Bill Carter is not a musician. But the Rector native, author of the 2006 autobiography “Get Carter,” has had a hand in the careers of Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire and others, most notably the Rolling Stones for many years. Before that, Carter served in the U.S. Secret Service under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Carter was born Jan. 19, 1936. His father, Henry, was also a Clay County native, born and raised in Nimmons. “My family didn’t have any creative skills at all,” Carter aid, “so how I ended up in the music business is a puzzle to me.”
Carter attended Rector High and went into the Air Force, including a hitch in Iceland, and attended college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro on the GI Bill. While in Craighead County, Carter got involved in local political campaigns. He soon was canvassing Arkansas’s First District in the gubernatorial campaigns of Lee Ward, and then Joe Harden, both of whom were trounced by Gov. Orval Faubus.
After getting into the Secret Service, Carter’s Arkansas background came in handy. The state had a powerful congressional delegation with Democratic Sens. John McClellan and J. William Fulbright and House member Wilbur Mills, who was very close to President Kennedy. Kennedy visited Arkansas in October 1963 to dedicate Greers Ferry Dam in Cleburne County. The trip was a test run for his fateful tour of Texas a few weeks later. Kennedy also made a speech in Little Rock at the Arkansas State Fair, where the entertainment was the cast of the hit TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“That was right at the peak of the civil rights turmoil. … [Kennedy] hadn’t ventured into the South much,” Carter said. “And he decided to test the water by coming into Arkansas. But in spite of the publicity of the Faubus integration issue … Arkansas was considered a border state … we certainly had our share of conservative segregationists, but nothing compared to the Deep South. So it seemed a safer state.
“That was about six weeks before he was killed in Texas, but he came down for a very successful trip into Arkansas.”
Carter was introduced to the Rolling Stones because the Stones were in trouble.
In late February 1973, vocalist Mick Jagger was denied entry into the U.S. while flying from Australia to London. In the same political climate that saw John Lennon facing deportation under the Nixon administration, it became apparent the Stones would be unable to tour the States. Someone in the band organization knew someone who knew someone. And that someone was Rep. Mills. Mills called Carter, who succeeded where other high-powered lawyers failed.
The other lawyers “resented that I was being brought in to start with. And I understood that,” Carter said. “I think Jagger got a kick out of a hillbilly Little Rock lawyer, giving him a chance and just seeing what he could do.”
Carter’s Arkansas roots again came in handy when Stones guitarist Keith Richards was arrested in Dallas County in July 1975 for erratic driving and possession of a hunting knife. Although Gov. Mike Huckabee recently sought to pardon Richards, Carter didn’t think the pardon request came from Richards, nor that Keith’s impression of the state is “marred,” as Huckabee claimed.
A bigger challenge came in February 1977 when Richards was arrested with various illegal drugs in Toronto. The complications threatened to break up the Stones and have Richards doing real time. But again, Carter was able to prevail.
Carter maintained his law practice in Little Rock when not on tour with the Stones or working on other projects. He’s defended folks from the notorious madam Maxine Harris of Hot Springs in the late 1960s to Jimmy Hoffa in 1974, just before Hoffa’s disappearance.
Carter also continued working in the entertainment field. Shenandoah, Rodney Crowell and even, briefly, Anson Williams, also known as “Potsie” from TV’s “Happy Days,” and others have worked with Carter.
“The one thing my father taught me is a strict work ethic,” Carter said. “I think if you work hard, opportunity comes to you. That’s the lesson of my life.”
Hear more about Arkansas native Bill Carter on “Arkansongs,” with host Stephen Koch, on KUAR-FM, 89.1, at 6:40 a.m. and 6:20 p.m. Friday.
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