There apparently wasn’t much that Pine Bluff’s Charles Okle Jr. was afraid to try or couldn’t do.
Better known simply as Charlie or Charlie O, Okle was multitalented. Recognized primarily as a longtime Pine Bluff radio personality, he was also a pen-and-ink artist, poet, songwriter, videographer, photographer, historian and independent businessman who owned and operated a music recording firm and a neighborhood bar. And along the way, he rubbed elbows with a number of the top musicians and singers of his time, including Elvis Presley, establishing lifelong friendships with many of them.
Okle succumbed to cancer Saturday in Hot Springs at the age of 69. Funeral services will be at 1:30 p.m. today at Ralph Robinson and Son Funeral Home.
“I can’t believe how much my father did in his music career,” said Okle’s daughter, Stephanie Shaw of Hot Springs. “I’ve heard over and over that he was music’s best friend in Pine Bluff.”
A 1961 graduate of Pine Bluff High School, Okle began his radio career at station KPPA here in February 1962. He then had a brief stint in Nashville, where he met many of the top country music stars of the day, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Duane Eddy, Ray Stevens and The Jordanaires. That’s also where he met Presley, but didn’t realize it until Elvis had literally left the building.
His daughter explained that Okle and Presley had conversed at a Halloween party. Presley was wearing a Halloween disguise, and Okle didn’t know he had been chatting with the celebrated “King of Rock-n-Roll” until one of the evening’s hosts later informed him.
Okle was also a friend of Maxine Brown, a member of The Brown Trio of Pine Bluff. Presley and the Browns regularly traveled and performed together, and Presley often escaped the spotlight by slipping into Pine Bluff and staying at the Brown family house.
Okle returned to KPPA in 1964, shortly after opening the Magic Sound Recording Studio on Pine Street here. While working as a disc jockey here, Okle became friends with another local on-air personality — Tom Riggs (also known as Tom Payton), who would later win fame as “Rock Robbins” at Little Rock power station KAAY.
Riggs and Okle combined their music skills in a songwriting and demo-producing partnership. They were credited with writing “What’s Gonna Happen to Me,” which was performed by Jeanne and the Darlings, a flip-side tune on their minor hit record, “Soul Girl,” in 1966. Okle enjoyed a working connection with the group and other black artists in Memphis, mostly through the Stax Recording Studio. In the process, he also became acquainted with Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Studios. Later, some of Okle’s Stax photographs were included in a television documentary on the acclaimed studio.
Okle, who would cite Riggs and late fellow radio personality and Redfield newspaper publisher Ken Parsons Jr. as having been his chief influences, worked as a disc jockey at KADL, KCLA and KOTN here before leaving radio work in 1988. He then founded and ran the Hot Shots bar on Harding Avenue before retiring.
Okle’s passion for writing began when he was a youngster. He won a contest and received a prize for the first poem he wrote as a schoolboy, and he eventually became a prolific history writer. He became a leading authority on famed Hollywood movie star Peggy Shannon. The Pine Bluff-born Shannon was once considered among the industry’s most promising stars, but wound up dead at 34, a victim of alcohol abuse.
About 25 years ago, Okle wrote an account of Shannon’s tragic life for a national publication and drew a likeness of her that was included with the article.
During his life, Okle saved “thousands” of assorted items, photographs and papers that he referenced as a historian.
“He saved everything,” his daughter recalled with a laugh. “He was a collector. Some say there’s not much difference between a hoarder and a collector, but he put everything he saved to good use. He loved Pine Bluff and he loved talking and writing about its history.”