Country singer Mozelle Phillips gave up thriving career to raise children

CorrespondentApril 20, 2014 

  • Mozelle Johnson Markham

    Born May 20, 1932, in Alamance County.

    FAMILY: Has four sons with former husband, Tommy Moore: Jerry Moore (died in 1979), David Moore, Max Moore and Britt Moore. Marries Jerry Markham in 1989. She has two grandchildren.

    CAREER: Known as Mozelle Phillips, she is a member of a number of country music bands, including the Carolina Swingbilllies, and tours with Jim Thornton. She becomes one of the nation’s first female disc jockeys in the 1950s, working at WMPM in Smithfield, and later becomes the first woman to host the “Mr. DJ – USA” radio show based out of Nashville’s WSM. In 1955, shethe Smile-A-While Boys,popular in the eastern part of the state, and does shows for WFMY-TV in Greensboro and WNAO-TV in Raleigh. Her music career ends when she marries and has children.

    DIES: March 20.

A young Mozelle Phillips toured as a country music singer and even helped break the proverbial glass ceiling as one of the nation’s first female disc jockeys in the 1950s.

But once she began a family – she raised four sons in Henderson as Mozelle Moore – her days ended as far as strumming hillbilly music, spinning records and interviewing the nation’s country music stars.

Mozelle Markham – as she was called after her second marriage – died in March at 81. It wasn’t until near her life’s end that her children learned much about her past. Some of those memories came out when she was featured on WRAL’s “Tar Heel Traveler” program. As a time capsule of her music career was unearthed, her children were able to put into perspective the bits and pieces they learned casually while growing up.

“A lot of it didn’t come from Mom because she was sort of modest about it,” said her son David Moore of Greenville, S.C.

Among the most impressive revelations was that, as far as she had learned, she was the third female disc jockey in the country. She referred to herself on air as “Mozelle, your hillbilly gal.” Recordings demonstrate a quick-witted, straight-shooting style, full of Southern graces.

“Bless your cotton-picking hearts,” she said, in greeting one Saturday-morning audience.

Markham was not only a disc jockey but also a singer and guitar player. Born in Alamance County of a musical family, and raised in Selma, Markham taught herself guitar as a child, her son said.

Hitting the road to sing

She fronted country music bands, including the Carolina Swingbillies, and toured widely with Jim Thornton, a popular country music singer from the 1950s who became a familiar figure in the Triangle as the host of the local television show “Saturday Night Country Style.”

They toured the country, performing in dance halls and theaters.

Her DJ career began at WMPM in Smithfield, heard at 1270 AM. The Carolina Swingbillies were invited to play, and her turntable talents did not go unnoticed.

“I was queuing up my music and everything just right,” she told WRAL. “The station manager said, ‘The boys sure don’t do it. And you’re hired!’ 

“There were not many female disc jockeys in any field at that point,” said John Rumble, senior historian with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

Big-time airwaves

Her family already knew she was the first female disc jockey to act as host on “Mr. DJ – USA,” a radio program that invited disc jockeys from around the country to spin tunes and interview stars. She had a silver pendant with the date May 20, 1955, engraved on it to commemorate the big day. It also happened to be her 23rd birthday.

“Mr. DJ – USA” was heard on the airwaves of one of the nation’s largest radio stations, WSM in Nashville, and she was flown in to host the shows at the last minute, her family said.

Known as the “Air Castle of the South” and the home of the Grand Ole Opry, WSM broadcast on 650 on the AM band, back when AM stations dominated, at the legal maximum of 50,000 watts.

“You could hear WSM from the Rockies to the Atlantic seaboard, border to border,” Rumble said.

Period photographs show the young broadcaster with such stars as Little Jimmie Dickens, Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells.

Meeting a young Elvis

On the road she met a young Elvis Presley and remarked how unsure of himself he seemed. She told her son the Carter family (of a founding clan of country music) later called her when they were going to be in town. But her career waned as her family grew.

“I never saw her play the guitar at home,” Moore said. “When she let it go, she went into family mode and she backed my father.”

Tommy Moore, her former husband and the father of her four boys, became a general manager of a radio station in Henderson. She took on secretarial duties but had no voice on the airwaves. Later she held an administrative job at the Environmental Protection Agency office in Research Triangle Park, from which she retired.

Her children do not take for granted all she sacrificed to raise her family.

“Mom basically gave up her notoriety,” Moore said. “She was a rising star.”

‘She was heard’

For a short stint in the 1990s, Markham spun some tunes at a station in Durham, her son said. But she considered it strictly a sideline and not a professional comeback.

Moore does an impression of his mother’s radio welcome: “WMPM, where Mozelle plays music.” The family remains proud of her legacy.

“She had a voice and she was heard,” Moore said.

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