Originally published in WELD on October 24, 2015
The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon
EXPLORING THE STORIED LIFE OF A BIRMINGHAM INSTITUTION.
Those who have followed city politics in the past decade or spent evenings as bar flies at any time between the 1960s to the ‘90s in local drinking establishments perhaps know of Terry “T.C.” Cannon. In 1962, Cannon and his older brother Joe opened the Plaza bar (better known as the “Upside Down” Plaza) on 11th Court South behind Western Supermarket on Highland Avenue (currently the long time home of Hot and Hot Fish Club).
Cannon recalls with a grin that his brother Joe had been ‘captured’ (involved with) then gambling kingpin of Birmingham, Little Man Popwell. “So everything (at the Plaza) was in my name,” T.C. says.
The Plaza drew a nightly cast of characters, creating an oddball clientele mix; Lawyers, doctors, students, businessmen, musicians, librarians, and schoolteachers made it the most eclectic bar in town. Bohemians drank with professionals. “It’s a wonder that the magnolia tree outside the Plaza survived because almost every lawyer in Birmingham has pissed on it,” an attorney friend and long ago Plaza patron told me.
The lounge was a Southside landmark. The Upside Down Plaza is currently still in business in the Five Points South area beneath Pickwick Plaza, where it relocated when the lease was not renewed in the mid-‘80s. In 1987, the nightclub began operation under new ownership.
Cannon claims the Plaza was forced out of its original locale because the landlord discovered religion. “A local preacher instructed them that they had to get rid of this horrible beer joint,” says T.C. “We still had three years on the lease and when we went to court, we won and got to stay three more years. And that was a lot of fun.”
How the Plaza’s sign came to be hung upside down is recalled by T.C. on a recent afternoon at his home on Seventh Avenue South, in an old Battery Warehouse a block away from a bar called Tin Roof, which once was home to “TC’s,” the bar that Cannon opened in the Lakeview entertainment district in 1986.
“The reason the Plaza got the name ‘Upside Down’ was because Dick Coffee, the guy that went to 787 Alabama football games in a row without missing one, came into the joint one day. He was selling ads for a publication,” Cannon recalls. “We said, ‘Go away, man, we’re starving to death. We damn sure can’t afford an ad.’ But then we found out how much a one-inch ad in the publication would cost. My brother Joe said, ‘Hell, a little one-inch ad is going to get lost.’ So Joe suggested having the Plaza’s name upside down to make it stand out in the ad.”
Cannon’s next lounge venture, TC’s, soon earned a reputation every bit as charming as the original Upside Down Plaza. “I had the only beer joint in the world financed by the federal government. I applied to the SBA — Small Business Administration,” he says. “I applied to them for financial assistance and, of course, had to concoct an application and try to get it railroaded through claiming that my inventory belonged to ‘so and so.’ I had a little cash and a whole lot of [expletive],” says T.C. during an interview at his warehouse home.
Surrounding his warehouse is a fleet of Volkswagen Beetles and VW vans in various states of disrepair. “In the old days I drove ‘em because I had to. They were economical. Anybody that can chew bubblegum and walk at that same time can work on a VW. A very economical vehicle. We also raced them,” he admits.
“I’ve known T.C. for about 35 years. He might be the craziest human I’ve ever known,” long time friend Billy Jett days with a laugh. “Eccentric is an understatement. Anybody that’s got the money he’s got and lives in a battery warehouse, that’s kind of eccentric right there.
“The damn Volkswagens and the junk that he has accumulated . . . Why does he accumulate that stuff? I don’t think he has a clue. But we loved The Plaza and his other place, T.C.’s . . . There’s 25 or 30 of us that run around together and half of us met our wives at the Upside Down Plaza.”
The Beer Joint Business
Cannon was 10-years old when he began working in the bar business in 1947. “I was born and raised on a dairy farm on Acton Road and old Highway 280. In those days Shelby County was dry. Talladega County was dry. We had the typical ‘county line businesses’ (bars that sold booze legally in Jefferson County). Our dairy farm was adjacent to all those joints,” says Cannon.
“At one time or another there were nine beer joints. Out of those nine, my family either owned or built or had an interest in five of the nine,” he says. Cannon’s father drowned on a fishing trip in the Coosa River with the president of Moore-Handley Hardware when T.C. was five-tears old. His mom raised the family.
“My mother was a ‘Rosie the Riveter,’” he says. “She worked at TCI —Tennessee Coal and Iron, which is now U.S. Steel. My mother built one of our restaurants from scratch. She ran a 140-acre dairy farm with 150 cows and she built a restaurant called Akantu Restaurant, which was local Indian language for ‘Tip Top.’ It was a barbecue and beer joint. At age ten I was working as a bus boy.” Much of the family business included customers stocking up to sell booze in dry counties. His mother eventually became a LPN despite having only a sixth grade education.
When asked if he ever was forced into physical altercations while in the nightclub business, Cannon replies, “Nope. My brother Joe was the world’s greatest bouncer. He was a pretty cool, laid-back dude. He whipped more people without ever laying a hand on ‘em.”
Cannon was once subpoenaed to court when there was a stabbing at the Upside Down Plaza. A guy named Paul and a little guy got into a fight while Cannon was stocking the cooler with beer. Cannon tells the story: “So I jumped over the bar and got around to ‘em. We’re all in a circle and I hear one of them say, ‘You’re drinking my beer.’ And the other says, ‘I wouldn’t drink your beer after you’ve had your filthy mouth on it.’ And I see the shorter guy pop my friend Paul a good one and then run off.
“But then a few days later, I’m subpoenaed to court because Paul had stabbed the little guy before Paul was punched. The little guy had been cut wide open. While I was standing there close to ‘em, Paul — a master with a Case double X single-blade knife — had pulled that knife before he got hit. He pulled it and flicked it with one hand and reached around and cut the guy from his backbone all the way around to his gut twice.
“In court, the victim pulled up his shirt to show the judge [his wounds]. And it was like a perfect little railroad track — two slits with the stitches on it, you know? (T.C. laughs) I had been packing the box (beer cooler) and Paul reached over the bar and dropped the knife into the cooler after he cut the guy. He didn’t want the cops to catch him with the knife. I didn’t know the knife was in there until I found it about six months later. I probably still have it somewhere.”
Cannon says that most fights never lasted long. “At [The Plaza], we never really had anything other than real quickies. Most barroom brawls last about 30 seconds,” he says. “They wind up rolling around on the floor and that’s about it. In the later days I got smarter. I used to try to break them up physically or whatever. Wrong. I instructed bar employees that when the [expletive] goes down, immediately get the girl that started the trouble and walk her out of the place. Ninety-seven percent of all bar room trouble is over a girl, whether she’s there or not.”
Racecar driving days
I’d known Cannon a little from patronizing the Upside Down Plaza for years. But the first time I spent time with him away from one of his bars was on a Saturday morning when I was writing a story about the history of cheating in NASCAR. Cannon had raced on the beaches of Daytona in the early 1950s, driving on the sprint car circuit throughout the Midwest in the late ‘50s, and raced at Birmingham International Raceway (BIR) in the ’60s and ’70s.
On a Saturday morning while driving to a service station whose owner Cannon had promised would tell NASCAR cheating stories (the owner didn’t), Cannon stopped on Clairmont Avenue every 50 feet to pick up golf balls laying against the curb that had escaped Highland Avenue Golf Course. Soon, a couple dozen golf balls rolled around on the floorboard of his car.
“We built a 1939 Chevy coupe. In those days they had two divisions of what is now known as NASCAR,” Cannon remembers. “In 1953 we went to Daytona to race on the beach before they built Daytona Speedway. Two miles of beach and two miles of highway made it a four-mile oval racetrack. I later started racing cars at BIR at age 15.” He raced late model modified cars against the likes of Bobby and Donnie Allison and Red Farmer. “I was not very successful. Never won a race. I was not a good mechanic or a good racecar driver,” he admits.
After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1959, Cannon joined a sprint car team that included 1949 Indy 500 winner Bill Holland. The team raced on the sprint car circuit throughout the Midwest with Cannon behind the wheel when Holland was unavailable.
“I came back to Birmingham in 1962 because this insane redneck shot my mother,” Cannon says. “She survived and lived another 50 years in Florida.” He opened the Upside Down Plaza with his brother Joe, also a racecar driver.
The pair began competing regularly at BIR. Cannon raced in blue jeans and a T-shirt. In those days, drivers did not wear fire-retardant suits. “The guys that were really concerned about fire would buy a jumpsuit and soak it in a fire-retarding substance, which certainly did not make it that safe.”
Cannon worked on late NASCAR star Fireball Roberts’ crew for one race at Dixie Speedway in Midfield, a high-banked, quarter-mile dirt track in the early 1960s. Roberts burned to death after a crash in the World 600 at Charlotte Speedway in 1964. Cannon claims that Roberts’ driving suit was not soaked in the fire-retardant substance because he was allergic to the chemical. “Fireball did a ‘CBD’ — he ‘crashed, burned, and died.’”
UAB’s top cheerleader
Cannon is never spotted in public without a UAB t-shirt, the most vital accessory to his “total comfort” wardrobe that includes shorts and sandals. One sandal has a piece of cardboard inserted beneath his bare foot because one leg is shorter than the other. The result is an obvious limp that prompts his friend Billy Jett to note, “Terry walks like a duck.”
Cannon refers to UAB and the city of Birmingham as one. “The word ‘university’ itself defines a city and a college as one campus,” he explains while complaining about the University of Alabama board of trustees not giving UAB total autonomy, including lack of support for UAB’s beleaguered football team. He always refers to trustee Paul Bryant, Jr, and the board as “PBJ and the boys.”
“I am totally exasperated (by the system) and that affects my health, my resources, my family, the whole works,” says Cannon. “I’m not a liberal and I don’t want to divide the riches among the masses but there’s got to be a better way.”
He leans into my recording device and loudly emphasizes, “Throughout the recorded history of mankind, the strong must take care of the weak. Cannot be disputed. The only question is how to do it best. And it is my strong contention that what the (University of Alabama) board of trustees — which is the most powerful body in the entire state of Alabama — is doing is immoral and criminal, a simple violation of state law and they do it knowingly and willingly. And my favorite name for them is ‘The Masters of Malfeasance.’ The board of trustees do not intend for Birmingham and UAB to do anything that would in any way, form, or fashion compete with Tuscaloosa. It’s not a money thing, it’s an ego thing.”
T.C. and Politics
For the past decade Cannon has been known for running for mayor and city council on three occasions each. “He was always running (for political office). We used to gamble on how many votes he’d get,” says his old pal Billy Jet. “We had a (money) pot, whether it’d be for city council or mayor. People have won the pot by placing bets on T.C. getting anywhere from one vote to 29 votes!”
When asked if he plans to run for mayor of Birmingham again, Cannon hints that he’s frustrated because he wouldn’t stand a chance because those in Birmingham vote along racial lines. “Birmingham has no leadership and nobody’s telling the truth . . . 40 percent of our city’s population live at or below the poverty level because our leadership — our 1,518 preachers that eat good, a lot of chicken on Sunday and the whole works — why don’t they educate their congregations that our resources are going to Tuscaloosa (to the University of Alabama instead of going to UAB) . . .
“As for whether I’ll run for mayor again or not, I’m not a good speaker. Hitler was a corporal in the army but he was a good speaker . . . George Wallace was a good speaker.” If he runs and is elected, he doesn’t hesitate to share what his first act would be as mayor.
“To have Larry Langford dying in prison for what most of us politicians do daily is wrong,” Cannon says, laughing. “If I should ever become mayor, one of my first official duties will be to get Langford out of prison and bring him back to Birmingham, put a (location detection) bracelet on him, and he’ll work from daylight to dark for the city. And then he can go home at night. Langford’s got a brilliant mind. [My idea] is a no-brainer . . . I like Langford’s style of ‘do something.’ My favorite of his quips is ‘You can fix something but you can’t fix nothing … Let’s do something now,’ is what he is saying. ‘Whatever we do, if it’s wrong, we fix it. But if we don’t do nothing we can’t fix nothing.’”
Regarding presidential politics, Cannon says that the Democrats have got a difficult year ahead of them. “They don’t have a viable candidate and I think Trump, with his bodacious, infamous style, has really been healthy for the system,” T.C. says with reverence. “Several of the Republicans sound good, look good. But if I had to bet, it’d be Jeb Bush—who mumbles worse than I do—he’ll probably wind up with the nomination. But I am a Trumpster,” he admits.
Cannon has often consulted Birmingham Times publisher Dr. Jesse Lewis when running for public office. “I don’t know when I didn’t know him, it’s been so long. I met him because we have a mutual interest in UAB sports,” says Lewis. “He was one of the main reasons that UAB got a football team, because of his efforts. And not only are his efforts loyal to the football program, his efforts have been loyal to UAB (overall) ever since I have known him. If there has been one person who has ever made a difference at UAB, T.C. would be that person.”
Lewis laughs when discussing Cannon’s political aspirations. “He has always wanted to be a politician. And I have always discouraged him. Every time he has run for political office he has been by my office to sit down and talk with me,” says Lewis. “And I explain to him, ‘T.C., you’re too honest to be a politician. You stand up and tell the truth, and these politicians aren’t telling the truth. They tell you what you want to hear.
“Actually, he would make an excellent politician but he is not electable . . . I consider him a personal friend. He is one of the most truthful and dedicated persons you’d ever meet in your life . . . I told him if he runs for political office he has to buy a suit. I don’t think he owns a suit. I told him, ‘Don’t come back by my office and ask me to help you no more unless you buy a suit’ . . . If he runs for office in 2016, I’m going to buy him a suit.”