Monthly Archives: August 2008

Mayor on the Defense

Mayor on the Defense

Mayor Langford and the City Council’s advisory attorney butt heads.

August 21, 2008

Birmingham City Council President Carole Smitherman was not particularly thrilled during the August 12 council meeting when Councilor Miriam Witherspoon initiated a discussion about the recent cancellation of the Women’s Empowerment Expo, a women’s conference scheduled for the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on August 2. Two weeks earlier, Smitherman had presented Mayor Larry Langford with a gold-painted olive branch at the July 29 council meeting as a symbol of their commitment to work together. Less than a week later, the council and mayor were again at odds because Langford refused to sign off on a council-approved expenditure of $8,967 for the event. The expo was subsequently canceled.

Though insisting that the council did not go through proper procedure to obtain city money for the event, Langford readily admitted that he would not go along with the expenditure because the conference’s organizer is Donna Dukes, who once worked for Patrick Cooper, Langford’s 2007 mayoral opponent. During the campaign, Dukes sought witnesses to determine whether Langford was still living at his Fairfield home, which would have placed him in violation of residency requirements for holding office. (Cooper challenged Langford’s election in court, but a judge dismissed the case. Cooper appealed the ruling but eventually withdrew the challenge.)

Councilor Witherspoon asked the council’s legal advisor, retired Judge J. Richmond Pearson, to explain why the mayor was wrong in refusing to sign a check for the funds. Pearson said that Langford was violating his administrative duties by not approving the expense based on “one of the oldest writs known to the law . . . To give you a simple example of this, if you walk out into the hall to the Coke machine and it says 25 cents, if you put 25 cents into the Coke machine, the Coke machine is due to deliver you a Coke. It doesn’t have the right to think about it.” Pearson said that Langford should have performed his mayoral duty “without thinking” regarding the approved expense, and added that the mayor had exercised “a second veto option, which he does not have under the law.”

Langford took issue with Pearson’s assessment: “First of all, there isn’t a judge on the planet can make me sign my name to nothin’ I don’t want to sign it to. . . . He can turn around and give you the authorization for someone else to sign it. If that’s what [a judge] wants to do, let him do it. But let’s tell the whole story, now. [The council] passed an ordinance setting out what people are to do to get public money. And let’s be clear, this is the taxpayers’ money, not ours. . . . This particular person [Dukes] did none of those things. . . . First of all, I wouldn’t have signed it anyway—I made that very clear—not for this particular individual. But the fact of the matter is, I couldn’t have signed it because not a single [requirement] of this council was followed by the person you gave that money to, pure and simple. But if you give money to someone, they have to file the appropriate papers to get that money. And if they don’t do it, I won’t sign it.”

Pearson: “First of all—and I know you can’t always believe what you read in the paper. But from my knowledge, the mayor [has said] that he had personal reasons for not executing this document, number one. And number two, the mayor does not have the right to block the decision of [the council] . . . [The mayor could] veto the bill when it’s up for a vote of this council. But once the council passes it and it becomes law, it’s not up to the mayor on something that is non-discretionary. It’s not up to him to decide, ‘Well, I’m going to make them jump through a tire backwards.’ You can’t do that. You were thwarting the will of the council, and I’ve said all I need to say on it.”

Langford: “Now, the contract was brought to me three days before this supposed event was to take place. I knew nothing about it until three days prior to it. . . . And the bottom line being, had the proper paperwork been filled out, I would have known about it before then. Now, [addressing the council] I’ve never tried to mince any words about it. If someone stalked you and your family and I know it’s true, I’m not going to sign it for them either.”

Pearson: “My opinions are purely advisory, and hopefully helpful. Now, I would say respectfully to the mayor, in the way this manner was handled, I believe you could be personally liable. And I don’t think you want that to happen, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to you. Not only would you be required to sign it—or not only could a judge authorize somebody else to sign it—I think any damage that emanated from your failure to sign it, that you would be personally liable and not the city.”

Langford: “What damage was done? They didn’t have the conference. How do you even know there were 300 people [scheduled] to be over there? You don’t know any of that. . . . When there’s any court in this country who can tell me to sign something I have a disagreement with, then we’ve really got a problem in this country.”

Pearson: “Well, your problem would be that you’d be in jail.”

Langford: “Well, I’m willing to do that, if that’s what it takes, judge. Suppose some judge told me I had to sign an order to kill somebody and I know it’s wrong?”

Councilor Steven Hoyt then admonished Langford for failing to carry out his mayoral duties. “I think we have a responsibility to empower all Birmingham citizens. . . . We don’t [vote against a request] because someone comes before this council [that we have] some issues with. . . . Mr. Mayor, in the spirit of cooperation, I think we have to put things in perspective. . . . We’ve got bigger issues in this city than to be dealing with who brought forth what and what they did. . . . At some point we’ve got to move on. We’re Christians. We forgive and we move on. And that’s how we do things in this city.”

Langford said he would have”no problem” with the council reviewing the expense to allow another party to okay the funds so that the women’s conference can be held at a future date. Smitherman, however, did not let the issue go away without scolding councilors for discussing it publicly. “I respect every councilor’s right to have a presentation and to talk about what they want to talk about. But this should have been talked about at another forum. This is not the place to talk about this. Now, if we’re going to start communicating with each other better, it’s certainly not to get on the internet or on the TV, before the newspapers or whoever is here writing.”

• • •
Reached for comment two days after the council meeting, Women’s Empowerment Expo organizer Donna Dukes said, “I followed the procedures I was told to follow.” In response to Langford’s use of the word “stalking” to describe her investigation into his residency, Dukes laughed. “I have never harassed or stalked anyone. And anyone who knows me and knows my family and my background and the work that I do in the community as well as the fact that I’m a born-again Christian—and have been one since I was eight years old—understands that I would never do anything like that.”

Dukes plans to hold the conference at a later date. “The expo is a free event for women, providing services that are direly needed by these women. We have over 300 women who are anxious to attend it and I believe that God is going to provide the rest of the funds that we need.” &

Space Station Spotting

Space Station Spotting

Up above! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a very expensive blip in the sky . . .

The International Space Station. (click for larger version)


August 21, 2008

Every 90 minutes, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the Earth approximately 220 miles above the planet. If you have even a passing interest in NASA’s ventures, it’s worth spending a few minutes on select evenings for a glimpse of the space station as it passes overhead. It’s fascinating to be able to sit in your backyard and know that the brightly lit object is home to astronauts from various countries living aboard what Arthur C. Clarke once imagined in his epic novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 1995, the United States began sending space shuttle flights to Russia’s Mir Space Station (which is roughly a quarter the size of the ISS), allowing American astronauts to experience long stays. In 1998, construction of the ISS began. Since November of 2000, it has continually been inhabited by astronauts and cosmonauts, with occasional visits by scientists from other nations, as well as high-rolling billionaires who buy trips to the ISS from the Russians, for approximately $20 million per journey.

Due to its solar panels, the ISS is so bright that there’s no need to drive away from city lights to spot the craft. Some sighting opportunities are better than others. The NASA web site ( details when and where to look and indicates how many degrees from Earth’s horizon the space station will appear as well as it’s highest point during the flyover. On an ideal evening, the ISS will appear in the western sky, with a high point at 45 to 60 degrees. It is visible for only one to four minutes

One note: in typical government fashion, the info on the NASA page is less than clear. On Wednesday, August 27, for example, the site lists the Space Station as being visible at 4:56 a.m. from “Approach (DEG-DIR): 43 above S.” This means the Station will become visible at 43 degrees above the horizon if you are looking South (90 degrees would be directly overhead). The site also lists the maximum elevation the Station will reach during each sighting, which in this case is 53 degrees. &

Shelley the Playboy

Shelley the Playboy

A local radio legend is honored by his peers.

September 18, 2008

Legendary Birmingham radio personality, radio station owner, and advertising executive Dr. Shelley Stewart will be honored on October 2 at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center. The evening will be MC’d by WJOX talk show host and longtime Stewart friend Paul Finebaum, with a performance by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. An assortment of Shelley’s pals will offer memories of the man once deemed “a pioneer of radio” by the Smithsonian Institute.

President of Birmingham advertising and communications firm O2 Ideas, Stewart also manages the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, a nonprofit organization named for his mother. The foundation, which will benefit from the evening’s proceeds, seeks to reduce school-dropout rates and promote literacy, and has produced the documentary Inside Out, which includes reflections of of who failed to achieve high school diplomas.

Shelley Stewart (click for larger version)


Born in Birmingham in the 1930s, Stewart’s life changed drastically at age seven when he witnessed his mother’s murder at the hands of his ax-wielding father. Stewart was forced to survive alone at a very young age, eventually seeking refuge in a horse stable with permission of its white owners. He later moved in with a white family in the Birmingham suburban area now known as Crestline. A memoir, The Road South, tells the story of his odyssey from childhood poverty and neglect to that of wealth and immense success. Ten years ago, as he celebrated 50 years of broadcasting, Dr. Stewart told Black & White: “I went to black schools, of course . . . but after sunset, I was living and socializing with whites. I’m not saying I was less subject to prejudice than other blacks—I remember Mr. Clyde [the head of the family with whom Stewart lived] one time knocking a man to the floor for calling me a nigger—but I did learn that all white people weren’t the same. As a young black boy, that was a revelation to me. The way I came up gave me a fairly unique perspective on both blacks and whites—our commonalities as well as our differences.”

Stewart did not hesitate to challenge old friend Richard Arrington in the years following Arrington’s election (which he achieved with Stewart’s support) in 1979 as Birmingham’s first black mayor. A decade after the election, Stewart began to differ with Arrington and his political machine, the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition, over how the organization wielded its power. When Arrington’s tenure as mayor ended in 1998, Stewart remarked, “I saw that government in the city of Birmingham was getting to be about dealing with personalities rather than issues. That impedes progress, whether it’s Bull Connor or George Wallace or Dick Arrington that’s doing it . . . when you’re talking about power politics in Birmingham, you have to conclude that everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. The people still have a boot on their neck, and the fact that the color of the foot in the boot has changed doesn’t make it any better.”

• • •
“I’ve known Shelley forever,” said Paul Finebaum with a laugh during a recent interview. “I met him briefly when I came to town . . . When I was just writing [for a living], he’d have me on his show. Early on, we did quite a few shows, trying to bridge—like Shelley always did—the two Birminghams. He really was someone who had an open mind, unlike a lot of people from the past. We really had a lot of fun together. Then, when I started [hosting a] radio [show], we’d have him on. Which was really kind of weird, to do a show that was following Rush Limbaugh everyday, and then having Shelley on.”

Shelley Stewart, in green, with James Brown in the early 1970s. (click for larger version)


Finebaum continued: “I remember in the mid- to late- ’80s, and even into the ’90s, he broke with Arrington quite a bit. I found that to be pretty remarkable. But Shelley didn’t care. I think that’s why he was successful. Some people who are pushing a specific point of view always play the party line or company line, and that’s what separated him from the pack.” &

An Evening with Shelley the Playboy; October 2 at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center (former Healthsouth location on Highway 280); Tickets are $150 each; reception at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m. Go to for more information.

The Juke Joint

The Juke Joint

An authentic blues experience lies only a few miles west of Birmingham.

August 07, 2008

(Photographs by Mark Gooch.)

In the backyard of Henry Gipson’s Bessemer home sits a tin-covered shack, a relic of a by-gone cultural phenomenon: the juke joint. Known as Gip’s Place, the ramshackle club was packed on a recent Saturday night when the legendary Sam Lay, former drummer for Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, and Paul Butterfield, played guitar and sang. Patrons sat at tables drinking beer from coolers at their feet, munching on fish fried in a kettle in the yard. A middle-aged woman with a cigarette seductively rolled her hips to the music, garnering almost as much attention as Sam Lay.

Henry Gipson, or Gip as most know him, grew up in Uniontown, Alabama, more than 80 years ago. He worked at the Pullman Standard railcar company in Bessemer for 25 years, then began digging graves for a living. He now owns Pine Hill Cemetery, some 15 miles west of Birmingham, and still digs the graves himself with a backhoe. Sitting in a chair on the dusty stage late one afternoon strumming an electric guitar, he reflected on the years spent at his blues joint. “I’ve been fooling with this here for about 50 years . . . It wasn’t built like this at first,” he said. “It wasn’t until Lenny and Hank started coming. They put the tin top [roof] up there. I used to have just a net around it. It wasn’t as big as it is now.”

A Colt 45 Malt Liquor sign illuminates a wall plastered with posters advertising decades-old shows from the chitlin’ circuit. Next to the stage is an upright piano. Tinsel and Christmas lights are strewn about for decor. Gip’s Place draws a mixed race clientele comprised mostly of the over-40 set. “I don’t want too many young people down here, ’cause you know how they act,” he says with a slight grin.


In the corner of the stage, a pair of instruments and guitar amplifier await the next set. (click for larger version)


The aforementioned Lenny Madden and Hank Moore are a pair of blues fanatics who discovered Gip’s Place in the late 1990s. Both white, their visits to Gip’s weekend jam sessions were an anomaly in the predominantly black neighborhood. Eventually, other members of the Magic City Blues Society learned of the place, and then cars began to line the street in front of Gip’s home on Saturday nights. Gip recently celebrated his 86th birthday at his backyard club. “I think we’ve celebrated his 86th birthday about three years in a row now,” noted Moore. “I don’t think even Mr. Gip knows how old he is.”


A gravedigger by day, Gip’s proprietor Henry Gipson digs the night life in his backyard shack on Saturday nights. (click for larger version)


Another frequent attendee is Earl Williams, a 56-year-old hairdresser and guitarist whose résumé includes tours with rhythm ‘n’ blues greats Johnny Taylor and Latimore. “When the whites started coming around, [some neighbors] thought they were watching some of the guys in the neighborhood . . . They thought [the white patrons] were the FBI!” says Williams, howling with laughter at the notion. “I’ve always hung around Gip’s. I love to jam. That’s my place I like to go play for free. I get a chance to let my hair down and be me. I can try whatever I want to try up in there. It’s just a brotherly-type thing, you’re just doing it for the love of music.”


A local band opens for blues legend Sam Lay on a recent Saturday night. (click for larger version)


Williams began coming to Gip’s at age 10 to learn to play guitar from the regulars. “Gip would do everything he could to lure good players to come up there. He’d be out there barbecuing, and he might have a little corn whiskey,” he recalls. “He’d have three or four grills going. He’d have a raccoon on one, he’d have a goat on one, a whole pig on another. He loves music, and he don’t want to do it for a profit. He ought to have a cover charge, but he can’t come to terms with charging people money.” &


For the audience at Gip’s, the music is the focus. (click for larger version)


To find Gip’s Place, take I-20/59 South to Exit 112 in Bessemer. Turn left, under the interstate, which will put you on 18th Street heading south. Go one mile, across the railroad tracks, turning left on Carolina Avenue at the “T” intersection. Go one block and turn right on 19th Street, then go four blocks and turn left on Dartmouth Avenue. Drive 1.2 miles to a right on 33rd Street. Go two blocks and turn left and then immediately right. Go up the hill two blocks to Avenue C. Turn right and drive a couple of hundred feet and you’ll see Gip’s, a dilapidated shack in the backyard of Henry Gipson’s home that sits beside the big curve in the road. Gip’s is open a couple of Saturday nights each month. Contact the Magic City Blues Society at for info on upcoming events at Gip’s. As the good folks from the Blues Society are fond of saying, “Don’t worry . . . the neighborhood is safe.”Additional info, and two recordings by Mr. Gip, can be found at