Category Archives: Music

America’s Girl Singer — APT airs the story of vocalist Rosemary Clooney

America’s Girl Singer

APT airs the story of vocalist Rosemary Clooney.

“She could find the center of a note and just nail it,” Frank Sinatra remarked of legendary singer Rosemary Clooney. Clooney’s wondrous ability to seduce an audience with pop standards from the classic American songbook is documented in the PBS special “Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer,” narrated by Carol Burnett. Performances on the program are drawn from Clooney’s 1956-57 weekly television series, where her stunning good looks and deep, rich vocals cast a spell as she vamped her way into living rooms across the country.

The PBS special, “Rosemay Clooney: Girl Singer,” will feature performances from Clooney’s 1956-57 weekly television series. (click for larger version)

Rosemary Clooney’s first number one hit was a song she absolutely detested—”Come On-a My House,” written by Ross Bagdasarian, who later created a cartoon combo called Alvin and the Chipmunks under the moniker David Seville. Clooney initially balked at singing the song because of its novelty nature, but when threatened with cancellation of her recording contract, she readily complied.

Clooney’s devotion to family is lovingly detailed in “Girl Singer,” with numerous testimonies from her five children, brother Nick, and famed nephew, actor George Clooney. “When she was at her best was in a cabaret,” remembers her nephew. “She’d be standing up, leaning against a piano singing some phenomenal song, and everybody would fall in love with her . . . She brought sadness but not despair.” He added that she once told him that her secret was to always sing a sad song with a smile on her face. Clooney purchased the house where Ira and George Gershwin wrote their final song together, a home her children fondly remember for impromptu rehearsals around the living room piano. Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, and Nat King Cole often joined Clooney in song until sunrise.

Irving Berlin’s 1954 classic holiday film White Christmas introduced Rosemary Clooney’s exceptional beauty and remarkable acting prowess to the world. Her duets with costar Bing Crosby on “Counting My Blessings” and, of course, the title track became as essential to Christmas as mistletoe. Unfortunately, her acting roles were few. She won an Emmy in 1997 playing an Alzheimer’s patient opposite nephew George on “ER.”

Clooney got hooked on prescription medication for depression after her first divorce from actor Jose Ferrer in 1960, a marriage that produced five children in five years. She divorced Ferrer a second time in 1967, then witnessed the assassination of Robert Kennedy a year later while standing only a few feet from the 1968 presidential candidate. Clooney spiraled into a nervous breakdown soon thereafter, eventually checking into a psychiatric hospital. A 1976 tour with Bing Crosby to celebrate Crosby’s 50 years in showbiz launched a career singing jazz that blossomed until her death in 2002.

As the “ultimate girl singer,” Clooney left a legacy that will be difficult to match. Among the musical gems showcased in “Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer” are “My Blue Heaven,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Come On-a My House,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and a dozen others. Nick Clooney summed up his sister’s musical flair: “When you hear her voice, we hear not the way we were but the way we wanted to be.” “Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer” will be broadcast Saturday, March 13, at 5:30 p.m. on Alabama Public Television. &

Leader of the Band

Leader of the Band

Local musician and orchestra conductor Frank Bettencourt represented a long-ago era in American music.


February 03, 2011

From the time of the 1930s swing band heyday—when the nation danced to music by Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey—to the era of the entertainment resort/supper clubs of the 1960s, performing in an ostensibly glamorous big band was akin to being a well-dressed migrant worker. The hours were brutal, but the pay was good, the food was good, and the clientele at least appeared to have some class. Bands traveled from supper club to resort to dance hall, setting up shop for two- or four-week residencies. The band played multiple sets in an evening, often backing up a floor show, which was the main attraction, consisting of comedians (such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis) or nightclub singers such as Tony Bennett. It was a circuit traveled by almost anyone who sang or danced professionally at the time.

For seven decades, former Mountain Brook resident Frank Bettencourt (who passed away in January 2009 at the age of 93) performed in and conducted these traveling big band dance orchestras. By 1951, some of those engagements were at Birmingham’s The Club on top of Red Mountain, where Bettencourt played his last gigs before retiring in 2005.

Two years before his death, Black & White spoke with Bettencourt and his daughters, Jan Fox and Suzanne Scott, at the Scott residence in Mountain Brook. We wanted to get an idea of the family’s life during the long, lost era of the dance clubs and swing bands. We got more than an idea because, as Scott summarized the era: “We lived it.”

In the Beginning
Bettencourt, a California native, began his musical odyssey in 1936 as a college student, playing trombone in a dance band in Lake Tahoe. As Suzanne told the story: “He graduated with a degree in education, and right out of college he had a gig at Lake Tahoe all summer. He said it was the best summer of his life. The minute he heard ‘Anything Goes’ by Cole Porter played with a big band, he knew he was going to be a musician, he was not going to be a music teacher.”

Frank Bettencourt’s head shot, courtesy MCA (Music Corporation of America) Management (click for larger version)

A friend recommended the group Bettencourt played in at Tahoe to orchestra leader Buddy Fisher. Bettencourt recalled, “Fisher made a deal and [the band met in] Dallas—that was the summer of ’37. We toured in cars and it was pretty damn hot getting through the desert without air conditioning.” Dallas is where Bettencourt met his wife, Alice, as Suzanne recalled. “My mother was working at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, that’s where they later met. And everybody told her ‘Don’t get mixed up with those musicians.’”

After two years with Fisher, Bettencourt went on to play with the Bobby Peters Orchestra until 1942, when renowned bandleader Jan Garber hired him to be his arranger and conductor. Like the bands of Guy Lombardo and Sammy Kaye, Garber’s orchestras played in a “sweet” style—lighter than swing, less emphasis on the drums. Noting with a grin that the sweet sound was often referred to as “Mickey Mouse,” Bettencourt explained: “The drummer could have stayed home and you wouldn’t have known the difference.”

When Bettencourt was drafted into the army in 1943, he played with a military dance band until the Battle of the Bulge threatened to briefly end his musical career. (More than 600,000 American soldiers fought in the famous World War II battle.) “They were taking all the musicians and putting them in the infantry after six weeks of training, flying them over to Europe,” Bettencourt said. Before being shipped to Europe to fight, Bettencourt stopped in to visit Garber. Garber knew an army major with connections. “Soon I had a message from the major saying, ‘Report to sick call in the morning,’ and they took me out of that group [assigned to Europe for the Battle of the Bulge].”

Bettencourt’s daughter Jan Fox recalled “It was Jan [Garber, who saved him from going overseas]. Suzanne was very sick. She was a baby. And Jan Garber knew this particular general and made a phone call and said, ‘Look, I need you to make sure he stays here with his wife while his daughter gets well,’ which is what the general did. In fact, Daddy and the general stayed in touch with one another over the years.”

Bettencourt recounted his stint in the military: “I was fortunate enough to get reclassified as a medic in the hospital where they had musicians like me working in the mornings in the wards—psychotic wards, basically. Then our little group would go around and play the bases in the afternoon.”

Bettencourt’s daughters remember the pervasive influence and importance of swing music during the Depression and war eras. Jan recalled: “Music during the war was very important because you had to keep the spirits up. They used the music to keep people supporting [the war effort] despite what they were doing without. The car manufacturing companies had to turn their cars over—cars weren’t being produced for all that time, they were making tanks and things to ship overseas. The music is what kept people’s spirits up. These were farmers that were coming to hear the music. They were not fancy folks. They’d come from as far as a hundred miles around to dance to the music. They’d wear their very finest clothes.”

Suzanne continued: “People wanted to get out and be seen, they wanted to dress up. And remember the women couldn’t wear nylon stockings [because of rationing]. Well, hell, they could wear silk stockings. . . . It wasn’t all about rich people dancing; everybody wanted to dance. And they could dress up and dance. And they could eat and dance. And they could drink and dance! What’s better than that? This supper club life we’re talking about was almost an ‘in-your-face’ during the Depression. It was like, ‘Here we are, living in this awful Depression,’ and then after World War II, everybody wanted to dance. Everybody wanted to celebrate. And people who had really lived that hard life, this was all about that. They wanted to dance.”

On the Road
After the war, Bettencourt returned to work for Garber, a partnership that lasted until 1961. “We played all over the United States, all the major ballrooms and hotels and things, so I saw the country pretty well,” he recalled. “I remember doing Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine, during a six-month span. Old bandleaders like Garber, in those days that’s how they made their money, really, doing one-nighters. They didn’t have to report it [to the IRS].”

The orchestra traveled mostly by bus but occasionally took planes and trains. “In the summertime, those of us who had families or liked to have their wives with them would drive their own cars,” said Bettencourt, whose wife and daughters often traveled with him. (The family lived in Waco, Texas, while Bettencourt was on the road.) Suzanne remembered the family’s extended summer vacations:

“In the late ’40s, Jan Garber was in L.A., and to sell your records, you had to go on the road. So he went on the road, plus it was a lot of money. They played one-nighters. That was the first part of the era. The second part was the resorts when you had lengths of time [in one place]. In the ’70s, and this was the tail end of it, Daddy played the Shamrock Hilton. And you had a ballroom, which was the way you would see celebrities—not in a big arena like today. You would see first-class celebrities entertaining. Once they got to know [Dad], they used him [as] musical arranger and director. He worked with Mitzi Gaynor, Dinah Shore, Carol Channing, Florence Henderson, and Shari Lewis [puppeteer/ventriloquist who performed with Lamb Chop]. When I was 12 years old I’d been to every state in the United States but Maine, and I just thought everybody else had as well.”

Jan also recalled some unique benefits of those extended stays: “That’s where we learned to dance. And my mom loved dancing, and Daddy couldn’t dance with her, so she’d get us out on the floor and teach us to dance.”

Among Suzanne’s fondest memories is meeting Bob Hope in Omaha. “Dad took Jan and me to rehearsal with him when he played with Bob Hope. We got to sit down and have a casual conversation with [him]. That night we went to the show, and Daddy had us on the front row. Bob Hope said something to me [during his performance] and I felt like I was a movie star.”

Frank Bettencourt, far right, enjoys a moment offstage at a supper club. (click for larger version)




Listening to Nat King Cole recording sessions was a favorite memory of Bettencourt’s. He recalled finishing a session in Hollywood for Capitol Records with the Garber Orchestra, then lingering at the studio just to listen to Cole record. Bettencourt recalled some of his headier private engagements.

“When I was with Garber, we played the Biltmore in Los Angeles. They would have certain nights that they would honor some celebrity and the room would be closed to the public. On this night they were honoring Al Jolson—the Friars Club or something. So anybody who was anybody at that time was there that night. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were still together and they performed. ‘Schnozzle’ [Jimmy] Durante performed. We were at rehearsal that afternoon and the conductor says to the guys in the Garber band, ‘Take everything off the piano because Durante will tear it up!’ But the guy that stole the show that night—and he was a newcomer, so you can see how far I’m going back here—was Danny Thomas. When they came to Al Jolson, he said, ‘You ain’t heard nothing yet!’ That was his big line.”

The Bettencourt sisters remember that being the daughters of the band’s arranger held certain advantages, including the camaraderie of the band.

“The other band members, if their kids weren’t with them or if they didn’t have kids and we were along, they did things with us,” Jan recalled. “And they would take us places and they would play with us. We’d end up on the bandstand, especially when they were doing their Dixieland routine. I was very short, and I would stand on the chair behind the trumpet players, and Suzanne would be up there—that was the fun part of it.”

Suzanne chimed in, “Oh yeah, we weren’t put in the corner. We’d go to cocktail parties. I remember Rusty Draper was the most fun at cocktail parties. He was a character. We were included. It was not an era of ‘get rid of those kids’ or nannies or anything like that. I grew up thinking that everybody lives like I did.”

In the early 1950s, Bettencourt worked at The Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, where Tony Bennett sat in with the Garber Orchestra one night that Suzanne recounted fondly.

“There was nothing more glamorous, more beautiful than The Roosevelt’s Blue Room in New Orleans at Christmas. They made an arch in the hallway of angel hair, so you floated in there. . . . One year they had birdcages with live birds. There’s no telling how much money they spent on the decorations, old Southern money. Mr. Billups [Billups Oil Company] was a friend of Daddy’s. ‘Fill up with Billups.’ He’d walk into the lobby of that hotel and he’d go, ‘Fill up with who?’ And everybody knew to say, ‘Billups.’ And if they said ‘Billups,’ they got a $100 bill. I’ll tell you another fabulous place, Elitch Gardens in Denver. It had a ballroom and a live theater. They had an amusement park, with a rollercoaster. Daddy met Cesar Romero there. Cesar Romero was sharp. Of course, my Daddy would like him, because of the way he was dressed.”

Bettencourt’s time with Garber led to work with The Mills Brothers [a 1930s, '40s, and '50s jazz and pop quartet]. “Oh yes, they were the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet,” Bettencourt recalled. “What they would do, to avoid things that would happen with them being black, they made Kansas City their hub, so to speak. And every night they would fly to the engagement so they wouldn’t have to be checking into hotels and things like that. They’d have their food brought in. . . they were the nicest fellows. The Mills Brothers were gentlemen, and just the nicest friends we made in the music business.”

Suzanne recalled the difficulties for black performers before the civil rights movement. “The Mills couldn’t stay in the hotels that Daddy’s band stayed in. It always made Daddy feel bad. Daddy brought a Mills Brothers album home, and I pulled it out—because Daddy spoke so highly of them—and I said, ‘That’s the best looking one of all of them.’ And my uncle almost killed me. . . . Even though we grew up in the Deep South and there were bigots, we didn’t have that [racist view] because of Mother and Daddy. Our parents were pretty liberal. And my mother was from the South. When you meet other people and travel other places, you’re just more broad-minded.”

Going Solo
After leaving Garber’s employ in 1961, Bettencourt turned down an invitation to play with Lawrence Welk so that he could form his own orchestra. In 1963 the Frank Bettencourt Orchestra had booked a stint at Houston’s palatial Shamrock Hotel. “The Shamrock was the place to go in those days,” Bettencourt recalled. “The movie Giant was basically filmed there. It was a fabulous hotel. My orchestra soon began backing up Mitzi Gaynor, who was breaking in an act to take to Las Vegas.” Bettencourt worked with other singers of the day such as Dinah Shore and Carol Channing.

Jan recalled her father’s relationship with celebrities of the day: “Even though they were big-name people, their bond was their music and their talent and their entertainment. So you were treated as an equal, and the families were as well. I was at rehearsal [once] and my Dad had said repeatedly, ‘Don’t you dare interrupt rehearsal. Just sit there and behave yourself.’ And so I did, and Bob Hope was like, ‘Come over here.’ And I’m looking at Daddy and he went, ‘Alright.’ So I went over and [Bob Hope] was always chewing gum. So he gave me some gum and we sat and talked. And that’s when they got the picture of me sitting on his lap. And Suzanne was swooning over the Everly Brothers, because she was older.”

Suzanne remembered: “I thought that Daddy was finally cool because the Everly Brothers were playing with him. But I’ll tell you who impressed Daddy more than anybody was Dick Van Dyke—he and his brother started out with a road show, the two of them as comedians, doing standup. They’d come out of the Roosevelt Hotel and Daddy said they’d be walking along and one of them disappeared, and you’d walk a little farther and they’d come out of a trash can and scare you. They never were off their comedy. The band would go out [after playing] and socialize with other musicians and actors at bars outside of the French Quarter. Daddy said there was pot then—minimal—but that was before the drugs. Musicians were ‘out there,’ they were thrill seekers, and they drank, but it wasn’t like they laid around the hotel and drank and drank.”

Frank Bettencourt poses with an unknown showgirl. (click for larger version)

Suzanne moved to Birmingham, in the early 1960s after her husband found work here. Her parents eventually followed. In Birmingham, Bettencourt’s first gigs at The Club were with the Jan Garber Orchestra back in 1951. The venue was the city’s top choice for couples out for an evening of dining and dancing. By the late 1990s, Bettencourt was working The Club with a seven-piece combo, leading the band on piano. Prior to his passing, Bettencourt reflected on how The Club had changed since that time: “They have to cater to the younger members because the older members are dying. I guess that’s what the squabble is about now. Maybe they want to modernize it, more or less. But business is not that great. During the week, people don’t stay out late anymore. They don’t go out much during the week like they used to.”

Bettencourt also reflected on the social and political changes that the nation was undergoing during the 1960s. “The whole year of 1968 I was playing at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago. That was the year of all the trouble—the Democratic Convention. We were right in the middle of it because we had complimentary accommodations at the hotel. It was unimaginable what they were doing, that hippie group [the Chicago Seven]. . . . That’s when I really became against Walter Cronkite because he was putting down Mayor Daley for what he was doing [to maintain order]. The hippies would come in that hotel with Limburger cheese and rub it on the walls—unimaginable things going on. Throwing bricks through windows, starting fires. It was terrible.”

Though the Bettencourt daughters often missed their parents due to their father’s work, they say they admired him not only for living his own life but also for the devotion to sharing that life with their mother. “In the year 2000, The Club wanted him New Year’s Eve. But he got a gig in Houston and took it,” Suzanne recalled. “They cut him back a little bit at The Club after that. That was stupid on his part. I said, ‘You’re in Birmingham with your family. You’re going to drag Mother to Texas.’ The millennium. He thought this was going to be his big night. He can honestly say he did things his way. Good for him. . . . He was a good father and he was a good man. But we were kind of bystanders sometimes.” Jan added, “Well, music was his life. And my mother enjoyed every minute of it and loved being a part of it. They were together for 67 years. . . . He was first on stage at five years old in Oakland, and they had Vaudeville acts. Then he played The Club when he was 90 years old. So he had an 85-year career.”

Bettencourt spent his final years living at Suzanne’s home in Mountain Brook. A piano occupied one corner of his downstairs living room, the wall behind the instrument lined with framed, autographed photographs of the stars with whom he played during his career. “I still keep late hours. I put the light out about 1 in the morning, and I eat breakfast around 11 in the morning. Little things pop into your mind at my age,” he said as he flipped through photograph albums that spanned his decades in music. He agreed that people were much more conscious of dressing well when going out for the evening when he was younger. “To see the way the world has become [fashion-wise],” Bettencourt said, shaking his head. “No class . . . people buy clothes today to make them look ragged.”

Stopping at a photo of himself playing a trombone with his bare toes, he recalled the comic skits that were a part of his orchestra act. “One bit we did was where I would holler, ‘Burlap, oh Burlap!’ One of my band members would then ask, ‘Who’s Burlap?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, she’s an old bag from such and such a town who’s supposed to meet me here tonight after the show.’ Well, there was a guy at the show from that little town I referenced in my joke who wanted to beat me up because he was from that little town and he thought I was talking about his wife!”

Bettencourt’s wife, Alice, who passed away in December 2006, is in many of the photos. “I really miss my wife,” he suddenly sighed. “She would have turned 91 the day after Valentine’s Day. We were married 66 years.” When asked if the couple had a favorite song, he began playing a heartfelt rendition of the 1932 Irving Berlin classic “How Deep Is the Ocean?” Asked if he would accommodate a recent request from The Club that he return to the bandstand, Bettencourt shook his head and replied, “I’ve had a great life, and I’m not up to it anymore.” He stared out a window, paused for a second, and then grinned: “I’m 91 years old, damn it!” &


The One-Time King of Local Country Music

The One-Time King of Local Country Music

Country Boy Eddy reflects on a lifetime of making music, pitching products, and just plain fiddlin’ around.

By Ed Reynolds

write the author

December 23, 2010

For 38 years, many in the Birmingham area started most days with the startling sound of a man braying like a mule on their TV sets. “I used to could really do the mule call before I had my teeth fixed. It messed my whistle up some way,” says Eddy Burns as he demonstrates his mule call in a Jack’s Hamburgers in Warrior on a recent weekday morning. “Hee-haaaaw, hee-haaaaaw! People loved that, and then I’d ring the cowbell.” Better known as Country Boy Eddy, Burns is Birmingham’s most memorable media icon.

“The Country Boy Eddy Show” ran from 5 to 7 each weekday morning on WBRC Channel 6. Probably best described as a hillbilly variety show, its audience was a diverse collection of famers, businessmen, housewives, and kids (I recall watching the show in Selma, as Channel 6 was one of only two stations we received in the early 1960s. As a six-year-old, I remember being intrigued—and often scared—of Eddy’s heavy eyebrows and loud, rhythmic, vocal punctuations when he pitched advertisers’ products.) Eddy played fiddle or guitar and sang with his band, though it was his homespun quips for sponsors for which he is perhaps best remembered.

“Most of the time I usually just had a business card when I’d do a commercial (instead of a script). But I could remember what I was supposed to talk about.” He explains. “I’d play my guitar and sing, then go, ‘Uh oh, I gotta tell you about these folks. Eagles 7 Rat Bait!’ That was a funny commercial. Eagles 7 never gave me any script or any copy. I just read it off the box, what all it did. Then I’d add, ‘If you love your rats, don’t put this out there because it’ll kill the heck out of ‘em.’ And man, we sold lots of Eagles 7 Rat Bait. This guy who owned a chicken farm put out Eagles 7, and he told me he picked up four 50-gallon drums full of rats.”

Country Boy Eddy, Outside ABC affiliate WBRC in Birmingham, Alabama

Country Boy Eddy, Outside ABC affiliate WBRC in Birmingham, Alabama

Country Boy Eddy. (Photo by Mark Gooch.) (click for larger version)







When he wasn’t playing fiddle, Burns had an acoustic guitar in his lap, strumming incessantly as he carried on conversations with guests. He often invented songs on the spot when a guest made a reference to anything that inspired him to sing or that he could turn into something funny. Burns was a natural-born entertainer. One of his more amusing habits was strumming the guitar (not always solemnly, either) as he read funeral announcements.

Burns grew up on the same 200-acre farm near Warrior, Alabama, that he and his wife, Edwina, live on today. He learned to play the fiddle at age 13. “I saw an ad in a magazine that said, ‘Sell a $4 order of Garden Spot Seeds and get this beautiful violin.’ Boy, it was pretty,” he recalls. “[It was from] the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) County Seed Company. I sent off and ordered them seeds, it was 40 packages. I sold them for $4. I bet you I walked a hundred miles trying to sell them seeds to farmers that had cribs full of seeds. I started playing and I think I drove everybody crazy, and my daddy sometime would make me go to the barn.” (Laughs)

One of his first audiences was North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. “I was drafted into the infantry and when I got to Japan, they sent me to psychological warfare school for eight weeks,” Burns says. His unit’s role was similar to that of Tokyo Rose in World War II, the difference being that Burns was helping spread pro-American propaganda. “We broadcast on the front lines. We were set up in a bunker and we had our loudspeakers and our record player. We’d play [Korean] nostalgic music and then the Korean interpreter came in and would do whatever he did. And one night our record player broke down. So I said I’d play a tune on my fiddle. I played them a song I had learned over there, a song called ‘China Nights.’ There was all this mortar fire coming at us and I’d be playing my fiddle in the bunker.” His army buddies had chipped in to purchase Eddy a $20 violin in Seoul.

After the war, Burns played with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe and honky-tonk vocalist Webb Pierce, often performing at the Grand Ole Opry. “Bill Monroe had heard me on a tape playing with Roland Johnson [a singer on Decca Records, Johnson was also mayor of Garden City, Alabama, for several years] and he wanted to know who the fiddler was. I drove to Nashville to the Andrew Jackson [Hotel] to audition for Bill Monroe. I did ‘Johnson’s Old Gray Mule’ at about six o’clock in the morning in the hotel room and some of them guys [in Monroe's band] were still in bed (laughs). Bill Monroe said, ‘Boy, that’s all right,’ but I knew it wasn’t the best he’d ever heard, but I got the job.”

“You didn’t make much money playing on the road in those days, so I came back to Birmingham and got married,” he says. Burns soon decided he wanted to work in television. “I started on Channel 13 around ’56.” His first sponsor was Big Hearted Eddie’s Used Cars, which he secured before approaching the station, to convince them give him a midnight show on Saturdays after the station’s studio wrestling matches. “Big Hearted Eddie sold 50 cars the next day [after Country Boy Eddy's first appearance]. Bad credit, good credit didn’t matter, Big Hearted Eddie would trade for anything of value—rifles, mules, cows, or whatever it was. Lots of people traded in shotguns on cars. $95 down would get you any car on the lot. Big Hearted Eddie used to say, ‘We don’t condone bad credit, but we don’t hold it against you either!’” Burns says. “I came on at midnight on Saturday nights after the wrestlin’ matches. We were live, I had four or five musicians and we set up next to the wrestlin’ ring at the TV studio. We were on for half an hour after the wrestlin’ went off. We did that for about two years.” Burns recalls a wrestler who took his fiddle away one night. “One night I had this one wrestler who played the fiddle. He said, ‘Gimme that fiddle!’ I was afraid to take it back away from him because I was afraid he’d throw me in a body slam. He was one of them mean-type wrestlers. I finally had to say, ‘Gimme back my fiddle, please.’”

In 1957, Burns got his morning show, on Channel 6, at the 5 a.m. time slot he would maintain for nearly four decades. “I was working on a percentage basis with the station. I was trying to sell and line up the sponsors and everything. I used to run 15,000 commercials a year, 300 a week. I used to make the calls and sell it to the client,” he explains. From 1961 to 1962, Burns also hosted a TV show in Nashville while still doing his Channel 6 program in Birmingham. “Yeah, I was on in Nashville every morning. When I got off at Channel 6 I’d go to Nashville on Monday and Tuesday, and we’d tape five one-hour shows to run every weekday morning. Dolly Parton was on my show up there before she ever became a star. I had Pat Boone and Eddy Arnold on, too. If I had moved there, I could really have done well. They had big billboards all over Nashville of me and Steve Allen. He was on at night, and I was on in the morning. But I stayed in Birmingham because I had a good deal with Channel 6.”

One morning a timid blond hairdresser from Midfield named Wynette Byrd arrived at the Channel 6 studio for an audition. Burns recalls, “When she finished her song, she asked, ‘How did I do?’ And I said, ‘You did terrific!’ (laughs) She sang on my show for a year or so. I finally told her, ‘You need to be in Nashville. Why don’t you go up there and get on a record, there’s nothing around here like that.’” Wynette Byrd moved to Nashville, changed her name to Tammy Wynette, and soon had back-to-back hits with “Apartment Number 9″ and “Stand by Your Man.”

Burns once interviewed baseball pitching great Dizzy Dean on his Birmingham morning show. “Me and Dizzy Dean sang ‘Wabash Cannonball.” Ol’ Dizzy Dean told me, ‘You ought to be making four or five [thousand dollars] a week.’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t take the cut, Dizzy.” (laughs) He later interviewed Steve Allen. “I don’t know who was funnier, me or him,” he says, laughing. “I was advertising Buffalo Rock and he was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. We was talking and I was drinking a Buffalo Rock and he was drinking Pepsi, and I asked him, ‘Steve, how you like that Pepsi?’ And he said, ‘Boy I love it.’ So I said, ‘Take a drink of this Buffalo Rock, you’ll really like it.’ He took a swig of it and he said, ‘Boy, that’ll rock a buffalo!’ I also had cowboy actor Chill Wills on, then I had [country music performer and comedian] Smiley Burnette. I had Pat Buttram on [Buttram played Mr. Haney on "Green Acres"]. I had Roger Miller on before he had a big hit. He rode a motor scooter from Nashville down here. We also had Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield on—they were passing through town and were on the show, though I forget what they were promoting, probably some movie or something.”

Country Boy Eddy and his band the Country Cousins played grand openings for several of Birmingham’s retail establishments on weekends. They also played a lounge or two. He laughs as he recalls the night they played a club in the middle of nowhere in south Alabama. “The guy working the door at the club had a chainsaw. I said to Zeke the Hayseed—a comedian that worked on my show who could lick his nose with his tongue—I said, ‘Zeke, we’re in trouble tonight,’” he recalls. “They had a big brawl at the club, a big fight broke out,” Burns says, shaking his head. “So we took that chainsaw and cut a hole in the wall and got out real quick!”

In 1995, Country Boy Eddy performed his final live TV show. Regarding his retirement, Burns notes, “Well, after 38 years I kinda got tired. That old mule that I used to ride from Warrior to the TV station in Birmingham was getting worn out. He got to where he couldn’t make it, he was limpin’ on me.” When asked what he’s been doing since his retirement, he says, “I played nursing homes, played at First Baptist Church every year for their wild game suppers—there’d be 3,000 people there, I’d bring my guitar and sing—and also I played different local deals for people I knew. I raised cattle.”

Burns is a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, located in Tuscumbia, where the set from his Channel 6 show is on display. He turned 80 on December 13. Eddy admits he has slowed some in his twilight years, noting, “I’m still kickin’ high, just not quite as high as I used to.”

To see Country Boy Eddy’s show as it was 22 years ago, tune in to FOX6 at 2 p.m. on Christmas Day, Saturday, December 25, when the station will air a Country Boy Eddy Christmas special.

• • •
Let the Good Times Roll

“Doggone, everybody I knew is dead,” says “Country Boy” Eddy Burns, laughing when pressed for names of those who might share observations about his TV career. This isn’t exactly true; many are still “kickin’ high,” and when questioned about Burns, they all impersonate Country Boy Eddy at some point during the conversation, if only for a few seconds. Eddy Burns affects people that way. He’s the most unique personality in the history of local television, who never met a tale he didn’t like to tell.

Keith Williams was an advertising salesman who worked closely with Burns for 38 years. “Eddy has one tendency—and I’ll tell this right in front of him—he sometimes exaggerates,” says Williams. “He used to say, ‘Well, we had 6,000 people [in attendance at a show].’ He probably had 2,000 people, which was terrific. So anything he tells you, divide it by three and you’ll have it about right.” The 83-year-old Williams continues, “When you got up early in the morning and you wanted to know what was going on in the state of Alabama, there was only one station to tune in to, and that was Channel 6, because the radio stations weren’t on; there was nothing live. Maybe you weren’t really a fan of Country Boy Eddy but you wanted to get the information. And you soon became a fan.”

Allen Tolbert began appearing on “The Country Boy Eddy Show” at age six, playing guitar and mandolin with his father, local bluegrass legend Glenn Tolbert. “Eddy used to call me ‘Little Bill’ after Bill Monroe,” Allen, now 24, says, laughing. “We were always up there having fun, getting a cup of coffee after the show was over. He’s a good entertainer. I look at his business model and the creativity it took to be on in that time slot was a stroke of genius because nobody else wanted it. And he staked it out and made it his own.”

Glenn Tolbert played guitar and sang on the show several days a week from 1981 until 1995. “Eddy usually depended on me to do the bluegrass stuff on the show,” the elder Tolbert recalls. “Everybody else was pretty much into country music. Of course, I like country, but he’d always call on me to do a Bill Monroe song,” explains Tolbert, who says Burns’ perpetual upbeat persona amazed him. “If Eddy felt bad, you’d never really know it. If you met him out in the street somewhere, he acted just as down to earth as he did on TV. There wasn’t anything arrogant about him at all, just a real nice person.”

“Guitar Bill” Smelley performed on Burns’ show from 1983 until 1995. He’s 68 years old and lives in Sylacauga, Alabama. “They call me ‘Guitar Bill,’ but I was more or less a guest singer. I didn’t play much guitar,” says Smelley. “I guess you would say I was an extra. I sang on the program, so he featured me a lot. I was kinda like a sidekick, you know? He’d use me around the station to run errands; go get the newsman, the weatherman, and everything like that—I was a gopher man, I guess,” he says, laughing. “But I enjoyed it. I really hated to see that thing come to an end. I really think a lot of Country Boy, he’s my favorite person. He’s meant a lot to me. I wasn’t all that good. [laughs] All those other folks, they worked so hard to play those instruments and got so good at it. But they kinda envied me, I think, because Eddy liked me.” Guitar Bill understood the importance of staying out of the limelight. “Some guys come on the show and they want to do all the talking,” he says. “But I learned pretty quick to listen to Eddy and he could bring out things about you and your personality and everything that you couldn’t do on your own.”

Guitar Bill penned a Country Boy Eddy favorite: “Jesus Loves You Better Than a Cowboy Loves to Ride.” He currently hosts his own Internet TV program at on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 5 p.m. The introduction to each half-hour program includes Eddy Burns welcoming viewers.

Popular local TV personality Tom York, who retired from WBRC in 1989, first featured Country Boy Eddy and his band on York’s Channel 6 “Morning Show” in 1957. “Very shortly, Eddy got so popular that he got his own show. Mine came on at 7 o’clock and they [put him on] at 6 o’clock,” says the 86-year-old York. “And everybody said, ‘Who wants to watch television at 6 o’clock in the morning?’ But he got a big audience, which I inherited at 7, so therefore I had a bigger audience.”

York remembers Burns as one of the hardest-working people in television, selling his own advertising by personally calling on area businesses. “Eddy had a talent for, number one, playing the fiddle. Number two was just talking to people. He would absolutely assure you that he was very genuinely interested in whatever it is you were doing or selling or whoever you are,” says York. “Eddy made a bit of money, and when somebody asks me, I say, ‘Well, I think he owns the south end of Blount County . . . The big [television] bosses from Cincinnati came to town once and Country Boy described them as ‘tall hogs at the trough.’ They loved it!” &


Rock for Our Man Kurtzy


Rock for Our Man Kurtzy


(click for larger version)
November 11, 2010

Rick Kurtz, considered one of the top guitarists to emerge from Birmingham (Nashville has been his home for the past several years), has impressed audiences for decades playing with Delbert McClinton, T. Graham Brown, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and a couple of shows sitting in with the Allman Brothers, as well as dozens of local bands. In the past year, Kurtz suffered a stroke that left him unable to play the guitar. He continues physical therapy but faces daunting financial bills as he works toward resuming his musical career.

The Second Annual Wooden Nickel Reunion, which will be held at Old Car Heaven on November 27 at 7 p.m., will be a benefit for Kurtz. The evening will feature performers from the 1970s and 1980s that played at the old Wooden Nickel bar (now called The Nick), including the Nickelettes (Lolly, Louise, Beverly, Alice, and Suzan), the Gate Band, Dogwood featuring Don Tinsley, and the Broken Hearts. Tickets are $25. Old Car Heaven, 115 South 35th Street. Details: 324-4545 or

Sunday Musical Splendor

Sunday Musical Splendor

The Lindberg Farm Series showcases classical musicians.


September 16, 2010

Flurries of piano notes swell to a startling volume before cascading back into hushed tones in the spacious music room of a Huntsville home on a recent Sunday afternoon. Pianists Sarkis Baltaian and In-Sook Park are performing a recital duet on a glossy black, seven-foot Steinway grand piano. They play Mozart sonatas, Schubert’s “Fantasy in F minor,” and Hungarian dances written by Brahms specifically for four hands. The duo perform with a combination of delicacy and aggression, mesmerizing an audience of about 60 with splendor and intimacy rarely found in a typical concert setting.

“Most of this music was composed to be played in a living room or small music room, someplace that was quite intimate,” explains Bill Lindberg, a retired army engineer whose career included working on the nation’s missile defense system. Lindberg and his wife, Margaret, present a monthly concert on their vast acreage as part of the Lindberg Farm Series.

In-Sook Park and her husband Sarkis Baltaian often perform as part of the Lindberg Farm Series. Preview recordings from the series at the bottom of the page. (click for larger version)



Lindberg built the Music Room in 1996, determined to showcase chamber music in a proper setting. The performers’ close proximity to the audience adds an element of enchantment that is difficult to replicate in a concert hall. Lindberg does not charge admission for the Farm Series concerts, though there is a donation bowl brimming with $20 bills on the table, and new guests can leave their email addresses to be added to the notices Lindberg sends out announcing each performance.

“Oh, I love the music, I joined the Huntsville Chamber Music Guild and we were planning the possibility of what we call ‘house music,’” says the longtime classical music enthusiast. “The idea of having a music room at my home came to mind. I already had one piano. Later on I got another, then after I finished having the music room added on to the house, I got a third piano. We had three pianos in the music room back then and worked with the University of Alabama Huntsville Music Department. They would plan programs and we’d host them. At some point we began to expand the program and run it ourselves, which is what we are doing now.” This was around 2005, Lindberg recalls. “We would do concerts where we used all three pianos with a small orchestra. We had to move the furniture around a lot to bring in the orchestras.”

The Music Room is designed to be acoustically sound. “Those three big paintings on the walls? The paintings have sound-absorbing materials behind them, so the sound that hits them doesn’t come bouncing back,” Lindberg says. “We’ve got several couches and curtains to absorb sound, too. We didn’t want it to be too bright and loud.”

Lindberg books musicians as they travel through the South on their way to much larger venues, though the pair playing on this particular Sunday are music professors at UAH.

“Our plan when we started running it was to bring in artists from out of town so that the locals could hear performers that they probably wouldn’t, except at bigger concerts,” Lindberg explains. “Our room provides a quiet, peaceful experience that you won’t get in a big venue. With a music room, you can’t have a big name artist like Yo-Yo Ma, but you can have artists that are just as good as he is but that have not been fully discovered yet, and enjoy the music just as much without having to pay that much. We’ve got professionals who make their living playing music.”

Lindberg records each concert. “We started out recording on analog tape—the little cassettes you can play in your car and all that,” he says. “We went digital a couple of years later.” He records simply for his archives and does not sell any recordings.

The Lindbergs bought the pianos by encouraging patrons to sponsor a key on a Steinway grand at $500 each. Wealthy patrons of the arts made up the cost difference to purchase each piano. One of their instruments was later donated to UAH, and another was given to the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra. (A Steinway concert grand piano sells for around $100,000.) The couple has been active in bringing artists to the United States to live, most notably acclaimed Russian pianist Yakov Kasman, currently a piano professor at UAB. When Kasman was at UAH, the Lindbergs allowed him to use their music room to teach students.

Dr. Sarkis Baltaian has been playing the Lindberg Farm Series for three years.

“It’s a very, very intimate setting and has wonderful acoustics; it’s a room specifically designed for concerts,” Baltaian says.
“I really enjoy performing there, it has two wonderful Steinway grand pianos, and one of the best audiences—a very supportive and understanding audience that values real music. We’re very appreciative and very grateful for what Bill Lindberg has done for the arts, not just in Huntsville but in greater northern Alabama,” he says.

Baltaian and duet partner In-Sook Park married a month ago in Los Angeles, where Baltaian studied and taught piano for 15 years before coming to Huntsville 2 years ago. He began playing at age four in his native Bulgaria. Park, who is Korean, began playing at age 5, making her debut with the Seoul National Symphony at 13.

“This was our first performance together since we married. It was very special—kind of a celebration of our wedding, as well,” Baltaian says.

“We don’t advertise; we don’t need to,”
say Lindberg. “We don’t charge people to come, they make contributions. I take care of finding the artists and do the booking, keeping the piano tuned, and sending out the email invitations. We have a lot of older people, folks that don’t like to climb stairs or walk long distances from parking lots. Besides, it’s not the kind of thing you want to advertise, because it’s private. Too many people would show up, and it wouldn’t be a music room anymore.” &

For more information about upcoming performances at the Lindberg Farm email Bill Lindberg at For a full story on Yakov Kasman (from the April 19, 2009, issue of Black & White), visit—The—Talent.html.

Dead Folks: Music

Dead Folks: Music

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.


January 21, 2010

Lux Interior
Since Cramps singer Lux Interior’s cause of death at age 62 was listed as a preexisting heart condition, anyone who saw Lux in action will forever wonder how he made it past 40. In that context, it’s tempting to paraphrase one of the Cramps’ signature cover tunes, “Rockin’ Bones”: his bones will keep a rockin’ long after he’s gone. That’s superfluous, however, because Lux Interior, front man for legendary rockabilly band The Cramps, was a real gone guy from day one.

Lux Interior (click for larger version)

For decades, writers have attempted to capture the essence of Lux, calling him “the high priest of a pagan rockabilly cult,” or “the maddest bad daddy of all the bad, mad daddies.” He was the mayor of Wig City, Maximum Utmost, USA, a shockabilly shaman of the shimmy and shake, or, as the liner notes to The Cramps’ Gravest Hits intones: “Elvis gets crossed with Vincent Price and decent folks ask, ‘What hath God wrought?’” At the time of his death, all the squares in the major media were making the rather desultory observation that Lux Interior sang rock and roll. They somehow missed the plain fact that he was rock and roll.

No one left it all out there on the stage like Lux. Not James Brown, or Iggy Pop, or Mick Jagger, or Jerry Lee Lewis. The show was the thing, but it was all just a way of losing his mind, that being the ultimate result of finding that new kind of kick Lux had been searching for since his early teen years in Ohio. For most of his life and career Lux Interior was rummaging through the nation’s collective garbage can (trash culture), salvaging elements of American music and reconstructing from the heap what he called “bad music for bad people.” For a complete obituary, see “Lux Interior R.I.P.” at (62, aortic dissection) —D.P.

Ron Asheton
After The Stooges broke up in 1971, Iggy Pop went to Florida and mowed lawns for a living. Ron Asheton hung around Detroit and played in a few more pioneering punk bands. It took a few years before people began to think of The Stooges as one of the great rock bands of all time. Iggy cashed in on the band’s reputation, but he spent his career trying to replicate the primitive rock riffs that Asheton came up with for songs like “T.V. Eye,” “No Fun,” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Asheton even became a legendary guitarist despite switching to bass after the band’s first two albums. (That move made him part of a brotherly rhythm section with Scott Asheton on drums.)

Ron Asheton and Iggy Pop. (click for larger version)

Asheton made some acclaimed albums with bands like Destroy All Monsters and the (sort-of) supergroup New Race. He still spent most of his life paying the bills with his artwork—and the occasional cameo in low-budget horror films. Asheton enjoyed proper rock stardom later in life when The Stooges reunited to record The Weirdness in 2007. (Ex-fIREHOSE member Mike Watt played bass.) The Asheton brothers were able to keep up with Iggy to become a great live act, and the reunion paid enough for Ron to hire a personal assistant. That’s who discovered his body in his Ann Arbor home. (60, heart attack) —J.R.T.

Jim Dickinson
Memphis-based album producer Jim Dickinson established a reputation as one of the top session players in the music industry, where he hung out with rock ‘n’ roll royalty. Bob Dylan saluted Dickinson as a “brother” in 1997 while accepting a Grammy for the record Time Out of Mind, on which he asked Dickinson to play piano.

Dickinson was a pioneer of the Memphis sound—a blend of blues, country, pop, and soul. He recorded with Sam Phillips at Sun Records and then formed The Dixie Flyers—a house band for Atlantic Records artists such as Aretha Franklin and Little Richard. Dickinson’s reputation for working with difficult personalities included producing the haunting Big Star pop classic Sister Lovers. His sons, Luther and Cody, have achieved success with their band The North Mississippi All-Stars.

He played elegant piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” because Stones pianist Ian Stewart refused to play minor chords. Later that night, while listening to a playback of the song in a Muscle Shoals studio, Dickinson was astute enough to make sure that Keith Richards knew he had the only joint in the room. Richards no doubt stayed close by, guaranteeing Dickinson an appearance in the documentary Gimme Shelter that was being filmed at the time.

Dickinson never pulled punches when critiquing the Stones. In a January, 2002, interview in online publication Perfect Sound Forever, he recalled taking his sons to see the Stones in the 1990s. “I took my kids to see their last American tour, ’cause they’d never seen ‘em, but it wasn’t a real Stones show—the kick drum was so loud, it sounded like a fu**in’ disco band; and I don’t care who that bass player is, he’s not playing the [correct] parts. The keyboard parts—don’t get me started on them. That no-talent, lounge-playing motherfu**er they’ve got playing keyboards is not even coming close.”

The epitaph he chose for himself reflects his awareness of the eternal life of recorded music: I’m just dead, I’m not gone. (67, died while recuperating from heart surgery) —Ed Reynolds

Gordon Waller
Waller was a Scotsman who made up one half of the acclaimed 1960s acoustic pop duo Peter and Gordon. Their number one hit “World Without Love” was one of several penned by Paul McCartney for the pair. (64, heart attack) —E.R.

Dan Seals
There was never anything hip about England Dan & John Ford Coley. Songs like “Nights Are Forever” and “I’d Really Like to See You Tonight” were so forgettable that a picture of the Bellamy Brothers was mistakenly used on the back of their first compilation album. England Dan still went on to a successful solo career as Dan Seals, scoring hits on the country charts that include “God Must Be a Cowboy” and “Bop.” His last studio album was released in 2002, but there will probably be a posthumous release of duets that Seals recorded with brother Jim Seals—who is the Seals of Seals & Crofts. (61, cancer) —J.R.T.

Ellie Greenwich (click for larger version)

Ellie Greenwich
A lot of people were surprised that the co-writer of “Chapel of Love,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” and “Leader of the Pack” was only 68 when she passed away. Singer-songwriter Ellie Greenwich thrived in a time when teen anthems were written by actual teens. She was an early shining light of the Brill Building pop factory, with other credits including “Be My Baby” and “River Deep, Mountain High.” Greenwich also enjoyed some pop stardom as a member of The Raindrops (with her then-husband and frequent collaborator Jeff Barry) and later on as a solo act. She was also a pioneering female record producer while launching Neil Diamond’s career with hits like “Cherry, Cherry” and “Kentucky Woman.” Greenwich made it to Broadway when her work was used as the basis for the 1980s stage hit “Leader of the Pack,” and she passed away while still in demand for both pop tunes and commercial jingles. (68, heart failure) —J.R.T.

Sky Saxon
He was a fraud, but Sky Saxon was a magnificent fake who was ultimately consumed by his own pose. The lead singer for The Seeds was best known for 1960s garage-rock anthems like “Pushin’ Too Hard” and “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” The band had a typically short career, but Saxon went on to spend the 1970s and ’80s making catchy hard rock with flower-power themes. His move from young punk to spiritual type was accompanied by a name change to Sky “Sunlight” Saxon. That amused contemporaries who remembered him as a misogynistic creep out to cash in on the Sunset Strip.

Sky Saxon (click for larger version)

Still, Saxon had probably fried his brains on enough drugs to be almost sincere in his delusional insistence on rock stardom. He got lucky when the Los Angeles underground music scene revived 1960s psychedelia in the mid-1980s. That made him fashionable enough to work increasingly erratic live shows right up to his death. (71, heart failure) —J.R.T.

Jay Bennett (click for larger version)

Jay Bennett
Jay Bennett joined Wilco as its bassist in 1994. That was around the time that the band released the A.M. album and became proper critic’s darlings. Bennett was then kicked out of the band during the travails that surrounded Wilco’s recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—as captured in the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. He went on to a solo career that was more faithful to Wilco’s country-psych vision than any subsequent album by the band. He was always more entertaining, too. Bennett was frequently complaining about his hip pain, so he might be one of those rare musicians whose overdose was truly an accident. (45, painkiller overdose) —J.R. Taylor

Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons (click for larger version)

Eric Woolfson
The Alan Parsons Project was always a faceless act, with bearded producer Parsons mattering more than vocalists like John Miles, Arthur Brown, and former Zombie Colin Blunstone. That was partly savvy management by composer and co-founder Eric Woolfson, who wrote the songs for the assorted concept albums that made the band a staple of FM radio. Woolfson stayed behind the scenesfor the early albums like Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I Robot, and Pyramid. The scholarly looking Woolfson finally took over lead vocals on some later singles, including the 1982 hit single “Eye in the Sky.”

Woolfson went on to try his hand at stage musicals, staging “Freudiana” in 1990. (His bid to release the soundtrack album as a Woolfson solo project broke up his partnership with Parsons.) His second musical was “Gaudi,” which revisited an earlier Alan Parsons Project album about modernist architect Antonio Gaudi. Woolfson stayed busy with his stage career but marked 2009—and the end of his life—with The Alan Parsons Project That Never Was, which compiled lost songs that Parsons had rejected as sounding too commercial. (64, cancer) —J.R.T.

Jon Hager
Jon Hager shot to the top of the death pools after twin brother Jim passed away in May of 2008. The Hager Brothers, of course, were best known for their long stint as toothy and wholesome “Hee Haw” stars. Jon racked up one more birthday than his brother, but was one of 2009′s earliest celebrity deaths. (67, heart failure) —J.R.T.

Jim Carroll (click for larger version)

Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll once looked at a bald guy and said, “He looks like Kojak.” That was a typically useless witticism from the lamest punk/poet in a world filled of moronic punk/poets. By the time Carroll was making his Kojak references, he had moved on to shallow celebrity journalism for Interview magazine. That was after years of coasting on the literary success of 1978′s The Basketball Diaries, where he had written about his fascinating adolescence as a young junkie and male prostitute.

That book’s success was followed by Carroll’s attempt to become a rock star with three dull albums in the 1980s. The debut was Catholic Boy, which garnered some attention with a song called “People Who Died.” Carroll’s songs for the 1995 film adaptation of Basketball Diaries weren’t nearly as good. By the time that he released his last rock album in 1999, he was another old hippie complaining about how New York City wasn’t dirty anymore. He compared modern Times Square to Disneyland. Nobody had heard that one before. (61, heart attack) —J.R.T.

James “The Rev” Sullivan
It wouldn’t be a Dead Folks issue without the death of an idiot musician. James “The Rev” Sullivan was both the biggest name and the most talented musician to make this year’s list—even if he did procrastinate until December 29, 2009. Actually, cause of death hasn’t been confirmed for the fine drummer of the crappy metalcore band Avenged Sevenfold. We can only look back fondly at Sullivan’s constant talk of how much he loved drugs, including a magazine article where he boasted of his massive cocaine habit. Sometimes it’s better to be a poseur. (28) —J.R.T.


The Troubadour’s Champion

The Troubadour’s Champion

June 10, 2010
The former Vestavia Hills acoustic music venue known as the Moonlight Music Cafe has reopened in Bluff Park as Moonlight on the Mountain. The new Moonlight is a casual room, much more suited to acoustic folk singers than its former neon-lit location. The room brings to mind a Baptist church fellowship hall, with Sunday School-style wooden chairs and a few tables scattered close to the stage. After dark, there’s no finer place to be. The city code forced the original blue Moonlight Music sign indoors, but when night falls, it’s easily spotted from Shades Crest Road.

Birmingham’s Act of Congress sold out their recent show at Moonlight on the Mountain. (Photo courtesy of Keith Harrelson.) (click for larger version)



Kevin Welch played the inaugural concert at Moonlight in April. Gretchen Peters, who wrote “Independence Day” for Martina McBride, also packed the house recently. Shows are BYOB, and no tickets are sold; instead, donations are accepted at a suggested price. “Most people have no problem being told what it ought to be,” says owner Keith Harrelson. At most shows, patrons are encouraged to donate $10 to $15, depending on the act. Show times are usually between 7 and 8 p.m. Harrelson, a committed fan of the singer/songwriter genre, had been involved with the Small Stages organization, which hosts concerts by lesser known touring acts in private homes. When the current venue became available, Harrelson grabbed the opportunity to stage shows before larger audiences. So far, the venue has received a warm reception, selling out several of the shows on its selective calendar.

Moonlight on the Mountain is located at 585 Shades Crest Road, in the same strip mall as the Bluff Park Diner. The venue is smoke-free and cash only. Attendees may bring a small cooler. 243-8851,

Tragic Song of Life

Tragic Song of Life

A new biography traces the career of a country music queen.

March 04, 2010
Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen
By Jimmy McDonough
Viking, 432 pages, $27.95Few things are more entertaining than Nashville’s colorful cavalcade of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s country music icons, especially if any of those icons happened to have discovered drugs. Among the most hedonistic, in that context, were Tammy Wynette and George Jones, whose lifestyles are laid open by author Jimmy McDonough in Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen. Even those who loathe country music will be fascinated by this jaw-dropping tale.

Wynette’s dramatic, haunted existence (which lent itself to tabloid sensationalism) has always been realized in her music, thanks to producer Billy Sherrill, who frequently chose songs for Wynette that mirrored what the singer was experiencing in her life at the time, just as he did when producing records by her husband George Jones.

(click for larger version)

Thoroughly researched, the book reads as if written by an obsessed fan, yet McDonough (author of the Neil Young biography Shakey and Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film) pulls no punches. He portrays Wynette as being perpetually out of control, on a downhill slide plagued by illnesses (real and imagined) that resulted in more than 30 surgeries during her 55 years. Her drug abuse is shocking. Fans are aware of Tammy’s battle with pills, but most may be stunned to learn of used hypodermic needles discovered beneath her mattress on her tour bus. She regularly injected herself with Dilaudid, Valium, or Demerol (or any combination thereof).

In the Beginning
Born in Tremont, Mississippi, Virginia Wynette Pugh married her first husband, Euple Byrd, shortly before graduating high school. When that marriage dissolved, she fled to Birmingham, where she worked as a beautician at the Midfield Beauty Salon. (Wynette kept her beautician’s license updated for 20 years after achieving success with “Stand By Your Man,” just in case her singing career faltered.) She supplemented her income by singing on “The Country Boy Eddie Show” in 1965. (McDonough devotes an entire chapter to “Country Boy” Eddie Burns, the retired Birmingham TV personality whose country music show aired from 5 to 7 a.m. for 37 years, mostly on WBRC Channel 6.) By year’s end, Wynette ventured to Nashville to record her first hit, “Apartment #9,” with producer Sherrill, who signed her to Epic Records and suggested that she change her name to Tammy Wynette.

When she had taken too many painkillers, a concert performance became a struggle. If Wynette was unable to hit a particular note, she’d give her backup singers hand signals so that they could cover for her.

Tragic Country Queen includes numerous anecdotes from Wynette’s fellow performers. Dolly Parton’s charms are recounted when the author describes Wynette at the 1968 Country Music Association Awards: “Skinny as a matchstick, wearing a fancy, futuristic housecoat dress, Tammy looks as though her ratted-out beehive and big lapels might consume her at any second. ‘Just a country girl’s idea of glamour,’ explains Parton. ‘Tammy didn’t have any more fashion sense than I did, really. I always say me and Tammy got our clothes from Fifth and Park—that is, the fifth trailer in the park.’”

Her life with third husband and singing partner George Jones was bizarre and unpredictable. In February of 1969, the couple was booked as a duo for the first time at the Playroom in Atlanta. A highly intoxicated Jones bolted mid-show on opening night. He hopped a ride to Las Vegas in a Lear jet with the club’s owner, forcing Wynette to finish the show alone. A few days later, Jones returned to tell Tammy he would never marry her. However, in classic Jones’ style he changed his mind and married her the next day.

Life is Hell
Wynette’s fourth marriage lasted only 44 days. After the divorce, painkillers played a larger role in the singer’s life due to her many physical ailments. Band members were instructed by her doctor on how to give Tammy her shots. Doctors in Nashville eventually caught on to her addictions and refused to prescribe any more narcotics, forcing her to search nationwide for doctors willing to write her prescriptions. In an attempt to score drugs, trips to emergency rooms after shows became routine.

McDonough writes of these indulgences as though Wynette had picked up a few tips from Keith Richards; she often had her supply of painkillers flown to her Nashville hometown. When she had taken too much, a concert performance became a struggle. If she couldn’t hit a particular note, she’d give her backup singers hand signals so that they could cover for her. A fist behind the back indicated she couldn’t sing the high F during the climactic final chorus in “Stand By Your Man,” while an open palm meant “Get this song over with as quick as possible.” During her final years, she sometimes nodded off between tunes. Her longtime drummer, Charley Abdern, bluntly observed: “She seemed kind of desperate to me. . . . I wish she would’ve quit. She really should’ve. It’s a sad story.”

In 1978, Wynette went missing for a few days, later claiming to have been kidnapped. Many doubted her story. She did not press for an investigation, and her daughter said the subject was taboo in the house. Two days after the alleged kidnapping, she performed in Columbia, South Carolina, her face still bruised. Tammy appeared nervous, whispering to the audience, “He could possibly be here, I just don’t know.” A mysterious, crumpled note was found backstage that read: “I’m still around, I’ll get you.”

Some ventured that it was George Jones trying to scare her, although Jones himself was skeptical that the kidnapping was real. “The whole affair was bullshit,” he surmised. “Somebody beat the hell out of Tammy, that’s for sure. But I don’t think it was a kidnapper.” Eight years after the incident, Wynette felt compelled to bring it up again, informing the press that she had received a letter from a prison inmate who told her that his cellmate had confessed to kidnapping her. Her daughter later wrote that Wynette told her the crime never occurred, and that fifth husband Richey, with whom Wynette reportedly had a rocky relationship, was the one who inflicted the bruises. Tammy’s hairdresser later confirmed that the singer shared the same story.

Hillary Clinton made headlines when she and husband Bill appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 1992. When asked about her husband’s alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, Hillary responded, “I’m not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Wynette was watching that evening and exclaimed, “How dare that bitch say that about me!” She wrote Hillary a seething letter. Clinton attempted to call but Tammy refused to talk to her until Wynette’s sometime-boyfriend Burt Reynolds persuaded her to do so. Amid the controversy, Sony Records promptly re-released “Stand By Your Man.” Barbra Streisand later invited Tammy to her Malibu home to perform at a fundraiser for Bill Clinton. According to Tammy, a shocked Hillary refused to speak to her.

Wynette continued to record and tour in the 1990s, though her last five years were spent connected to a portable IV unit, which she removed only to appear on stage. UK dance music outfit KLF had Wynette sing on their track “Justified and Ancient,” which went to number one in 18 countries and introduced Wynette to a new audience. Wynette recorded Honky Tonk Angels with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in 1993 and recorded a final duet album with George Jones. She was also the voice for Tillie Mae Hill (Hank Hill’s mother) on the animated TV series “King Of The Hill.”

Tragic Country Queen is a thoroughly entertaining read that tells a sad story loaded with enough sordid details for several albums’ worth of country songs. McDonough sums up Wynette’s tragic life: “Tammy Wynette never found what she was looking for. A white knight, a Prince Charming. . . . She wanted life to whisk her off her high-heeled feet, to be as passionate as the feverish cover of some romance novel. Instead Wynette wound up dying in public an inch at a time, her emaciated, addicted, tormented face plastered across the cover of every grocery store tabloid.” &

Author Jimmy McDonough will sign copies of Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen on March 8, 7 p.m., at the Colonial Brookwood Village location of Books-a-Million.


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. &

Session Man

Session Man

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


October 29, 2009

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

Wayne Perkins today.

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

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