January 31, 2023

William Orten Carlton, an Athenian native with a photographic memory who, with no apparent musical ability, became a popular fixture on the city’s music scene and its many nightclubs, died on January 21. He was 73 years old.

Carlton, known as “The Place,” died at St. Mary’s Hospital in hospice after a bout of illness, according to close friends.

News of Carlton’s death spread widely on social media, where old photos were revived and memories shared of a man who had engaged with people through vinyl records, cold beers and live band performances since the 1970s.

“I was in high school attending Athens as a tympanist in a music school program at UGA. I found myself at the gyro wrap counter/bar sipping black coffee and eating feta fries with local. I was mesmerized for hours,” Virginian Don Whitaker wrote on Facebook, speaking of a situation many experienced during a chance meeting with Ort.

Man and memory

Such was the case for those who were simply amazed at the man’s intellectual talent.

“He had an amazing memory. It wasn’t a parlor trick or anything. He could basically name any place in the United States and the zip codes,” said Kurt Wood of Athens, who met Carlton “over a box of records” in 1977 as a UGA student.

Carlton has amassed a collection of “tens of thousands of vinyl 45s,” said Wood, who has remained his friend over the years. “I took that to heart. I have about 45,000 45s in my collection.”

Carlton’s outgoing personality, his ability to associate every zip code with a city, provide callsigns and frequencies for every Southern AM station, name small-town restaurants, or quote beer brands from across the country was uncanny.

“At first you are overwhelmed when you meet him. You have no idea what this person is about,” recalled Chris McKay, a musician and professional photographer in Athens. “Then you get to know him, even just a little bit, and he’s like your best friend. It’s very strange.”

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Born in Athens, Carlton graduated from Athens High School and received a degree in Communications in 1980, where he attended a graduation ceremony at Sanford Stadium alongside Wood. His father, William M. Carlton, a native of Wauchula, Fla., was a botany professor at UGA who died in 1973, and his mother, Betty, a homemaker, died in 2001. An only child, he never married and ended up living where he was in the subdivision Homewood Hills was raised.

He has lived in Athens most of his life, but resided in Nashville, Tennessee, between 1986 and 1990, according to Wood. In the early 1970s, Carlton ran his own record store, Ort’s Oldies, on College Avenue next to what is now Starbucks.

place as inspiration

“I met him on my first day in Athens in the fall of 1972,” recalled Danny Beard, owner of Wax ‘N’ Facts, an Atlanta record store. When Beard moved to Athens to attend UGA, he recalled buying records at Ort’s Oldies.

“That was the day I met Fred Schneider, who worked for Ort and ran his business,” Beard said of Schneider, then a UGA student and future member of the B-52s rock band, which emerged with a national following.

Beard credits Carlton with his own record-selling business.

“It inspired me to open our store here and we’re still here 46 years later. I told him that and he appreciated it,” Beard said.

Chris (Razz) Rasmussen, who owned Chapter Three Records in Athens in the late 1970s, said he met Ort in 1972 at Underground Records on College Avenue.

“If you knew him for 50 years or 20 minutes, he would give you the same warmth,” Rasmussen said. “They said he had memorized the Athens telephone book and we didn’t believe it. You would test him – open a phone book and say a number and he could give you the person. It’s amazing to be able to remember so completely.”

When the 40 Watt club first opened on College Avenue, Rasmussen said Ort was hired as the bouncer.

“He was always present. He had a booming voice and dominated the area around him,” Rasmussen said.

The 1986 documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out was narrated by Carlton, according to Rasmussen.

“The B-52s put Athens on the map and REM stayed here and they were the band that drew people here and this film made everyone see the city as a cool, interesting place,” he said.

Rubbing shoulders with giants

The documentary also made Carlton “a household name outside of Athens, and people who came to Athens for the music scene wanted to hit the spot,” Rasmussen said.

Well known to the famous and not so famous music makers in Athens, Carlton became friends with the B-52 and REM. He once told Athens journalist Christ Starrs that he attended REM’s first show in the city and described it as “magical”.

In the same 2014 interview, Carlton said, “For me, Pylon is the most original band Athens has ever produced – they are the pinnacle of art naivety.”

He maintained a longtime friendship with Pylon member Vanessa Briscoe Hay.

Carlton also garnered a following as a columnist for Flagpole magazine.

Flagpole editor Pete McCommons said Carlton, who wrote columns for the publication about food, beer and his travels, delved deeply into the early years of the Athens music scene.

“He showed up at all the house parties before there were music venues. He wasn’t a musician, but he attended all the shows and knew everyone,” McCommons said.

During his frequent travels, Carlton sampled locally made beers and then covered them in his columns.

“He could tell you all about every music group and brewery and he was happy to do it,” McCommons said.

Along the way, Carlton became a subject for well-known artist Terry Rowlett, who painted the site in a pose echoing a famous painting by John Brown the abolitionist. Instead of a Bible and a weapon, “Ort” is holding a walking stick and a notepad.

Rowlett said meeting him was unforgettable.

“I remember thinking this guy knows a lot of stuff — more than anyone I’ve ever met,” he said.

“He was a humble man. He didn’t seem like a know-it-all, although he was,” Rowlett said.

Professional Pennsylvania photographer Lee Matney was in Athens last year to work on an Art Rosenbaum art exhibit when he saw his friend heading to the Manhattan Tavern on Hull Street. Age had wrapped its noose around the man, who was walking slowly in the shadow of his own myth. Matney took a picture of him with slumped shoulders, long white hair and a beard.

“I had a long talk with him. I hadn’t spoken to him for a long time. He was going to Manhattan for his birthday party,” Matney recalled.

Athenian musician Gregory Sanders grew up in Atlanta and saw location as a teenager in the Inside/Out film.

Around 2015, Sanders was in Athens working at the bar at the Trapeze Pub when he met the real man. Once, during a slow moment of work, he recalled that they started singing Roger Miller songs.

Upon learning that Sanders was a fan of older music, Ort wrote songs on bar napkins that he intended to play to his new friend. Eventually, Sanders set up a Facebook page to post the music his friend recommended. He called the site “Local Oldies”. The page with the handwritten notes and photos is still active.

“When I stopped working at Trapeze, we grew apart. Nobody was like him,” said the man who, like so many others, carries stories about the man named Ort.

“That’s my story,” Sanders said. “I’m just a guy he met at a bar.”

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