The Dick Clark of Phoenix: This Arizona legend brought Elvis and Sinatra to the Valley
He's the man who brought Elvis to Phoenix — a sold-out concert at the Arizona State Fairgrounds as the rockabilly singer's first single since signing to RCA Records was in its sixth of seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 100.
Had that been Ray Odom's only claim to fame, it would've been enough to make him something of an Arizona legend.
But by that point, Odom had already launched the Valley's first all-country radio station, KHEP, and was hosting a popular Saturday night concert series, Arizona Hayride, at the downtown Phoenix music mecca Madison Square Garden.
Arizona music historian John Dixon says those weekly concerts were "the biggest thing going in Phoenix" for quite a few years.
The Dick Clark of Country Music?
In "The Phoenix Sound: A History of Twang & Rockabilly Music in Arizona," Jim West writes that Odom, who died at age 95 on Feb. 16, 2022, "could have been dubbed the Dick Clark of Country Music with all the promotional efforts and shows he put forth."
He even had his own TV shows — "Arizona Hayride," which he hosted live on Channel 10 from Madison Square Garden, and "Hillbilly Hit Parade" on Channel 5.
"A TV show and a radio show all based on that Saturday series of live music concerts was huge for Phoenix," Dixon says. "And that was all Ray. He was really a very important mover and shaker."
He was also a local celebrity who liked to dress the part in his fancy cowboy outfits.
"Everybody knew who Ray Odom was in the '50s and '60s here," West says.
Why Ray Odom came to Phoenix
Born outside of Abilene, Odom began his broadcasting career in his home state of Texas, moving to Phoenix in 1951 to take a job at KRIZ as a sports announcer and program director.
Not long after starting, he approached the station's owner, Harry Loeb, about bringing country stars to Phoenix to perform.
Loeb turned him down. After almost a year on the job, he brought it up again. Loeb turned him down a second time.
Increasingly frustrated, Odom took a job at KRIZ's main competitor, KRUX, in 1952.
Stan Norman, KRUX's owner, thought producing live performances by Grand Ole Opry stars in Phoenix sounded like a great idea.
As Beve Rhyan Cole, who worked with Odom on the book "Ray Odom: A Lifetime of... Radio, Records & Racehorses," says, "Ray had a way of always doing what he wanted to do eventually."
Bringing Grand Ole Opry to Phoenix
The move to KRUX made Odom even more successful.
"Everybody knew him by then," Cole says. "He had a very strong personality and a downhome style. People in the '50s and '60s really enjoyed that kind of thing. That downhome guy next door."
Those country fans were eager for an opportunity to see their favorite singers live at Odom's weekly "Arizona Hayride" shows.
"They couldn't afford to go to Nashville to the Grand Ole Opry," Cole says.
"But he brought them here. And that's one of the reasons it took off so well. People were saying, 'I don't have to go to Nashville. I can see them right here.' It changed lives."
The Lee Hazlewood connection
It was Odom who secured a job at KRUX for a DJ from Coolidge named Lee Hazlewood.
Hazlewood had been showing up at Odom's shows at Madison Square Garden with two high school kids from Coolidge, Jimmy Delbridge and Duane Eddy.
Bringing Hazlewood to Phoenix put all the pieces in place for Hazlewood to produce a handful of iconic Arizona records at Floyd Ramsey's Phoenix studio, from Sanford Clark's "The Fool," the first big rock 'n' roll hit out of Phoenix, to the early hits that got Eddy enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Those shows at Madison Square Garden are where Hazlewood and Eddy met Al Casey, the session guitarist who played such an important role on all those seminal recordings.
Elvis Presley said he'd play Phoenix for $30
Odom had his first conversation with Presley while he was working at KRUX. As Odom recalled in Cole's book, he was doing his morning show when the phone rang.
It was Presley, looking to get in on an "Arizona Hayride" show.
Odom recalled Presley saying, "This is Elvis Presley. I know you have a big show there in Phoenix each Saturday night and my boys and I are on our way to California. If you could put us on your show for a few songs, we would just charge you $30 for gas money."
Odom told him he was all booked up that week but reassured him, "I know I'll be bringing you to Phoenix in the not too distant future and I'll be paying you a lot more than $30."
A year later, Odom paid $10,000 to bring Presley to the fairgrounds, with a concert the following night at the rodeo grounds in Tucson.
Launching Phoenix's first all-country station
By that point, Odom and his business partner A.V. Bamford had started KHEP, a groundbreaking all-country radio station.
"Radio pretty much all over the country was what they used to call block programming," West says. "You'd have a block of jazz, an hour of classical music, an hour of country, stuff like that."
When word got out that Odom was launching an all-country format, Cole says, "People thought he was just absolutely nuts. Because nobody listened to country. They were wrong."
Within two weeks, KHEP had blown past KRUX and KOY to top the monthly ratings in the Phoenix market.
"Country music and country shows were never offered here until Ray started doing it," Cole says. "And it was something people wanted. He was always in the right place at the right time and knew what to do about it."
Odom's overnight success was based in large part on him having told his on-air team to play six Elvis songs an hour at a time when most stations in Phoenix were leery of promoting such a controversial figure.
"I was a teenager at that time," Cole says. "And parents, especially moms, they wouldn't let their kids listen to Elvis. He was obscene. His movements. You know, people kind of laugh at that now. But he was taboo."
Elvis Presley's first airplay in Phoenix?
Odom was in on the ground floor of the Elvis revolution, spinning his earliest releases on Sun Records.
"Ray had some performer friends that toured with Elvis in the South when Elvis was just starting out, and they had brought back some of Elvis' early music on Sun," West recalls.
"And here in the Valley, the audience was clamoring for Elvis music because it was such a unique and fresh sound at the time. So Ray was the guy that helped to break Elvis in Phoenix."
Dixon says there's some dispute as to which DJ spun those early Presley records first in Phoenix.
"Some people say it was Lee Hazlewood," he says.
"So it's kind of a story that's got a couple different versions. But Ray definitely would have been one of the first because he was good friends with Chuck Mayfield, who had come back from the Louisiana Hayride show with copies of Elvis on Sun."
Ruling the roost with country fans
With KHEP blowing past the competition in the local ratings, West says, "Ray was pretty much ruling the roost as far as the country audience goes."
Within a year of launching KHEP, Odom sold the station and moved to Tucson, where he and Bamford launched a new all-country station, KMOP, in 1957.
That same year, he booked another of the most important concerts he would ever bring to Arizona — Frank Sinatra at the Phoenix Coliseum.
By 1959, he and Bamford had another country station on the air in Phoenix, KHAT, which was popular through the end of the '60s.
In a blurb on the back of Cole's book, fellow broadcasting legend Pat McMahon of "The Wallace and Ladmo Show" recalls, "It wasn't long after I arrived in Phoenix in 1960 that I heard him described as the King of Country Music Broadcasting."
In 1968, Odom sold KHAT, staying on as a consultant.
A cowboy loves his horses
As Odom was becoming more and more entrenched in the music and radio culture of Phoenix and Tucson, he and Dolly, his wife, were becoming more deeply involved in their passion for thoroughbred horseracing as owners and trainers.
From 1963 through 1978, Odom broadcast races daily from October through May from a radio booth at Turf Paradise in Phoenix.
He was also well known for his public appearance astride Black Magic, a stallion he purchased in 1957. They'd take part in Scottsdale's Parada del Sol, the Phoenix Rodeo Parade and the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California.
In 1971, Odom signed on as general manager of a new country station in Phoenix, KJJJ, a role he held for nearly seven years before getting out of broadcasting to focus on thoroughbred racing.
In 1981, he and Dolly moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where Odom started a television production company, Parade to Post, broadcasting races from Golden Gate Fields.
After 23 years in San Francisco, the Odoms returned to the West Valley in 2001, the same year Odom was inducted to the Arizona Radio Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
In 2016, he was given the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Western Artists. The following year, he was inducted to the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame and a year after that the Greater Arizona Country Music Association Hall of Fame.
He lived a full life. And as West says, "He wore many hats."
That made it a bit of a challenge for Cole to share his story in a book.
"I wish I could have put everything that he did in there," she says. "But nobody would have been able to lift it."