After 18 Years, Roger Hallmark Scores His First Hit Cutting Up the Ayatollah into Khomeini Grits
updated 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
In calmer times, such impropriety would be banned from the airwaves, but this cry from the God-and-country South has risen with the national temper to a place on Billboard's Top 100—and clogged request lines at radio stations across the country. When it was first released six weeks ago, WMZQ in Washington, D.C. played it once an hour "because of calls from everywhere—Justice, the Pentagon, even some of the embassies," reports music director Jim Randall. "The phones won't stop ringing," agrees Joe Ladd, music director of Houston's KIKK. "It's a monster."
The song was dreamed up by a sometime lyricist named Chance Jones on a slow day at his Birmingham, Ala. Putt-Putt miniature golf course, but little-known singer/guitarist Roger Hallmark, 33, who recorded Message, is reaping the windfall. A professional musician since the age of 15 and former backup bassist for rocker Brian Hyland and the gospel-singing Thrasher Brothers, the red-bearded Hallmark recently won what might have been the final accolade for his work: special federal and state police protection in Duncan, Okla., where authorities heard that Khomeini partisans were gunning for him.
To Hallmark, the risk was worth it. "The record's been called a cheap shot, distasteful, shlock," he admits. "It has been criticized for making money off a bad situation. Well, I don't want to be defensive about it," he continues, "but when I ask people if they think it's derogatory, they say to me, 'Those people trample our flag, burn our President in effigy, humiliate the hostages and threaten to kill them—and you ask me if the song's derogatory?' " A self-styled "progressive redneck" who refuses to let his kids bring Kiss LPs into the house, Hallmark says the criticism is misplaced. "People ought to pay attention to some of the other records out there that extol drugs, drinking and sex. That's very distasteful as far as I'm concerned."
Independently produced and distributed (Hallmark and friends threw together the song and got it on the air within 24 hours), Message is expected to sell some 500,000 copies at $1.39 per. Hallmark insists his head won't be turned. He lives near his roots in a double-width mobile home in Warrior, Ala. with wife Betty and their three children, 3 to 11. Declares Hallmark: "If I make any money off this record, maybe I can renovate my 1964 Cadillac and pay off a few bills. Christmas was pretty close this year." His dreams are simple ones. "I'd like to have a family compound and set aside five acres for my daddy and buy him a tractor and say, 'There it is, Daddy, go tear it up.' He always loved to work the land."
But Hallmark may be on a collison course with celebrity. The William Morris Agency has moved in to take over his bookings, a manager wooing him has predicted a potential 1980 take of $250,000, and Hallmark himself has begun to think about his image. "A musician always dreams of doing a love song that makes everybody cry or a rock song that brings audiences to their feet," he muses. "How do I make it? Doing a talking record in my old Cullman County accent?" He pauses, then adds pensively: "I figure what I really want to be is a sort of singing Grizzly Adams."