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Rocky Mount native, media personality, dies at 89

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Rocky Mount native Sammy Bland, right, is shown in an episode of 'The Funny Page with Sammy and WITNey The Hobo' on WITN in Washington, N.C.

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From Contributed Reports

Monday, December 10, 2018

Samuel William Bland Jr., born April 14, 1929, in Rocky Mount, died Nov. 9 in Harrisonburg, Va.

He was born the son of Samuel W. Bland Sr. and Pearl Whitfield Bland and was a graduate of Rocky Mount Senior High School.

He assisted his family with the grocery store they owned, worked with the railroad and held a couple of other jobs to help support the family. He also had his own swing band, which played throughout Eastern Carolina and then founded “Sammy Bland and the Folk Caravan.” The group recorded several songs during the 1950s.

Not their favorite cut, “I Just Heard The News,” was released on a country/rock-a-billy album entitled “Long Gone Daddy.” The album, with various artists, became a top seller in Europe. The band is incorrectly identified as Sammy Bland and His Radio Boys. The band never went by that name, however Sammy's photograph is featured on the front cover.

Sammy was active in broadcasting and entertainment circles for more than five decades, broadcasting the first Daytona 500 stock car race and known throughout Eastern North Carolina for live television and radio performances and across the South for his syndicated “Racing News with Sammy Bland,” sponsored on the radio by Ford Motor Co.

For a short period of time, Sammy traveled with Lash LaRue as an announcer for his show and appeared with many well known country music stars in Nashville, Tenn. During this time he became a friend of Hank Williams Sr. and roomed with him in Nashville near the Grand Ole Opry.

He went to work with WCEC and WFMA radio as an announcer and promoter in Rocky Mount. While there, he participated in many promotions for the community, such as living on a house boat for a week, living in a fallout shelter at the Rocky Mount Fair and other promotions. Other community happenings involved service organizations and fundraisers for charities in collaboration with the radio station.

While still with WCEC, he started and starred in his own variety show on WNCT in Greenville, known as the Jewel Box Jamboree. The show was live and featured local talent from the area as well as Jean Winstead, a pianist and vocalist on the show, and other members of the band.

Sammy worked with WCEC through the 1960s and used that as the base for the Racing News broadcast and NASCAR Sprint Cup races, which he broadcast live from the various tracks on the circuit. Included in this was the broadcast of the first Daytona 500, which landed him on the list of the top 50 Virginians in NASCAR produced during the 50th Anniversary Celebration of NASCAR. His racing network was known as the American Racing Network and was the forefather to the Performance Racing Network.

Also a track announcer at several of the tracks, including Darlington, Rockingham and Richmond International Raceway, Sammy's partner was Ray Melton, who coined the phrase, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” When Ray died in 1986, Ann B. Salster joined her father as a track announcer at Richmond. When he decided to retire in 2001, he had been involved in NASCAR for almost six decades. At the time they were the only father-daughter track announcing team in the Winston Cup, the senior NASCAR circuit, and Ann was the first female track announcer at the Cup level in NASCAR.

During the days of Racing News, another company was formed for broadcasting. The group was called BLANECA Productions — Bland, Ned Jarrett and Kenneth Campbell. Retired Cup Champion Ned Jarrett worked with Sammy and Kenneth on live broadcasts and prepared a racing program that became a part of the network. Kenneth later partnered with then-RIR owner Paul Sawyer and was vice president in charge of public relations for the track. He can be heard at the Talladega Speedway Museum and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, announcing the crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway that caused the death of Fireball Roberts, along with other races.

Sammy left WCEC in the late 1960s and continued his racing broadcasts and serving as track announcer for several years. He then joined WITN-TV in Washington, N.C.. There he was weatherman and in charge of promotions. Many young people remember his afternoon program “The Funny Page with Sammy and WITNey The Hobo.” Sammy and WITNey did the show live every afternoon at 5 p.m. and on many non-race weekends traveled throughout Eastern Carolina making live appearances and distributing their dolls — one side was Sammy and the other side was WITNey.

Racing News became a television program when Sammy left WITN and joined WCTI in New Bern. He was vice president of sales as well as an on-air personality at the station.

In the 1970s, Bland and his family moved to Harrisonburg, Va. where he joined WHSV as vice president concentrating in sales and doing some on-the-air work with productions such “Talent Showcase,” which was filmed at James Madison University featuring local talent. During this time he continued his work announcing at various tracks. During the early 1980s, Sammy moved to Charlotte Amalie in the U.S. Virgin Islands to manage the Worrell Newspaper’s TV stations there. WHSV was a part of the Worrell chain.

In the mid 1980s, Sammy retired from broadcasting full time. He worked with his production company and advertising agency, AMR, assisted his daughter with The Amelia Bulletin Monitor newspaper in Amelia Court House, Va. — where he was the first emcee for Amelia Day — and aided his wife in the operation of The Bar-B-Que Ranch on Highway 11, north of Harrisonburg. He also continued his track announcing at Richmond International Raceway, now Richmond Raceway, until the early 2000s.

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