Monthly Archives: October 2011

Channeling the Elderly

Channeling the Elderly

Social historian and yarn spinner David Greenberger brings his stories of—and by—the elderly to town.


October 13, 2011

David Greenberger, a frequent contributor to NPR through essays and music reviews, began recording conversations with elderly patients in a Boston nursing home where he worked in 1979 after finishing art school. These chats were originally published in his self-published magazine Duplex Planet, which is described as “an ongoing work designed to portray a wide variety of real characters who are old or in decline.” Greenberger eventually began giving spoken word performances using the elderly folks’ words while backed by musical combos. On October 23, Greenberger will appear at Bottletree Café with the Shaking Ray Levis at 8 p.m. For details, go to

Black & White: Tell us what to expect at your upcoming performance in Birmingham. The Shaking Ray Levis are associated with improv music, which I don’t particularly care for.
David Greenberger: There are no elements of improv in what we do, even with the Shaking Ray Levis. Those guys are improvisers but in the context of what we do, it’s composed music. I actually never like having improvised music with this sort of text, which has a conversational voice. I feel like the conversational voice is to be believed. A true conversation is sort of improvised, in a way. To really believe those conversations, it’s just sort of rolling out like a saxophone solo. So with that being the sort of foreground—or the narrative—in these pieces I need for the music to be anchored, to be sort of specific; to be the sort of architecture that this voice lives within.

So Dennis and Bob (of the Shaking Ray Levis ) are well-known as improvisers but everything that we’ve done has always been completely composed and scored and we know exactly where we’ll be in the piece. Within that, they’ve got some room to play around, just like even non-improvising musicians would. But for the most part, we’re doing a scripted and scored thing.

What prompted you to start sharing your conversations with the elderly in a public format?
Well, I was out of art school, I was a painter. In the 1970s, I met some old guy and I thought that I’d like to meet some more like that. I was sort of intrigued by the idea that I’d met somebody who was significantly older than me. At the time, I was about 25. I never knew them before, they weren’t related to me. And in my experience—and probably most people’s experience—the people I knew who were elderly were relatives, and so there’s a sort of a limited, familial dynamic in play where they always see you as the grandchild or the nephew or whatever it is.

“I would meet these people who were closer to the ends of their lives. I didn’t have to get too caught up in mourning the loss of who they used to be and I could be with them in the present moment because I never knew them before.” (click for larger version)

What was kind of liberating for me was that in meeting this one particular guy, I realized it was just the same as meeting anybody else. And the fact that he was older than me didn’t really enter into it. We just found common ground to talk about.
I took a job at a nursing home for a couple of years in 1979. I just did it for a little while—it was all elderly men at this nursing home, which was a small converted house. But in stepping into that environment, I really felt that, as an artist, I found my voice, in a way. It was something that I wanted to communicate to an audience who didn’t know these people. But [the point was]not to get to know them but to get to know aspects and various possibilities and various faces of aging and decline. And to do so without them being your uncles or aunts or grandparents or parents, because your own mortality is so tied to that. And I would meet these people who were in decline and closer to the ends of their lives. I didn’t have to get too caught up in mourning the loss of who they used to be and I could be with them in the present moment because I never knew them before.

Say you met somebody who had an accident and lost an arm. And all their friends and family are horrified and feel bad about it. But he moves on and he’s a guy with one arm. Well, you meet this guy and you never knew him when he had the other arm, so you’re not as limited in the same view of him as those other people who, in a way, will always think, “What a shame. He used to love to play Frisbee or baseball” or whatever it was. You can just sort of accept him as is, and that’s also quite empowering to the person who is going through it. Because then they meet people who didn’t know them before and they can just move forward with their life.

How often does dementia or Alzheimer’s come into play with what you do?
When I first started doing this stuff, there were a few people [with some form of dementia] at that one nursing home. But I never really cared to know what the diagnosis was because it didn’t really matter to them. The diagnosis, in a way, can become a distraction. As soon as you say “Alzheimer’s” you’re just seeing that word. But if you would just talk to them, it defines Alzheimer’s in a different way. You’re defining them first as an individual who happens to have Alzheimer’s. You’re seeing them through that window of, “Oh, what a shame.” And I always prefer to not even know what the diagnosis is because that’s really going to be an incumbrance in the dynamic of a relationship to just getting to know them on their own terms.

The Alzheimer’s word is used a lot more than it was before. I don’t think there’s a greater number of people suffering from various aspects of mental decline. So it’s out there as a popular word and idea to support, which isn’t a bad thing. But it sort of tips the balance a bit. That issue’s always been around. In one way or another, there is no cure for the slowdown of your life, which includes the various parts of our bodies. Those things wear out, including our brains.

I would argue that I don’t think most people would want to be very wide-eyed and completely alert but flinchingly having to stare down their own death. In a way, I think the very act of becoming confused and uncertain about what’s real and what isn’t allows for a gentler passage, as it were. Which isn’t to say that I’m opposed to doing things about it. Certainly early onset things and people who are frustrated and know that something’s happened are to be helped.

I did a project in Milwaukee a couple of years ago that was specifically focused on people with memory loss. I had an artist residency and was in Milwaukee for about four months creating a CD that was called Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time. (A documentary was made about the project.) Most of the people that I spoke with all had varying degrees of memory loss. For some of them, there was nothing that you would even notice. For other people it was a profound loss. I would say something and they would say something that was completely different from what I said. And then I would try to follow them there and then they would head somewhere else. It was the full range of faces of memory loss.

Tell me about Duplex Planet.
Well, I started that in 1979. It was a chat book-sized little periodical. It was a format that I was interested in doing at the time. [Readers] would get to know characters little by little over time, just like you would if it was somebody that you run into once in a while at the supermarket—an old guy that you would see there—so that after three or four months readers start to recognize certain characters . . . More people got to know my work and it was channeled into more traditional media like books and stuff. There was a comic book adaptation in the mid-’90s. And then that’s when I started doing these performances and recordings of monologues with music.

Tell me about the oddest or most unusual elderly person you’ve worked with.
Well, I think, in a way, the people I knew earliest on in that nursing home where I worked because of my age. I was 25 and everything was knew to me. I learned a lot. I think I became articulate about what I was trying to do.

Those people show up in my dreams and it tends to mean other stuff to me. There was one guy there, William Ferguson was his name, who I really liked. He clearly did have some form of dementia. But he was a perfectly happy guy. He was clearly making stuff up when he was talking to me. He was about 90. I might have said something to him about the president or something. And then he would say something about Eisenhower. He would talk about driving around with Eisenhower in a jeep after the war and picking up Fräuleins and buying them ice cream.

He was clearly inventing stuff but with such loving vigor. It was real to him in the moment, almost like speaking aloud a dream. I think what I learned from him was that anything that anybody was telling me was real and I should accept it as real. It was real to them. Whether or not it actually happened, it doesn’t really matter. There’s this guy sitting in front of me who’s completely aglow with this stuff that he’s talking about. And for me to say that didn’t happen only ends the conversation. So it’s better to talk about Ike, talk about the jeep. Go with him wherever he’s going. Because the whole thing at the end of the day is just to be present with somebody else . . . The thing that matters is that we have our kind of emotional memory of having been with somebody. &

Mr. Record Man

Mr. Record Man

The real gospel, according to record geek, gifted vocalist, and true gentleman Jimmy Griffin.


October 13, 2011

For 34 years, Charlemagne Records in Five Points South has been a sanctuary for record fanatics, indifferent shoppers looking for birthday presents for friends, lonely souls desperate for conversation, and the occasional celebrity. Jimmy Griffin, a sweet, congenial 61-year-old fellow smitten with music, has worked at Charlemagne for three decades. (He looks 41 and has the spirit of a kid in awe of the world around him.) He’s Clint Eastwood-cool when under fire. He simply cannot be rattled, maintaining a Captain Kangaroo-calm bolstered by a teenage enthusiasm with a subtle charm capable of soothing the most savage customer. “The one thing that I remember is that no matter how hectic the store got, especially at Christmas or whatever, I never ever saw Jimmy lose it,” says local artist Marjorie Clark Boykin, who worked at Charlemagne from 1986 to 1990. “I might see him get a little flustered and inside he might be freaking out, but even if there was somebody who was being difficult, he would always deflect it with some kind of humor.”

Jimmy is indeed one of the funniest fellows in the universe. If forced to express himself to a disgruntled customer, he does so with his customary savvy and hilarious style. During a Christmas shopping season 15 or 20 years ago, a customer came in with a noose necklace and matching noose bracelets on each wrist. The store was packed and the gallows-obsessed guy was having a difficult time getting waited on. The fellow was hunting for a particular piece of classical music. As he grew more impatient, he addressed Griffin by saying: “You know, Jimmy, a scream is a terrible thing to hear.” Jimmy Griffin didn’t miss a beat and coolly responded, “I tell you, man, I bet your family will get you a portable radio for Christmas and you can listen to classical music on WBHM.”

Charlemagne Records opened for business in July 1977 at the Garages, now a popular Southside bar called the Garage Café. Launched by local singer deluxe Marian McKay Rosato, her brother Mike McKay, and Gary Bourgeois, the funky new and used-record store moved to Five Points South four months later, where it set up business sharing the first floor with a used bookstore in the structure where Charlemagne currently operates. (Bourgeois is no longer with Charlemagne. He owns Renaissance Records in Five Points South.) The record store moved upstairs in 1978 when the building’s owner decided to open an apothecary in the ground-floor space. Rosato had been in record sales before starting Charlemagne. “I worked at Sears in Vestavia; I was the record department girl,” she says with a smile. “I sold Gary (Bourgeois) a record there, James Taylor’s Walking Man, and that’s how we met.”

For 30 years, Charlemagne Records employee Jimmy Griffin has been been an iconic source of knowledge for music lovers. (Photo: Owen Stayner.) (click for larger version)




Charlemagne has definitely seen its share of famous customers. Tom Waits stopped by and bought an armload of albums in 2008 when he was in town playing at the Alabama Theatre. Gary Busey stopped by when he was in town filming his role as Bear Bryant in The Bear a few decades back. Busey selected a Beatles box set and threw down a $100 bill. He picked up the Beatles package with one hand and grabbed Rosato with the other. “Well all of a sudden, Gary Busey hoisted me up over his shoulder,” she recalls. Under protest from then-employee Gary Bourgeois (“I told him he couldn’t have her.”), Busey began to walk out of the store. The actor/madman eventually released Rosato and set her down at the top of the stairs that lead up to the store’s entrance. She also remembers the afternoon Carlos Santana visited the store. “He asked for Baaba Maal, an African musical artist,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have any Baaba Maal but we know who you’re talking about.’ So, he was looking around and then the mail came. And so we opened up the mail and there was a promo package in it and it was Baaba Maal. So we said to Carlos Santana, ‘Well, I guess this belongs to you,’ and we gave it to him.”

“What’s really interesting is how Jimmy started working at Charlemagne,” recalls Gary Bourgeois. “He had been working at some big mall store. I think they had closed and he was living right up the hill from Charlemagne. So he just started coming in, and he was helping us do this and do that. People started knowing who Jimmy was. After a while, we might be short-handed and Jimmy happened to be there, because, you know, Jimmy ain’t going to be happy unless he’s working in a record store. Next thing you know, Jimmy’s ringing up customers and we put him on payroll. Soon Jimmy was coming in everyday and helping us. Then you realize, ‘Wow, this guy’s really good, he really knows his stuff.’ You don’t even have to look this stuff up, he already knows what artist, what song title someone was looking for. Before you know it, Jimmy’s like an everyday fixture.”

“It was a gradual thing. I was working at an OZ franchise,” recalls Jimmy. “I was helping Gary at Apple Books and he said, ‘Well, come over and help some at Charlemagne, too.’ So I would spend afternoons going from one to the other, just working my way into the organization. I think at first I was working for record credit. But these were the days of post–hippie, post–peace, and post–whiskey, if you know what I mean,” Griffin says, laughing.

As a child, Griffin had an uncle who would bring over 45 rpm records. “We had a Louis Prima 45. And I would buy classical and Broadway; like I had Camelot. I didn’t get serious—and this is almost embarrassing—but I bought hootenanny (records). So I also bought Peter, Paul, and Mary, and New Christy Minstrels records,” he says. “And when the Beatles came out I bought a Beatles record, like everybody else. But at the same time, I bought the Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads the year it came out. And once I got the Rolling Stones record I didn’t buy any more Beatles records. And then I got Dylan records, and me and my buddy across the street, that’s all we did was find Dylan and Stones records and play ‘em. The Stones were coming from the blues base and the R&B base. So from listening to the Stones and Dylan, I dove off into blues and jazz.”

Charlemagne Records has changed little since it moved into its current locale in 1978, maintaining its jam-packed, comfortable environment. (Photo: Owen Stayner.) (click for larger version)




“I’ve always felt that Jimmy had a big impact on me,” says Brad Quinn, former singer and bassist in the band Carnival Season, who currently lives in Japan when not playing bass with underground pop hero Tommy Keene. “Back in the late ’70s, when I was about 14 years old, I used to hang out and talk music with Jimmy at a record shop in the Riverchase Galleria. I was listening to jazz—or at least I thought I was—but Jimmy quickly expanded my horizons from Bob James and Weather Report by sending me home with Coon Bid’ness by avant-jazz alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill. As I recall, it was a pretty free-blowing album and probably a bit beyond my scope. But I also really liked that Jimmy had treated me like an adult by trying to turn me on to such heavy sounds.”

Quinn also recalls getting a lesson from Griffin about the relevance of singer Freddy Fender. “I remember making some crack about Freddy Fender, who to my mind was just some kitschy cowboy singer who sold records on TV,” he says. “I knew Jimmy as a guy who was deep into jazz and blues, so I was really surprised when he came to Freddy’s defense. It was a small thing, but it made me realize that I maybe didn’t know quite as much about things as I thought I did. It also revealed how open-minded and big-hearted Jimmy was about music. I later went on to spend 13 years or so toiling away in record shops in Birmingham and Atlanta. So I suppose you could say that Jimmy was a bit of a role model. He certainly is a role model for how people should think about and listen to music.”

Tommy Stevenson, a columnist and blogger who has worked at the Tuscaloosa News for 35 years, claims he introduced Griffin to the local community. “I discovered him,” says Stevenson, laughing. “It was at a party that we crashed . . . There was this little skinny guy sitting there strumming on a guitar. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be one of my friends for the rest of my life.’ Allen Ginsberg was in town for a speaking engagement at Birmingham-Southern in 1968 and showed up at the party. Everybody was trying to impress the famous poet, playing ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore’ or whatever. Jimmy picked up the guitar and started doing old Hank Williams songs and Ginsberg shot across the room and sat down beside him and made Jimmy play song after song, and Ginsberg sang along with him.”

Bart Grooms, a local writer, singer, and host of a jazz radio show on Samford University’s campus radio station WVSU-FM 91.1, gushes at the mention of Jimmy. “My initial impression—which I still have—is that he’s just one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. Friendly to everybody who comes in and seems to know an enormous number of people who come in,” says Grooms. “He’s incredibly musically literate. He seems to have an amazing memory for what is in the store, what he can access, what needs to be special ordered, and also stuff that he likes and can recommend. He’s never pushy about that but has often been able to say, ‘I really enjoy such and such,’ and I think is really helpful to a lot of people coming into the store. Jimmy’s been a real blessing in a lot of people’s lives and that means a lot to me and it’s meant a lot to a lot people. And I count him a friend.”

“I’ve always thought of Jimmy as a gentleman,” says Boutwell Studios co-owner Mark Harrelson. “Not only does he have an encyclopedic knowledge of his inventory, he also remembers what his customer’s individual areas of interest are.” Musician Don Tinsley worked at Charlemagne for a couple of years in the late 1980s. “When it comes to music, Jimmy Griffin seems to remember it all, I’ve never stumped him with any question as to who, what, when, or where,” says Tinsley. “I’ve heard some people refer to him as Saint Jimmy because he NEVER loses his patience or blows up at Charlemagne even when trying to help the most hard to please customers who are asking the most impossible questions. He genuinely tries to help people get the music they want, and he seems to make extremely astute observations and suggestions to aid them in finding what they are searching for and also to help broaden their musical palette.” Tinsley has played in bands with Griffin and has always been impressed with his talents as a singer and player. “He’s sings true and means it, and is a serious roots-style threat on bass drum and maracas. I played a couple of gigs with Jimmy and John McKay on harp as the Drape Vulcan Boys,” he recalls. “I couldn’t make the practice so we ran some songs by telephone and then played what I remember as a very cool and successful gig.”

When actor Gary Busey was in Birmingham filming The Bear nearly 30 years ago, he tried to heist Charlemagne Records co-owner Marian McKay Rosato in addition to the Beatles box set he purchased. (click for larger version)




Besides his day job working at Charlemagne, Jimmy Griffin played for several years with one of the greatest bands to ever come out of Birmingham, the bluesy, roots-based Trains ‘N’ Trouble. He’s modest about his fabulous, distinctive vocal talents but admits that he never lacked confidence singing for an audience. “No, I wasn’t self conscious. Like with Trains ‘N’ Trouble, playing with LaDonna Smith, Davey Williams, and John McKay, I was like sort of an amateur with three very professional people,” he says. “Plus the fact that with the improvisational aspect, we would rehearse a song but that wouldn’t necessarily be the way it would go when we played it. I was not on the level of creating new music; I was trying to be true to the nuance of the singers I admired, like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. When I was young just playing the guitar, I loved Woody Guthrie.”

Jimmy has memories of famous performers dropping by Charlemagne. “Gene Simmons came in. He was looking for British Invasion CDs, but he had everything we could find,” he recalls. “But he ended up buying Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and Greatest Hits by Bobby Darin. Chris Robinson, formerly of the Black Crowes, came in and a customer asked him if he should buy Robinson’s new record and he said, ‘No, don’t get that, man.’” Griffin doesn’t hesitate when asked who his favorite musician is. “Sun Ra is my favorite because he does so many things. He invented a whole new language of music. I call it ‘the lope,” it’s got a loping sound. It’s like swinging or it could be totally abstract.”

Sun Ra may have invented a new musical language but Jimmy Griffin coined a new phrase for the retail record business. “We call the store business ‘psycho retail,’ because you never know what people are going to ask you in person or on the phone,” he says. “I’ve developed this thing of taking everything literally until I find out otherwise. Because you never know exactly where the customers are coming from. Psycho retail means the insanity of the different ways that people communicate or don’t communicate. And we also have the circular reasoning. There’ll be three thoughts and they’re rotated. They ask you question A. As you answer question A, they don’t respond, they ask question B. As you answer question B, they don’t really respond or make a decision, but ask question C. And as you answer question C, they go back to question A. And you could be on the phone maybe 15 minutes trying to nail down which of these three points is pertinent to the call, and what exactly we can do for them. Some of our customers, we already know who they are as soon as they say hello, and we know it’s going to take a minute.”

Jimmy has devised his own method for remaining calm under fire when business is jumping at Charlemagne. “Well, I do get rattled and I think it comes with age. I used to say that my mind is on ‘erase’ and I would kind of go from one point to the next,” he explains. “Or maybe it’s kind of like a game not to get rattled because maybe you can do a better job. I used to have a motto: ‘People didn’t realize it but I live in fear.’ The other thing is, now that I’ve been in counseling for a while, I realize how much co-dependence I’ve had since I was a young child,” he admits with laughter. “So in a way, I’m in the worst possible job for someone who’s co-dependent with the world. Passivity and co-dependence are like good traits for a retailer, but you might never get well. I have a theory about retail, that it should be democratic. Because one of my jokes is, in the Bill of Rights they have to now include the right to shop. People feel very strongly about their right to shop. That’s why you have yard sales; that’s why you have people with no money actually looking at discarded things on the side of the road, because that’s a form of shopping. So, to me, somebody buying a dollar cassette is just as important as someone buying a $200 box set. Because they might be a regular customer and they may buy 200 one-dollar cassettes over a couple of years but you may never see the box set person again. We’re trying to match people with their musical needs but the customer kind of has to run the show.”

Charlemagne is a museum of concert posters, with some dating back to the store’s inception. (Photo: Owen Stayner.) (click for larger version)




Griffin has a personal philosophy for why people are drawn to certain genres of music while rejecting other styles. “It’s like a music festival. If you don’t like an event, you just change stages. I’ve developed this theory that started years ago at a chain store while I was running the cash register and playing Professor Longhair. And I’m all exuberant and I said, ‘Isn’t this great!’ And my customer said, ‘Not particularly.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, Professor Longhair’s not great.’ The thing about music is that it’s sound waves. When somebody’s receiving their pleasant sound waves, it’s a physiological and environmental and memory, all combined. So, deriving pleasure from music is something everybody can do and you can’t say that one pleasure source is any superior to another. But you can say that certain musicians are more skilled at making new statements.”

Gary Bourgeois told me that if I wanted to drive Jimmy crazy, I should lock him in a room with the first seven Moody Blues albums. Griffin responded: “Well what happened with the Moody Blues is that when I lived in Boston I had a roommate and he lost his girlfriend. He played this Moody Blues song over and over about a quiet day in the park and being sad. It’s just too lush for me. I can see they’re good musicians. It’s taken me years to get over the fact, for example, that Jim Morrison’s approach to a song is more dramatic than Mick Jagger’s. Or David Bowie’s approach is more dramatic. There’s something in Morrison’s voice tone to where I prefer Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And also, I prefer great non-singers. When people tell me Bob Dylan can’t sing, I say, ‘I guess you’re right but he’s so musical. So it’s not necessarily if you can hit the note, it’s how you approach the note. When I brought Dylan’s Nashville Skyline home, my Dad said, ‘Oh, you mean that fellow finally decided to start singing?’”

The final word on Jimmy Griffin comes from the second greatest musical icon in Birmingham’s storied history. Spike, former singer of punk legend GNP, believes that Jimmy Griffin just might have clairvoyant powers: “I never bought much punk stuff from Charlemagne. There are just too many other cool genres of music to choose from there. It was mostly Grateful Dead-related stuff, or reggae, or ska. It seems like every time I walked up those stairs and Jimmy was there, he would say, ‘Hey, I got this new Dead thing . . .’ or he would have some obscure ska compilation to show me. It was like he knew I was about to walk in the store. I’m pretty sure he’s that way with everyone. He must be psychic. I love that guy.” &

Rock ‘n’ Roll Memories


Rick Nelson was declared a teen idol at age 16, and continued his singing career as an adult.

Room 106 of the Guntersville Holiday Inn is a hallowed shrine along rock ’n’ roll’s sacred trail. It’s where one-time teen idol Ricky Nelson spent the last two days of his life before his untimely death on January 31, 1985. Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band were killed during the emergency landing of his blazing DC-3 (at one time owned by Jerry Lee Lewis) in a Texas cow pasture.

The International Rick Nelson Fan Club will celebrate the life and final days of the acclaimed singer October 19 and 20 at the Guntersville Holiday Inn.

Nelson had stopped in Guntersville for impromptu shows at PJ’s Alley, co-owned by his former guitarist Pat Upton. The Stone Canyon Band had just finished a Citrus Bowl appearance in Orlando, and decided to stop in Alabama for a couple of nights before a scheduled New Year’s Eve appearance in Dallas. That final show in Guntersville was eventually immortalized as the “Rave On” show by fanatical Ricky Nelson devotees, as Nelson closed the night with Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”

America grew up with Ricky Nelson in the 1950s through television’s “Ozzie and Harriet Show.” By age 16, Nelson had scored a Top Ten hit with “A Teenager’s Romance.” A performance of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” on the show yielded a million records sold in the week following the broadcast. Life magazine put him on the cover in 1958, coining the phrase “teen idol” for Nelson. By age 21, he had sold 35 million records, with nine gold singles.

Hailed by many as the only teen idol with any lasting influence on rock ’n’ roll, Ricky Nelson eventually dropped the “y” from his name in the 1970s and began recording country songs. He’s credited as a country rock pioneer, launching the careers of Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, and Poco. After a round of booing at a 1972 Madison Square Garden show while trying to perform new songs, Nelson wrote the timeless classic “Garden Party.”

The International Rick Nelson Fan Club will celebrate the life and final days of the acclaimed singer October 19 and 20 at the Guntersville Holiday Inn. Events include a Rick Nelson look-alike contest and plenty of Nelson music. A permanent wall shrine entitled “The Last Two Days” has been erected in the hotel lobby, complete with photos and memories of Nelson’s final show. And most sacred of all, Room 106 has been christened the Rick Nelson Room and will be available for viewing. Call 256-582-2220 for details.

A Pair of Kings


A Pair of Kings

Sure, national championships are great, but we all know that bragging rights live and die at the Iron Bowl. In advance of this epic contest, Ed Reynolds remembers some of the greats from both teams.


November 10, 2011

Paul Bryant and Ralph Jordan personified football royalty in my world. For two decades, Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan were the icons producing weekly football melodramas that starred an All-American lineup featuring Joe Namath, Pat Sullivan, Tucker Frederickson, Major Ogilvie, Snake Stabler, and Terry Henley, to name a mere handful.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, everybody had a television, but football-viewing choices were severely limited. For those games we couldn’t watch, men with unforgettable voices (Buddy Rutledge and John Forney, representing Auburn and Alabama, respectively) were the wizards broadcasting play-by-play action, casting a mesmerizing spell over autumn Saturday afternoons.


“Bear” Bryant (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





In the Beginning
Ralph Jordan became Auburn’s head football coach in 1951, winning the school’s first national championship in 1957. Dr. Lloyd Nix, a retired dentist in Decatur, Alabama, had a 19-0-1 record as the Tigers’ starting quarterback those two seasons. “I played quarterback in high school. When I got to Auburn, they told me they were going to put me at halfback,” Dr. Nix recalls on a recent afternoon. In the summer of 1957, Coach Jordan switched him to quarterback, where Nix mostly handed off or tossed the ball to his running backs. He always took the snap directly from behind the center instead of standing back several yards as today’s quarterbacks often do playing out of a typical shotgun formation. “I would have loved to run the shotgun. I would have loved to have the snap back there instead of running backwards and turning around and seeing what was going on,” he admits, laughing. “But we didn’t throw the ball much. We’d throw it maybe 15 times a game if we had to. Our defense was so good, we never did feel like we had to throw it.”

Larry Ellis was a blue-chip running back out of Murphy High in Mobile, recruited by Alabama, Florida, and Auburn, as well as approved for appointments to the Air Force Academy and West Point to play football. Ellis decided on Auburn his junior year. “Well, I was coming out of an era of impressionable football in the Southeastern Conference, very impressionable,” he says of his decision to stay close to home. The SEC’s current domination of college ball is nothing new to Ellis who played fullback from 1966 to 1968. “When I was 10 years old, Auburn had won the national championship in 1957; in 1958, LSU won the national championship; in 1960, Ole Miss and Johnny Vaught won the national championship. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant won it in 1961 at Alabama. You think the SEC’s just now dominating? Wrong. So, as a kid, I said, ‘I’d love to be a part of that.”‘

Nobody above anybody that I met at my young, tender age compared to Ralph ‘Shug’ Jordan because, very simply, he was what we might call a ‘man’s man.’ An all-around person. His military background was unbelievable. And once you met the man, it was just infectious. He was a role model and a guy that nobody else that I had ever been around would compare to. He hooked me.”

While Jordan was generally viewed as a gentleman, Ellis saw the coach’s temper on display a few times. The 1968 Sun Bowl against Arizona was Larry Ellis’s last game. At halftime, the score was 10-10. Jordan was not happy, uncharacteristically flinging his clipboard as he ordered the team’s seniors front and center. Ellis recalls: “Shug threw his clipboard across the locker room and shouted, ‘If you sons of bitches don’t go out in the second half and exert some leadership, I’ll have every one of you in spring training!’ He told us we’d be the blocking dummies for next year’s team during the upcoming spring practice since our scholarships lasted until the end of the school year.” Auburn went on to win 34-10. One of Coach Jordan’s comments regarding leadership still moves Ellis 43 years later: “Leadership is like a cooked piece of spaghetti. You put it on a plate. If you get behind it and push it, it has no direction. But if you get in front of it and pull it, it’ll follow you anywhere.”

Birmingham attorney Gusty Yearout was a walk-on at Auburn. “I tried out as a freshman, I didn’t have a scholarship. I made the team and they gave me a scholarship,” Yearout says. “I came back in 1964 and got hurt. There was one coach there who didn’t like me and he was on my ass. So I finally said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I was young and kind of immature, so I quit. But before the end of that fall season, I went to Coach Jordan and said, ‘Look, I made a mistake and had some personal issues. I just want to know if you’ll let me come back on the team.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can come back but you don’t have a scholarship any more. You’ve got to try out again.’” During his final two years at Auburn, Yearout was elected captain of the team.

Going to law school had long been a goal for Yearout, but he was also attracted to coaching. Jordan gave him some invaluable advice. “Coach Jordan knew from the time I entered Auburn that I wanted to go to law school. When I finished in ’67, I had been accepted to law school but I had that football stuff down in my blood and in my throat,” he says. “I told Coach Jordan, ‘What I’d like to do, if you’ll hire me, is to coach for a while to see if I like it, and then go to law school if I don’t.’ Coach Jordan said, ‘Coaching is not as glamorous as you think it is. You have proven yourself as a leader and as a smart guy of football. But you have to go to law school first and then if you don’t like law school you can come back down here and I’ll hire you.’ And obviously it worked out a lot better for me to go to law school than it did to become a football coach,” he says, laughing.


Pat Sullivan (1969), current head coach at Samford. (Photo: Auburn University) (click for larger version)





Yearout credits players and staff more than head coaches for victories, however. “Coach Saban is a great coach and I think Chizik is a great coach. But basically, what wins football games is the quality of the football players and the quality of the staffs,” he says. “Head coaches have to have great talents to put all that together and motivate and all that stuff. But they don’t win games on Saturday. People get all this bulletin board stuff to motivate the team—but when you get hit the first time square in the mouth, that [motivational message] won’t work any more. You’ve just got to be ready to play. You can forget being pissed off.”

Innovation on the Field
In 1969, Auburn beat Alabama for the first time in five years using a weapon that Shug Jordan had rarely deployed—the forward pass. A sophomore quarterback named Pat Sullivan gave Auburn football a makeover by lobbing long throws downfield to split end Terry Beasley, who was legendary for running blindly at full speed with his head toward the sky looking for Sullivan’s passes.

“Coach Jordan and I were very close. He was known around the athletic department as ‘the man.’ He commanded that kind of respect,” Pat Sullivan says during a phone call on an October afternoon. “He was a Southern gentleman, but he was also a very disciplined person. He was a strict disciplinarian. We played Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl my sophomore year. Back then, the quarterbacks called a lot of the plays. We were at their 35-yard line and it was fourth down. Coach Jordan sent the punter in. And I sent him back out and called a pass play. We didn’t complete it. I went to the sideline and Coach Jordan met me, put his arm around my neck. People in the stands may have thought he was consoling me. But he actually said, ‘You didn’t understand that I wanted to punt.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, but I felt we ought to go for it.’ Well, he told me in no uncertain terms to go sit my rear end on the bench, to not get up until the game was over. Which I did. And I certainly never crossed him again. That was something that he and I laughed about as time went on.”

Sullivan was the first of three Heisman Trophy winners at Auburn. He recalls an intoxicated John Wayne at the Heisman banquet at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club in 1971. “When we were at the Heisman Banquet, John Wayne was the guest speaker,” Sullivan remembers. “John Wayne was well into a fifth of Scotch, and Coach Jordan got up and made a nice talk. As he was sitting back down, John Wayne reached over and put his arm around Coach Jordan and said, ‘Coach, you made a hell of a talk there. I may have a part in my next movie for you.’ And Coach Jordan never batted an eye; he looked at him and said, ‘Well, John, I come high.’ That cracked John Wayne up and he said, ‘Well, I think I can afford you.’”

By 1972, Pat Sullivan had graduated to the NFL and Auburn’s immediate future looked rather dismal. Losing the forward pass forced Jordan to return to his traditional “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of football. The shining star of this dull offense was a running back named Terry Henley, who was anything but dull—on and off the field. He was named second-team All-American and led the SEC in rushing, averaging 93.7 yards a game. Henley also loved to run his mouth, endearing himself to the media with hilarious, brash quotes. His rapport with Jordan was unique.


Alabama’s Bob Baumhower (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





“Well, Coach Jordan and I had kind of a different relationship. I mean, he was the coach and I was a player. But he was my buddy, he was my friend,” Henley explains. “I’d go by his house all the time and visit with him and sit down there in the den and talk about things. He was the daddy that I never had. Now, he was tough, too, like a dad is supposed to be. But he was a wonderful, wonderful person. Coach Jordan used to tell me that he never liked to see me before one o’clock because he said it always upset his lunch if he did.”

We went to Georgia Tech my junior year. In the first half, I fumbled at the one-yard line coming out of the end zone; I fumbled at the one-yard line going in; I fumbled at midfield; and I batted a pass up in the air for the other team to intercept—all in the first half. Now, a normal coach would have set you on the bench after the second fumble . . . So we go in 7-0 at halftime.” Coach Jordan tells the team how well they’re playing despite Henley’s poor performance. He said, ‘I want Terry to apologize to y’all.’ I just sat there and I thought he was kinda joking about me apologizing. He let out some vulgarity like you’ve never heard in your life . . . and, buddy, I jumped out of that seat and I told them, ‘I apologize to all of y’all for the way I’m playing. I’ll play better in the second half.’ Well, of course, the second half I go out and rush for a hundred and something yards; caught three or four passes; I caught about a 30-yard touchdown pass that broke their backs, helped put the nail in the coffin. And I ended up as SEC Player of the Week. After I caught the pass and ran it in for the touchdown, I came to the sideline. Coach Jordan wore an old rain hat . . . He put that hat on me and he said, ‘You the damnedest player I’ve ever had. You should be the coach. Here, you wear the hat.”

Being the team’s star, Henley felt he could park wherever he desired on campus, prompting a confrontation with Jordan. “Parking tickets!” exclaims Henley, howling. “Coach Jordan called me in and he was just eating me out. He said, ‘Are you a member of the faculty? Do you work in the janitorial department here at the university?’ I said, ‘Well, no, sir.’ I didn’t know where he was going. He said, ‘Why the hell are you parking in their parking spots? I’ve got $325 worth of tickets for you. I’m not going to stand for it. You’re going to have to walk to class like the rest of them. And I mean it!’ He was getting loud with me. So I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I stood up and he said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not finished.’ I sat back down and he said, ‘You’ve got a parking ticket for parking in [Auburn University] President Philpott’s space!’ I said, ‘Well, I knew he wasn’t going to be there that day, so I parked in his spot.’ And he said, ‘How did you know he wasn’t going to be there that day?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been going out with his daughter and she told me that he was going to Tallahassee that day, so I decided to park in his spot.’”

The Man with the Voice of God
My father and grandfather went to Auburn, so the rivalry’s dynamic was established for me at an early age. The Auburn-Alabama game was the most exciting, intense day of the year. It was the only time I ever heard my mother and father discuss divorce. Despite being an Auburn fan, my mom would annually scold my father for acting like a fool when he banged his head against the wall in frustration yearly as Alabama dominated Auburn in predictable fashion. My father was a deeply religious man, so notions of Bear Bryant walking on water created a conflict. There were weekends that I was convinced my dad really thought God was a Bama fan. He would glare at the sky whenever the Tide got “a lucky break,” shaking his head while muttering, “Somebody up there sure likes the Bear.”

The Crimson Tide was going through a drought in the late ’60s when Sullivan to Beasley was the rage at Auburn. Even Vanderbilt beat the Tide. “The ‘Bear’ Bryant Show” always preceded the “The Shug Jordan Show” on television each Sunday afternoon. Both were replays of the previous day’s game, featuring each coach’s observations and analysis. At one point during Bryant’s brief “down” years, alumni became so disgruntled that Bear told them to “go to hell” during the broadcast. A few days later, Bryant apologized. Newspaper headlines around the state proclaimed: “Alumni: Bear Says You Don’t Have to Go.” He really was like God.


Shug Jordan’s hat was never as stylish as the Bear’s (Photo: Auburn University) (click for larger version)





Wide receiver Joey Jones, current head football coach at South Alabama who played for Bryant from 1979 until the coach’s retirement in 1983, is quite familiar with Bear’s intimidating presence. Jones remembers the first time he came face to face with the coach. “I saw him right before the first practice, we’d had a big dinner the night before,” he says. “He was sitting at the table and I walked over to him and he shook my hand and I said, ‘I’m Joey Jones from Mobile, Alabama.’ He looked at me like, ‘What in the world are we doing spending a scholarship on somebody this size?’ He looked at the coach that recruited me and kind of gave him a bad look.”

The receiver learned the value of earning one’s own way. “The number one thing I learned from Coach Bryant was to make young men earn what they get. He did that with me, made me earn a starting position,” says Jones. “He didn’t give me anything, made me fight for it, and I’ll always appreciate that about him, not just rolling out the red carpet for anybody. Because when you do that, I think you get a much better, tougher football player who really had to fight for their job.”

Bryant didn’t do too much motivational talking on game day. “He did more during the week. His big speech came on Wednesday nights when we would have a big team meeting. He’d give a motivational-type talk then. It wasn’t so much during the games because they mainly worked at halftime, talking X’s and O’s and trying to make adjustments,” recalls Jones. “And even before games he wasn’t a big ‘let’s tear the door down’-kind of coach because I think he did so much of that during the week that he didn’t need that. That’s the way he operated.”

Two-time All-American running back Major Ogilvie agrees that Bryant wasn’t overly emotional. “We were really not a rah-rah kind of team. We didn’t play on emotion,” Ogilvie says. “I mean, there’s a certain amount of emotion that goes with adrenalin but we had so much poise and confidence, and we were so well prepared..” Ogilvie was on the team when Alabama won national championships in 1978 and 1979. “I was there when we won 44 games and lost four, so we had an awful lot of fun.” He recalls his introduction to Bryant well. “It was that day that I signed. I can remember going back in [his office]. I saw all the rings on his fingers,” says Ogilvie. “‘Cause keep in mind, I played on two state championships in high school and knew how much fun it was to play and be on successful teams. So, I walked back in there and asked him if I could see his rings. We chit-chatted for a minute.”


Alabama’s Major Ogilvie. (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





Nose tackle Bob Baumhower, who played for the Bear in the mid-1970s before starring for the NFL Miami Dolphins, came very close to chucking it all away.” He turned on a light for me, that’s for sure,” Baumhower admits with a quiet laugh. The player hadn’t had his heart in the game until that fateful meeting with Coach Bryant. “I played football for all the wrong reasons. I got talked into playing football in high school,” says Baumhower. “I enjoyed the game atmosphere and I enjoyed the camaraderie. But as far as thinking about the best I can be, I never had that mentality. I was fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship only after the signing day.”

Baumhower didn’t enjoy playing offense his freshman year, so asked to be switched to defense. The coaches agreed, but Baumhower failed to pay much attention to conditioning during the off-season. “I don’t think Coach Bryant was real impressed with my conditioning. Instead of first string I was last string. I caught an attitude and said, ‘I don’t need this.’ I left football practice,” he says. “Coach Bryant got word to me that he wanted to talk to me and my dad that afternoon. The first thing he did—after he greeted my dad really warmly—was he looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well, I heard you wanted to talk to me.’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t talk to quitters but since you’re here, come on in.’ And he started working me right off the bat in that meeting. He made me start thinking about myself as a quitter. He asked me a question: ‘What did you do between spring practice and now to get better as a ball player and a person?’ And I couldn’t give him an answer. He went down a long list of players that had done things that he was aware of, whether it was a particularly player losing ‘x’ amount of weight, getting in better shape or a player getting stronger since the spring . . . He was real engaged at what everybody was doing to improve themselves for the betterment of the team. I couldn’t answer the question. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think you’re a quitter, Bob. I think you’re frustrated. But I don’t think you know what it takes to be a winner. You’ve got to change the way you think. And if you want to play for me, you’ve got to be the best that you can be and you’ve got to show me that you’re committed to give a hundred and ten percent and you want to be special.’ And I never thought in those terms before that meeting. And that’s what I mean by ‘turning my light on.’ My dad still talks about it. It changed my life.”

Baumhower and his old coach grew quite close after he left to play professional football. “The longer I got to know Coach Bryant, the better our relationship was. When I went to Miami, I would get phone calls from him, letting me know he was coming down,” Baumhower recalls. So my relationship with Coach Bryant, I still consider it a gift. And that gift, I keep getting benefits of it throughout life because he taught me so many things that have been good for me in a positive way through the years.” &