Billy Mize, one of the last important figures remaining from the golden era of the Bakersfield Sound, has died.
Mize, a triple threat as a singer, songwriter and television host who won the Academy of Country Music's TV Personality of the Year award three years in a row, 1965-1967, died at a nursing home in Pleasanton. He was 88.
"Billy was a crucial player in the birth of the Bakersfield Sound, but his polished style and refined vocal delivery set him apart from his peers," said music writer Scott B. Bomar. "He could have just as easily been a star of the silver screen had he not chosen a life in country music."
Country Music Hall of Fame crooner Ray Price once called Mize "my favorite country singer."
William Robert Mize, born on April 29, 1929, in Arkansas City, Kansas, came to Bakersfield in 1935 by way of Riverside. After World War II he found work performing alongside Bill Woods for Okie migrants in and around farm labor camps. When television came to the Central Valley, Mize was one of the first to earn top billing.
He got his start on TV in 1953 with "Cousin" Herb Henson, as so many did, and when Henson’s chief rival, Jimmy Thomason, quit his own show to run for the California Senate, Mize switched from KERO to KBAK and took the host’s seat. He teamed with Cliff Crofford for a year and a half on KBAK’s "Chuck Wagon Gang." Among the guests: 16-year-old Merle Haggard, in what is thought to be his first television appearance.
After the Thomasons returned to Bakersfield in 1956, Mize rejoined the "Trading Post" gang, becoming the show’s host in 1962 after Cousin Herb was forced to scale back following a heart attack. After Henson died in September 1963, the show moved to KBAK, and Mize became the show’s host for its final years.
In a two-year display of astounding road-warrior grit, Mize racked up 3,000 miles a week driving his pink ‘59 Cadillac back and forth between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, hosting two live, daily TV music shows: "Trading Post" and Gene Autry’s "Melody Ranch," on KTLA.
All told, Mize performed on several Los Angeles-area shows, including more than one at a time at several junctures: "The Hank Penny Show," "Town Hall Party," "The Cal Worthington Show," and "Country Music Time."
When contemporaries speak of Billy Mize they always seemed to start with his matinee idol looks: In the vernacular of the 1950s, Billy was a dreamboat. “He sang like a bird,” guitarist Roy Nichols once said of him. “Looked good, too. You didn’t have a chance with girls when Billy was around.”
Apart from his looks, though, Mize’s credentials as singer, songwriter, and progenitor of the emerging genre were as legitimate as anyone on the scene, and his sweet tenor voice, which was infused with ’50s mainstream pop as much as rollicking honky-tonk, was distinctive.
"He could have been a huge star — should have been," said Tommy Hays, a longtime musical collaborator who met Mize in Bakersfield in 1948. "He sang beautifully and could harmonize to anything. But he could have been a star on his ability to play steel guitar alone."
Mize recorded for Columbia, Decca, United Artists and Zodiac, cutting 11 albums and charting 11 singles. He also appeared on a number of other artists' recordings including many of Haggard's.
Mize wrote scores, perhaps hundred of songs, including "Who Will Buy the Wine," which was recorded by Haggard, Charlie Walker, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ernest Tubb. Dean Martin recorded three of Mize's songs in a single day, including "Who Will Buy the Wine."
His final run at more enduring fame came in 1972, when he taped two pilots of "Billy Mize Music Hall," which he hoped to sell into national syndication. Despite guest appearances by Merle Haggard on one show and Marty Robbins on the other — and a new-look Billy, with medallion, leisure suit, and sideburns — the show wasn’t picked up.
Mize suffered a stroke in 1990 that cost him his smooth, rich singing voice but he recovered well enough to play guitar again and, for another 10 years, became a fixture in the crowd most Monday nights at Trout’s Cocktail Lounge in Oildale.
"He was one of the nicest guys I ever met," said Hays, who knew Mize almost 70 years. "We were kids and we kind of bonded. We played a lot of music together. He'd come over and rehearse.
"He had more talent in his one hand than most of them had all together," Hays said.
Mize was married in 1948 and divorced in the 1980s; he remained lifelong friends with his ex-wife Martha.
Mize's grandson, Joe Saunders, produced an award-wining documentary, "Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound," which was released in 2016. (See www.billymizemovie.com.) It documented Mize's personal tragedies — two of his sons died young — and portrayed his everyday struggles with the effects of his stroke.
"It's got to be hell to be a singer and one day you've lost it all and you still know that," Billy's brother, songwriter Buddy Mize, says in the film. "You still have the mind and you know the singing, but it doesn't happen anymore."
Karen Saunders, one of Mize's two daughters, said he seemed to have been getting stronger at the end.
"He'd been doing so well," she said. "He'd lost a little weight but was doing well. The nurses felt like he might rally back. He's been so strong.
"Since his stroke in 1990 I've had five different doctors tell me to get his papers in order and I began feeling like he was going to do that forever."
She said Billy Mize the father was a star, too.
"He was such a great father, so involved, such a family man," she said. "We always took it for granted that he'd be there and never thought he was making a choice between (the music business) and family.
"Everybody seems to appreciate him for being honest, moral and reliable. He was a hero."
Mize is survived by his two daughters, Karen, who has a daughter and two sons, and Marji, who has two sons. One of Karen's sons, Bob, has two children and a third on the way. The other, Joe, is the filmmaker.
"The last year has been been tough. A lot of the old group has passed," said Karen Saunders, referring to Haggard, Jean Shepard and Red Simpson, all of whom have died in the last 18 months.
Services for Mize will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Hillcrest Memorial Park and Mortuary, 9101 Kern Canyon Rd., in Bakersfield.