William ‘Ort’ Carlton, beloved Athens character, leaves the building

DJ, record collector and raconteur, who died Jan. 21, was an emblem of Athens’ heyday.

In 1981 David Barbe, later to become a notable Athens musician, producer of the Drive By Truckers and a music business professor, enrolled as a freshman at the University of Georgia.

One day in his first quarter he sat at The Grill, eating a hamburger by himself when William Orten Carlton, uninvited, sat down at his table.

”I didn’t know anybody,” said Barbe. “A fellow came and sat down with me. He neither introduced himself nor asked me my name. He began telling me this insane story about something that happened in central Florida years ago.”

When Carlton got up to leave, still without revealing his identity, Barbe told him, “My name is David. What’s yours?”

“Everybody calls me Ort.”

Barbe still marvels at the encounter. “He went full Ort on me. By the time I knew Ort he was fully formed as the Ort we all know and love, and unlike any other human being I’ve ever known.”

Credit: Van Burns

Credit: Van Burns

What Carlton exhibited in that encounter were qualities that endeared him to the Athens community.

Those qualities included joyful extroversion, curiosity, encyclopedic knowledge of arcana, loquacious excess and a creative compulsion to spin tales. Chuck Reece, formerly the editor of the UGA student newspaper, the Red & Black, arrived in Athens in 1979, and said “It was impossible to live in Athens and not know Ort.”

Last month, when Carlton, 73, went into the hospital after taking a fall, his million friends and acquaintances went on alert.

On Jan. 10, the B-52s, in what they called their final performance at the Classic Center Theatre in Athens, arranged to provide a live feed to the St. Mary’s Hospital room where Carlton was recovering from a broken arm, so he could see their last show. The band, led by Fred Schneider, who had made many trips with Carlton to thrift stores in the boondocks, seeking rare 45s, dedicated the last song, “Rock Lobster,” to Ort.

“He really loved Athens, and Athens loved him,” said Schneider, calling from his home in Long Island. Schneider worked at Carlton’s record store, Ort’s Oldies, and credits Carlton with turning him into a collector. “All of a sudden we were going to Atlanta every weekend, looking for nickel 45s.”

Carlton moved to hospice last week after doctors discovered more serious problems, and musicians, academics and friends crowded the lobby at St. Mary’s Hospice House, waiting to speak to him. Friend and fellow record collector Kurt Wood estimated that up to 100 people visited on Thursday, prompting concerns from the nurses that the crowd was a source of stress.

Carlton died Saturday.

His friends and fans celebrated the bearded jovial sage on social media and at informal gatherings. Memorials have not yet been announced.

Carlton was born in Athens on July 26, 1949, to William and Betty Carlton. His father taught botany at UGA. Carlton had two older siblings who died in infancy. His father died at age 61 in 1973. His mother lived until 2001. After his mother’s death, Carlton continued to live in the Homewood Hills house where he grew up.

Pete McCommons, who helped create the Athens Observer in 1974, remembered Ort’s Oldies, Carlton’s record store, which occasionally advertised in McCommons’ pages.

Credit: Lexi Kim

Credit: Lexi Kim

Carlton also intermittently wrote columns for the newspaper, under the pen name J. Flester Philpott. “It fell into my lot, as editor, to corral (Carlton’s prose) into some publishable space,” said McCommons. Carlton didn’t worry about restricting himself to a particular length. “That was my job: to get it to fit.”

Carlton’s contributions also appeared in Flagpole; McCommons moved to that publication in 1993. Carlton wrote about the diners he visited, thrift stores of note, low cost motels and the then-unknown world of microbrews.

“I guarantee you he single-handedly introduced Athens to craft beer,” said McCommons.

When Carlton pursued a topic, he did so at a gallop. He delighted in creating potential band names, and on March 31, 2004, he wrote a Flagpole column composed of nothing but several hundred band name suggestions, including Snoot Parfait, Coughing Instructor, Juicy Hamburger Airport, Chest Deep in Cornflakes, Home for Sunburned Plankton, Steel-Toed Oatmeal, Gravel Ointment, Near-Tuba Experience, Mutual Ketchup Insurance and Tumor Salad.

His collecting instinct eventually filled his house and an outbuilding with records and books, to the point where some rooms became impassable. Kurt Wood said he will have the task of sorting through this gargantuan archive.

Many of those records appeared on Carlton’s oldies show on WUOG, the University of Georgia student radio station.

According to Wood, Carlton once conducted his show, Ort’s Radio Problem, with a galvanized garbage can over his head. On another occasion he hung a microphone off the bannister on the top floor of Memorial Hall, shouting his between-song announcements from the bottom of the echoing stairwell.

“Ort was the first person I met when I moved to Athens,” wrote Peter Buck, guitarist with R.E.M., in a text from somewhere in Brazil. “He definitely enlightened me to the nature of the place. In a lot of ways he was the soul of the town, and his ever-eccentric personality kept the music scene on the weird end of the spectrum. He has been my friend for over 40 years. Long live Ort!”

Credit: Jason Thrasher

Credit: Jason Thrasher

Said Reece, co-founder of the online magazines Bitter Southerner and Salvation South, “Ort was the glue of the whole thing, because he knew anyone involved in the art or music scenes in Athens, from the mid ‘70s onward. He was the common person that everyone knew.”

The celebrated documentary film, “Athens Inside/Out,” made in 1986, captured the Athens scene, almost while it was happening, and Carlton served as the film’s narrator, a tour guide through this musical wild kingdom.

“Ort just seemed like a natural” for the task, said producer Bill Cody. “I think one of the guys in R.E.M. suggested him.” Carlton was the equivalent of a tourist attraction in those days, said Cody, and new residents would seek him out and report an “Ort sighting.”

Visiting with Carlton at a bar “was kind of like going to the Space Needle in Seattle,” said Cody.

Said journalist and former Watkinsville city councilman Dan Matthews, “He was sort of the epitome of the nature of this town. We always support the underdog, obscurities and things off the beaten paths, and he was one to champion strange, obscure and wonderful things that otherwise would have gone under the radar. The more weird the band, the better.”

Carlton had very broad tastes, but there was one band he liked best, according to Vanessa Briscoe Hay, vocalist from Pylon.

“Once he said to me ‘don’t tell anybody, but you’re my favorite Athens band. R.E.M. and the B-52s are great, but Pylon is my favorite band.’ Maybe,” Hay mused, “he said the same thing to R.E.M. and the B-52s.”

Cody said with the retirement of the B-52s and the death of Carlton, an old era in Athens has passed.

“With all of his eccentricities,” said McCommons, “and he was a ball of eccentricities, he genuinely loved and enjoyed people and he wore his heart on his sleeve. He was who he was; he didn’t try to conceal it. He just delighted in being out there, and talking to anybody who wanted to talk to him, befriending who ever wanted to befriend him. That’s what set him apart.”