Mississippi voices never to be forgotten

Sixty-four years ago, Tupelo photographer Terry Wood snapped a photograph of two Mississippi icons. The moment is preserved for the ages: Jack Cristil, who died in 2014, interviewing Elvis Presley, who died in 1977. Cristil was 30 years young, Presley 21, when the photo was taken.

When I first saw the photo, years and years ago, I could not wait to ask Cristil about it. As always, he was candid.

“Worst damned interview I ever had,” Cristil said in that clipped baritone of his. “I don’t think Presley much wanted to be there, and I know I didn’t. It was terrible, just terrible.”

Perfect, I thought. Vintage Jack Cristil. All you ever got from Cristil was the truth. He didn’t embellish. He gave you the facts whether you wanted them or not. He was clear, concise. And he was, for sixty years, Mississippi State. Over his 58-year tenure as State’s play-by-play radio announcer, Cristil called 636 football games and 1,538 basketball games.

With apologies to Elvis, Jack’s voice might have been the most beloved in Mississippi history. His was the voice of college football for generations of Mississippians and his voice transcended school loyalties. An example:

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting at the kitchen table with my daddy, listening to Jack Cristil describe Mississippi State football games. He made the games come alive for me. I loved his voice and the way he described the games. It was like he put you in the stadium. He was, in many ways, my introduction to college football. And, still, when I hear his voice I think about those afternoons with my daddy. Jack Cristil’s voice, to me, is college football.”

That was Archie Manning speaking. I would say the same.

Cristil’s voice was so distinct you could almost taste the cigarettes he was smoking and the coffee he was drinking as he told about the games. It might be a Saturday afternoon in October or a Wednesday night in February. You could be driving the back roads between Sumrall and Bassfield or Corinth and Kossuth. You would fumble with the radio dial, trying to hear through that interminable static. And then you’d hear it – that voice, that unmistakable voice, talking about 6-tall halfbacks or point guards.

When Cristil was in the midst of his 50th season of broadcasting Mississippi State football, I went to Tupelo to spend a day with him. It is a day I will always cherish.

He told me about growing up in Memphis, the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Russia. He told me about the family’s first radio, which introduced him to American sports.

Cristil: “Here I was in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was absolutely enthralled with the idea that a man could be sitting in some stadium in New York or Chicago or Boston, telling me about a ballgame. It was like magic. I was enchanted by it. It captured my imagination to the extent that I knew right then and there that’s what I was going to do. I was 6 years old, but I knew what I was going to do for a living, and I never changed my mind.”

The first Mississippi State game he ever saw was the first one he ever called. He was hired by the legendary MSU athletic director Dudy Noble, who gave him advice he never forgot.

Cristil, again, repeating Noble: “You tell that radio audience what the score is and who’s got the ball and how much time is left and you cut out the bull.”

Said Cristil: “I was aghast, but it turned out to be the best advice I ever got. Because that’s all the people want. They want the score, who’s got the ball and how much time is left. They don’t want the bull.”

With Cristil, you never got the bull: not about all things Mississippi State. Not about Elvis.

And for that reason, you trusted Cristil. He put you there, in the stadium with him. When Cristil did his last Mississippi State game, a basketball game at Tennessee, I listened and tried to think of the appropriate analogy for a column I would write the next day.

For me it was this: It was like listening to Frank Sinatra, whose permanence rivaled Cristil’s even though his voice became more gravelly with time, sing his last song.

Rick Cleveland is a sports columnist for Mississippi Today.

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