William Neal (Bill) Carter (1936–)
Bill Carter is a lawyer, former Secret Service agent, music manager and promoter, and author. He is best known for being the Rolling Stones’ lawyer who facilitated the release of two band members from custody when they were arrested in 1975 while traveling through Fordyce (Dallas County). Carter has also managed country singers Tanya Tucker and Reba McEntire. In 2013, Carter was added to the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame.
William Neal (Bill) Carter was born on January 19, 1936, in Rector (Clay County) to Henry Gaston Carter and Essie Faye Richardson Carter. Carter’s father was a farmer, and the family had little money when he was growing up. Carter spent time in the cotton fields as a youth and at times got into serious trouble. On one occasion in high school, he was expelled for starting a fire in an abandoned building where he and his friends were drinking. Carter graduated from high school, however, and also worked for a time at a funeral home in Rector. Later in life, unlike some of his famous clients, Carter shunned drugs and only drank occasionally.
In 1953, Carter joined the U.S. Air Force, where he specialized in radar systems repair and was stationed at various times in Biloxi, Mississippi; Iceland; and Arizona. After leaving the service, he enrolled in what is now Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro (Craighead County), graduating in 1961. He considered attending Southern Methodist University but changed his mind at the last minute and instead entered the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County). There, Carter made important political and personal friendships with people such as future Congressman Jay Dickey, Congressman Beryl Anthony, and Farrell Faubus, the son of Governor Orval Faubus.
In 1962, Carter, who had worked for the election of John F. Kennedy in Arkansas, was recruited by the Secret Service. Carter was not on the president’s protection detail, though he did at times protect Jacqueline Kennedy. Carter was in Washington DC when Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas, but he assisted the Warren Commission in gathering evidence following the assassination. Carter’s work for the commission included traveling to Dallas and interviewing Jack Ruby. Carter agreed with the commission’s findings that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman.
In 1966, Carter quit the Secret Service to return to law school in Fayetteville and obtained a law degree the next year. In 1969, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller appointed him to the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Commission. While practicing law in his home state, Carter found himself defending some colorful characters from Hot Springs (Garland County), including members of the Dixie Mafia and the famous madam Maxine Temple Jones. Carter became friends with Wilbur Mills, longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Arkansas, who encouraged him to move to Washington DC. There, Carter worked the fledgling Federal Express and the Civil Aeronautics Board.
Mills put Carter in touch with the Rolling Stones, who had run into trouble with immigration officials during the band’s 1972 U.S. tour and were in danger of never being allowed to play in the country again. Carter served as the Stones’ lawyer from 1973 to 1990, including during their 1975 tour. Carter kept Keith Richards and bass player Ron Wood out of jail after their July arrest in Arkansas. On another occasion, Carter saved a strung-out Richards from jail during a serious run-in with Canadian officials, who had arrested Richards for drug possession.
While Carter was representing the Rolling Stones, he was also working as a lawyer for Tanya Tucker, who moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) in the mid-1970s. With Carter’s help, Tucker negotiated a lucrative recording contract with MCA Records in 1975. His other clients have included International Brotherhood of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa and musician David Bowie.
In one of the more bizarre moments of his career, Carter negotiated the return of Steve McQueen’s body to the United States after the actor’s death in Juarez, Mexico, in 1980. Mexican authorities were effectively holding McQueen’s body for ransom, but Carter, through some well-timed trickery, luck, and intimidation—and the help of funeral workers in San Antonio, Texas—managed to have the body back on U.S. soil in a matter of hours. In 1981, Carter opened a law practice in Nashville, Tennessee, where he could be near the center of the country music business. When he began managing musician and actress Reba McEntire, Carter retired from practicing law. In 1995, he helped establish the Gaither Gospel Hour on The Nashville Network (TNN).
In 2006, Carter, with the aid co-writer Judi Turner, published the book Get Carter, about his unconventional life and career. Carter wrote that he was never adept at legal research, but his success instead depended on being tough and focused when needed. He wrote that he was not raised to be religious—giving credence to psychics and the idea of reincarnation—but nevertheless said, “I know that God loves me.”
Carter lives in the Nashville area. He has been married twice and has two daughters. He remains active in the music business and supports charities and musical events in Arkansas. Carter created the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation, which assists financially disadvantaged students in his home town. Carter also helped coordinate the first Johnny Cash Music Festival, held in northeastern Arkansas, in 2011; this paved the way for the annual Johnny Cash Heritage Festival.
For additional information:
Carter, Bill, and Judi Turner. Get Carter: Backstage in History from JFK’s Assassination to the Rolling Stones. Nashville, TN: Fine’s Creek, 2006.
Heard, Kenneth. “Rector Native’s Ties to Stars Pay Off for Town.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 24, 2009, pp. 1A, 2A.
Richards, Keith. Life. New York: Little Brown, 2010.
I’m a lawyer in Conway, Arkansas. William N. Carter (who I call Bill) is an outstanding lawyer. Bill has had some famous clients and some not-so-famous clients. He has always been diligent and tireless. He was a close friend in Arkansas. Best wishes to Bill.
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