Lee Aubrey (Speed) Riggs, whose machine gun-like staccato chant become synonymous to radio listeners with "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco," died Sunday in Goldsboro, N.C., of congestive heart failure. He was 79.
For more than three decades, he was the voice of Lucky Strike primarily on the old "Your Hit Parade" show. Interspersed around the top 15 songs of the week as the tension built toward the announcement of the week's No. 1 tune, Riggs would unleash a rapid-fire tobacco auction refrain that ended with "Sold . . . American." The American Tobacco Co. manufactured Lucky Strikes.
The man who one day would be emulated by tobacco auctioneers across the land learned his craft while a boy by mimicking some of the chants he heard at the auctions he attended with his father, a tobacco farmer.
He noticed that many of the auctioneers could not keep up with the increasing sales, and he developed a chant that allowed him to speak at the rate of 469 words per minute, believed to be the fastest in the world.
At 18 he was fast enough to defeat five veteran auctioneers at a contest in his hometown of Goldsboro, earning him both the nickname "Speed" and a job with Lucky Strike. Farmers over the years had been known to truck their crops 300 and 400 miles just to have Riggs sell them.
Lucky Strike paid Riggs a then-astounding $550 a week to do their radio commercials, more than many radio stars were earning.
He also traveled the across country for Lucky Strike, giving interviews and speeches and raising about $218 million in auctions for charity. During World War II, he auctioned off $17 million worth of war bonds.
"Your Hit Parade" went on the air in 1935 and ran through 1959. Riggs continued to be a spokesman and announcer for Lucky Strike until tobacco advertising was banned on radio and television in 1969.
After the ban on commercials, Riggs moved to Fullerton in Orange County and set up "Your Community Fund," a nonprofit organization that provides training in furniture-making for youths with learning handicaps.
Riggs returned to North Carolina in January, 1986.