Monthly Archives: October 2009

Session Man

Session Man

How many people do you know who almost joined The Rolling Stones? That experience is just one of many that comprise the unusual musical odyssey of Birmingham guitarist Wayne Perkins.


October 29, 2009

In 1973, Island Records released Catch a Fire, the major-label debut of Jamaican band The Wailers, featuring a then-unknown Bob Marley. The album includes the reggae classics “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up.” Few music fans are aware, however, that those songs’ memorable guitar parts (on one of the first albums that helped turn reggae into a worldwide sensation) were played by Birmingham guitar virtuoso Wayne Perkins. Decades later, on a recent afternoon at his Center Point home, Perkins recalls his memory of the session.

The Wailers had recorded the album’s basic tracks in Jamaica a year earlier. Marley took the tapes to London where he supervised overdubs suggested by Island Records president Chris Blackwell to flesh out the Wailers’ barebones sound into something more palatable for American and European audiences. Blackwell brought in Perkins and John “Rabbit” Bundrick, veteran session player and current keyboardist for The Who, to add riffs that went officially uncredited until the album was re-released in a “deluxe edition” in 2001 (the set features both the widely known mix as well as the original Wailers version).

“Chris Blackwell came to Muscle Shoals to record Jim Capaldi’s Oh How We Danced. Paul Kossoff, Free’s guitar player, was there. [Steve] Winwood was there, and all of us became buddies,” says Perkins, who was doing session work at Muscle Shoals Sound at the time. While at the studio, Blackwell heard the band Smith Perkins Smith that Perkins had formed with brothers Tim and Steve Smith, from Homewood. Impressed, Blackwell signed the group and took them to Europe to launch the band’s career. “The first date we ever played was at the Cavern Club in Liverpool,” recalls Perkins. “We were living out our rock ‘n’ roll dream a little bit.” Smith Perkins Smith were soon touring Europe opening for Free, Uriah Heep, Fairport Convention, and Mott the Hoople, among other groups.

A few of the well-known albums Wayne Perkins has performed on. (click for larger version)



In the documentary Bob Marley & the Wailers: Catch a Fire (one in a series covering classic albums), Chris Blackwell says that the Wailers’ record was “enhanced [with overdubs and other elements atypical of reggae] to try and reach a rock market. What I was trying to merge [reggae] into was more of a sort of hypnotic-type feel with a kind of wah-wah [guitar] feel and different sorts of guitar going all the way through, and make it much less a reggae rhythm and more of a sort of drifting feel. . . . It’s particularly distinctive because of Wayne Perkins’ playing . . . this is the sound that started the album. ‘Concrete Jungle’ introduced Bob Marley and the Wailers to the world.”

Perkins continues: “We were in the middle of working on a Smith Perkins Smith album in London, and I ran into Blackwell on the spiral staircase at Island Records. He said that he had some reggae music that he wanted me to try to play on. I really wasn’t familiar with hardcore reggae. He wanted me to ‘do that Southern rock guitar thing, or whatever you do.’ So I met Marley, but just briefly. I didn’t know any of these guys. And the first thing I noticed when I walked downstairs was that the basement was in a fog. Lots of [marijuana] smoke. It was too funny. I tried to get down to business.”

With guitar in hand, waiting to begin recording his part, Perkins requested an explanation of how to approach this music with which he was unfamiliar. “Blackwell explained that the bass drum, sock cymbal, and the snare [drum] are on the one and three [beats]. He told me to ignore the bass guitar because it was more of a lead instrument [as opposed to a bass's typical role as a rhythm instrument]. It’s great music, but it’s kinda weird in that everything feels like it’s being played backwards. ‘Concrete Jungle’ was the very first thing that I was handed. That was the most out-of-character bass part I’d ever heard. But because the keyboards and the guitars stay locked together doing what they’re doing all through the song, that was sorta my saving grace. I thought I could follow the song, but I still didn’t know what I was going to do on guitar. So I started doodling on the front of it, and I told the sound engineer to start over about halfway through it. Then I started picking up a little something here and there. I nailed that guitar solo down on the second or third take, I think. It was a gift from God, because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And then Marley came into the recording room. He was cartwheeling, man, he couldn’t get over what had just happened to his song, he was so excited. I couldn’t understand a damn thing he was saying. And he was cramming this huge joint down my throat and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He got me real, real high.”

Meeting the Muscle Shoals Sound
Though Perkins was only 21 when he played on Catch a Fire, he already had several years of professional studio experience under his belt. He was 15 when he recorded with producer Emory Gordy in Atlanta in the mid-1960s. By age 16, Perkins had dropped out of high school to play music for a living. In 1969, the 18-year-old Perkins moved to Muscle Shoals to work at a studio called Quinvy’s for $100 a week. A year later, he took over lead guitar chores at Muscle Shoals Sound (MSS) when session guitarist, songwriter, and soul singer Eddie Hinton quit to pursue a career as a recording artist. “Eddie told me, ‘I’m leaving here. You want this gig? Duane’s gone and he ain’t coming back. He’s busy,’” Perkins recalls. (Duane Allman played lead guitar on sessions in Muscle Shoals in the late 1960s before forming the Allman Brothers Band.)

Perkins says he will never forget his “job interview” at Muscle Shoals Sound. “I went in to talk to Jimmy Johnson [Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section guitarist and MSS sound engineer]. He handed me a stack of records about two feet tall, and it’s albums of all these different players, all the greatest guitar players,” says Perkins. “Johnson said, ‘I tell you what. You want this job? You want to be one of us? I don’t want to be sitting in the control room with [Atlantic Records executives] Ahmet Ertegun or Jerry Wexler and ask you to give me a little something more like a Cornell Dupree lick or a little more ‘Duane Allman kind of blues’ in style, and you not be able to do so. Any kind of guitar lick I ask you for, I don’t want to see any kind of doubt on your face. You just nod your head and go on with it. Don’t embarrass me in front of Ahmet or Wexler because these guys are our bread and butter.’ So I went home and took about two weeks and consumed that stack of records. And I got the gig.”

Wayne Perkins, left, chatting with Eddie Hinton in Muscle Shoals in the 1970s. Perkins would soon inherit Hinton’s job as lead guitarist for the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios’ house band. (click for larger version)





Perkins recalls an after-hours Joe Cocker session at MSS when the studio’s regular musicians and staff had gone home. “I walked into the recording room with my bass, I’m thumping around. It was me and [drummer] Jim Keltner and Cocker. Everybody’s sitting around high as a kite, didn’t know what to do. They’d been that way all week, hadn’t gotten anything done. And Cocker’s sitting back there rolling these long joints with hash and grass, and apparently something else that I wasn’t aware of. They’re sitting back there in the recording room not doing anything, and then I go back there to check on them and they handed me this joint and I took a couple of hits off of it. I started thumping on my bass and both of my hands started going numb. I went over and laid down on the couch, and I woke up the next morning with the bass still strapped on me. And it’s almost time for a Ronnie Milsap session. Somebody said to me, ‘You better get some coffee.’”

Around the World with Leon Russell
Perkins’ work on the Wailers’ Catch a Fire caught the ears of several prominent names in the music industry, including the Rolling Stones and Leon Russell, with whom Perkins had worked at MSS for the album Leon Russell and the Shelter People. “After Blackwell signed us and got us to England, we started on our second album and got halfway through it, then he stopped it,” Perkins says. Smith Perkins Smith soon broke up. The guitarist returned to the States in 1973 and within a few weeks Leon Russell called to offer him the lead guitar spot in his legendary backing band. “There was a first-class airline ticket to Tulsa waiting for me, and the tour was starting within weeks,” Perkins recalls. “Leon picked me up in this Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud in Tulsa with a couple of chicks, and we go out for steaks bigger than our heads. He told me I had less than a week to learn the Leon Live album, a three-record set. So I said, ‘That ain’t a hell of a lot of time, Leon.’ I didn’t sleep for three or four days. I listened to that album over and over. But thanks to Leon, I got to see the world. With Smith Perkins Smith I had lived in England, toured Europe, and all that. But Russell took me to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, Hong Kong; it was just unbelievable. Great times. I’d done more before I hit age 25 than most people will ever dream of. For my money, that was the best band I ever played with.”

After a world tour, Russell disbanded the Shelter People. His next backing group was comprised of fellow Oklahomans The Gap Band. “We went out to this place called the Rose Room in Tulsa and there was The Gap Band. And they were kicking ass, the whole place was going crazy,” Perkins says. “So we picked The Gap Band up, but Leon kept the Shelter People drummer—Chuck Blackwell—and me, because Chuck knew where all the changes were, and Leon was always one to throw changes and stuff at you that nobody in the band had ever heard before. We went from first-class airline tickets with the Shelter People to a bus with The Gap Band. Leon wanted to go out and get funky, put his cowboy hat on.”

“Wayne picks up a guitar and does stuff with his fingers that other people can’t do, and they couldn’t do if they worked on it all their lives.” —Boutwell Studios’ Mark Harrelson

It was Russell who coined the nickname bestowed on the Muscle Shoals Sound house band. “Leon came up with the term ‘The Swampers’ for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section when he recorded there. [The Swampers were immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."] Shortly after that, Ronnie Van Zant and them were in Muscle Shoals recording Skynyrd’s first album and I had a copy of Leon’s album [where he mentioned the Muscle Shoals Swampers in the liner notes]. I showed it to Ronnie. Leon had a song on there called “Home Sweet Oklahoma,” which is where Ronnie got the idea for ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’”

Joni Mitchell and a Pink Paisley Guitar
Perkins went to Los Angeles around 1973 to visit Jackson Browne and ended up at A&M studios, where Joni Mitchell was recording her masterpiece Court and Spark. “Yeah, that was a real special thing for me. I stopped in at A&M where Joni was cutting,” recalls Perkins, who also had a romantic fling with Mitchell. Mitchell was recording in a studio across the hall from Browne. “Joni came out of her studio and I said hello and we started talking,” he remembers. “She asked if I wanted to hear what she was working on. Joni and I hit it off. Oh boy, did we ever hit it off!”

Perkins met Joni Mitchell in a Hollywood studio in 1973. He ended up playing guitar on portions of her Court and Spark album. (click for larger version)





“So the next day I went to see her at the place she was sharing with David Geffen over in Beverly Hills—this big, huge mansion. Geffen lived in one half and she lived in the other. I ended up going into the studio with her a couple of nights. I was watching Tom [Scott] overdub instrumental parts on ‘Car on a Hill’ when Joni asked me, ‘Do you hear anything on this?’ I did, but all my gear was with Leon. So we got her band’s equipment but the guitar wouldn’t stay in tune on the bottom three strings, so I told her this wasn’t going to work like I wanted it to. I pointed to this huge anvil guitar case in the studio that had ‘James Burton’ [Elvis Presley's guitar player in the 1970s] written on the side of it. It’s 3 a.m. Joni was hesitant to mess with it. But I flipped the case open and there was that pink paisley Telecaster [Burton's signature guitar]. I told her, ‘Here’s what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna do some city sounds like you want.’ So I took Burton’s Telecaster and I overdubbed the slide parts on “Car on a Hill” on James Burton’s guitar. When I put the guitar back in the case, I folded the damn strap different than the way I found it, so he’d know somebody had messed with it [laughs].”

“The whole thing sounded real rough, too. It kinda just sucked. It was like the worst garage band I’d ever heard in my life. Then the engineer began recording and it’s like somebody reached out with a magic wand and went, ‘Bing!’ And all of a sudden, it’s the Stones!” —Wayne Perkins, describing his first recording session with the Rolling Stones

Like a Rolling Stone
Guitarist Eric Clapton, with whom Perkins had been hanging out in Jamaica while Clapton was preparing to record There’s One in Every Crowd, contacted the Rolling Stones to arrange an audition for Perkins after Stones guitarist Mick Taylor quit in 1974. “I stayed in Kingston with Clapton for a month or two,” Perkins says. “One morning at the breakfast table Eric said, ‘Did you hear that Mick Taylor quit the Stones?’ And I said, ‘Naww, have they found anybody to take his place?’ Eric said he didn’t think they had, so I said, ‘Well, hell, put in a phone call for me.’ So Clapton called Jagger and told him, ‘Yeah, this boy Perkins can play some guitar.’ So Eric—and Leon Russell—were my references to get to the Stones.” Months earlier, Perkins had played bass on Stones bassist Bill Wyman’s solo debut, Monkey Grip.

Keith Richards, a reggae fanatic, was familiar with Perkins’ work on Catch a Fire. “Far as I know, I was the last one to audition for the Stones job. They had rented a theater in Rotterdam. I basically got off the plane and walked into the audition room,” recalls Perkins. “Keith was sitting on a couch with Bill Wyman. And there was a spotlight in the middle of the room. I set my guitars down and was just standing there, and they’re all looking up at me. I had never met them before. I was standing there in that spotlight. It was kind of understood that that’s where I was supposed to stand because nobody offered a chair. I was talking to Keith when suddenly Jagger and Charlie Watts came up behind me, and they both stood right next to me, really close. Mick and Charlie were looking straight ahead, they wouldn’t even look at me. I looked to each side and both of them are staring straight ahead like they’re posing for an album cover. Then they walked off without saying a word. They put me in the center of this portrait thing that they were doing, like a lineup. They wanted to see if I looked like a Rolling Stone, and I hadn’t even played a note for ‘em yet.”

It is now known that Perkins was competing with Jeff Beck and Peter Frampton, among others, for the job. The Stones eventually chose Ron Wood.

Perkins’ audition impressed the Stones enough that he was invited to play on the sessions that would become the Black and Blue album. “We started out cold on ‘Hand of Fate’ one night. We were just kind of starting from scratch with something that Keith had a musical idea about,” Perkins says. “He had the basic track down, but he didn’t have a bridge, or what they call ‘a middle-eight.’ I was playing a counter-guitar part to Keith, and I started doing this Motown lick that goes along to what he’s playing. And so we’re cooking along there, and Mick’s walking around the room with a tambourine, and he’d go stand in the corner and shake that damn tambourine. And he’s singing to himself, and he’s off in his own world trying to figure out what’s what. The whole thing sounded real rough, too. It kinda just sucked. [Perkins is not the first musician to comment on the Stones' lack of musical finesse.] It was like the worst garage band I’d ever heard in my life. Then the engineer turned on the red light [to begin recording] and it’s like somebody reached out with a magic wand and went, ‘Bing!’ And all of a sudden, it’s the Stones! Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Perkins lived with Richards and his longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg for a month or so in a cottage behind the London home of Ron Wood (who was still a member of The Faces at the time). Richards treated Perkins as the new band member. “We started hangin’ out and having a big ol’ time. We got along great,” says Perkins. “But when Mick came into the picture . . . If I was with Mick, it was all right. If I was with Keith, it was all right. But when the two of them got together, I seemed to automatically fall under a microscope without even trying. Keith and Mick were still going at it over me, because I was under the impression from Keith that I was already in the band. Keith was teaching me their songs and gave me two cassettes of about 60 songs that included what the Stones might play on their 1975 tour. While we were in Germany, they had these two rooms and on the walls were [designs] of different stage setups and they were asking me my opinion of which stage I liked. We cut ‘Memory Motel’ from scratch like we did ‘Hand of Fate.’ Keith was on Fender Rhodes, Mick was on grand piano, and I was in some soundbooth with an acoustic guitar and I overdubbed electric guitar later. And then I overdubbed some slide on ‘Fool to Cry.’ We cut like 10 tracks that were just jamming, and then later on they turned this into some stuff, and a couple of those ended up on Tattoo You.” 1981′s Tattoo You, though presented at the time as an album of new songs, was actually cobbled together from unreleased songs recorded from 1973 to 1975. Perkins plays the jaw-dropping guitar solo on “Worried About You.”

Sweet Home Alabama
In 1975, closer to home, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King had quit the band in the middle of a tour. They continued as a two-guitar act for a year but wanted to return to a three-guitar lineup. “Lynyrd Skynyrd offered me the job, but something didn’t feel right to me,” says Perkins. “I turned them down in December ’76 and the plane crash was in October ’77. I think about that one from time to time. Ronnie [Van Zant] was one of my best friends. I knew all the guys in the band, and I would have made a ton of money. And God knows, fate could have changed and that crash might not have happened.”

One day Perkins went to hear his brother Dale’s band, Alabama Power. “They had a great band and no songs,” he says. “They had the vehicle and I had the gasoline. I had the connections in Hollywood after all these years.” Perkins says that lawyers for the Alabama Power Company were not pleased with the band’s name, so the group changed it to Crimson Tide. “I much preferred the name Alabama Power to Crimson Tide because that’s sacrilege, to me. Crimson Tide is a great name but [the University of Alabama] was already using it.” Crimson Tide released two albums on Capitol Records, the self-titled Crimson Tide in 1978 and Reckless Love in 1979, the latter produced by Donald “Duck” Dunn, bassist for Booker T. and the MGs, with the MGs’ Steve Cropper contributing guitar parts. Crimson Tide became the house band at the Crossroads Club in Roebuck for a couple of years in the late ’70s, where well-known acts such as Yes, Joe Cocker, or Rick Derringer, if they had performed elsewhere in town that day, often showed up to sit in. “That’s one thing about the Crossroads Club. You never knew who would show up,” Perkins says. Crimson Tide split up in 1979. Perkins later released a pair of solo CDs, Mendo Hotel in 1995 and Ramblin’ Heart in 2005, as well as having his songs included on soundtracks for several films and TV shows.

An Impressive Résumé
The wide range of musicians that Perkins has worked with is impressive. In addition to the aforementioned acts, his credits include work with Albert King, the Everly Brothers, Michael Bolton, Millie Jackson, John Prine, Delbert McClinton, Jerry Jeff Walker, Roger McGuinn, Levon Helm, Bobby Womack, and the Oak Ridge Boys, among others.

Perkins and his close pal Stevie Ray Vaughan (left) outside a Memphis studio in 1989. (click for larger version)





Mark Harrelson, co-owner of Birmingham’s Boutwell Studios, first met Perkins in the late 1970s. “Wayne’s been a part of more big time things [musically] than anybody else in Birmingham that I can think of,” Harrelson says. “To be part of that Marley thing, and then to even have a shot at being part the Stones is something that nobody else around here can even come close to. Wayne is first and foremost a player, when you break it right down. He’s a good singer and good songwriter, and he’s had a hand at making some good decisions about production and things like that, too. But the first thing that Wayne does—to me—that is better than anything else that he does is to pick up a guitar and do stuff with his fingers that other people can’t do, and they couldn’t do if they worked on it all their lives. When he went to Muscle Shoals he was a kid, and yet the first time they turned him loose on a session, everybody went, ‘Wow, this kid can really play.’”

“For my money, the best times I’ve had musically interacting with Wayne is when I told him, ‘I need you to play from here to here,’ and he just does something absolutely phenomenal to fill up that space. He’s fabulous at it. Wayne was always fearless at coming up with new ideas and just really nailing stuff.”

Wayne Perkins today.

Recent Years
In the late 1990s, Perkins began suffering from poor health. Some days, his headaches are almost unbearable, yet he remains determined to forge ahead. Several years ago, he got his I.D. card that officially recognizes his heritage as a native America Indian, and he continues to play bass on occasion with his good friend Lonnie Mack. He’s also working on a new CD. “I’ve been one of the most blessed people you’ll ever run into in your life. And fortunate,” Perkins surmises with an engaging grin.

He’s one of the music industry’s great unheralded guitar players, often receiving no credit on records to which he has made contributions. His confidence has never waned. “I did have to work for it, and when I’m thrown in the damn shark tank [in a studio or on stage] I can swim and I can do battle, or whatever. I can hang,” he admits. “It was a lot of hard work, but the stuff just kept coming. I did everything I wanted to do, including playing with the biggest rock band in the world. If I had joined [The Rolling Stones], by now I’d probably be a dead millionaire.” &

Gear Head

Gear Head

A Birmingham musician’s custom guitar pedals and hand-made drums have become favored by indie-rock royalty.

October 15, 2009

Self-described on his web site as “a mad genius always exploring the sonic boundaries and ripping holes through time and space,” local entrepreneur and guitarist Emanual Ellinas has found a niche selling a series of custom-built guitar effects pedals that he markets nationally under the name Sitori Sonics. (An effects pedal converts an electric guitar’s basic sound into any one of dozens of sonic tones.) Guitar noise gods Sonic Youth currently own pedals made by Ellinas, as do The Flaming Lips, The White Stripes, Annie Clark (formerly of The Polyphonic Spree, now solo as St. Vincent), and Scottish band Mogwai.

“I don’t know if it was out of curiosity or simply being cheap, but I’ve always tried to fix all my own guitar equipment when it was broken,” explains the 37-year-old Ellinas, who was born in Atlanta. “I’ve been building guitar pedals [professionally] for about three years. I got started learning how to put a new battery connection on a pedal when it broke, and that gave me the confidence to change out the input jack when that broke.”


Emanual Ellinas has found a niche selling a series of custom-built guitar effects pedals. (Photographs by Brian Francis.) (click for larger version)

His propensity for tinkering was evident at an early age. “When I was in third or fourth grade, I would do things like take a microwave apart when my parents would leave, and check the parts out. If I could put it all back together before they got home—so I wouldn’t get in trouble—I knew I was getting better at it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew enough to know how to unscrew things and screw ‘em back in. And most of the time, my parents never knew that anything had happened. I soon learned how microwaves work. Then I ventured into more and more things.”

Get Rhythm
Before delving into guitars and pedals, Ellinas developed a passion for making African-style drums. “I started making drums around ’93 or ’94. I had a small store in Little Five Points in Atlanta. Actually, I shared a shop with a couple who did [body] piercings. It was drums and piercings—all of your primitive needs. I’d literally be selling a drum and you’d hear somebody scream. It was pretty funny.” He soon began selling his drums on the music festival circuit, manning a booth next to those offering T-shirts and the like. He opened a drum shop after moving to Humboldt County in northern California.

“This was pre-internet and it was a small town. Soon, I had pretty much sold drums to everybody that was gonna buy one. So it was time to move on,” Ellinas recalls.

“I always tell people it takes three days and ten years to make a drum. It took a long time, like ten years, to be able to make them that quickly. And honestly, if you don’t count the drying time—the glue, letting the skin dry—if you don’t count any of the waiting around time, I’ve got it down to about three hours, start to finish,” he explains. “But literally, it took a decade to hone the process. And it’s always just been me. I’ve had a helper or two every now and then, but mostly because I’d gotten bored and just wanted somebody to talk to. I did it all from scratch; I would cut all the wood and hammer all the steel rods into rings and weld them, shape the goatskin. Even ate a couple of the goats [laughs]. That was kind of strange, but they were good!”

Ellinas obtained the goatskins from a neighbor. “He had goats for milk and to trim his backyard,” Ellinas recalls. “Then he came over one day and said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna slaughter these goats, do you want the skins?’ And I said sure, so he showed up the next morning with the skins and some meat. I cooked it up the best I knew how. I don’t know if there’s a wrong way to cook goat, but it was tasty. Usually, I’d get skins from Africa or Pakistan because I was probably making 5 to 10 drums a week, at the least. In California, there were a lot of goat farms because it’s kind of a different scene out there. But I would far outstrip the local supply.”


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Ellinas eventually tired of making percussion instruments and shifted his skills to building guitar amps and effects pedals, though his interest in drums has recently been rekindled after a long break. “I’ve just started back making drums. I was doing really well selling them on eBay years ago, and then guys in Africa kinda figured out eBay and started pawning off terrible tourists’ drums that you could get for a third of the price of mine,” he says, laughing. “All the [customers] were like, ‘Oh, these are authentic African drums!’ But they were just junk, quality-wise. I couldn’t compete with that, though I tried to. I started making drums out of pine and stuff instead of mahogany, trying to cut corners. [Cheap wood such as pine doesn't resonate as well as more exotic ones.] But it was still just as much work. I quit doing that for a good while and started importing sitars and stuff from India. I just started doing the drums again. I put a couple out at Highland Music [where he's currently employed] just to see if anybody noticed them. Lots of people have shown interest.”

Pedal Pusher
“I’m a big pedal freak. At one point I was buying two or three a day on eBay,” Ellinas says of his fascination with guitar gadgets. “And I’d play them and within two or three minutes I’d figure out what I hated about them. I’d re-list them on eBay and would usually make money because I’m good at selling stuff,” he boasts without a pause. Indeed, his web site offers a bit of comical arrogance, especially when touting his Reel Repeat effects pedal: “Tired of the same old delay [pedal] you’ve heard on every U2 song since 1985? We are. . . . Use [Reel Repeat] once and you’ll box up that old tape delay [pedal] and toss it in the attic. Better yet, sell it to some moron on eBay for way too much.”

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Regarding his motivation to build his own effects pedals, Ellinas explains: “There wasn’t really anything out there that was doing what I wanted it to do that was under $300 or $400. I couldn’t afford that much for a pedal. My car cost $500 [laughs]. So I made a delay pedal and an overdrive pedal, a fuzz pedal, and a phaser pedal. One day I stopped in Highland Music to see what they thought about them and they bought one on the spot, and two other guys in the store bought two more. The store said they would stock them, and that’s how I ended up working at Highland Music.”

“Emanual is making guitar pedals like they made them in the ’60s, all hand-wired, high-quality,” explains Highland Music owner Don Murdoch. “In a nutshell, the big corporations would have to charge $300 to $400 for pedals like these. Emanual’s selling most of his pedals for $168.” Ellinas’ enthusiasm for his creations is one of his strengths, as well. “He’s such a great salesman,” says Murdoch. “He’s got a knack for making people really like him. He could be selling whatever. . . . And he’s a damn good guitar amp maker, too.

Ellinas says the pedal sales really took off when members of Sonic Youth mentioned on their web site that they were using his pedals. “After that, I started selling eight or nine a day—beginning, like, that night.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon at Highland Music, Ellinas’ wife Valerie, who plays with him in their band Nag Hammadi (described on the band’s MySpace page as “Middle Eastern space rock”), holds their three-month-old daughter while good-naturedly scolding her husband for a recent email he sent to Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. “One of Sonic Youth’s two bass players, Mark Ibold, also played in the band Pavement, which was a loud band, and Sonic Youth is a loud band. Ibold was worried that my bass fuzz pedal was too loud and was going to break his amp,” Ellinas says, offering up another dose of his infectious laughter. “Ranaldo had emailed me about the pedal and I answered all the questions about the pedal and at the end, I literally told him to tell Mark to ‘put his big-boy pants on and play the fuzz [pedal] as it was.’ Sonic Youth and I were swapping emails every other day or so, and then I didn’t hear from them for like two weeks. I kinda thought that I had messed up. But I always just assume everybody has the same sense of humor that I do. And then eventually I wondered, ‘Well, maybe they don’t. Maybe it turns out I am a jerk. But it turned out they had gone to Japan and they weren’t mad at me at all.” &

To see examples of Ellinas’ guitar pedals, visit or drop by Highland Music (254-3288, at 3000 Clairmont Avenue South on Southside.


Fitness on the Rocks

Fitness on the Rocks

A new indoor climbing facility offers an alternative workout.

October 15, 2009
For those addicted to the challenge, physical benefits, and sheer exhilaration of rock climbing, the greater Birmingham area now has a world-class indoor climbing gym. In August of 2009 First Avenue Rocks opened in downtown Birmingham’s industrial district, which has blossomed into a funky commercial sector in recent years. The 4,000-square-foot gymnasium features several 15-foot-tall simulated rock formations that include hundreds of “holds” (plastic structures functioning as grips for hands and steps for feet as climbers attempt to scale the angular, fabricated stone façades). Each week, on one wall of each boulder, the “holds” are unscrewed from the surfaces and rearranged to provide a new climbing challenge. Climbers may continue to confront scaling dilemmas for a while when a particular rock formation proves too difficult to conquer in a short time.


First Avenue Rocks provides a convenient indoor environment for both novice and experienced climbers. (click for larger version)

Indoor rock-climbing gyms originated in Seattle when Vertical World opened the country’s first inside “bouldering” facility in 1987. Popular with rock-scaling fanatics eager to climb when a trip to an outdoor setting is not feasible, such facilities have sprouted in large urban environs in recent years. Atlanta currently has a half-dozen indoor bouldering gyms.

Aware of Alabama’s reputation among climbing enthusiasts, Joe Ortega and partner Adam Henry opened First Avenue Rocks for climbers who don’t always have time to visit popular Alabama rock-climbing settings such as Horse Pens 40, Hoover’s Moss Rock Preserve, or Little River Canyon.

“People come from all over the world to climb in Alabama,” says Ortega, a Californian who has been a climbing enthusiast for decades. “There are more foreign languages being spoken at Horse Pens 40 in the winter than there is English,” he claims as he explains why he chose Birmingham for such a facility. “People come from literally everywhere. From France, Canada, South Africa, from all over South America. Birmingham really is an international bouldering destination, believe it or not.” First Avenue Rocks will soon conduct group expeditions to some of the state’s best climbing spots. “We’re going to start doing outdoor trips in November,” he says. “We currently take scout groups and others out to property near Oneonta that is set up to teach people to climb outside.”

First Avenue Rocks will soon lead group climbing expeditions to sites such as Little River Canyon (above), Horse Pens 40, and Moss Rock Preserve. (Photo: Randy Lee.) (click for larger version)

First Avenue Rocks offers recreational climbing (including instruction) for those with or without experience. The gym has wall space specifically designed for “top rope climbing” (an introductory level often used by beginners that employs harnesses and rope). “We’re not here to serve only experienced rock climbers,” he explains. “We’re here to get new climbers interested. It helps if you’re in shape, but it’s not a requirement. Climbing doesn’t require a whole lot of upper body strength to start out. Beginners are always surprised at how much they have to use their legs.”

Climbers are allowed to participate in tennis shoes (barefoot climbing is forbidden). Specially designed climbing shoes are available for rent or purchase. The flooring in the climbing areas consists of 10 inches of foam cushioning for safety. Colored tape on the boulder walls suggests routes to reach the top of each structure. “Boulder routes are called problems,” explains Ortega.

“Climbing is not simply going up and down a ladder. There are decisions to be made to figure out how to reach the top.”

Free Wi-Fi, a foosball table, couches, and a TV are available for those content to lounge while friends or family members work out. The gym also offers a small weight room, as well as cross-fit training instruction and a yoga studio that offers daily classes.

Located at 2417 First Avenue South, First Avenue Rocks is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Call 320-2277 or go to for more information.

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Though primarily a store selling outdoor gear, Alabama Outdoors offers a climbing wall at its Homewood location (3054 Independence Drive). Top rope climbing with harnesses is one option; another is scaling the 25-foot wall via holds. A small cave-like area beneath a stairwell can be used for bouldering. Climbing shoes must be worn and are included in the $8 price to participate. Climbing hours are 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. Call 870-1919 for more information. &

Down South Jukin’

Down South Jukin’

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October 01, 2009

On Saturday, October 3, a world-class collection of antique jukeboxes dating from the 1930s through the 1960s will be auctioned in the Tuscaloosa suburb of Northport. Also up for bid are some 5,000 78- and 45-rpm records and advertising memorabilia.

Original Wurlitzer jukeboxes from the 1930s are expected to bring the highest bids. (Images of the jukeboxes can be viewed online at Each is a visual splendor, with Space Age curves illuminated by brightly colored lights.

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“There’s never been a better collection sold at public auction,” says Hal Hunt, who explains that Houston-based owner John Gurrech was originally a record collector who became fascinated with jukeboxes in the 1980s when he decided he needed somewhere to store and play his records. Dubbed with cool names, such as the Wurlitzer Peacock and the Rock-Ola Spectrovox, the jukeboxes are expected to sell from $1,500 to $50,000. An early 1960s contraption known as a Scopitone that played early music videos on film will also be auctioned. One of the most unique jukeboxes includes a “Strike Up the Band” feature: on top of the machine is a bandstand with drawn curtains that open when a record begins, revealing an orchestra of musical figurines that appear to be playing. When the song is finished, the curtains close until the next record is selected.

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Gurrech housed the collection at his home in Houston. His thousands of records include an autographed Sun Records 45-rpm by Johnny Cash and a 78-rpm recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins, as well as an impressive assembly of singles by Hank Williams, Sr. In addition to the jukeboxes, the collection includes miscellaneous treasures, such as gasoline pumps, barber’s chairs, neon beer signs, and gas station signage.

The auction will be held at Hal Hunt Auctions, 5925 Highway 43 in Northport, at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 3. The collection may be previewed on Friday, October 2, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 205-333-2517 or go to for more information. &