This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Speed and Dan'l Boone's Cousin - The Real Deals
by John C. Abbott © 2016
(From Radio Recall, August, 2016)
In October of 1944, Jack Benny and his crew returned to the air with a new sponsor. No longer was Don Wilson touting the benefits of Grape Nut Flakes. Now, Don was intoning "LSMFT", and the benefits of smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes. Don was also joined by what could have be a marketing gimmick - the chants of two tobacco auctioneers identified as L. A. "Speed" Riggs of Goldsboro, NC and F. E. Boone of Lexington, KY. While these two voices could have been just an advertising gimmick, Riggs and Boone were, as the saying goes, "the real deal" - experienced tobacco auctioneers. But these two voices were not new to radio. Both appeared on the "Your Hit Parade" program starting in 1937. But just who were these two voices?
Lee Aubrey "Speed" Riggs was born in 1907 near the small Onslow County community of Silverdale, North Carolina. Later his family moved to Goldsboro.
Rigg's father was a tobacco and produce farmer, which gave young Lee the opportunity to visit the local tobacco auctions where he heard the auctioneers at work. He decided to teach himself the cadences of the auctioneer, and at age 18, with only a sixth-grade education, he reportedly became the world's youngest tobacco auctioneer. Later, while working at the Liberty Tobacco Warehouse in Durham, Lee earned the nickname "Speed," because he could sell tobacco quicker than other auctioneers.
According to his entry into the North Carolina Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2003, "In 1937, news of his distinctive voice reached New York City and the offices of George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company. Mr. Hill traveled by train to Durham to hear Speed selling tobacco at the Liberty Warehouse. After listening to the young auctioneer for a short time, Mr. Hill offered Speed a job to become "The Voice of Lucky Strike" for the American Tobacco Company. Speed asked for $550 a week (that is over $9,000 a week in 2016 dollars), and for Liberty Warehouse to auction for charity. He was signed to a twenty-year renewable contract."
In addition to becoming the radio voice of the American Tobacco Company on the national radio show "Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade", "Speed" Riggs was an ambassador for North Carolina's tobacco industry. Even when living in New York and California, he insisted that he be introduced as "L. A. 'Speed' Riggs from Goldsboro, North Carolina," and took great pride in North Carolina's place as a leading tobacco-producing state.
Riggs continued to be a spokesman and announcer for Lucky Strike until tobacco advertising was banned on radio and television in 1969. After the ban on commercials, Riggs moved to Fullerton in Orange County, California, and set up "Your Community Fund," a nonprofit organization that provides training in furniture-making for youths with learning handicaps.
Speed Riggs moved back home to Goldsboro in 1986. He died February 1, 1987, just 17 days before his 80th birthday.
Forest Elmo "F. E." Boone was likewise an experienced auctioneer. According to a 1937 article entitled "Tobacco Auctioneer Bids for Fame with Weird Chant" by Norman Siegel, the NEA Service Radio Editor, "The "Tobacco Leaf Caruso" whose rapid-fire chant has become radio's newest novelty is a Kentucky Boone, all the way back to Daniel of the coonskin cap. Forest Boone is his name and he's a nephew four or five generations removed of the famous Indian scout of the history books. Daniel Boone probably never suspected, when he began raising tobacco out in Kentucky, that his line would produce a new kind of radio announcer. But that's what happened when Forest Boone began opening the "Hit Parade" program on the Columbia network with his weird chant."
"He started in the field when he was 19. His only training was listening to all the auctioneers at the tobacco warehouses near his home in Lexington, Ky., until he could imitate some of them. Then he went to a Lexington warehouse and asked for a job. The warehouse manager let him put on a mock sale. Afterward the manager took Boone regretfully aside and advised him to take up some other line of work. He'd never make an auctioneer. Two months later he was auctioneering at Mt. Sterling, Ky."
Boone's career on radio was similar to Riggs', both having been hired by George Washington Hill, the president of American Tobacco after he heard them in action in the field. However, according to his obituary of July 2, 1954 in the Chicago Daily Tribune, Boone's career on the radio ran only from 1937 to 1951. When he died in 1954, he was 60.
Both Speed Riggs and F. E. Boone were products of their time, and their ability to take their daily jobs and leverage them into positions on radio were a testament to not only their talents, but to the marketing savvy of G. W. Hill. In today's advertising market, using a tobacco auctioneer to sell soap, or any other product, would not work. But in the 1930's thru the 1950's, when tobacco was viewed as "good for you", the chants of Speed Riggs and Daniel Boone's cousin were good for tobacco, and good for radio.
"On the Air", John Dunning
North Carolina Agricultural Hall of Fame
NEA article transcribed on the Jack Benny fan website.