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Wednesday, 05 July 2017 14:03

‘It’s five past five and time to jive’: Moonlighting mailman’s star won’t fade

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As the sun rises over Papertown one bright morning in 1958, a 30-year-old African-American by the name of Nathaniel Lowery wakes up and, like hundreds of others, heads for the mill.

Unlike everyone else, Lowery is carrying a record crate jammed with the latest 45-RPM singles by artists like the Coasters, the Crew-Cuts and the Clovers.

Lowery delivers mail inside Canton’s Champion Paper plant until lunch, during which he usually answers his own fan mail.

Back to work and eyeing the clock, Lowery skips out with his crate at five to five and croons into the microphone his trademark intro just 10 minutes later: “It’s five past five and time to jive – this is your host that loves you the most, Nat the Cat.”

Up on Radio Hill, Nathaniel Lowery was known as “Nat the Cat.”

A Haywood County native born in 1928, Lowery got a job at Champion after graduating from high school in Gastonia, then did a stint in the service, and then returned to Champion.

“He was calling a ball game at Reynolds High School,” said Alice Lowery, his wife of almost 50 years. “I think someone from WWIT was there and heard him and asked him about coming to the radio station.”

Reynolds was Haywood County’s segregated high school, and is currently the location of a proposed community center by alumnus and husband of Motown legend Gladys Knight, Billy McDowell.

Canton’s WWIT 970 AM first aired in 1949. After spending much of the 1950s playing Big Band artists like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, the station began a transition to Top 40 just before the 1960s.

Owned by local businessman Sidney Watts, WWIT — which stood for “Where the Wheels of Industry Turn” — hired Nat the Cat during that transition, probably raising eyebrows in a still-segregated South.

“It was ahead of its time,” said Canton Town Alderman Dr. Ralph Hamlett, who was a popular disc jockey at WWIT in his own right in the years after Nat the Cat’s departure and refused to answer questions on the record regarding his own radio moniker. “It shattered color lines.”

Although Nat was an African-American DJ playing rhythm and blues and jazz appreciated by Haywood County’s small African-American community, he also gained a large following with the proverbial sock-hopping, soda shop-hanging, white 1960s kids who lived in the buckle of the Bible belt in Southern Appalachia — his audience stretched as far as Eastern Tennessee.

“He was well known, and people still remember him today, white and black,” said Alice Lowery.

“He was as much as star in Haywood County as Elvis,” said Canton Alderwoman Gail Mull. “He was a personality. A star.”

Unlike today’s on-demand gratification instantly rendered by an ever-increasing array of glowing rectangles, Nat the Cat’s listeners had to make specific plans to be within earshot of a transistor by five past five, which is perhaps why memories of him remain so vivid more than a half century later.

“At that time, radio was so important,” Mull said.  “As teenagers [in Canton] we rode around, drove to Waynesville, drove to Asheville, and we listened to the radio. Nat the Cat is the man.”

Mull, who is retired from Champion, also worked with Nat the Cat at the mill for a number of years.

“He always had a story and always had a smile,” she said. “He was just in person as he was on the radio.”

Radio in Haywood County during Nat the Cat’s time mostly consisted of religious programming and “mountain music,” making his playlist that much more notable.

“He just liked music,” his wife said. “He didn’t have any talent for playing an instrument or anything, I think he just liked music.”

She explained that he had to supply his own records; he’d buy them, bring them to the station, play them, and then bring them home each night after his hour-long show had ended.

“He enjoyed it, he prepared for it,” she said. “He would get his music together and he did a lot of preparation before he would get there.”

Nat the Cat doubtless set the yearly summer soundtracks for an entire generation of kids coming of age in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s; how many a first dance — or a first kiss — he provoked can never be known, but Nat the Cat was otherwise loathe to get involved in domestic squabbles.

“He had a lot of call-ins and letters. He took a lot of requests and they would want him to play songs for their boyfriend or girlfriend, and sometimes if they had broken up, they would want him to say something about it, but he never got into any of that,” she laughed.

Nat the Cat’s show expanded to 90 minutes on Saturdays, after which he’d turn right back around and host a Sunday gospel hour the next morning.

Then it was right back to work at the mill on Monday.

Alice Lowery said that her husband carried on in this way for about a decade, and thinks he left when the station changed formats during the mid- or late-1960s.

“He retired from it,” except for occasional private gigs at Asheville clubs, she said. “He was a good husband, a good father and good provider who enjoyed life.”

Nathaniel Lowery passed away in 2008 and is buried in the Crawford Ray Memorial Gardens in Clyde, but for those who remember this pioneering local DJ and the discs he spun, it’s still five past five and always time to jive, and Nat the Cat will never be forgotten.

“Yeah, I still have a lot of his records,” Lowery said. “A lot.”

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