Vernon Lindsey can’t stop making music, selling cheer

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

Vernon Lindsey is infected with contagious cheerfulness. Anyone who stays around him more than 15 minutes will certainly catch it. Long enough to eat lunch, and you are done for.

It isn’t that he ignores all of the things that can go wrong to put a dent in happiness. He’s spent too many years in retail businesses to not have his share of running into the principle of Murphy’s Law: If something can go wrong, it usually does.

Since graduating from high school in Chattanooga in the mid-’60s and dabbling  in college, he has spent his work life in retail businesses of one kind or another. He learned the primary lesson of the retail business early on. People buying products may be how you earn your money, but customer service is what makes the sales.

Vernon Lindsey

Now 71, Lindsey has done everything in the retail arena from unboxing new shipments, bookkeeping, security, management and store ownership to advising other business owners. He has worked with products from women’s wear to consumer electronics to ice cream to sandwiches.

Though he’s clearly a smart and successful businessman, the factor that made it all work, in additional to business acumen, may well have nothing to do with business at all.

It’s music. The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and “The M.T.A.,” specifically.

“I was in high school when I first heard those songs,” Lindsey says. “I really liked the sound of the banjo. So I asked my mom for one.” He worked at learning the banjo and guitar.

“It also turned out that a lot of girls would come and sit when you played music.” It was Lindsey’s first lesson in customer service, so to speak. Before long he had put together his own band, The Citadel Singers, formed in 1962.

His group played together until his advancement to management at his retail job in the Jubilee City neighborhood of Chattanooga turned into a move to take over a store in Richmond, Va., where he met and married his wife, Norma Van Wagenen, a nurse.

Before long Lindsey was drafted. But instead of being sent to Vietnam, he spent his military-service years at Fort Polk, La., because the U.S. Army needed his wife in the base hospital more than the Army needed him.

After his military service ended, the Lindseys returned to Richmond and started their family. Life took over. They came to East Tennessee when his position with Harvey’s Warehouse moved him to Knoxville. A string of business opportunities eventually led to a move into the consumer-electronics business, ending with Lindsey’s own company, Lindsey Ward Electronics.

During those years, music took a back seat, partly because life was busy and partly because the folk music he loved most had been pushed aside by rock ’n’ roll.

After selling his Lindsey Ward business, he opened and ran Hilton Head Ice Cream for 13 years. A stint as a Charter Cable Service account executive followed. While there Lindsey created Charter’s own food shows: “Cooking with Knoxville Celebrity Chefs,” taped at the Glass Bazaar; “Everyday Kitchen,” taped in his own home kitchen; and “A Taste of Knoxville,” a show that involved direct interaction with diners in restaurants.

Not surprisingly, those experiences reawakened Lindsey’s love of performing live for people.

For a reunion of his 1965 Brainerd High School graduating class, Lindsey and his old band members – brothers Art and Kelley Massey and Ken Roy – reconvened The Citadel Singers.

That was all it took. Back in Knoxville, Lindsey created the Early Bird Special Band.

The band has gone through a couple of iterations and personnel changes since then. But Art Massey still plays guitar. With Lindsey still playing banjo, the third member of the band, Allan Jenkins, plays electric bass and harmonica.

For the most part, the band’s audiences are the age group that remembers and still loves ’60s and ’70s folk music. Early Bird usually performs twice a month at area restaurants.

Asked what he likes the most after playing this music for all of these years, Lindsey answers, “I love the reactions of the people.”

More information about Early Bird Special – The Good Time Band, along with their performance schedule can be found here.

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