral will immediately follow the visitation.
There will be a special musical celebration in his honor 9 p.m. Saturday, June 28 at The Ambassador.