Category Archives: Entertainment

Dead Folks: Film


Dead Folks: Film

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.

January 21, 2010

Jennifer Jones
A dark-haired beauty with prominent cheekbones and perhaps the most expressive eyes ever captured on film, Jones often portrayed mercurial, emotionally fragile characters ideally suited for romance and melodrama. Portraying young women who could gush with joy and plunge into despair in the same breath may not have always been a stretch for Jones. Her private life, which was seldom private despite her resistance to interviews and publicity events, was emotionally harrowing.


Jennifer Jones (click for larger version)





In other words, as went the whims of Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick, so went the career and personal life of Jennifer Jones. As a fledgling actor attempting to find a permanent place in motion pictures, Jones apparently acquiesced to the Svengali-like will of Selznick, carrying on an affair with him while being groomed for roles in the early 1940s. By the time she was wowing audiences in The Song of Bernadette (for which she earned an Oscar), the 25-year-old mother of two was already separated from her husband, actor Robert Walker. Amazingly, during that separation the couple were cast by Selznick as the young, naïve lovers in Since You Went Away, a moving and superbly executed drama about life on the WWII home front. No one has disputed the rumor that Selznick was attempting to emotionally destroy the depressed, hard-drinking Walker, who was ultimately institutionalized after his divorce from Jones. Hollywood lore also suggests a stranger theory, namely, that Selznick—who had been obsessed with Jones from the day he first saw her auditioning for a play in New York—was slyly preparing her for roles that required an intrinsic understanding of overwrought melodrama. That’s easy to believe. Anyone who has seen the romantic mystery Love Letters, the landmark fantasy film Portrait of Jennie, or Since You Went Away recognizes that Jones’ screen presence was both mesmerizing and slightly unsettling.

On the other hand, it was common knowledge that Selznick was fully in love with the real Jennifer Jones; they were married in 1949 and apparently remained happy until Selznick’s death in 1965. Shortly afterward, a comatose Jones was discovered on Malibu beach, having “accidentally” consumed too many pills and too much wine. She recovered from the coma, and over the years more cynical Hollywood gossips wondered if the entire episode hadn’t been pre-directed by Selznick. (90, natural causes) —David Pelfrey

(click for larger version)

Karl Malden
Three generations of TV and movie viewers probably have distinctly different memories of this excellent actor, whose commanding voice and penetrating eyes once made him an impressive screen presence. The youngest may see Malden simply as the voice and face of American Express Travelers Cheques: “Don’t leave home without them.” The persona for that ad campaign (one that remains in the collective mind of another generation) was derived from Malden’s no-nonsense detective Mike Stone in the long-running 1970s TV police drama “The Streets of San Francisco,” co-starring a young Michael Douglas.

All of that transpired in the latter stages of Malden’s seven-decade career. He began with something of a bang, working with the powerful new directors and actors of the 1950s (Elia Kazan, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Marlon Brando), very quickly earning accolades for his roles in On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, I Confess, and A Streetcar Named Desire, for which Malden won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. (97, natural causes) —D.P.

Jack Cardiff (click for larger version)

Jack Cardiff
With very few exceptions, the list of films Cardiff directed will have any serious student of cinema wishing that Cardiff had remained strictly a cinematographer. The British filmmaker helmed the risible The Girl on a Motorcycle, a swinging ’60s fantasy with pop chanteuse Marianne Faithfull that attempted to be way out but was merely way out of touch. Still more inept was The Long Ships, a Moor-versus-Viking adventure yarn with Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark disgracing themselves in the respective roles. The thing is, both pictures were often lovely to behold, if impossible to take seriously.

Cardiff possessed a preternatural gift for appreciating—and controlling—the effects of light and color as cast onto a motion picture screen. When film scholars speak of “painterly” cinematography, they invariably have Cardiff in mind. His Technicolor (and other film processes) wonders include The African Queen, Topaz, Death on the Nile, and Conan the Destroyer. Moreover, the three pictures Cardiff shot for Michael Powell (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes) have no analog in modern cinema (nor many contemporary equals). Many scenes in those marvelous fantasies still have film students and technicians wondering exactly how Cardiff managed it. His autobiography, Magic Hour, ostensibly reveals certain techniques, but like any good magician, Cardiff ultimately tells us nothing. (94, natural causes) —D.P.

John Hughes (click for larger version)

John Hughes
We can be angry with the multi-talented filmmaker for writing the screenplay for Class Reunion and directing Curly Sue, or we can admire the box office success of the Home Alone films, which Hughes wrote and produced. However, the former National Lampoon staffer and gag writer for Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers leaves behind one undeniable cultural legacy. Behold the Brat Pack comedy/dramas that defined youth cinema of the 1980s. Hughes directed Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and he produced Pretty in Pink. All the screenplays were his as well. Those films made stars and/or pop icons of numerous young actors, at the same time providing the MTV generation with official soundtracks and no small amount of entries into the popular lexicon (Bueller? Bueller?). (59, heart attack) —D.P.

Patrick Swayze (click for larger version)

Patrick Swayze
According to People magazine, Swayze was the sexiest man alive in 1991. For the kind of people who read that publication, he probably was. His leading role in Dirty Dancing made him a household name, and his turn opposite Brat Packer Demi Moore in Ghost established Swayze as a universally recognized heartthrob. His remaining résumé largely consists of roles as macho bad-ass types, which was no mean feat for a 5’9″ dancer. There again, an athletic Texan who raises horses, carries an instrument-rated pilot’s license, and studies martial arts makes good box office as a man’s man. Then there’s Swayze’s sense of humor about his status as a sex symbol and tabloid regular: witness his brilliant self-deprecating skits on “Saturday Night Live,”


Dom DeLuise (click for larger version)

or his irony-rich turn as the scary-as-hell motivational speaker in Donnie Darko. His final days were a grim deathwatch that functioned as tabloid fodder after Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. (57) —D.P.

Dom DeLuise
A plump, boisterous comedian, DeLuise possessed an overbearing persona that was a favorite of Mel Brooks, who cast him in several comedies, including Blazing Saddles. DeLuise teamed with pal Burt Reynolds in Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit II. He got his start in television during the early 1960s as Dominick the Great, an inept, bumbling magician whose magic tricks never worked. His appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and “Hollywood Squares” made him a household name. An accomplished chef, he later performed culinary demonstrations on television as his film career wound down. DeLuise once claimed that the toughest role of his career was being cast as a penny in a school play. “The part called for me to roll under a bed as soon as the curtain went up and stay there until I was found in the very last scene,” he recalled in the book Who’s Who in Comedy. “It was my hardest role to date. I detested having to be quiet and out of the action for so long.” (75, extended unidentified illness) —E.R.

Ricardo Montalban (click for larger version)

Ricardo Montalban
Khan, Captain Kirk’s arch nemesis in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Mr. Roarke on the 1970s TV series “Fantasy Island.” Damon West on the medical drama “Dr. Kildare.” These are just a few of the many roles played by actor Ricardo Montalban throughout his career as one of the most visible Hispanic actors in post-WWII Hollywood. Born in Mexico City, he moved to Hollywood as a teenager to foster his dream of becoming an actor.

Montalban starred in 13 Spanish-language films before breaking into the American film scene in 1947, cast as a bullfighter opposite Esther Williams in Fiesta. He was under contract with MGM at the time, and said he quickly realized the studio’s portrayals of Hispanics at that time were “very insulting.” Montalban took up the cause of changing Hollywood stereotypes of Latinos, one he championed throughout his career by serving as president of Nosotros, an organization he founded for the advancement of Hispanics in the entertainment industry, for two decades. Despite this, Montalban had a friendly rivalry at MGM with Fernando Lamas as the studio’s resident “Latin lover,” a contest Bill Murray immortalized in a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Known as a distinguished gentleman with a smooth accent, Montalban became the spokesman for Chrysler and Maxwell House coffee. He made guest appearances on countless TV shows, recently doing a voiceover on the animated series “Family Guy.” The deeply spiritual Montalban, a Catholic, was named a Knight Commander of St. Gregory, the highest honor bestowed on non-clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, by Pope John Paul II in 1998. (88, congestive heart failure) —Christina Crowe

James Whitmore (click for larger version)

James Whitmore
Like plenty of young Broadway actors, James Whitmore watched as movie stars took over roles that he created on the stage. He wasn’t a typical leading man, but his own move to Hollywood landed him a few starring roles as a kind of ersatz Spencer Tracy. He was morally sound while getting radio transmissions from God in The Next Voice You Hear, and sadly corrupt as a career criminal in The Asphalt Jungle. He also landed a great genre role when he took on giant ants in 1954′s Them!


Richard Todd (click for larger version)





Whitmore became a constant presence on television through the 1960s and ’70s, and also kept working steadily in films—favoring offbeat roles such as the lead in 1964′s Black Like Me and a simian turn in Planet of the Apes. He managed a final classic with a prominent role in 1994′s The Shawshank Redemption. A lot of people still knew Whitmore best from his years of commercials for Miracle-Gro Plant Food, and the avid gardener frequently used the sponsorship as an excuse to show up at florist events. (87, lung cancer) —J.R. Taylor

Richard Todd
The handsome, stern Irish-born actor was a popular figure in post-WWII British action films. Having distinguished himself as a paratrooper in the Allied D-Day operations, Todd made a believable war hero, most famously in The Dam Busters and The Longest Day. The Scottish burr Todd cultivated on the stage in Scotland, along with his fairly intimidating demeanor, rendered a memorable man’s man who might have been an ideal James Bond. Ian Fleming certainly thought so; Todd was his first choice for the role of 007. (90, cancer) —David Pelfrey


The Eternal Outlaw

The Eternal Outlaw

Just another day in paradise. (click for larger version)


December 09, 2010


By Keith Richards with James Fox

Little, Brown, 564 pages, $29.99

After suffering through three decades of lousy new Rolling Stones records, nothing could be finer than falling in love with Keith Richards and his merry minstrels all over again. But it’s not the music that attracts; rather, it’s Richards’ irresistible writing voice in his memoir Life that will mesmerize as he eloquently and hilariously recounts his rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale existence. Keith (guitarist for the band since its inception 48 years ago) is quite the charmer, relating tales of outlandish rock excess with a brutally honest, hold-no-punches delivery that defines the swagger of guitar-slinging outlaws. One occasionally wonders where the truth ends and embellishment begins. But who cares? It’s all showbiz.

God bless him, Keith wastes no time giving fans what they want: drug stories! He opens with a bang, recounting his and fellow Rolling Stone Ron Wood’s arrest in Fordyce, Arkansas, in 1975. The pair unwisely chose to drive from Memphis to Dallas for their next show instead of flying with the rest of the band. Keith is quick to acknowledge his occasional stupidity and lackadaisical attitude regarding drugs: “So we drove and Ronnie and I had been particularly stupid. We pulled into this roadhouse called the 4-Dice, where we sat down and ordered and then Ronnie and I went to the john. You know, just start me up. We got high. We didn’t fancy the clientele out there, or the food, and so we hung in the john, laughing and carrying on. We sat there for forty minutes. And down there you don’t do that. Not then.”

Richards relaxing in his home library in Connecticut. (Photo by Christopher Sykes for Life.) (click for larger version)


It’s the first of dozens of lurid drug stories. At the Arkansas bust, the Chevrolet Impala they were driving had “coke and grass, peyote and mescaline” hidden inside the door panels. Richards seems to be shaking his head at himself when he writes, “And I could have just put all that stuff on the plane. To this day I cannot understand why I bothered to carry all that crap around and take that chance.” In his denim cap, Keith kept a virtual pharmacy stuffed with hash, Tuinal, and more cocaine. But, of course, Keith and his bandmate escaped another brush with the law thanks to their attorney and an allegedly intoxicated judge.

There are quite a few revelations about facts of which even the most rabid Stones fan may be unaware. Richard Nixon proclaimed them to be “the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world” and said that they would not be allowed to tour the United States again while he was president (they did, however). Richards tells of rubbing shoulders with other stars: Marlon Brando put the make on Anita, Richards’ common-law wife, and when she ignored him, Brando tried to pick up Keith, too. When Richards met Allen Ginsberg, his assessment is that the poet is “nothing but an old gasbag pontificating on everything.”

Keith is anything but politically correct. He refers to women as “bitches,” and gays as “poofsters” and “fags.” If he had to rough up a promoter who owed the band money, so be it. Keith and Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, had been on tour with one of promoter Robert Stigwood’s bands (Stigwood managed Cream and the Bee Gees and produced the movie Saturday Night Fever.) He owed the Stones $16,000. Stigwood was walking down a staircase backstage at a club, and Oldham and Richards were walking up when they suddenly blocked the staircase so that Keith could “extract payment” by kicking Stigwood 16 times, “one for each grand he owed us.” Oldham holds a special place in Richards’ heart. He credits him with making him a songwriter when the manager locked Jagger and Richards in a kitchen until they wrote a song (“As Tears Go By”):

“We sat there in the kitchen and I started to pick away at these chords . . . ‘It is the evening of the day.’ I might have written that. ‘I sit and watch the children play,’ I certainly wouldn’t have come up with that,” says Richards. “Andrew created the most amazing thing in my life. I had never thought about songwriting. He made me learn the craft, and at the same time I realized, yes, I’m good at it . . . [Learning to write songs] was almost like a bolt of lightning.”

Keith and his wife Patti Hansen with daughters Alexandra and Theodora in 1992. (click for larger version)

Oldham had worked with Beatles manager Brian Epstein and was instrumental in shaping the Beatles’ image until they parted company because of what Keith speculated was a “bitch argument.” Keith writes of Oldham’s feud with Epstein: “We were the instrument of his revenge on Epstein. We were the dynamite, Andy Oldham the detonator. The irony is that Oldham, at the start, the great architect of the Stones’ public persona, thought it was a disadvantage for us to be considered long-haired and dirty and rude.”

No band member’s wife or girlfriend was sacred. Mick Jagger slept with Brian Jones’ girlfriend while Jones was living with her; Keith slept with Marianne Faithfull, who was Jagger’s girlfriend at the time; Keith began dating actress Anita Pallenberg while she was still with Brian Jones. Pallenberg eventually had an affair with Jagger while she was Keith’s common-law wife. Keith recalls: “I didn’t find out for ages about Mick and Anita, but I smelled it. Mostly from Mick, who didn’t give any sign of it, which is why I smelled it. . . . I never expected anything from Anita. I mean, hey, I’d stolen her from Brian. So you’ve [Anita] had Mick now; what do you fancy, that or this? It was like Peyton Place back then, lot of wife swapping or girlfriend swapping.”

Richards does not hesitate to share the upside of heroin. “For all of its downsides—I’d never recommend it to anybody—heroin does have its uses. Junk really is a great leveler in many ways,” he admits, acknowledging that heroin allowed him to focus when there was nothing but chaos around him.

Life is long but a fun read, with a new Richards adventure on every page. His candid style and sense of humor do not disappoint, and even those not particularly infatuated with the Stones will be intrigued and amused by this unique life story. His off-the cuff, fragmented delivery may sometimes be confusing, forcing the reader to go back over a paragraph or two, but it’s all part of Keith’s charm. &

The Grand Dame of Insults

Joan Rivers puts her wits and cosmetic surgery on display at the Alys Stephens Center.


November 25, 2010

Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, Joan Rivers changed her name at the suggestion of a talent scout when she began working comedy clubs in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. By 1965, she was working as a gag writer on the TV show “Candid Camera,” which employed hidden cameras to film everyday people on the street in setups that were designed to garner shocked reactions (such as trees or cars that talked to the unwitting subject ). Although Rivers is known for abrasive, brash humor that focuses on insults and self-deprecating remarks, her stage persona in no way represents her true character, as reflected in a recent phone conversation. At age 77 she’s not slowing down. In 2009 she starred in—and won—”Celebrity Apprentice” and in 2010 returned to E!’s Red Carpet to critique Oscar night fashion. She currently hosts E!’s “Fashion Police” with Kelly Osbourne. Rivers will appear at the Alys Stephens Center on Sunday, December 12, at 7 p.m., as part of the ASC Holiday Comedy Show. Alys Stephens Center, Jemison Concert Hall, 1200 10th Avenue South. Tickets: $20–$65. Details:

Black & White: I was surprised to learn that you worked on “Candid Camera” in the 1960s.
Joan Rivers: Yep. I think that was the original reality show. A lot of us came out of that show —Lily Tomlin worked there, George Carlin.

I also didn’t realize you were in the film The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster. How did you come to be cast in that?
They saw me working a nightclub and liked me. They wrote the part in for me, which was exciting. That was the first movie I ever did. I remember thinking what on old guy Burt Lancaster was, and he was 45 years old! I remember thinking, “God, this old guy—what’s he doing here?”

An aging Joan Rivers, with nary a wrinkle in sight (click for larger version)

Are you ever offended by comics?
Oh no, no. I think comedy should be a little offensive. To be funny, you’ve got to step out of the box. Somebody’s always going to get offended, but that’s good. Comedy should always be making a point and making people aware of things.

It’s impressive that you were the first permanent guest host to fill in for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
I was the first woman guest host, and then the first permanent guest host—man, woman, or child.

What type of show will you be doing in Birmingham?
It’s a standup-style show, very simple. I come out and talk to the audience for an hour, hour and a half. I talk about everything that annoys me; everything that is right and wrong with society, I discuss. It’s funny, I hope . . . they’re all funny!

You were one of the groundbreakers among female comics, weren’t you?
Well, they’ve been around for years but I was one of the first that wanted to look nice on stage. Before me was Phyllis Diller, and she always looked like a clown. But I was single and I wanted to get married, so I was trying to look as nice as I could on stage.

On “Fashion Police,” you’re working with Kelly Osbourne. Have you met her father, Ozzy?
Kelly is adorable. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her father, but I’m not so sure it is (a pleasure). I think it may be a little bit of an act with him, because she talks about her father grounding her and driving her to school. It sounds a lot more normal than you think it would be.

Pee-wee Herman was your first guest when you had your talk show on Fox (“The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” which premiered in 1986)?
Yes. He’s back now, he’s back on Broadway. He is so funny. It’s about time they forgave him. I mean, all he was doing was picking up a guy in a theater. So what? Don’t worry about that, there’s a lot worse things that can go on. I loved being on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” too.

Did you and Sam Kinison make up after he failed to appear on your show after you had promoted his appearance all week?
Oh yeah. Now there’s a talent that shouldn’t have died. He got over drugs and got married and everything was tip-top and terrific, then he gets killed in an automobile accident. He was so funny and so brilliant.

Were you on “Hollywood Squares” when Paul Lynde was there?
Now you’re mentioning names that nobody’s going to know, except the two of us . . . Paul Lynde was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. But a mean guy. He was a bad drunk.

You’ve had a few facelifts. What is your opinion of Mickey Rourke’s face job?
All the men wait too long to have facelifts. Women are smart, and they do it when they need it. Men wait until they are really desperate and then they look like they went into a wind tunnel. They figure it’s sissy. But it’s a business where you have to look good; our business is all about that. And as you need it, you do it.

What do you do when you’re not working?
I watch a lot of old movies, I’m a big old movie buff. I love dogs, I’ve got three now. I don’t understand anybody that doesn’t have pets, something to make you have a home.

Any new shows on the horizon that you’ll be in that you can tell us about?
My daughter and I have a reality show coming called Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best? (It premieres January 2011 on the WE network). &


Forging Ahead

Forging Ahead

The Forge, Birmingham’s proposed downtown entertainment district, continues to seek financing.

March 06, 2008
At the February 22 Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex board meeting, board members were informed by BJCC executive director Jack Fields that John Elkington, CEO of Performa Entertainment Real Estate, was ahead of schedule in meeting benchmarks to begin building the 176,000-square-foot downtown entertainment district recently named “The Forge.” (It was temporarily known as “The District.”) Dismissing reports that Elkington was lagging behind in fulfilling his commitments, Fields told the board of directors: “According to the agreement that was signed on the fifth of May [2007], if we take every one of those steps that is outlined in that agreement, then Mr. Elkington is not behind. He is ahead . . . I think Mr. Elkington, in his exuberance, has sometimes placed some timelines on himself that are far beyond what is in the agreement. For our purposes for right now, he is ahead of the timelines that are specified.” Elkington reportedly has met requirements that 50 percent of the square footage be pre-leased. Nevertheless, the process of securing financing for the development has been slower than predicted. Three months ago, Fields told Black & White, “It’s been a bummer, no question about that, but we don’t see that this is anything that would affect the continuation of the development. . . . According to Mr. Elkington, he feels that if he gets his lending package and the approval of it by the first week of February—that’s the goal—then we are still right on schedule to open in June or July of 2009, with a 14-month construction period.”

Even with a projected total cost for a new downtown entertainment district ballooning from $25 million to $50 million, the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex board seems untroubled about the prospects of financing the project.

Fields told board members on February 22 that Elkington would instead have financing in place by the end of March. In a February 29 interview, Fields was confident that all is well. “I know that there is continued progress going on. Obviously, we have great concern about that, so we keep up, and we are very pleased with his progress,” he said. “Normally, the most difficulty that developers have is getting the equity. So if his equity is on the line and is ready to go, that really bodes well.” The Performa president has reportedly cleared that hurdle, according to Fields. “What Mr. Elkington has stated is that he [has] obtained $6 million equity—has arranged his equity with the lenders—and he would be entering into a loan that would be $24 or $25 million . . . that’s toward the entertainment center, not the hotels. If you put the hotels in it we’re talking about much, much more money than $31 million.” The BJCC and Performa signed a $25 million contract in May 2007, but cost estimates for the entertainment, dining, and retail area have increased to $40 to $50 million. The projected total cost, including two hotels, is now $80 million.

In November of 2007, it was widely reported that a 130,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex that Performa planned for Trenton, New Jersey, had failed to obtain a $21.8 million loan. (Performa projects in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi, have also failed to come to fruition.) The Trenton development had been scheduled to open in late 2007. Elkington blamed unemployment and tighter bank lending requirements for that setback. Stricter lending standards have also been cited by Elkington for delays on gaining funds for the Birmingham entertainment district.

In mid-January, the BJCC board traveled to Memphis for a business retreat. The city is home to Performa’s flagship development, the revitalized Beale Street entertainment area. “What impresses me about Beale Street is the constant activity that takes place on it,” said Fields regarding the trip. “What I really am encouraged about as far as our development is that, with Beale Street, [Elkington] was basically confined to a definite layout and a definite framework to work with. Whereas here, he has a clean slate where he can optimize the design, traffic flow, and can create as much synergy as you possibly can in a development. . . . And of course Beale Street is what it is, and that is blues and rhythm and blues, and barbecue and things like that. Whereas here it’ll be a much, much broader offering of music and cuisine.”

• • •
font size=”5″In other business at the BJCC board’s February 22 meeting, members approved the funding of a feasibility study to investigate the lowering of a brief stretch of Interstate 59/20 near the BJCC below ground level. (If approved, 80 percent of the needed funds would probably be provided by the federal government.) The current elevated portion of I-59/20 is deteriorating, according to Operation New Birmingham (ONB) Vice President of planning Chris Hatcher, who said that the highway is in the final third of its life and will have to undergo repair anyway.

The board voted 4-2 to invest $35,000 in the study, which would explore whether an entrenched I-59/20 is financially and physically possible. Those board members opposed to the study called it a waste of money, believing that the federal government will simply ignore any research results and reconstruct the highway as it pleases. ONB has been pushing for the interstate to be set in a mammoth gully no deeper than 40 feet, according to Hatcher. The plan would allow for the city’s street grid layout to be retained via bridges. Two decks above the highway are also proposed, one near the Birmingham Museum of Art and the other near the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Hatcher told the board that those two entities would be asked to contribute to the $100,000 feasibility study, as well.

BJCC executive director Jack Fields said burying the interstate will offer advantages for The Forge entertainment district. “[The interstate] is really not creating that much of a physical obstruction as far as traffic because you can move underneath it back and forth,” said Fields. “But it’s just the visual obstruction that seems to psychologically provide a separation between the rest of downtown and the BJCC. In other words, [the BJCC and The Forge] is on the other side of the tracks. . . . Where the entertainment center will get the most visibility is really in that 280 connection coming into I-59/I-20. That’s where it’s going to hit you like crazy.”

“Channel, ditch . . . trench” is how ONB president Mike Calvert described the proposed burial of the interstate, adding, “But it would be, for the most part, open above.” He echoed Fields’ affirmation of the project. “The big advantage is that the elevated highway is at least a psychological barrier to the connection between the BJCC complex and the rest of downtown,” said Calvert. “Now, you can walk underneath that, but it is very unpleasant as far as the trucks kind of thundering over your head. And visually it would disappear. And it’s our understanding that the sound would be directed, for the most part, upwards rather than emanating horizontally.” &

Baker Knight

Baker Knight

The late Birmingham songwriter wrote numerous hits as well as a brutally honest memoir.

January 10, 2008

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Birmingham’s Baker Knight wrote more than a thousand songs. Ricky Nelson recorded 21 of them, placing three in the Top 10 pop charts before 1960. One of those hits, “Lonesome Town,” rode a second wave of popularity when it was included on the soundtrack of the film Pulp Fiction in 1994. Five years later, Paul McCartney recorded the song on his Run Devil Run album, and later sang it as a tribute at his late wife Linda’s memorial.

Knight’s fame and fortune, however, were forced to compete with the clutter of mental illness and alcoholism that dogged his life. Agoraphobia, addiction, and chronic fatigue syndrome were punctuated by panic attacks and drunken episodes.

The late Birmingham songwriter wrote numerous hits such for the likes of Ricky Nelson, Elves Presley, and Dean Martin.

Knight died in Birmingham in 2005, having published his memoir, A Piece of the Big-Time, earlier that year. He was a better songwriter than storyteller, yet there are plenty of dramatic escapades and erratic behavior; he puts his life on exhibit as a spectacular highway crash, insisting that everyone stick around to view the charred remains.

Knight has had his songs covered by a diverse group of artists. Elvis Presley made “The Wonder of You” a number-one hit on the easy listening charts in 1970. Frank Sinatra took Knight’s “Any Time at All” to number two on the easy listening charts in 1965, the same year Dean Martin scored a number-two hit with the songwriter’s “Somewhere There’s a Someone.” (From 1966 to 1969 Dean Martin recorded 11 Knight tunes.) In 1976, Knight wrote “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” a country music chart-topper for Mickey Gilley. Perry Como, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Eddy Arnold also recorded his songs.

While living in Birmingham during the 1950s, after being discharged from the air force for emotional problems, Knight formed a band called the Knightmares that had a regional hit with “Bring My Cadillac Back.” The band signed with the Decca label after the song sold 40,000 copies in two weeks. However, radio was forced to pull the song after it was deemed a free advertisement for General Motors. The band broke up, and Knight moved to Los Angeles in 1958. He was soon hanging around with Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran, but his life remained in turmoil. One of his early suicide attempts involved leaping off a cliff behind the Hollywood Hills home of Ricky and his “Ozzie and Harriet” co-star brother David when he discovered the two were not home. He survived and continued to have great musical success despite his mental problems.

In and out of psychiatric hospitals, Knight finally returned to Birmingham in 1977. After various treatments in psychiatric wards, he went to Nashville in a failed attempt to resurrect his career. When he returned to Birmingham, he got a job rewiring lamps for Goodwill Industries. By 1981, his mental problems were so debilitating that he agreed to undergo a new procedure for agoraphobia. Electrodes were planted in both his chest and the back of his skull. The operation was to be shown on “That’s Incredible,” a popular TV show hosted by John Davidson (who once recorded Knight’s “The Wonder of You”). The operation was a failure, leaving Knight in line for shock treatment, which he received. He finally quit drinking in 1982, but his emotional problems continued to haunt him.

In his book, Knight hides none of the embarrassing, unpredictable behavior that shadowed his problems. He treats suicide attempts as self-deprecating episodes of madness. While in Nashville, after his romantic overtures to singer Naomi Judd were rejected, he grabbed his gun one night and went in search of Judd and her date. He once turned on the gas while talking on the phone to his estranged wife not long after she had given birth to their child. As he started to pass out, he decided he didn’t want to die and turned off the gas. However, he forgot the room was full of fumes and lit a cigarette. The explosion hospitalized him for weeks with severe burns, and his alcohol withdrawal resulted in his suffering the DTs while in the hospital, where he had to be tied to his bed.

Raised by alcoholic parents, one of Knight’s sad childhood memories involved a local landmark restaurant: “Sometimes at night, [my mother and stepfather] would take me with them to a Chinese restaurant called Joy Young’s on 21st street in downtown Birmingham. Now don’t let the ‘Joy’ confuse you . . . They would leave me alone in a booth while they moved a few booths away to talk and drink with their no doubt very together friends. They fed me, I’ll say that for ‘em, but sometimes they stayed until closing time while I sat there waiting alone. The booths were large and very much enclosed so I couldn’t see much of what was going on. I could hear them, though, and the drunker they got, the sicker and weaker I felt inside . . . Going to Joy Young’s was a fairly regular outing for a while; one that I most certainly did not look forward to . . . for I knew they’d be drinking until all hours and there was nothing I could do about it. I was in my own little prison for the evening, like it or not, and the only crime I had committed was that of being a child.” &


Elvis in Context

Elvis in Context

Elvis Presley on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

August 23, 2007

On Sunday night, September 9, 1956, more than 72 million Americans (80 percent of the country’s television audience) tuned in to the “Ed Sullivan Show” to watch a cultural phenomenon named Elvis Presley. Presley had already appeared on several national television programs, but none as popular as Sullivan’s. The performance transformed Elvis into a controversial icon, creating the generation gap in the process.

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Image Entertainment has released a DVD set of the three complete Sullivan shows on which Elvis appeared in 1956 and 1957. While most Elvis fans have seen these legendary performances, the opportunity to see these shows in their entirety is what makes this set unique.

On January 27, 1956, RCA released the single “Heartbreak Hotel.” The next day Elvis appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s “Stage Show,” a low-rated national television program. A week and a half later, Presley was on “The Milton Berle Show.” Ed Sullivan was watching that night and dismissed Elvis’s seductive leg movements as “unfit for family viewing.” Later that summer, Presley was booked on NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show,” which went head-to-head with the Sullivan show on CBS. That night Ed Sullivan devoted his entire program to director John Huston, whose film Moby Dick premiered that week. Steve Allen’s show trounced “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the ratings. Sullivan soon adjusted his definition of “unfit for family viewing.”

The night of Elvis’ Sullivan program debut, Sullivan was recuperating from a recent automobile accident. British actor Charles Laughton was the guest host. Sullivan asked the dignified actor to open the show with some poetry to “give a high tone to the proceedings,” according to Laughton. The actor chose a tasteless poem: “Willie in the best of sashes, fell in the fire, got burnt to ashes. Though the room got cold and chilly, no one liked to poke poor Willie.”

Sullivan’s was a true variety show, featuring eclectic acts that included acrobats, Irish children’s choirs, opera singers, and a couple of hilarious ventriloquists, Arthur Worsley and Señor Wences. A young Carol Burnett also made an unforgettable appearance.

The commercials are fascinating time capsules. One features a stunningly gorgeous woman behind the wheel of a 1957 Mercury convertible. “One touch of her pretty little finger to Mercury’s keyboard control” is all that’s needed to begin the dreamy ride, says the announcer as he’s chauffeured around a Universal Studios lot. Then, to exhibit the ample room available in the backseat, the car stops at a medieval castle on a Universal movie set where three knights in full armor awkwardly climb in.

A Real Character

A Real Character

Lily Tomlin brings her one-woman show to the Alys Stephens Center.

October 18, 2007At you can find a couple of clips of confrontations that occurred during production of the movie I Heart Huckabees, an irate Lily Tomlin flips off both director David O. Russell and co-star Dustin Hoffman as she angrily shouts “Fu** you.” After viewing them, I was a little nervous about speaking with Tomlin. However, the actress and comedienne was completely charming in relating anecdotes about Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, her family’s Southern heritage, and summers spent on her cousins’ farm in Kentucky. Her laughter is the same genuine, infectious cackle she has let loose on late night talk shows for decades.

Black & White: I read that you were once a pre-med student.

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Lily Tomlin: Oh, kind of. You know . . . I was, technically, but that doesn’t mean much. It just means you take a lot of science courses, or start to. I never graduated college and I never did very well in college. I sort of had textbook narcolepsy. You open one and the aroma from the page or something just knocks you out. You crash forward.

Do you remember when you felt confident that you could consistently make someone laugh?

Tomlin as Ernestine. (click for larger version)

I did it all through my childhood because I always put on shows and things. I lived in an old apartment house in Detroit . . . You know how Southerners are. [Her parents and relatives are from Kentucky.] Everybody in the family—at least from that generation—was so quirky and had their own little personality. People were so colorful, [including] all my aunts and my uncles, and my dad and my mom, too. My mom was witty and adorable. My dad was just kind of a character, he was a street character. I went to the bars with him and the bookie joints. He was a factory worker but he always wore a suit jacket to work and a hat and he wore Florsheim shoes. And he always had a big roll of money on him because he gambled. My mom was, of course, the total opposite. She was a good Southern woman who had a good house.

Every summer I went to Kentucky and lived on the farm with my aunt and uncle and all those old cousins, with whom I’m still close. I have a real bond with family. As differently as I was raised, being in the inner city of Detroit and growing up in a black neighborhood . . . I just had a whole richness of experience with all kinds of different people. And, of course, then I would be on the farm when I was a little kid. I’d see animals copulating and I’d go back to kindergarten and paint it! I knew it was something I wasn’t supposed to talk about or illustrate. But I liked holding court, you know? Getting a little rise out of people.

Did your kindergarten teachers ever scold you?

No, I could see they would be a little bit shocked and a little bit amused. And so then I would just pursue it. I don’t ever remember really being suppressed. Maybe a kind of omission of praise. I was just more amused by it. I knew it caused a charge, a little charge in the room. And I must have liked the theatricality of it.

Tomlin as Edith Ann. (click for larger version)

I read that you studied under Charles Nelson Reilly.

I knew Charles, he was a friend. I only studied with him a couple of weeks because I got on “Laugh-In” and went to California. But the couple of classes I had with him—let me tell you, he was so inventive I feel like I missed out by not having a full course of study with him. He was just absolutely incredibly inventive.

Did you know Paul Lynde?

Oh yes [laughing], I knew Paul. I lived around the corner from him for a long time. I’d walk my dog up around his house and I went to his house many times for dinner. And I also went to a couple of Thanksgivings at his sister’s house. He was a scream [Tomlin does a quick Paul Lynde impersonation] . . . It was well-known that Paul was not a very, uh, happy drinker [laughs]. So if he got too abusive, rooms usually cleared. It was because he could be wicked. He had a real quick, acidic tongue.

Didn’t you upset some television executives when you gave Richard Pryor a big kiss in 1973 on your CBS special?

They had sent down word from the executive offices: “Don’t kiss Richard goodnight.” And we couldn’t believe it. It was certainly not for any show or anything. In fact, I kissed everybody, I kissed all my guests . . . Of course, Richard had his hair corn-rowed on that show. And he came on the set the morning we were gonna shoot and people hadn’t seen corn-rows very much. It was sort of a new thing. And he had it wrapped with white leather and he was making remarks like, “Well, imagine these came from certain Caucasian people.” He said they were wrapped in “human skin,” which wasn’t going over too well, either. But Richard was so brilliant. Actually, that was the show that we did the soul food piece that got a lot of play, a lot of attention. He played a junkie and I owned a soul food restaurant.

Did any of your characters originate from your early days spent performing in coffee houses?

Yes. One character, definitely: The World’s Oldest Living Beauty Expert. Of course, I was conscious of how women had to be younger and better-looking and the pressure on women to be like that. And I was fascinated because Helena Rubinstein and all the old queens of beauty—Estée Lauder and Elizabeth Arden—were so old. They were in their 80s. You never really saw photographs of them except early photographs.

And Helena Rubinstein had that ad on TV with these hands and great fingernails and great big rings she had, and she’d say [Tomlin claps her hands twice loudly and adopts a thick German accent] “I am Helenor Rubinshteim!” But you’d only see her hands and they would show her products. So I was just fascinated by that whole thing, and that was sort of my reaction to the obsession with youth and beauty, because she’s an old beauty consultant and her face is all deteriorated, as you can’t avoid with time and gravity. And then she rejuvenates it, and then she sneezes and it all falls down again. That was one of my first monologues.

Tell me about your experiences on Flip Wilson’s show.

That was one of the first guest shots that I got to do after I was on “Laugh-In” and was well-known. He was so big at that time. In those old days you had those half-dozen variety shows and everybody would do guest shots. You don’t have that anymore.

Flip and I did this whole routine where Ernestine is teaching Geraldine how to be a phone operator. [Flip and I] did a thing about date-matching and we’re in the lobby together and we’re getting along so well. And this is a very innocent, sweet kind of sketch from those early days. My God, this goes back 40 years, almost. And you can see that we’re just sort of meant for each other but then we go in and, of course, we’re not gonna be paired, partly because of the racial thing at that time. But that’s never spoken of but it’s implied.

Are you ever offended by comics like Sam Kinison or Andrew Dice Clay?

No, I’m not offended but it depends. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it. Now, Sam used to tickle me a little bit. That one thing he had when he talked about people starving to death [in Africa]. He’d say, “There’s no food there, go where the food is!” That sort of incredible black irony. But I couldn’t even quote very much of what Sam did onstage. Who knows why people get up the persona they get to do what they do? I’m much more attracted to the more humanistic. I greatly adored Pryor. Because his material was so human, so vulnerable. He was so vulnerable himself. I’m more drawn to character portrayal. I’m not a big fan of scatological stuff.

Has Ernestine [Tomlin's telephone operator character] been approached by the Bush Administration to perhaps assist with wire-tapping in the past few years?

When the whole NSA thing surfaced, a lot of editorial cartoonists went back and used Ernestine. They had her in the White House phone room with those little slit eyes, listening. She constantly resurfaces. In recent times, she has a reality-based webcast chat show called “Ernestine Calls You On It, and You Better Have an Answer.” Wherever she can have power. Not too long ago she took a job at one of the HMOs so she could decline all the requests for life-saving healthcare. [laughs]

Didn’t you and other cast members snub John Wayne when he appeared on “Laugh-In”?

[Laughing] Well, I didn’t get my picture taken with him ’cause I was so anti-war at the time, and so anti-Nixon and the White House scene. And then once a very sad thing happened. You know, when you’re young like that, instead of engaging John Wayne in some way . . . to me it was more juvenile, but in those days—or any day—it seems like that’s how you took a stand. But I’m not saying it’s productive. It’s not a very good tactic.

Anyway, so Martha Mitchell [the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell who frequently leaked to reporters information about her husband's Watergate activity] came on the show. You know how she was always calling journalists at night. She was known for that, her phone activity. So I was supposed to do a phone call with her. And I did but I only did it on the split screen, you know? It was just stupid [not to appear on the set with Mitchell]. I mean, I really see it as stupid.

And then later, when all that terrible stuff happened to her with John Mitchell—many people think she was really, really suppressed, both physically and verbally. Many people think she was taken prisoner in a sense, or sedated. And then in her autobiography she talks about that, on one of the very earliest pages. And I only read it after she died. And she said how deeply hurt she was that I snubbed her at “Laugh-In.” And she would be exactly the kind of woman that I would be able to communicate with. She’s just like a family member—flamboyant, Southern, plenty to say, and kind of has that engaging innocence. It was something I totally regretted.

What was your reaction when you discovered that the clips from I Heart Huckabees, where you and director David Russell are cursing one another, were on YouTube?

Well, first of all, they were old. They were like four years old, and I had never really seen them. But they had made the rounds of the agencies here at the time. We’re [Russell and Tomlin] still friends. In fact, we were friends probably 10 or 15 minutes after one of those things happened. But it was the same week that poor Britney Spears was in that incredible, uh, you know, uh, crotch shot—I’m trying to choose a word for “crotch shot”—on the internet. Those words [on the YouTube clip] were inside of me and I said them. People are going to have to realize that maybe I’m not the perfect, well-behaved, well-spoken person they might imagine I would be. And some guy in China made a rap song to it . . .

Would the type of confrontation you had with Russell ever have happened between you and Robert Altman?

Noooo, God, no . . . David’s pretty volatile, anyway, and it was just the nature of what was going on that day. And you saw me. I said, “I’ve had it up to here!” [laughs] And I was pretty upset that day from all kinds of circumstances. You can’t hear David. He’s yelling at me outside the car, saying all kinds of things. But you can only hear me, unfortunately.

Altman, he was one of a kind. Even when we were making A Prairie Home Companion, he was getting chemo. But you would never even think about it, other than that he was kind of frail. But he was completely Altman, he was completely in charge without being in any way authoritative or overbearing. He was just so cool. Actors just adored Altman because he was just incredibly human, available, unpretentious. And if you made Altman laugh, that was really awesome.

Let me tell you this story because it didn’t get in the movie, because his cameras are floating all the time. A lot of times you do something and it’s not really being photographed. So when Meryl Streep and I would talk [in the film] about our mother when we would sing, and we’re talking about the old days and how Momma was scrubbing the floor and how our singing made her smile and all that, and what hard times we had. This is a story about my own father and his family. And I love this story so much that I was always thinking, “Now where can I get it into [a movie]? This is the perfect movie.”

So I said [to Streep's character], “Well, all our times weren’t hard. Remember when we as kids were acting up and Momma would boil an ear of corn and put it down on the floor and we’d all root around and eat it like we were pigs? Those were happy times!” And Altman laughed . . . It wasn’t on film and I never repeated it. If I’d known it wasn’t on film, believe me, I would have repeated it. &

Lily Tomlin appears Saturday, November 3, 8 p.m., at the Alys Stephens Center. Tickets are $28-$62. Details: 975-2787 or

Top This

Top This

Local musician, libertine, and hard-living nightlife veteran Topper Price shuffles off with a legacy of unbeatable stories.

May 31, 2007
Topper Price, a local blues harmonica virtuoso and singer, died on May 16 at age 54, a victim of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle he enthusiastically led for nearly 40 years. A legend in Alabama for his spirited, emotionally charged performances in seedy bars and the occasional elegant nightclub, Price—a baseball fanatic—once defined his style with this appropriate quote: “Chicago-style rhythm and blues, buddy. That’s my pitch. That’s the one I can knock out of the ballpark.” A joke that spread around town in the days following his death was that with Topper’s demise, angry bartenders were ripping up tabs that he’d left unpaid for months, if not years. Topper was a mess—a “mess” in both senses: as a rascal for whom we harbor fondness, and as a self-destructive personality in the way he often conducted his life.

Strangers, close friends, and mere acquaintances were continually amazed at Topper’s gregariousness and seemingly endless knowledge about a number of topics. If anyone wondered who pitched the third game of the 1982 World Series, for example, Topper had the answer. Price could tell you what car Mario Andretti was driving the year he won the Formula One world racing championship (a Lotus), then give engine and chassis specifications before reeling off accomplishments by drivers A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, or Al Unser—and that was before he got around to discussing music or obscure historical facts about World War II. He rarely shunned an admirer who wanted to talk, and would spend hours at a bar asking strangers questions about their lives, though it usually helped spur conversation if the strangers were buying the drinks.

Topper Price on stage with the Subdudes. (Photo by Chris Baker.) (click for larger version)



In a 1999 documentary by Birmingham filmmaker Chris Holmes, Topper explained how he started in show business: “I played my harmonica everywhere I went, at wildly inappropriate times. Wrong keys, wrong bands. Walked up to people I didn’t even know and started playing for them. I was the prototype of a really enthusiastic, horrible harmonica player who drove everybody around him nuts. Finally people started giving me lessons just to get me to be a little better, because they knew they were going to have to listen to me anyway . . . So I was bad for a long time and then all of a sudden one day I was pretty good. People started asking me to play instead of asking me to leave. I guess that was my big commercial break.”

Price eventually met Wet Willie singer Jimmy Hall, who gave Topper his most useful harmonica lesson. “Just blow as hard as you can and you’ll figure out the rest,” Hall said. Price’s masterful touch of country and blues literally defined Dickey Betts’ early solo work after Price was invited to play on the former Allman Brothers Band member’s first solo record. Topper’s late buddy Rick Danko invited him onstage with The Band from time to time. “Hey, pal. That was j-u-u-u-st right,” drummer Levon Helm told Price one night in Atlanta after Topper played with The Band on “Mystery Train.”

Topper was known to call friends on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths, and he’d drop by the hospital to visit those whom he knew only peripherally. He often phoned friends unexpectedly simply to tell them that he loved them and was thinking about them.

“I was bad for a long time and then all of a sudden one day I was pretty good. People started asking me to play instead of asking me to leave. I guess that was my big commercial break.”

Tim Boykin was Topper’s guitar player for a decade. “Topper was leading the band, and he would do stuff to try to scuttle the band performance, trying to screw up the band on purpose. Sometimes I would stand behind him, if we had new guys playing that night, and cue the band to what was supposed to happen. Topper would get pissed off at me because I would give the band the right cues,” Boykin said, laughing. “But I sure did love Topper and I miss the hell out of him.”

Price’s ability to play while extremely intoxicated was legendary. Boykin remembered Topper would get pretty drunk and forget who he was playing with. “He’d turn to me and call me ‘Rick’ [Kurtz, who often swapped out guitar duties with Boykin], but he could still play his ass off and not even know where he was.”

Once, his backing band The Upsetters were playing in Florida. “God, he almost burned down a condo we were staying at in Destin,” said Boykin. “He put a TV dinner in the oven without taking it out of the cardboard box and went to bed. Smoked up the damn condo.”

Don Tinsley, who played bass with Topper in The Upsetters for 20 years, recalled Topper’s swagger whenever he entered a room, his head tilted at a cocky angle. “If it wasn’t his gig he would wander up with that swagger and lean on the stage, as if to say, ‘you’re going to get me up to play, right?’ The first time I met him was at a club in the late ’70s or early ’80s when he walked up and did that to the Amazing Rhythm Aces. They didn’t even know him.”

Tinsley’s favorite story involved a dead opossum. “We were coming back from an out-of-town gig up over the hill by Vulcan. We started down and there was a car coming up the hill. All of sudden, from out of nowhere, the biggest opossum I’d ever seen in my life was slowly ambling across the road. We slowed up a little and it kept on walking, but the other car didn’t see it. Topper stuck his head out of the window of our van and shouted “Heeeey!” as loud as he could, and he sounded exactly like James Brown. And the guy in the oncoming car looked at Topper and the opossum stopped and looked at Topper, and the other car squashed the opossum flat. That was Topper, trying to do the right thing.”

Price in the recording studio with Robert Moore. (click for larger version)



“I’ve seen him light a cigarette on a stove and then turn the flame up instead of off, and then walk away, oblivious. He wasn’t looking at the stove, he was on autopilot, just taking care of business,” Tinsley said. “I think that was in Florida, just like the TV dinner incident. For some reason, Topper and the coast just didn’t get along.”

The day Upsetters guitarist Rick Kurtz learned that Topper had died, he found a baseball glove that Topper had given him in 1988. “We played catch in the backyard all the time when I lived with him for a while . . . About a year after that he gave me [Minnesota Twins slugger] Rod Carew’s instruction book on hitting a baseball. Here I was, 38 years old, and that’s something you give a Little League kid. It was beautiful. He even signed it for me: ‘Kurtzy, I want you to have this.’”

Highland Music owner Don Murdoch said that his wife always insisted that Topper be invited to Murdoch’s Christmas parties. “Everybody would be standing around, making small talk, with things not too lively. Then Topper would show up, pull out his harp, and start doing Christmas carols. He saved my Christmas party every year,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch recalled the day that he and an ex-girlfriend were driving to lunch in his convertible sports car with Topper. Murdoch’s lady friend had a severe case of poison ivy and was complaining constantly as they drove. While at a stop light, Topper suddenly stood up in the back of the tiny convertible and loudly sang the classic “Poison Ivy” while they waited for the light to change. The light turned green, and Topper took a bow as fellow motorists applauded and cheered.

Topper’s former road manager Joey Oliver spoke of the night that Topper played a party at the home of Southern Poverty Law Center director Morris Dees in Montgomery. At the end of the evening, Topper playfully punched Dees in the arm as he often did to others. Dees did not find it funny, and Topper turned to Oliver and said, “Joey, I think I just fu**ed up. I just hit the man who got rid of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Oliver remembered being at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with Price, who was backstage after playing with The Radiators. Topper spied CBS newsman Ed Bradley and introduced himself. About that time, Price’s girlfriend walked over and asked Bradley, “Do you know Topper?” Bradley smiled and said, “Everybody knows Topper.”

“I’ve often credited Topper with giving me a career,” said Damon Johnson, formerly of Birmingham’s Brother Cane. The band’s 1993 hit “Got No Shame” featured a blistering harmonica intro by Topper. “That harmonica intro is what made our song stand out above everything else on rock radio at the time. . . . We worked with a producer named Jim Mitchell, who was an assistant producer and engineer on the Guns N’ Roses album Use Your Illusion.” Mitchell wanted to use a harmonica player who had worked with Guns N’ Roses but Johnson argued for using Topper. Price, who had never heard the song, came into Airwave Studios in Birmingham where Brother Cane recorded the harmonica overdub, and recorded two takes, the first of which is heard on the song. “The first note that the world heard of Brother Cane was Topper inhaling [to begin] the intro to ‘Got No Shame.’”

Jazz singer and trumpeter Robert Moore, who recently moved from Birmingham to Oregon, spoke at length on Price: “Topper robbed my liquor cabinet constantly. He would put bottles that he’d drained back into my freezer, empty. But Jesus, I loved him. I’ll never forget once asking him about an old Memphis soul tune, to which he instantly recounted the year, the producer, label, musicians on the date, etc. It floored me. Why Google when a phone call to Top would tell you more? And the range of his data bank wasn’t restricted to music. I bought a used Ford pickup a few years ago. Top only looked at it, and said to me, ‘Moore, that’s a 289 right? I think those engines were made in Canada by Ford that year—great vehicle.’ I later opened the truck door to examine the ID plate, and found that every detail he’d ‘guessed’ was exactly accurate.”

One summer while living in Mobile, Topper had a brief fling of sorts with Charles Manson clan member Patricia Krenwinkel before he discovered that she was a fugitive (Krenwinkel participated in the Tate/LaBianca murders in 1969). Topper, who was then about 16 years old, was watching television with some friends when a news bulletin announced that Krenwinkel had been arrested in Mobile (Manson had sent her there to live with her aunt after the murders). Krenwinkel had been apprehended at a favorite Mobile hangout of Topper and his pals. “We’ve got to get out of this house!” said one guy, terrified that the police might raid the home, where Krenwinkel had been hanging around for a week or so. When Topper asked why everyone was so freaked out, one fellow said, “Hey Top. Remember Katie, that girl who’s been giving you back rubs whenever she stops by? That’s Krenwinkel.”

I’ll never forget being at The Nick around 3 a.m. when Topper, usually low on cash and always searching for free drinks, walked outside and spied a dozen plastic cups of half-consumed cocktails on the banister in front of the club. With lightning speed, he grabbed each cup and drank the leftover contents. Before walking back into the club, he stopped long enough to spit a hail of cigarette butts, machine gun-style, against the outside wall. My jaw dropped, just as it had several nights previously when he snatched the cup of water The Nick’s security guard had been using only moments earlier to polish his shoes outside the club. Topper downed the liquid that he must have assumed was bourbon and water.

If only Topper had cared about his own health as much as he did about the well-being of his buddies. I remember once complaining about my problems with gout. “Eddie, what you need to do is go to the grocery store and get a can of Bing cherries. That’s Bing cherries, you got that? It’s a miracle cure,” he growled in his affected Howlin’ Wolf voice. Months later he asked about my gout. I told him the Bing cherries didn’t work. Then I asked how he had been doing, and I’ll never forget his response—the last words I ever heard from him. That his reply referenced chemistry was appropriate. “Eduardo, my friend, I’m a free radical in search of a covalent bond.” &

On Wednesday, June 27, The Nick will host a fundraiser in memory of Price. For more information, call 252-3831.

Where the Beers Are

Where the Beers Are

Anyone interested in exploring the world of microbrewed and “gourmet” beer can find a staggering variety of interesting beers in the Birmingham area.

May 31, 2007
For those seeking beer to go, Vulcan Beverage on University Boulevard has the largest selection in Alabama, with approximately 250 bottled beers available. “We’re the largest seller of Samuel Smith beer in the state,” brags Vulcan owner Mark Green. There are 12 different Samuel Smith beers in stock, as well as 10 flavors of Samuel Adams. Other favorites include Hobgoblin (a dark English ale), Abita Strawberry Ale (made with Louisiana strawberries), Xingu (Brazilian black beer), and Redbridge (made from sorghum, and gluten free).Overton & Vine in Mountain Brook is a popular beer oasis with personality to spare. Atmosphere is provided by Waylon Jennings or The Grateful Dead on the radio; framed, autographed portraits of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jerry Garcia on the walls; and loquacious owner Smitty Smith behind the counter. (Smitty’s not shy about sharing his feelings on a variety of topics; ask him how he feels about the governor.) Stella Artois is the store’s best-selling import. The top-selling microbrew is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Other popular brews include Rodenbach (Belgium), Red Tail (California), Sweetwater (Atlanta), Flying Dog (Denver), Tiger Beer (Singapore), and Terrapin (Athens, Georgia).

Single beer purchases are available at both Vulcan Beverage and Overton & Vine, as well as the opportunity for customers to create their own six-packs, a boon for anyone reluctant to try a six-pack of an expensive import.

An impressive gourmet beer selection is also on the shelf at the Piggly Wiggly supermarkets in Crestline, Homewood, and Liberty Park; Tria Market in Homewood’s Soho Square (singles available); Whole Foods at the intersection of Highway 280 and Rocky Ridge Road; and the Western supermarkets on Rocky Ridge Road and in Mountain Brook.

• • •
If you prefer to drink in a bar or restaurant, there are three On Tap Sports Cafes in the area (Lakeview, Inverness, and Hoover) that feature 25 different brands of draft on tap. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Newcastle are among top sellers. Cafe Ciao in English Village offers 11 eclectic beers on tap, which is fairly impressive for a small café.

But The J. Clyde restaurant on Cobb Lane is turning beer aficionados on their heads, so to speak, offering more than 150 different brands on tap or in bottles. If you come specifically to sample the beer, ask the hostess to pair you with one of the servers who is a beer aficionado (unfortunately, not all fit this bill).

“Far and away the best restaurant bar in Birmingham for these beers,” says Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops, about J. Clyde. Kline is irate that so few white tablecloth restaurants in the area serve fine beers. “Those places give beer no respect,” Kline says. “They think almost exclusively in terms of wine. Beer is an afterthought. A few of them offer a Newcastle or a Guinness. I’ve yet to see any of those places carry more than seven or eight beers. It’s pathetic. . . . Here they are, a high-end restaurant carrying high-end wine, and yet they’re carrying the McDonald’s of beer. Beer does pair really well with food, and they don’t understand that.” —Ed Reynolds

The following are some of the retail and bar establishments that offer quality selections of gourmet and microbrewed beer in the greater Birmingham area.

Retail: Vulcan Beverage (Southside): 328-6275,; Overton & Vine (Mountain Brook): 967-1409; Diplomat Deli (Vestavia): 979-1515; Tria Market (Homewood): 776-8923,; Whole Foods (Mountain Brook): 912-8400,

Restaurant: The J. Clyde (Southside): 939-1312,; The Barking Kudu (Lakeview): 328-1748,; Cafe Ciao (English Village): 871-2423; On Tap Sports Café:, Hoover: 988-5558, Inverness: 437-1999, Lakeview: 320-1225.

Still Southern After All These Years

Still Southern After All These Years

By Ed Reynolds
May 31, 2007

Roy Blount, Jr.’s essays and books of wry observations slice reality into more amusingly diverse shapes than a Ronco Veg-O-Matic. When not defending his fellow Southerners (Blount grew up in Georgia), he turns that much-maligned chunk of America known as the Deep South into a cultural punching bag for the amusement of Yankees everywhere, even while launching hilarious tirades against the North for its ignorance concerning Dixie.

Currently heard on National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” Blount first achieved notoriety when he followed the Pittsburgh Steelers for almost a year to write the book Three Bricks Shy of a Load in 1974. Periodically, his barbed-wire embrace of the South gets him wrongly lumped in with Lewis Grizzard, the late redneck humorist who harvested acres of corn-pone jokes, apparently willed to comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Blount writes, “I have been referred to as ‘the thinking man’s Lewis Grizzard’—a description that nearly eliminates every possible market.” Blount adds that Grizzard’s best-selling humor books are “to Southern humor as foot-long pecan rolls are to Southern cuisine.”

In his latest book, Blount recalls the arrival of Krispy Kreme donuts in New York City several years ago: “At a grocery store on the Upper West Side called Gourmet Garage, I came upon a tray full of cold Krispy Kremes for sale beneath a sign that said FRESH FROM THE ANTE-BELLUM SOUTH. ‘Well, now,’ I said to the man behind the counter. ‘They can’t be any too fresh . . . I mean, if they date back to circa 1859.’”


“I did a story about Willie Nelson for Esquire some years ago, and had a couple of hits of his weed. I don’t know how he functions on that stuff.” (click for larger version)



Blount will give a lecture and sign copies of his latest book, Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South at the McWane Center at 6:30 p.m. on June 12. The event will benefit 90.3 WBHM. Call 870-4242 for details.

Black & White: When I was younger, Southern stereotypes, as portrayed in Hollywood or books, sort of bothered me. Now that I’m older, I get a perverse pleasure out of insulting perceptions of the South.

“The Beverly Hillbillies” always sort of bothered me. But I always enjoyed “Hee Haw”—well, not every minute of it. There’s a piece in my book about the difference between Nashville, which is supposed to be a great movie, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, even though there are all sorts of broad stereotypes, because it seemed to be appreciative. And also the music was really good. Whereas in Nashville, the music was written by the damn actors, and Robert Altman didn’t seem to care anything about what Nashville was really like.

Any thoughts on the Confederate flag?

I get a lot of questions about the Confederate flag. It’s crazy to have a flag that divides people of the region along racial lines. So I suggested a new Southern flag that would be half green for “money” and half blue for “the blues.” And sort of a dark brown male-looking hand and a tan male-looking hand, and the same thing with (two) female hands, and they would all be doing what flags do, which is wave. And the slogan underneath would be “Just fine. And you?” It would be a lot friendlier flag.

What’s your opinion of Don Imus?

I didn’t like Don Imus. I was not sorry to see him go. I never did appear on his show. He always just seemed, to me, to be pushing the envelope to no good end . . . I used to drive my kids to school and we used to listen to him, and none of us liked him. It seemed to me he was trying to be cooler than he was. And you just don’t say “Nappy-headed ho’s.” I wouldn’t say it in private, much less on the radio . . . or say it by accident (laughs).

How did you come to follow the Pittsburgh Steelers for Three Bricks Shy of a Load?

I was working at Sports Illustrated and one day the managing editor summoned me to the bar where a bunch of [writers and editors] would sit around at lunchtime—and after work—and drink. And they came up with the notion that somebody on the staff should spend a year with a football team and write a book . . . I had just gotten divorced and I was sort of at loose ends and I had covered the [Pittsburgh] Pirates a lot, and, also, I had done a story about the Rooney family, who owned the Steelers. [Sports Illustrated] wanted me to do the L.A. Rams or the Jets or some famous team, but I had the sense that Pittsburgh would be the place to go. So I said I’d do it if I could do it in Pittsburgh.

What was your reception like among the players?

I think it was better than it would have been in L.A. or New York, because the Steelers hadn’t been covered all that much at that time. This was the 1973 season . . . I really had that team nailed. I knew everybody on the team and the hangers-on and the coaches and scouts. It was a great way to see a cross-section of American life.

I read you were unhappy when introduced once at a humor-writing seminar as “the world’s most sophisticated redneck.”

I don’t think people ought to throw around the word “redneck” the way they do. People from the North don’t seem to realize that there is anything potentially insulting about it. If I were more of a redneck, it would be one thing, but I don’t even have a dog. I’d like to have one. I have had many dogs, but at the moment I don’t have one . . . The “introducer” didn’t know what a redneck was . . . And I’m not all that sophisticated. It was condescending without realizing it was condescending. The taxonomy was all screwed up (laughs).

Was Lewis Grizzard a sophisticated redneck?

Well, he did cocaine and wore loafers without any socks (laughs). In those two respects, he was more sophisticated than I.

Do you still eat Krispy Kreme donuts?

I remember loving them, and I will eat one occasionally. I used to eat half a dozen. Now I think I would die if I ate three. But I nostalgically eat one every now and then. I still think they’re a lot better than Dunkin’ Donuts. At least when they’re hot. I was disillusioned when I was bringing my wife to taste a hot Krispy Kreme for the first time. And the “Hot Now” sign was blinking at this Krispy Kreme store [in New York City]. I went in and they weren’t hot. I said, “You got you’re ‘Hot Now’ light blinking.” And he said, “Well, the manager said to keep that blinking all the time.” And it just broke my heart. You can’t do that.

Chef Frank Stitt was on “The Martha Stewart Show” a few weeks ago to prepare some sort of typical Southern dish, and when he ladled out the grits, the studio audience started applauding.

I don’t know why people think grits are unusual. I do like grits, and you can get grits in New York at some places, not just fancy places. Grits are such a great absorptive substance. The yellow of the eggs and red-eye gravy and stuff. I remember Jerry Clower talking about being served Irish potatoes for breakfast. Explaining grits is sort of like asking an Irishman to explain “potato.” They’re just grits.

I doubt if the marijuana was a surprise to anybody, but how about Willie Nelson also being charged with possession of psilocybin mushrooms a few months ago?

I did a story about Willie for Esquire some years ago, and had a couple of hits of his weed. I don’t know how he functions on that stuff. But he’s always been pretty open about that. Mushrooms? Shit, I’m too old to do stuff like that. But then again, if Willie wants to do psilocybin mushrooms, who am I to tell him no? &