TUPELO • If you’re driving through North Mississippi scanning stations on the radio, you may happen upon the relaxed, velvet tones of Ollie Collins Jr. on WSEL, 96.7 in Pontotoc.
Collins is the sole proprietor and the on-air voice of one of the area’s oldest inspirational stations. Now 80 years old, Collins has been WSEL’s voice for decades.
He still broadcasts his show seven days a week from a windowless studio where every flat surface, including the keys of an upright piano, is stacked with CD cases of music gathered over his 50-plus-year career.
“This is my collection from start to finish,” he said. “I’ve been stacking it up and I need to get it organized, but I just don’t feel like it. I just keep putting it off. I have so much to decipher.”
Tall, dapper, and dignified, Collins shows up for his program most days dressed to the nines, in a suit and tie, and usually a jaunty hat. His thick round glasses frame a pleasant, unlined face.
“I’ve always been tall,” he said. “I’m 6’1” at least. My dad was tall, but my mom was short. I got somewhere in between, and I’m so glad I did.”
Part preacher and part storyteller, Collins breaks in between songs to comment and reflect. The pace is slow, gentle and friendly. Unlike the over-modulated voices and over-caffeinated pace of most commercial FM radio, Collins’ vibe is as laid-back and gentle as a walk down a country road.
“I like to explain the songs as a ministry,” he said.
When it’s time for a commercial break, rather than cut to a pre-recorded advertisement, Collins improvises the spots for his sponsors himself.
“I don’t go by what the scripts say,” he said. “I find out who the sponsor is and I give it my country-type of treatment.”
Collins grew up on the Old Payne Place farm in Birmingham Ridge, where his father was the farm manager. His family attended Mud Creek Missionary Baptist Church, where Collins first sang when he was three years old, standing on the church’s offering table.
“My mother was a music teacher,” he said. “We sang all the time with a family group. She had us strung out singing everywhere from Corinth to south Mississippi.”
In his twenties, Collins wrote and recorded a hit gospel song, “He’ll Never Turn You Away.” He and his wife moved to Los Angeles, where they spent several years as his singing career grew.
“I moved to L.A. in 1961,” he said. “I had a recording that was pretty big for gospel. It was on Songbird, a big gospel label. I wasn’t that good, but the good Lord just loved me, and I grew and grew. God showed me I was his out there.”
When he wasn’t writing, recording and performing his own music, Collins worked in radio, and soon caught the attention of another deejay who helped move his career to another level.
“I started out as a deejay,” he said. “Wolfman Jack put me on a station with 50,000 watts. I started out doing 30 minutes. By the time I left, I was doing four hours a day.”
While in Los Angeles, Collins purchased WSEL in Pontotoc, and eventually moved home to run the station where he is still broadcasting today.
“I loved L.A.,” he said. “But after I purchased the station here, we were coming home at least once a month, and we finally decided to come home to run the station. I never regretted going, and I never regretted coming home.”
Looking back over his long and interesting life, Collins said it was his home, and his home church, that set him on the right path.
“Whatever I am today it’s because I had good parents,” he said. “By the grace of God, I tried to walk circumspectly. I never drank or smoked or used drugs. My mother taught me right, and I’m so glad she did.”
Collins said while his faith sustains him, he makes no pretense of being perfect.
“Anybody can get born again,” he said. “You won’t be perfect, but you’ll be choicey about what you do and how often you do it. If you do anything, don’t go to bed without repenting of your sin. I talk to him every day; I have a habit of it.”
Collins said after a fulfilling life, the prospect of dying doesn’t bother him in the least.
“My business has been fixed,” he said. “And there’s no way to un-fix it.”