Lonnie Bell is a Billings icon.
As one of the first country music disc jockeys in the US, Bell has written a book about his life and his insights into the world of country music. Entitled "Slidin' along with Lonnie Bell — A Personal History of the Roots of Country Music" —a limited number of copies are now available through Billings' KGHL Radio AM-790, which is publishing the book.
Bell was inducted into Country Radio Broadcasters Disc Jockey Hall of Fame in 2005. He is credited for discovering Loretta Lynn, and has personally known many of the earliest and biggest names in country music.
Now in his late 80s, Bell still has a weekly "Classic Country" program on KGHL Radio
Among the stars whose lives and careers would cross with Lonnie Bell was Charlie Pride, who at one time lived and entertained throughout Montana.
One night in 1966, the unknown Charlie Pride walked into the night club in Billings where Bell's band was playing and asked to perform a number. Bell relates, "The song the young black man had chosen was 'Detroit City' and his big booming voice commanded attention. The crowd absolutely exploded when the young man finished. That was the first time I had ever heard or seen Mr. Charley Pride. My friend and bass player, Jake Ellison said as Charley left the stage, 'Another star?' I said, 'I sure do think so.' That was an understatement!"
"Slidin' Along" isn't all about country music, however, as Bell tells about growing up in "coal mining country" and his experiences during World War II. He signed up to serve in the US Navy at age 16.
In his book Bell notes that Billings and Montana has a wealth of great musicians – both now and in the past. "When I first came to Montana, Billings had great musicians but there were many more around the state. Great Falls and Helena had Charley Pride. You had to be good to play in Montana back then and that set a high standard for today." With that tribute to local artists, Bell delves, also, into the stories and people which have highlighted entertainment and broadcasting in Billings for the past half century.
As Bell tells his own story, he unveils details and nuances of the past long forgotten, remembers veterans, and gives new perspective to historic events, and brings to light aspects of Billings' history never before told – certainly not, in Bell's very down-home style.
The inscription on Bell's Hall of Fame plaque, perhaps sums, up Bell's life story, "Lonnie Bell (1924) got his first taste of radio when his band performed on a Honolulu, Hawaii Radio station KAHU while serving in the US Navy. He later became a DJ at the station and several others while fulfilling his military service. After completing his tour of duty Lonnie moved to Western Washington and continued to play music and work in radio. While there he hired an unknown singer to perform with his band. That singer was Loretta Lynn, one of the many future country stars that Lonnie introduced and promoted over the years. Lonnie has been a continuous fixture in Billings since 1964. In addition to his on air duties at numerous radio stations, he founded the Montana March of Dimes Horseback ride which he continues to be spokesman for. He has also donated countless hours to other local charities. In March of 2005 Lonnie Bell was inducted into "The Country Music DJ Hall of Fame" in Nashville, Tennessee.
Bell's book is available through KGHL Radio, Northern Broadcasting Network.