Billy Burrell at 90: Still bootlegging the Gospel

WCON's David Foster (left) and Clayton Foster were among the many people who celebrated Billy Burrell during an early birthday party at the radio station in Cornelia on March 13. Burrell turned 90 years old on March 14, 2020. (photo by Kim Foster)

He’s been a fixture on local morning radio now for nearly 70 years. On Saturday, Billy Burrell turned 90!

The host of WCON Radio’s “Sunshine Melodies” marked the milestone with family, friends, colleagues, and fans Friday during an early birthday celebration at the station in Cornelia. During the gathering, Mayor John Borrow officially declared March 14, 2020, as Billy Burrell Day in Cornelia. State Senator John Wilkinson presented Burrell with a Senate Resolution honoring him and his distinguished 69-year career.

Reflecting on the celebration, Burrell tells Now Habersham, “It was very impressive and very inspiring to me to know that many people cared that much. It was my joy to greet them and to speak with them.”

Burrell greets guest Wayne Popham at his birthday celebration at WCON studios. (photo by Sherri Purcell)

Speaking to people and inspiring joy is what Burrell has been doing for the past seven decades. He began his broadcasting career in 1951 as an early morning announcer at WLET Radio in Toccoa. That’s where he launched his gospel music show, featuring a daily devotion and prayer. It’s been on the air ever since.

Even when he moved to Mississippi, Burrell kept “Sunshine Melodies” going. While in Starkville pastoring Calvary Baptist Church, he built a cabinet with turntables and a reel-to-reel and used it to record his program. He shipped the reels to WLET, which in turn played them then sent them back. They did that for five years.

When Burrell returned to Northeast Georgia to become pastor at Harmony Baptist Church in Homer, he also began recording his show for WCON. He joined the station as a morning announcer in 1965 after a conversation with friend and station owner John Foster.

“We met up one morning in front of the post office in Cornelia, and we were short a morning announcer,” Foster recalls. He asked Burrell if his church would allow him to “fill in a couple of weeks for me until we found someone.” Now, 55 years later, Foster quips, “We’re still looking.”

From boyhood dreams to bootleg Gospel

As well as North Georgians know the name Billy Burrell, he knows North Georgia. He was born in the Rabun County town of Dillard on March 14, 1930, and grew up in Tallulah Falls. After graduating from Tallulah Falls School, Burrell attended Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Upon returning home, he became pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Demorest. It was the first of four full-time pastorates Burrell would accept in his ministerial career, and it was there, at Mt. Carmel, that he met his wife, Eugenie, now 92. In 1961, the couple welcomed their daughter, Neysa Joy Burrell. She was at the station along with others on Friday to celebrate her dad’s birthday.

Burrell’s interest in radio began as a boy. He grew up listening to shows such as Amos & Andy and Lum & Abner. “He was fascinated at the voices that ‘lived inside the box,'” his bio reads. When he began his career as a broadcaster, Harry Truman was president and Queen Elizabeth was still a princess. In the decades since, the music, the station, some of the people, and all of the technology have changed, but not Billy Burrell’s purpose.

The pastor with a heart for people and a penchant for radio calls it “bootlegging the Gospel.”

WCON “Sunshine Melodies” host Billy Burrell and daughter, Neysa Joy. (photo by Sherri Purcell)

“I felt a definite call of using radio to get the message out to people,” Burrell says. “And I had determined the best way to do that would not be in a Christian radio station with full-time gospel.”

For thirty minutes each morning on “Sunshine Melodies,” the Rev. Billy Burrell shares gospel music and the Gospel with listeners before sliding into his country music morning show co-hosting duties with Joel Williams. Working at a commercial radio station, Burrell reaches listeners who would normally be turned off by religious programming. He combines tunes people enjoy with his folksy style and compassion, dropping in what he calls “gems of inspiration and scripture” along the way.

It’s an approach that works for him and his listeners.

“Only heaven knows how many lives he has changed,” says Foster. “He has been a real blessing to this radio station and the community.” Various listeners in various ways have driven home that point through the years to this now- nonagenarian broadcaster. Burrell retells the story of one listener who said, “I have a pastor, and I go to church, but Billy’s in my home every day talking to me.'”

Burrell also recounts a more chilling conversation he once had with a listener.

“I was operating at the old radio station site [in Cornelia]. I was on the air in the morning and the phone rang. The man was in desperation. He said, ‘Billy, I’m going to take my life today. I’m equipped now to slit my wrists, and I’m going to.'” Burrell says he began witnessing to the man, trying to turn his attention away from committing suicide when “it was finally my advantage to put on another record.” Burrell used that momentary diversion to call the Cornelia Police Department. “I had his name and his address, and I told them where he was, and they went and found him and rescued him from his intentions.”

After all these years, Burrell still claims that encounter as one of the most powerful of his broadcasting career.

Defying the odds. Still working for God.

In an industry not known for longevity, Billy Burrell has defied the odds. “Sunshine Melodies” is now the longest-running weekday radio show – hosted by the same person – in North America. WCON proudly touts that distinction, citing radio historian Ed Smith. And while it’s difficult for many to imagine waking up before dawn every morning for more than a half-century, that’s what Burrell has done and continues to do.

Burrell sits surrounded by WCON colleagues and friends. The station threw an early birthday party celebration for him on March 13, 2020. (photo by Kim Foster)

“I rise up at 3:30 in the morning and do my chores around home and I’m at the station by 5:30,” he says. On his drive into work, Burrell spiritually prepares for the day. “‘ Here’s my life now speak to me and reach these people,’ that is my prayer each morning on my way into the station.” He asked for the sign-on shift back when he was still a full-time pastor, but he retired from that 23 years ago after serving 30 years at Hazel Creek Baptist Church in Mt. Airy. Still, the radio sign-on shift stuck. Even now at 90, Burrell says he has no plans of changing it. He says he’ll keep doing it “as long as God permits and provides. I have no deadline.” He adds, “The Fosters have given me the assurance that as long as I want to be there, I have a place.”

“We’ve enjoyed Billy all these many years,” says John Foster. “And we’ll continue to do it as long as he’s able. He sounds just as good now as he did when he was young.”

Billy Burrell with WCON owners Bobbie (left) and John Foster. (photo by Kim Foster)

Although the number on his cards and birthday cake say ’90’, Burrell remains in remarkably good health by his own account. He doesn’t take any medication and has only a “slight touch” of arthritis in his fingers. It was just recently that he noticed his legs growing weaker. His dad lived to be almost 95. The veteran broadcaster attributes his good health to those family genes and the Lord. He also credits his “dear wife, who has benefited my habits of eating, and she insisted I go to bed and not stay up.”

“I heard a minister not long ago say, as a Christian, you are immortal until God has let you finish the work. So, I’ve been immortal form that standpoint,” Burrell says.

His work is not done.

Since retiring from full-time ministry, Billy Burrell has served twelve times as an interim pastor in area churches. He continues to fill in as a supply pastor and conducts more funerals than most full-time ministers. When he’s not behind the pulpit or on the radio, you’re likely to find him outside his home doing yard work, gardening, or chopping wood. They’re on his list of things he enjoys along with broadcasting.

“It’s flown by really,” he says of his 69-year radio career. As he prepares to go on air every morning, he thinks to himself, “I don’t know how many people are listening, but I know that I speak with more people in three minutes than I could in a church in a lifetime.”

The Rev. Billy Burrell has built a church on Georgia’s airwaves, and through the modern marvel of satellites and the internet, he’s able to welcome people from all over the world into it. From Cornelia to Atlanta, to New York and San Francisco – and even the Ukraine – Billy Burrell’s voice has touched ears and hearts globally. He’s even found a following on local cable television ever since Windstream began airing his morning show live years ago.

And while some might be inclined to gloat, Burrell relishes the recognition he receives as evidence he’s “advancing the cause for Christ.”

He encourages fellow believers to do the same.

“I’d encourage everybody, wherever they work, whatever they do, to go ahead and bootleg the Gospel,” challenges Burrell. That’s what he’ll be doing when his next radio shift rolls around bright and early, Monday morning.

You can hear Billy on “Sunshine Melodies” from 5:30-6 a.m. weekdays on WCON 99.3 FM.

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