North Carolina Agricultural
Hall of Fame Inductees
February 18, 1907 - February 1, 1987
The sound of the words "Sold American!" was the way many people came to know L. A. "Speed" Riggs. A son of tobacco country, he gained his nickname for the lightening-speed chant he mastered to become one of the nation's premier tobacco auctioneers as well as a radio and early television personality.
Born in the small Onslow County community of Silverdale in 1907, his family moved to Goldsboro in the mid-1920s. The son of a tobacco and produce farmer, Speed frequently went to tobacco auctions and heard the auctioneers at work. He decided to teach himself the cadences of the auctioneer, and reportedly spent time walking among the rows of tobacco on his father's farm practicing this unique chant. He once described his personal style as a steady yet rapid hypnotic monotone, different from the more usual staccato, choppy chant.
At age 18, with only a sixth-grade education, he reportedly became the world's youngest tobacco auctioneer. Several years later, he began working at the Liberty Tobacco Warehouse in Durham, where he earned the nickname "Speed," as his quick, rhythmic chant helped him sell piles of tobacco quicker than his colleagues.
In 1937, news of his distinctive voice reached New York City and the offices of George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company. Mr. Hill traveled by train to Durham to hear Speed selling tobacco at the Liberty Warehouse. After listening to the young auctioneer for a short time, Mr. Hill offered Speed a job to become "The Voice of Lucky Strike" for the American Tobacco Company. Speed asked for $550 a week, and for Liberty Warehouse to auction for charity. He was signed to a twenty-year renewable contract.
In January 1938, Speed Riggs became the radio voice of the American Tobacco Company, auctioneering on the national radio show "Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade." For many people in America, this was their introduction to the tobacco trade, a way of life not well known west of the Mississippi.
L. A. "Speed" Riggs' face became famous on Lucky Strike advertising, and he was known as the "Voice of Lucky Strike." He appeared on radio shows with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, North Carolina's own Kay Kiser, and Jack Parr, when the shows were sponsored by American Tobacco. He would end his tobacco auctioneer's chant with his trademark "Sold American!" His radio and early television career ended with the ban of electronic advertising for the tobacco industry.
"Speed" Riggs was an ambassador for North Carolina's tobacco industry. Even when he lived in New York and California, he always insisted he be introduced as "L. A. 'Speed' Riggs from Goldsboro, North Carolina," and took great pride in North Carolina's place as a leading tobacco-producing state.
During World War II, Speed raised more than $17 million in war bonds for the United States. And he used his voice and talents to raise almost $220 million for many charitable organizations.
He moved to California after leaving American Tobacco Company, and founded a non-profit organization to teach underprivileged and physically or mentally challenged people a trade or vocation.
His beloved native state honored him in 1982 with "Speed Riggs Day," when he once again visited the old warehouse areas in Durham. He said he was saddened by the loss of prestige suffered by the tobacco industry, "because tobacco has been good to me. Tobacco helped me climb out of poverty. All my success I owe to tobacco."
Speed Riggs moved back home to Goldsboro in 1986. He died February 1, 1987, just 17 days before his 80th birthday.
Inducted to the North Carolina
Agricultural Hall of Fame
February 27, 2003