Monthly Archives: April 2011

20th Century Boy


20th Century Boy


April 14, 2011

Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door
By Hugh Martin. Trolley Press. 409 pages, $29.95

Damn that Eddie Fisher for telling the world that his pianist—composer Hugh Martin—got him hooked on speed. It’s hard enough to imagine that the fellow who wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was addicted to amphetamines for 10 years without further tarnishing his image into that of a dealer pushing dope to some half-assed pop singer. But not to worry; Hugh Martin was duped by the wicked Dr. Max Jacobson, who convinced his star-studded clientele that they were being injected with liquid vitamins, not speed. (President Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote were among Jacobson’s patients. Of the doctor, Martin wrote: “Sometimes it seemed as if Truman Capote were giving one of his galas in the doctor’s office.”)

With impeccable timing, Martin wrote his autobiography Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door a year before his death this March, at age 96. The Birmingham-raised Martin was a master at vocal arrangement and piano accompaniment.

(click for larger version)

He tells the story of his charmed show-business life with amusing self-deprecation. Martin was smitten with music and theater as a child. His mother often left him in the care of his grandmother for months at a time so that she could go to New York City to indulge her fondness for the arts, particularly Broadway musicals. She instilled in the young Martin an infatuation with the magic of show business, and in his memoir he repeatedly praises her for nourishing that passion. His world always revolved around show biz—whether as a child in love with movies and musicals; performing with vocal groups as a teen; accompanying Judy Garland on piano for her triumphant two-week run at The Palace in New York City in 1951; or, while engaged in bayonet training at a World War II boot camp, imagining he was stabbing the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz

Born in Birmingham in 1914, Martin headed to New York City in 1934 for his first attempt at breaking into the entertainment world. Making the rounds of radio and other entertainment venues earned the singing piano player numerous rejections, but apparently he got someone’s attention because the still-unknown Martin soon got a phone call from Mae West. She became agitated when Martin assumed the call was a friend impersonating the starlet to play a prank on him. The embarrassed Martin apologized profusely but West simply let him off the hook with: “Never mind. Skip the apologies. I have a hard time sometimes convincing people that I am who I am.” She had called looking for a pianist and vocal arranger to tour with her for six months. When Martin turned her down because he didn’t want to leave New York City West got mad, shouting, “How dare you turn down Mae West . . . you’re insane!”

Many thought he was indeed insane when his repeated attempts to enlist for combat in World War II finally came to fruition (Martin had been earlier rejected for being underweight). After the war ended in Europe, Martin was stationed near Paris where he indulged his love of music and theater. He recalls an evening spent with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

“The ladies felt an urge to do their patriotic bit for us friendly troops, so they opened their famous residence at 27 Rue de Fleurs one night a week. Two lucky soldiers would show up at 8 p.m., and Gertie and Alice would entertain them with hors d’oeuvres and wine and some really classic conversation . . . We sat directly beneath Picasso’s famous portrait of Miss Stein, which made us feel somehow part of history. While she was fixing some tidbits for us in the kitchen, Alice leaned forward surreptitiously and whispered, ‘Gertrude is in one of her anti-capitalist cycles at the moment. Oh, I do hope she lets me have one more afternoon in Macy’s basement!’”

Martin’s circle of friends and peers reads like show biz archives: Ed Wynn, Tony Bennett (he called Martin his favorite songwriter), Irving Berlin (who Martin did not particularly like), Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer (Martin’s first song was in collaboration with Mercer), Rodgers and Hart, an unknown Carmen Miranda. Hugh Martin writes of the good fortune show business brought his way in dramatic style, and seems eternally grateful that he got to work with legends. Midway through his autobiography, Martin shares snippets of chatter with famous friends that pop into his head from time to time. Gore Vidal once asked Martin, after Princess Diana’s death, “Do we really want Elton John to sing at our funerals?” Besides being Judy Garland’s vocal coach, Hugh Martin also tutored the great Lena Horne, who once told him: “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’d just as soon not sing that lyric you wrote about darkies loving cornbread.”

Hugh Martin was in love with life and joyously shares every dramatic moment. Reading The Boy Next Door is forthright and intimate; it’s as if Martin invited the reader over to his front porch for a cup of tea to hear about the good ol’ days of show biz. &

String Plucker

String Plucker

For 30 years, local guitarist Tim Boykin has been singing for his supper.


April 14, 2011

Tim Boykin has been playing guitar for a living since he was 15. Though Boykin once disdained the “have guitar, will travel” notion of performing whatever was necessary to pay the bills, he eventually discovered that such work wasn’t a bad way to earn his keep. He was born in Birmingham but because his father was in the military, Boykin moved frequently, returning to Alabama as a teen. He became a guitar wizard adept at playing practically any style of music, transforming from a teenage punk rocker to a versatile guitar sideman and respected studio musician over the past three decades.

“At that time [the early 1990s] there was still actually a real blues scene [in town] and Topper Price and the Upsetters were playing at the Nick,” recalls Boykin. “Leif [Bondarenko, legendary local drummer] asked if I would come play some gigs with the Upsetters and my dumb ass was like, ‘Well, man, I don’t know. You guys are a bar band, you’re a cover band. I don’t think I can do that.’ Leif called again and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ I went and played a gig with Topper and made like $30 and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can actually get paid for playing music.’ So that ushered in this era of stability. I was like, ‘Oh wow, I’m playing, I’m doing what I love to do, and it’s like a jobby job.’ The Upsetters weren’t making huge money but it was steady money.”

Boykin knew early on what he wanted to do with his life. His first guitar was an acoustic instrument his mother had brought home for him when he was 12 years old. He soon learned “Psychotic Reaction” by the Count Five. Though he has taken a few lessons, Boykin is mostly self-taught.

Tim Boykin. (Photo: Scott Johnson) (click for larger version)

“I didn’t know that it was called this but there’s a part of ‘Psychotic Reaction’ where the rhythm guitarist makes what you call ‘ghost notes,’ where he’s just doing a purely rhythmic thing and not really playing notes on the guitar,” Boykin recalls. “And I figured out how to cop that and just thought that was incredibly fine and went crazy with it and broke all the picks I had.”

Boykin quickly latched onto the Ramones and Sex Pistols but also listened to classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. “The first two albums I bought on my 13th birthday were Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Armed Forces and Ted Nugent’s Weekend Warrior at the PX on Fort Bragg.”

Guitar provided him with an identity while growing up in North Carolina. “I had found my niche in my high school social life. It was really different culturally up there,” he says. “People were more interested in what you did than what you had. Word got around that I was a good guitar player. And so within my little group of stoner friends up there, it was like, ‘Kevin’s a good fighter, Steve can fix cars, and Tim can play guitar.’” When he moved back to Birmingham in his mid-teens, however, his new classmates weren’t very impressed that he was a musician. “When I was going to Berry [High School], the rules were all different. It didn’t matter what you could do, it mattered what you had, how much money your parents had, that kind of shit,” he says. “People knew I played guitar but they didn’t care. They were like, ‘Oh yeah? Well, I have a Z28 Camaro.’”

Boykin soon trumped his classmates, however, joining up with local punk outfit the Ether Dogs, and for the first time earning money playing his guitar. “Getting in the Ether Dogs while I was in high school brought me into this whole other social scene with older people and this whole other deal that was going on. So to me that was the real world.”

Boykin embraced the punk credo that stipulated attitude over ability. “I remember reading stuff where [music writer] Lester Bangs was saying, ‘You need to just get a guitar and go do this now. You don’t need to wait around until you’re good enough. You need to get a guitar, learn three chords, get on stage, and be playing now. Worry about the finer points later.’ And I took that to heart,” he says. “By the time I was 15 years old I was playing in bands and clubs and stuff. And I felt like that’s what I was supposed to be doing. So I was hearing the Ramones and going, ‘OK, cool. I can go ahead and be doing this. It was more about energy than finesse.’”

His first band was the Dead End Kids, which played parties at the homes of Mountain Brook teens since the band’s drummer was from that area of town. Boykin then joined the Ether Dogs and played regularly at The Cavern on Morris Avenue in the early 1980s. By 1984 he formed Carnival Season with Brad Quinn playing bass and Mark Reynolds on drums. (Disclosure: Ed Reynolds, author of this story, played guitar with Carnival Season briefly.)

“Tim was the most authentically punk-rock kid I’d ever met,” Quinn says of Boykin, with whom he shared a deep fondness for remedial algebra when the two were in school together. “He was an army brat and had moved around a lot with his family, and he was really steeped in the history of punk and its precursors—The Stooges, MC5, The New York Dolls, The Velvet Underground—all the stuff that everybody nowadays claimed they loved all along, even though they were probably listening to Yes or something. Tim was into Lester Bangs and had read a lot of the seminal rock writers, and so he was really thoughtful about rock ‘n’ roll. He was fairly class-conscious and saw things in a more politicized way than a lot of kids around Birmingham, at least. He was a big influence on me and a lot of other kids at the time. I’m sure he probably felt like a misfit, but that’s partly why it worked.”

Boykin’s ability to write catchy melodies and sing his own songs became evident when he joined Carnival Season at 18, right after graduating from high school. This was also his introduction to making records, with the band recording demo sessions for MCA Records before signing with U.K. indie label What Goes On. (Arena Rock Records reissued much of Carnival Season’s catalog on CD in 2010.) Underground pop phenomenon Tommy Keene produced the sessions that led to Carnival Season’s lone full-length album.

“That was the first album I’d done with anybody. It was very stressful,” Boykin recalls of those sessions. “We were young and everybody felt that there was a lot at stake. There was a lot of tension and conflict . . . some about creative decisions and stuff . . . Tommy kinda had this ’60s rootsy thing, which we had kinda moved away from. We had become more of a hard-rocking band. I had this little solid state Marshall half-stack that wasn’t real versatile but it was this sound [Tim loved]. That was my sound. That was kinda where my head was at, at that point, a lot of that early ’70s British rock kind of stuff. And Tommy was like, ‘Well, man, I have some perfectly nice amplifiers here. We can get you a good guitar sound. Here’s this lovely Fender Deluxe amp—which is a bitchin’ amp, a great amp—but it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine because I’ll just pack up my shit and go home.’ And I’m glad now that I held my ground about that stuff, but then on the other end of things I learned a lot of stuff and had some real first-time experiences. Tommy was real good at getting vocal performances. He made us work real hard. And you didn’t have any kind of [vocal enhancement] toys at that point [in time]. You couldn’t make a bad singer sound good, you really couldn’t. When you hear the Go Go’s and Belinda Carlisle singing on pitch? It’s because they made that poor child do take after take. A couple of vocal performances from me were like, ‘Yeah, we did that by the sweat of our brows.’ And I didn’t know before that that’s how you did that.”

The band lasted five years.

“After Carnival Season, it was kind of a learning process. I was still really young. When I quit Carnival Season, I was 23,” Boykin says. “At that point I felt like I had really been around the block. Initially, I thought that I had to be in a band that has a record deal. So I ended up being in the Barking Tribe—they had a record deal and got out on the road and worked real hard and made zero dollars. It kind of helped me assess more what my goals were and what I wanted to be doing.”

After a couple of years with Barking Tribe, Boykin began writing music again, forming Pinky the Stabber and then the Shame Idols, which caught the ear of Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and REM. McCaughey hooked the Shame Idols up with Frontier Records, where the band recorded two critically-acclaimed albums. Boykin figured he had the best of both worlds, making money with one band and finding a creative outlet for his songwriting talents with his own group.

“I was making money playing with Topper [Price],” he says. “Then I’d tell him the Shame Idols were flying out to L.A. to play and that I’d be gone for a couple of dates. My spot [with the Upsetters] was secure. I’d either line up a sub or they’d get somebody to sub. I’d go play rock star and then come back home and get back to work. It was great.”

By 1998, Frontier Records no longer existed so Boykin decided to record a third Shame Idols album at his own expense.

“The Shame Idols always had a real strong pop sensibility. But the first couple of albums are really heavy guitar things, to me,” he explains. “At the time Frontier folded I was listening to a lot of more kind of power pop–oriented stuff like the Flamin’ Groovies, that kind of thing. I was getting more of a ’60s kind of vibe.”

The band broke up in the process of recording and Boykin decided to record the new material as the Lolas—his dog’s name. Around this time he also started the Tim Boykin Blues Band.

“It was me basically trying to still do what I had been doing when I was playing with Topper and doing the Shame Idols,” he explains—using one band to make a living and the other for his songwriting talents. “Boy, I was just trying to book my own life at that point. I was booking the blues band all over the place and at a lot of the same clubs I was actually booking the Lolas in there, too. And man, at some of those clubs the Lolas were a hard sell. We were doing covers but we weren’t doing the bullshit covers that they liked to hear down there. We were doing the Flamin’ Groovies and shit and they were like, ‘What the hell is that?’”

Boykin currently plays with Birmingham blues singer Shar Baby, recording her album Shar-Baby’s 11 O’Clock Blues at Boykin’s home recording studio, Bushido Sound.

“I think Tim’s one of the greatest guitar players here in the state of Alabama,” says Shar Baby. “That boy is somethin’ else. That guy is true. He’s over the top—off the chain, as they say.”

Boykin’s old bands rarely completely die; rather they seem to be in a temporary cryogenic state, ready for thawing out every few years to record a new CD or play a show. Carnival Season has done recent reunion gigs and there has been chatter among band members about a new record. The Lolas and Shame Idols rear their heads from time to time as well. When the Lolas “started to fizzle out” a few years ago, Boykin sought a different direction.

“I was starting to repeat myself and I was wanting to do something kind of different,” he says. “I initially got excited about what was going on with stoner rock, desert rock, doom metal, that kind of stuff. I was partly attracted to it because it was more of a grassroots, death metal scene that seemed analogous to the way the whole punk scene was. It seemed like indie rock had become this whole status quo. So I was really looking for something that kind of seemed counter culture.”

Moving in a metal band direction, Boykin worked with Annexed Asylum before forming Throng of Shaggoths with former GNP [Grossest National Product] guitarist Chris Hendrix on drums. “Annexed Asylum was a lot of fast stuff, showing off chops with various degrees of success,” he says, laughing. “Throng of Shoggoths is a slower, heavier band with weird time signatures. The songs are based in H.P. Lovecraft. It’s very weird stuff.”

There is a misperception that musicians must move away from Birmingham to truly be successful, Boykin says. However, he has found that living here has certain advantages, especially financially.

“I’m traveling so much. San Francisco is a beautiful city but people who live there will tell you that it’s absolutely brutal to live there. You have to work three jobs and you’re still almost living on skid row. There are other places that are a lot more laid back, like Seattle, Indianapolis. And those places are kind of like Birmingham. . . . There are big cities that I like but I’m not necessarily pissed off that I don’t live in them.” &

To contact Tim Boykin for guitar lessons and to access his performance schedule, go to

Hitting the Mat

Hitting the Mat

Memphis-style wrestling was once the real king of the ring.


August 04, 2011

Before Vince McMahon debased professional wrestling by creating a circus of steroid-enhanced clowns and stamping the sport with mass appeal, wrestling once had a dignity capable of mesmerizing fans into suspended disbelief. There were no fireworks or guys swinging on ropes like Tarzan on a vine. The plots were simple and frills non-existent, with wrestlers sporting briefs, wrestling boots, and perhaps a mask if they were playing a “heel” (bad guy).

Prior to McMahon, professional wrestling thrived in territories scattered across America. Former wrestler and promoter Jerry Jarrett, founder Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, ruled the legendary Memphis territory in the 1970s. Memphis’s rabid fans rendered it among the country’s most exciting towns for wrestling in the 1960s and ’70s, as crowds of more than 10,000 routinely sold out the city’s Mid-South Coliseum.

On Friday, August 5, the film Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’, will be shown at the Alabama Theatre downtown. The documentary highlights the glory days of Jarrett, Jerry Lawler, Andy Kaufman, Tojo Yamamoto, Sputnik Monroe, and other stars who sparkled, strutted, and slapped one another shamelessly in the ring. Sherman Willmott, the film’s producer, began the endeavor in 2009 to publicize his friend Ron Hall’s coffee-table book Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets: Early Days of Memphis Wrestling, which features some 300 images of heroes and villains. Willmott recently shared his opinion regarding what made Memphis wrestling unique: “You had some really creative minds, with Jerry Jarrett at the top,” he explained. “You had one of the greats of all time—Jerry Lawler—who was great at being a heel but also great at being a good guy. It was a great combination of story lines and talent. The main thing was having a TV show that they could send out to all the territory. And in Memphis, because there was no major sports team, wrestling kind of took over.”

Wrestling pre-WWE: Jerry Jarrett and Tojo Yamamoto. (Photo courtesy of Chris Swisher) (click for larger version)

Birmingham’s Nick Gulas, arguably the Southeast’s leading wrestling promoter, hired seven-year-old Jerry Jarrett to sell programs at wrestling matches in the late 1940s. In 1956, at age 14, Jarrett promoted his first bout. He went on to referee and eventually became a wrestler himself at the insistence of Tojo Yamamoto, his tag-team partner. Perhaps the best known of Jarrett’s promotional feats was comedian Andy Kaufman’s foray into wrestling. Kaufman refused to wrestle men, instead wrestling women. He was never beaten and declared himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World.” Jarrett spent a recent afternoon discussing the good old days of wrestling; Andy Kaufman; and the renowned Sputnik Monroe, a white wrestler who is considered by some to be the real guy who broke segregation in Memphis when he refused to wrestle unless black patrons at his matches had access to the same seats as whites. Jarrett has been quoted as saying that black Memphians had three portraits on their living room walls: Jesus, Martin Luther King, and Sputnik Monroe. &

The film Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ will screened at the Alabama Theatre, 1817 Third Avenue North, at 7 p.m. For details, call 252-2262 or go to Jerry Jarrett will be on hand to sign his autobiography Jerry Jarrett’s Story: The Best of Times. Admission is $8.

Black & White: Working in the wrestling business as a kid must have been pretty exciting.
Jarrett: I was seven or eight years old when I started selling programs and then I went from there to taking up tickets. That was my beginning in the business. When I was 14, I got a license to drive on a hardship license case, and Nick and Roy started letting me promote the little country towns. If you can just picture a kid in the late ’50s walking around with a couple hundred dollars . . . I was a wealthy guy. [laughs]

How did the setups work, planning out rivalries ahead of time?
There was a period that was called ‘kayfabe’ where we allowed the fans to suspend their disbelief so that they could enjoy like they would when they go to the movie. [Note: "kayfabe" is defined as the portrayal of professional wrestling, in particular the competition and rivalries between participants, as being genuine] But today everybody realizes that it’s choreographed completely. Yeah, you worked out tight spots and moves and where do you go into the finish of the match. Today they go even farther. The guys get to the arena early and get in the ring and actually go through the spots, which I think hurts the business because it takes away the spontaneity of it . . .Today, it’s pretty much choreographed like a script.

Did anybody ever really get mad and tempers flare, where wrestlers were really out to get one another?
Yeah, on occasion. It didn’t happen much; about like it would in your business if you were able to fight and not get fired. I’m sure there’s some people at the office you’d like to bust. [laughs] So on occasion that would happen.

Were you afraid when you started wrestling?
Well, yeah, I was real nervous. You know, I had played football, basketball, and baseball—I had played sports. But you work out in the gym on the mat and then all of a sudden you’re in front of several hundred people, it’s nerve-racking. And you know if you screw up, back in those days, your opponent would knock you upside the head and pretty much eat you up, because he didn’t want to expose the business. So it was a lot of pressure when I first started.

Any memories of wrestling in Birmingham come to mind?
Yes, Joe Tennenberg had a pawn shop there. Joe was Nick Gulas’s partner. I bought my wife’s engagement ring from Joe and he was just a really sweet, nice man. I remember the fans were very, very passionate. The Birmingham trips were real fun. One of Nick’s brothers had a hot dog stand and we’d always go over there and eat a good hot dog before the matches when we got to town.

Do you remember Birmingham wrestling television studio announcer Sterling Brewer?
Oh, sure! Sterling was the announcer and Birmingham TV [live wrestling] didn’t come on until 10 o’clock at night. And so we’d usually run down from Chattanooga and make the late night TV [in Birmingham].

Famed Memphis wrestler Sputnik Monroe. (Photo courtesy Memphis Heat!)

I’m amazed how many times you wrestled in a single day, in different cities.
Yeah, we’d wrestle Memphis TV Saturday morning. Then we would drive from there to Huntsville and wrestle on Saturday afternoon. And then we’d run to Chattanooga, and Chattanooga TV came on at 5 o’clock, we’d wrestle there. Then we’d get to eat a bite and then go wrestle the house show, do one of the preliminary matches in Chattanooga if we were going to Birmingham. We’d get to Birmingham and dress in the car. Sterling would announce, “Well, it’s time for our next match!” and we’d run right into the ring. [laughs]

You were affiliated with the matches in Memphis when Andy Kaufman was wrestling women, declaring himself the undefeated Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion.
Yes, I promoted that series of matches. Andy was extremely talented. And if he had wanted to and stayed in the wrestling business he would have made a lot of money because he had great psychology and he understood the business. And was a really, really nice guy. And, really, the people would hate him because he would make fun of us as southerners. And he knew how to project that so that the people thought, “This son of a gun is not acting. He really feels that way.” And of course, that’s what a great actor does. Andy was great at that.

You gave Hulk Hogan his first break?
A guy named Louie Gillette called me and said, “I’ve got a kid down here that looks like the Incredible Hulk and I think that if you take the time to teach to him to wrestle, he can draw you some money.” So I told him to send him up. And Hulk Hogan came to my house and of course he’s a giant of a man. So I took him to Tupelo, Mississippi, where there was a ring set up and I could be out of the sight of the fans and we worked out. He never was a great wrestler but he had great charisma, and drew a lot of money all over the world.

Did Sputnik Monroe really help to integrate Memphis?
Sputnik was way ahead of his time as far as prejudices.. And he would go down on Beale Street and have a drink at the black clubs—have a beer with the black people. Well, back in those days, they arrested him, said you can’t do that. He went to court, hired the top black attorney in town. They lost. Sputnik paid the $50 fine, went back to the beer joint, and continued drinking. Word spread, and he started drawing a whole lot of blacks. And one night he told the promoter—they had the Crow’s Nest where the black people sat. And the balcony [where white patrons sat] had empty seats. There was no more room in the Crow’s Nest so Sputnik told the promoter, “If you don’t let my black fans sit in the balcony, I’m not gonna wrestle.” And of course, he was the main event, so this forced the issue. And then what they ended up doing, they opened up the upper deck of Ellis Auditorium and they had it half black and half white. The black people respected Sputnik because he was helping their cause.

Can you share some of the tricks wrestlers used to create a badly bleeding wound when they received what might be construed as a less-than-severe blow to the face?
Back in those days we took a little corner of a razor blade and wrapped tape around one end of it where just the point was out. And we’d stick it in our tights or in our jaw—which was quite dangerous ’cause you could swallow it. But anyway, we’d take it out and you could cut your forehead. We had a product called “New Skin” that you would put over it and it would kind of seal it. And then we’d put a Band-Aid over that. Well, back in those days you wrestled one night and another night and another night. So to keep from having to cut yourself again, you could just take the Band-Aid off and when you hit that New Skin, the skin would break open again and you’d bleed again.

Was there any kind of wrestling school in those days to learn the trade?
Well, there is now, but back in those days you had to get a wrestler to break you in. It was kind of a brotherhood—unless a wrestler teamed [up with] you, you didn’t get in. &