Monthly Archives: May 2007

Top This

Top This

Local musician, libertine, and hard-living nightlife veteran Topper Price shuffles off with a legacy of unbeatable stories.

May 31, 2007
Topper Price, a local blues harmonica virtuoso and singer, died on May 16 at age 54, a victim of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle he enthusiastically led for nearly 40 years. A legend in Alabama for his spirited, emotionally charged performances in seedy bars and the occasional elegant nightclub, Price—a baseball fanatic—once defined his style with this appropriate quote: “Chicago-style rhythm and blues, buddy. That’s my pitch. That’s the one I can knock out of the ballpark.” A joke that spread around town in the days following his death was that with Topper’s demise, angry bartenders were ripping up tabs that he’d left unpaid for months, if not years. Topper was a mess—a “mess” in both senses: as a rascal for whom we harbor fondness, and as a self-destructive personality in the way he often conducted his life.

Strangers, close friends, and mere acquaintances were continually amazed at Topper’s gregariousness and seemingly endless knowledge about a number of topics. If anyone wondered who pitched the third game of the 1982 World Series, for example, Topper had the answer. Price could tell you what car Mario Andretti was driving the year he won the Formula One world racing championship (a Lotus), then give engine and chassis specifications before reeling off accomplishments by drivers A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, or Al Unser—and that was before he got around to discussing music or obscure historical facts about World War II. He rarely shunned an admirer who wanted to talk, and would spend hours at a bar asking strangers questions about their lives, though it usually helped spur conversation if the strangers were buying the drinks.

Topper Price on stage with the Subdudes. (Photo by Chris Baker.) (click for larger version)



In a 1999 documentary by Birmingham filmmaker Chris Holmes, Topper explained how he started in show business: “I played my harmonica everywhere I went, at wildly inappropriate times. Wrong keys, wrong bands. Walked up to people I didn’t even know and started playing for them. I was the prototype of a really enthusiastic, horrible harmonica player who drove everybody around him nuts. Finally people started giving me lessons just to get me to be a little better, because they knew they were going to have to listen to me anyway . . . So I was bad for a long time and then all of a sudden one day I was pretty good. People started asking me to play instead of asking me to leave. I guess that was my big commercial break.”

Price eventually met Wet Willie singer Jimmy Hall, who gave Topper his most useful harmonica lesson. “Just blow as hard as you can and you’ll figure out the rest,” Hall said. Price’s masterful touch of country and blues literally defined Dickey Betts’ early solo work after Price was invited to play on the former Allman Brothers Band member’s first solo record. Topper’s late buddy Rick Danko invited him onstage with The Band from time to time. “Hey, pal. That was j-u-u-u-st right,” drummer Levon Helm told Price one night in Atlanta after Topper played with The Band on “Mystery Train.”

Topper was known to call friends on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths, and he’d drop by the hospital to visit those whom he knew only peripherally. He often phoned friends unexpectedly simply to tell them that he loved them and was thinking about them.

“I was bad for a long time and then all of a sudden one day I was pretty good. People started asking me to play instead of asking me to leave. I guess that was my big commercial break.”

Tim Boykin was Topper’s guitar player for a decade. “Topper was leading the band, and he would do stuff to try to scuttle the band performance, trying to screw up the band on purpose. Sometimes I would stand behind him, if we had new guys playing that night, and cue the band to what was supposed to happen. Topper would get pissed off at me because I would give the band the right cues,” Boykin said, laughing. “But I sure did love Topper and I miss the hell out of him.”

Price’s ability to play while extremely intoxicated was legendary. Boykin remembered Topper would get pretty drunk and forget who he was playing with. “He’d turn to me and call me ‘Rick’ [Kurtz, who often swapped out guitar duties with Boykin], but he could still play his ass off and not even know where he was.”

Once, his backing band The Upsetters were playing in Florida. “God, he almost burned down a condo we were staying at in Destin,” said Boykin. “He put a TV dinner in the oven without taking it out of the cardboard box and went to bed. Smoked up the damn condo.”

Don Tinsley, who played bass with Topper in The Upsetters for 20 years, recalled Topper’s swagger whenever he entered a room, his head tilted at a cocky angle. “If it wasn’t his gig he would wander up with that swagger and lean on the stage, as if to say, ‘you’re going to get me up to play, right?’ The first time I met him was at a club in the late ’70s or early ’80s when he walked up and did that to the Amazing Rhythm Aces. They didn’t even know him.”

Tinsley’s favorite story involved a dead opossum. “We were coming back from an out-of-town gig up over the hill by Vulcan. We started down and there was a car coming up the hill. All of sudden, from out of nowhere, the biggest opossum I’d ever seen in my life was slowly ambling across the road. We slowed up a little and it kept on walking, but the other car didn’t see it. Topper stuck his head out of the window of our van and shouted “Heeeey!” as loud as he could, and he sounded exactly like James Brown. And the guy in the oncoming car looked at Topper and the opossum stopped and looked at Topper, and the other car squashed the opossum flat. That was Topper, trying to do the right thing.”

Price in the recording studio with Robert Moore. (click for larger version)



“I’ve seen him light a cigarette on a stove and then turn the flame up instead of off, and then walk away, oblivious. He wasn’t looking at the stove, he was on autopilot, just taking care of business,” Tinsley said. “I think that was in Florida, just like the TV dinner incident. For some reason, Topper and the coast just didn’t get along.”

The day Upsetters guitarist Rick Kurtz learned that Topper had died, he found a baseball glove that Topper had given him in 1988. “We played catch in the backyard all the time when I lived with him for a while . . . About a year after that he gave me [Minnesota Twins slugger] Rod Carew’s instruction book on hitting a baseball. Here I was, 38 years old, and that’s something you give a Little League kid. It was beautiful. He even signed it for me: ‘Kurtzy, I want you to have this.’”

Highland Music owner Don Murdoch said that his wife always insisted that Topper be invited to Murdoch’s Christmas parties. “Everybody would be standing around, making small talk, with things not too lively. Then Topper would show up, pull out his harp, and start doing Christmas carols. He saved my Christmas party every year,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch recalled the day that he and an ex-girlfriend were driving to lunch in his convertible sports car with Topper. Murdoch’s lady friend had a severe case of poison ivy and was complaining constantly as they drove. While at a stop light, Topper suddenly stood up in the back of the tiny convertible and loudly sang the classic “Poison Ivy” while they waited for the light to change. The light turned green, and Topper took a bow as fellow motorists applauded and cheered.

Topper’s former road manager Joey Oliver spoke of the night that Topper played a party at the home of Southern Poverty Law Center director Morris Dees in Montgomery. At the end of the evening, Topper playfully punched Dees in the arm as he often did to others. Dees did not find it funny, and Topper turned to Oliver and said, “Joey, I think I just fu**ed up. I just hit the man who got rid of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Oliver remembered being at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with Price, who was backstage after playing with The Radiators. Topper spied CBS newsman Ed Bradley and introduced himself. About that time, Price’s girlfriend walked over and asked Bradley, “Do you know Topper?” Bradley smiled and said, “Everybody knows Topper.”

“I’ve often credited Topper with giving me a career,” said Damon Johnson, formerly of Birmingham’s Brother Cane. The band’s 1993 hit “Got No Shame” featured a blistering harmonica intro by Topper. “That harmonica intro is what made our song stand out above everything else on rock radio at the time. . . . We worked with a producer named Jim Mitchell, who was an assistant producer and engineer on the Guns N’ Roses album Use Your Illusion.” Mitchell wanted to use a harmonica player who had worked with Guns N’ Roses but Johnson argued for using Topper. Price, who had never heard the song, came into Airwave Studios in Birmingham where Brother Cane recorded the harmonica overdub, and recorded two takes, the first of which is heard on the song. “The first note that the world heard of Brother Cane was Topper inhaling [to begin] the intro to ‘Got No Shame.’”

Jazz singer and trumpeter Robert Moore, who recently moved from Birmingham to Oregon, spoke at length on Price: “Topper robbed my liquor cabinet constantly. He would put bottles that he’d drained back into my freezer, empty. But Jesus, I loved him. I’ll never forget once asking him about an old Memphis soul tune, to which he instantly recounted the year, the producer, label, musicians on the date, etc. It floored me. Why Google when a phone call to Top would tell you more? And the range of his data bank wasn’t restricted to music. I bought a used Ford pickup a few years ago. Top only looked at it, and said to me, ‘Moore, that’s a 289 right? I think those engines were made in Canada by Ford that year—great vehicle.’ I later opened the truck door to examine the ID plate, and found that every detail he’d ‘guessed’ was exactly accurate.”

One summer while living in Mobile, Topper had a brief fling of sorts with Charles Manson clan member Patricia Krenwinkel before he discovered that she was a fugitive (Krenwinkel participated in the Tate/LaBianca murders in 1969). Topper, who was then about 16 years old, was watching television with some friends when a news bulletin announced that Krenwinkel had been arrested in Mobile (Manson had sent her there to live with her aunt after the murders). Krenwinkel had been apprehended at a favorite Mobile hangout of Topper and his pals. “We’ve got to get out of this house!” said one guy, terrified that the police might raid the home, where Krenwinkel had been hanging around for a week or so. When Topper asked why everyone was so freaked out, one fellow said, “Hey Top. Remember Katie, that girl who’s been giving you back rubs whenever she stops by? That’s Krenwinkel.”

I’ll never forget being at The Nick around 3 a.m. when Topper, usually low on cash and always searching for free drinks, walked outside and spied a dozen plastic cups of half-consumed cocktails on the banister in front of the club. With lightning speed, he grabbed each cup and drank the leftover contents. Before walking back into the club, he stopped long enough to spit a hail of cigarette butts, machine gun-style, against the outside wall. My jaw dropped, just as it had several nights previously when he snatched the cup of water The Nick’s security guard had been using only moments earlier to polish his shoes outside the club. Topper downed the liquid that he must have assumed was bourbon and water.

If only Topper had cared about his own health as much as he did about the well-being of his buddies. I remember once complaining about my problems with gout. “Eddie, what you need to do is go to the grocery store and get a can of Bing cherries. That’s Bing cherries, you got that? It’s a miracle cure,” he growled in his affected Howlin’ Wolf voice. Months later he asked about my gout. I told him the Bing cherries didn’t work. Then I asked how he had been doing, and I’ll never forget his response—the last words I ever heard from him. That his reply referenced chemistry was appropriate. “Eduardo, my friend, I’m a free radical in search of a covalent bond.” &

On Wednesday, June 27, The Nick will host a fundraiser in memory of Price. For more information, call 252-3831.

Where the Beers Are

Where the Beers Are

Anyone interested in exploring the world of microbrewed and “gourmet” beer can find a staggering variety of interesting beers in the Birmingham area.

May 31, 2007
For those seeking beer to go, Vulcan Beverage on University Boulevard has the largest selection in Alabama, with approximately 250 bottled beers available. “We’re the largest seller of Samuel Smith beer in the state,” brags Vulcan owner Mark Green. There are 12 different Samuel Smith beers in stock, as well as 10 flavors of Samuel Adams. Other favorites include Hobgoblin (a dark English ale), Abita Strawberry Ale (made with Louisiana strawberries), Xingu (Brazilian black beer), and Redbridge (made from sorghum, and gluten free).Overton & Vine in Mountain Brook is a popular beer oasis with personality to spare. Atmosphere is provided by Waylon Jennings or The Grateful Dead on the radio; framed, autographed portraits of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jerry Garcia on the walls; and loquacious owner Smitty Smith behind the counter. (Smitty’s not shy about sharing his feelings on a variety of topics; ask him how he feels about the governor.) Stella Artois is the store’s best-selling import. The top-selling microbrew is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Other popular brews include Rodenbach (Belgium), Red Tail (California), Sweetwater (Atlanta), Flying Dog (Denver), Tiger Beer (Singapore), and Terrapin (Athens, Georgia).

Single beer purchases are available at both Vulcan Beverage and Overton & Vine, as well as the opportunity for customers to create their own six-packs, a boon for anyone reluctant to try a six-pack of an expensive import.

An impressive gourmet beer selection is also on the shelf at the Piggly Wiggly supermarkets in Crestline, Homewood, and Liberty Park; Tria Market in Homewood’s Soho Square (singles available); Whole Foods at the intersection of Highway 280 and Rocky Ridge Road; and the Western supermarkets on Rocky Ridge Road and in Mountain Brook.

• • •
If you prefer to drink in a bar or restaurant, there are three On Tap Sports Cafes in the area (Lakeview, Inverness, and Hoover) that feature 25 different brands of draft on tap. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Newcastle are among top sellers. Cafe Ciao in English Village offers 11 eclectic beers on tap, which is fairly impressive for a small café.

But The J. Clyde restaurant on Cobb Lane is turning beer aficionados on their heads, so to speak, offering more than 150 different brands on tap or in bottles. If you come specifically to sample the beer, ask the hostess to pair you with one of the servers who is a beer aficionado (unfortunately, not all fit this bill).

“Far and away the best restaurant bar in Birmingham for these beers,” says Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops, about J. Clyde. Kline is irate that so few white tablecloth restaurants in the area serve fine beers. “Those places give beer no respect,” Kline says. “They think almost exclusively in terms of wine. Beer is an afterthought. A few of them offer a Newcastle or a Guinness. I’ve yet to see any of those places carry more than seven or eight beers. It’s pathetic. . . . Here they are, a high-end restaurant carrying high-end wine, and yet they’re carrying the McDonald’s of beer. Beer does pair really well with food, and they don’t understand that.” —Ed Reynolds

The following are some of the retail and bar establishments that offer quality selections of gourmet and microbrewed beer in the greater Birmingham area.

Retail: Vulcan Beverage (Southside): 328-6275,; Overton & Vine (Mountain Brook): 967-1409; Diplomat Deli (Vestavia): 979-1515; Tria Market (Homewood): 776-8923,; Whole Foods (Mountain Brook): 912-8400,

Restaurant: The J. Clyde (Southside): 939-1312,; The Barking Kudu (Lakeview): 328-1748,; Cafe Ciao (English Village): 871-2423; On Tap Sports Café:, Hoover: 988-5558, Inverness: 437-1999, Lakeview: 320-1225.

Still Southern After All These Years

Still Southern After All These Years

By Ed Reynolds
May 31, 2007

Roy Blount, Jr.’s essays and books of wry observations slice reality into more amusingly diverse shapes than a Ronco Veg-O-Matic. When not defending his fellow Southerners (Blount grew up in Georgia), he turns that much-maligned chunk of America known as the Deep South into a cultural punching bag for the amusement of Yankees everywhere, even while launching hilarious tirades against the North for its ignorance concerning Dixie.

Currently heard on National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” Blount first achieved notoriety when he followed the Pittsburgh Steelers for almost a year to write the book Three Bricks Shy of a Load in 1974. Periodically, his barbed-wire embrace of the South gets him wrongly lumped in with Lewis Grizzard, the late redneck humorist who harvested acres of corn-pone jokes, apparently willed to comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Blount writes, “I have been referred to as ‘the thinking man’s Lewis Grizzard’—a description that nearly eliminates every possible market.” Blount adds that Grizzard’s best-selling humor books are “to Southern humor as foot-long pecan rolls are to Southern cuisine.”

In his latest book, Blount recalls the arrival of Krispy Kreme donuts in New York City several years ago: “At a grocery store on the Upper West Side called Gourmet Garage, I came upon a tray full of cold Krispy Kremes for sale beneath a sign that said FRESH FROM THE ANTE-BELLUM SOUTH. ‘Well, now,’ I said to the man behind the counter. ‘They can’t be any too fresh . . . I mean, if they date back to circa 1859.’”


“I did a story about Willie Nelson for Esquire some years ago, and had a couple of hits of his weed. I don’t know how he functions on that stuff.” (click for larger version)



Blount will give a lecture and sign copies of his latest book, Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South at the McWane Center at 6:30 p.m. on June 12. The event will benefit 90.3 WBHM. Call 870-4242 for details.

Black & White: When I was younger, Southern stereotypes, as portrayed in Hollywood or books, sort of bothered me. Now that I’m older, I get a perverse pleasure out of insulting perceptions of the South.

“The Beverly Hillbillies” always sort of bothered me. But I always enjoyed “Hee Haw”—well, not every minute of it. There’s a piece in my book about the difference between Nashville, which is supposed to be a great movie, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, even though there are all sorts of broad stereotypes, because it seemed to be appreciative. And also the music was really good. Whereas in Nashville, the music was written by the damn actors, and Robert Altman didn’t seem to care anything about what Nashville was really like.

Any thoughts on the Confederate flag?

I get a lot of questions about the Confederate flag. It’s crazy to have a flag that divides people of the region along racial lines. So I suggested a new Southern flag that would be half green for “money” and half blue for “the blues.” And sort of a dark brown male-looking hand and a tan male-looking hand, and the same thing with (two) female hands, and they would all be doing what flags do, which is wave. And the slogan underneath would be “Just fine. And you?” It would be a lot friendlier flag.

What’s your opinion of Don Imus?

I didn’t like Don Imus. I was not sorry to see him go. I never did appear on his show. He always just seemed, to me, to be pushing the envelope to no good end . . . I used to drive my kids to school and we used to listen to him, and none of us liked him. It seemed to me he was trying to be cooler than he was. And you just don’t say “Nappy-headed ho’s.” I wouldn’t say it in private, much less on the radio . . . or say it by accident (laughs).

How did you come to follow the Pittsburgh Steelers for Three Bricks Shy of a Load?

I was working at Sports Illustrated and one day the managing editor summoned me to the bar where a bunch of [writers and editors] would sit around at lunchtime—and after work—and drink. And they came up with the notion that somebody on the staff should spend a year with a football team and write a book . . . I had just gotten divorced and I was sort of at loose ends and I had covered the [Pittsburgh] Pirates a lot, and, also, I had done a story about the Rooney family, who owned the Steelers. [Sports Illustrated] wanted me to do the L.A. Rams or the Jets or some famous team, but I had the sense that Pittsburgh would be the place to go. So I said I’d do it if I could do it in Pittsburgh.

What was your reception like among the players?

I think it was better than it would have been in L.A. or New York, because the Steelers hadn’t been covered all that much at that time. This was the 1973 season . . . I really had that team nailed. I knew everybody on the team and the hangers-on and the coaches and scouts. It was a great way to see a cross-section of American life.

I read you were unhappy when introduced once at a humor-writing seminar as “the world’s most sophisticated redneck.”

I don’t think people ought to throw around the word “redneck” the way they do. People from the North don’t seem to realize that there is anything potentially insulting about it. If I were more of a redneck, it would be one thing, but I don’t even have a dog. I’d like to have one. I have had many dogs, but at the moment I don’t have one . . . The “introducer” didn’t know what a redneck was . . . And I’m not all that sophisticated. It was condescending without realizing it was condescending. The taxonomy was all screwed up (laughs).

Was Lewis Grizzard a sophisticated redneck?

Well, he did cocaine and wore loafers without any socks (laughs). In those two respects, he was more sophisticated than I.

Do you still eat Krispy Kreme donuts?

I remember loving them, and I will eat one occasionally. I used to eat half a dozen. Now I think I would die if I ate three. But I nostalgically eat one every now and then. I still think they’re a lot better than Dunkin’ Donuts. At least when they’re hot. I was disillusioned when I was bringing my wife to taste a hot Krispy Kreme for the first time. And the “Hot Now” sign was blinking at this Krispy Kreme store [in New York City]. I went in and they weren’t hot. I said, “You got you’re ‘Hot Now’ light blinking.” And he said, “Well, the manager said to keep that blinking all the time.” And it just broke my heart. You can’t do that.

Chef Frank Stitt was on “The Martha Stewart Show” a few weeks ago to prepare some sort of typical Southern dish, and when he ladled out the grits, the studio audience started applauding.

I don’t know why people think grits are unusual. I do like grits, and you can get grits in New York at some places, not just fancy places. Grits are such a great absorptive substance. The yellow of the eggs and red-eye gravy and stuff. I remember Jerry Clower talking about being served Irish potatoes for breakfast. Explaining grits is sort of like asking an Irishman to explain “potato.” They’re just grits.

I doubt if the marijuana was a surprise to anybody, but how about Willie Nelson also being charged with possession of psilocybin mushrooms a few months ago?

I did a story about Willie for Esquire some years ago, and had a couple of hits of his weed. I don’t know how he functions on that stuff. But he’s always been pretty open about that. Mushrooms? Shit, I’m too old to do stuff like that. But then again, if Willie wants to do psilocybin mushrooms, who am I to tell him no? &


City Hall — Council Debates a Bright Future



Council Debates a Bright Future

The Council clashes on the merits of digital billboards.


May 17, 2007

At the May 1 City Council meeting, Councilor Valerie Abbott, chair of the planning and zoning committee, sought a temporary moratorium on LED digital billboards and other outdoor electric business signs. “Our city sign ordinance is very old,” explained Abbott, concerning the need for a moratorium until city codes can be updated to address digital sign technology. The councilor said that the ordinances regulating outdoor advertising in Birmingham were written before electronic billboards existed. Currently, two digital LED billboards operate in Birmingham’s city limits, according to the councilor.

Discussion of the resolution for the proposed moratorium included a public hearing, allowing local residents to address the issue. Surprisingly, few opponents of digital billboards spoke, whereas several advocates expressed approval of the technology. Local radio personality and one-time mayoral candidate Frank Matthews claimed that more advertising generates more revenue for businesses. “When you look at the digital billboards, it gives somewhat of a twenty-first-century perspective to Birmingham overall. . . . I am sick of seeing antiquated ugly signs. I like that newness,” said Matthews. He then accused Abbott of bringing up the issue because she is reportedly running for mayor.

Chris Dehaven of Pelham sign company Dixie LED was present to defend the LED signs. He pointed to the billboard’s efficient use of electricity. “It is the emerging sign art, there’s no doubt about it,” Dehaven told the council. “Almost half of all the signs that we do are for cities, parks, schools, and churches. Only about half of them are actually used by business owners. Unfortunately, a lot of business owners would like to have it, but they don’t have the funds [that are] available in the public sector.”

“There’s a giant TV screen on the side of the road and you’ve got to make sure that these aren’t going to hurt somebody.” —Lisa Harris, executive director of Scenic Alabama

LED billboards change messages every six to eight seconds, and their intense brightness (which can be controlled) and high resolution are transforming outdoor advertising. Instead of buying space, advertisers can buy time on LED billboards. The billboards also give advertisers the ability to frequently and easily modify their ads.

Reverend Wanda Radford of the organization Mothers Who Want the Violence to Stop (Radford’s son was killed in August 2006 in a random shooting) praised Lamar Advertising for donating billboards that feature images of slain children and the promotion of cash rewards for information leading to solving the crimes. “If we had the money to put up electronic billboards, we would do so,” said Radford, who challenged the city to use digital billboards to assist in searching for homicide suspects.

A DVD presentation by Tom Traylor of Lamar Advertising touted the efficiency and impact of LED digital billboards. “Unlike other elements a driver encounters, digital billboards do not flash nor do they feature animation, motion video, or intermittent light,” according to the video. The billboards’ ability to flash Amber Alert notifications were also praised as a benefit.

Councilor Steven Hoyt is opposed to any moratorium. “There’s not been a moratorium on all these junkyards that appear in the community. Neither has there been one on the beer and wine licenses that we hand out every week, and we’re still trying to rewrite those ordinances and zoning issues. And I’m just not inclined to impede a business that is thriving. Aesthetically, it looks good.” Hoyt continued, “I’m distracted by all this grass that the state department doesn’t cut, going down the freeway . . . I really want to commend Lamar for stepping up their game, and it sets a precedent for others who want to get into the business.”

City attorney Lawrence Cooper, however, warned that the law could be lagging behind technology, and that safety and brightness issues could be distracting to motorists. “If we allow these billboards to continue to go up right now, they may be grandfathered in with some type of technology that is not useful,” said Cooper. “So please be aware of the law trying to play catch-up with issues that we’re presented with.”

A current Federal Highway Administration study has not been completed, which is the reason the planning and zoning committee suggested a moratorium until potential LED sign distractions and subsequent dangers are determined, according to Abbott. The councilor explained that the committee wants to study whether LED digital signs should be allowed at certain intersections where there is a lot of dangerous traffic—such as Malfunction Junction—or if they should be allowed near residential areas. “We’re not saying, ‘Ban the signs.’ We’re saying, ‘Let’s stop and look at the issue and make sure we’re doing the intelligent thing in our city.’ Other cities have banned them completely, [or] they’ve put restrictions on them,” said Abbott. “So that is the reason for asking for the moratorium, so that we have time to look at the issue before we have a whole city full of signs and can’t do anything about them because we’ve already allowed them.”

Vestavia Hills revoked a permit for a digital billboard last year after it was determined that the sign failed to comply with the city’s sign ordinance. Lamar Advertising has filed an appeal to have the sign reinstated.

“It was in a pretty bad location on Rocky Ridge Road,” said Rebecca Leavings, acting city clerk for the city of Vestavia Hills. “It’s in litigation right now . . . Our sign ordinance says no changing images or animation or flashing—or something like that. So it comes down to what’s going to be an interpretation by the courts as to whether or not that’s what was [in violation]. But it was in a poor location. Also, it was right down on the road.”

Digital billboards are prohibited in Hoover, according to Stan Benton, assistant director of building inspections services for the city. Signs with electronically changeable messages, flashing lights, and reader boards (except for public service, time and temperature signs, and scoreboards at athletic facilities) are prohibited, as are any new locations of billboards of any type.

“The point is that the city council is responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of the general public,” said Lisa Harris, executive director of Scenic Alabama, in a telephone interview. “It is vital to the traveling public, to our residents and our citizens that nothing hazardous is going to happen [as a result of] those [LED billboards]. We have trucks [dropping] steel coils, we lost an overpass from a crash of a tanker, we have trucks coming through there. [The council] needs to at least know what the safety issues are and make a decision based on that, not just based on ‘aren’t these things wonderful and flashy!’ You need to make sure that no one is going to have a wreck looking at them before you allow them to go in. . . . There’s a giant TV screen on the side of the road and you’ve got to say, if you’re a responsible elected official, ‘Let’s make sure that these aren’t going to hurt somebody.’”

Lamar Advertising has requested permits for two more LED billboards. The Birmingham City Council approved a two-week delay. At press time, the moratorium was scheduled for a vote at the May 15 council meeting. &