Smokey Silver was born Elmer Morris Gunkel in Beggs, OK. He grew up listening to Bob Wills on KVOO on a battery-powered radio. His family sang to entertain themselves and played records on a wind up Victrola.
The family moved to Stockton CA in 1942. He attended local schools and met his future wife Phyllis Petty they were married at the Assembly Of God Church in Reno Nevada in 1950.
He joined Tommy Estes and The Silver Sage Riders as a vocalist when he was seventeen. Elmer learned to play bass when the band needed a bass player. Tommy had trouble with his name so one night on the bandstand he asked Elmer if he could change his name and the career of Smokey Silver began. They played all the local dance halls and did a live broadcast on KSTN radio every Saturday. The band would check the Billboard chart each week and learn the new hit songs in just a few hours before airtime.
Smokey's first job as a disc jockey was at KSTN in Stockton, CA. He was working in construction but soon moved into radio sales and promotions. He then started booking Country artists into clubs and dance halls throughout northern CA and Nevada. His first television show was on channel 36 in Stockton. Through the next forty years, Smokey worked at KCVR Lodi, KRAK Sacramento, and various stations in Northern California. In the early 1980’s Smokey was asked to help change the format of KQKK in Manteca, CA to country.
In 1968 his show was simulcast on KLOC Radio and Channel 19 TV in Modesto, CA. During that time he did a special show entitled "The Life and Times of Bob Wills." with guest Jesse Ashlock, Bob Wills fiddle player." In 1962 he went to Las Vegas, NV to help build and start the Radio station KVEG. The following year found him in Reno, NV converting KONE to Country. Smokey was the first to book paid country acts into local venues in Nevada. He was told by everyone “it just won't work with all the free Casino shows” but work it did, the shows were sell-outs.
Smokey says, " I have been fortunate enough to meet and work with many memorable people who share my love of Country Music. I hope it will be preserved, loved and carried on long after my journey here is through".
Smokey appeared with local bands including Bud Hobbs, Glenn Stepp and Chester Smith. During his career in Country music, he has booked artists like Hank Thompson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Freddie Hart, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Buck Owens. He's also booked and worked casual dates with Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Maddox brothers & Rose, Billy Walker, Tommy Duncan, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Wakley, Hank Penny and many more, too numerous to name.
Smokey and a long time friend received a permit in 1996 from the FCC to build a Radio station in Modesto, KEJC 93.9. The Ranch. They hit the airwaves in 1998 with a Country Music format, featuring Western Swing. Along the way he has collected and preserved a large library of country music. He was inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame Oct 7, 2001 in Sacramento, CA. Smokey was inducted into the Seattle Western Swing Music Society in August 2006.
(Courtesy of the Seattle Western Swing Music Society)
Smokey Silver at KCVR Lodi in 1962
(Phyllis and Elmer Gunkel)
Tommy Estes Band Dec 1948 L-R Smokey Silver, Tommy Estes, Pat Crocker
Tommy Estes Band Dec 1948 L-R Pat Crocker, Pat Paree (behind Pat), Smokey Silver, Tommy Estes
L-R Tommy Estes Band in 1947 -J.T Grantham, Dude Huston, Red Gillian, Tommy Estes, Chuck Bell, Jimmy Crocker, unknown Tate.
Tommy Estes Band announcement in Stockton Record July 8, 1955