Category Archives: R&B

Jazz Practitioner

Jazz Practitioner

By Ed Reynolds

Dr. Frank “Doc” Adams, the last of the old guard of local jazz musicians who played with legends Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Erskine Hawkins, among others, has written a captivating memoir with writer Burgin Mathews entitled Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, by the University of Alabama Press. Adams is a brilliant story-teller, recounting life as a professional musician and musical instructor in segregated Alabama beginning in the 1950s. One of the first inductees into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, the 83-year-old musician will perform a free concert with the Birmingham Heritage Band on October 25 at 7 p.m. at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa.

Adams was trained at Industrial High School [now known as Parker High School] under the tutelage of John T. “Fess” Whatley, whose discipline and devotion to musical professionalism made an early impression. The young Adams turned down an invitation in the early 1950s to tour with AdamsCount Basie’s orchestra, instead remaining in Birmingham to teach music at Lincoln Elementary. Adams’ family [his brother Oscar was the first black attorney to join the Birmingham Bar Association, as well the first black Alabama Supreme Court Justice] was somewhat prominent. His father published a newspaper, the Birmingham Reporter, in the early 1900s, and also wrote a column for more than 20 years for the Birmingham News entitled “What Negroes Are Doing.”

Black & White chatted with Dr. Adams in his office at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on a recent October afternoon.

“I got a chance to [travel] around with my Dad. He was one of those dads that said, ‘Come on. Go with me, boy!’ And I’d go with him,” Adams recalled. “And I found out a lot of things about people. One was that people are more alike than they are different.”

Reflecting on the evolution of musical styles he’s played during his lifetime, Adams grabbed a sax next to his desk to demonstrate different variations on the melody “Tea for Two” during our interview. “The big bands were evolving. First, we had Dixieland,” he explained. “You had a trumpet, maybe a clarinet, maybe a bass and a guitar or mandolin or whatever you had. It was everybody for himself. The clarinet going one way, the bass going one way, the
trumpet going one way. That’s Dixieland. But when you start adding two or three saxophones, you had to have harmony. You had to read music. Everybody couldn’t play what
they wanted to play.”

As a young teen, Adams played sax with Alabama’s Sun Ra. “Sun Ra
was a known character in Birmingham. To some people he’d be frightening because nobody knew where he came from and nobody knew his parents,” said Adams, who
writes in his book that Sun Ra would warn Bull Connor’s henchmen that they would be “paralyzed” if they tried to harm him when the jazz maestro wore his colorful robes on
the street. “Sun Ra lived over by Terminal Station in a raggedy house. He was ‘flower power’ before ‘flower power.’ He was before Dr. King. He was defiant back in the 1930s when
nobody was thinking about civil rights. And he had this thing about where he was from—the Sun or the Moon. And his bands were terrific. He picked up people [to play] that were just unusual folk. They didn’t have the discipline [musically] . . . They never played a place like the Birmingham Country Club. They played little dives and stuff.”

Sun Ra asked Adams’ mother if her son could join his band. “One day he called my Mom, he wanted me to play in his Intergalactic Arkestra. My Mom just said, ‘OK.’ What it was about him was this mystique; He would look at you and say, ‘Well, do this.’ And you might say, ‘I can’t.’ And he would say, ‘You’ve already done it. It’s in your mind.’ Those weird things, you know? He would wear these clothes down on Fourth Avenue and everything. And people admired him for his band. He was just a weird guy. He could play Count Basie but he also had this other weird stuff he was playing. And he talked more than he would really practice.” &

Originally published in Black & White, Oct 18, 2012

String Plucker

String Plucker

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


April 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The band lasted five years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. &

Blues Stylist

Blues Stylist

Earl Williams is the greatest local bluesman and hairdresser you never heard of.

July 09, 2009

When Earl Williams is amused, his low-key laughter eerily resonates through the room; he sounds like a chuckling Lou Rawls. Williams, a local guitarist and owner/operator of Intensive Care Beauty Salon in Bessemer, laughs when he explains the shop’s name. “I felt like a hair doctor. Everybody that was coming to me had problems. I think I started out that way; I was trying to save my own hair. So, if I could save myself, I could save others, too.”

Thirty years ago, Williams moved to Dallas, Texas, to play guitar with renowned rhythm & blues singer Johnnie Taylor, known for hits such as “Who’s Making Love? (To Your Old Lady),” “Cheaper to Keep Her,” and “Disco Lady.” By the mid-1980s, he was traveling with chitlin’ circuit legend Latimore, a popular singer on “party blues and oldies” radio stations. He quit the road life to open Intensive Care salon 23 years ago, but he still joins Latimore on stage whenever the singer plays in the area.

Earl Williams (left) with Latimore. (click for larger version)



Williams learned guitar as a nine-year-old while hanging out at Gip’s Place, a Bessemer backyard juke joint that has been around since the 1950s (see “The Juke Joint,” August 7, 2008, at “I had started picking around, going to different friends’ houses who had a guitar,” he recalls. “And I chased the guitar around. One friend of mine, he had a guitar and he sold it and I started hanging out with the guy he sold it to. I learned how to play it. None of them ever learned to play it, but I kept following them around. And I’d go to Banks Pawn Shop down there and I’d just pick it up, go down there every other day. Some of the bluegrass guys showed me how to make chords.”

“I got my first job playing with a band when I was 13 when I played a Johnnie Taylor song, ‘I Got to Love Somebody’s Baby.’ So Johnnie Taylor’s kind of been in my past all the way. . . . We were called The Corruptors. We were doing blues, a lot of Johnnie Taylor. We had a female vocalist; we did the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, a lot of Motown stuff,” Williams says of his first band. “We played for all grown people. A bunch of old people who would be there, wouldn’t be nobody our age or nothing. We couldn’t go out and mingle, we always had to stay in the dressing room. It was kind of like in the Michael Jackson era when it was okay for kids to play.”

Williams was a bit of a renegade. “I listened to Jimi Hendrix a whole lot. I would have parties and I’d be the only musician playing Jimi Hendrix,” he remembers fondly. “Playing Hendrix, man, and drinking Boone’s Farm wine. Had the nets hanging out of the ceiling. I even had the Confederate flag in there. One of my friends was like, ‘Why you got that Confederate flag, man, what’s wrong with you?’”

“I found myself making more money fixing hair in the hotel than I was making playing my guitar . . . you could make $500 for a haircut.”

The guitarist eventually formed the Afro Blues Band, which became the group Kalu. The band’s lead singer, Greg Miller (brother of former Birmingham City Councilor Bert Miller, according to Williams), left briefly to sing with Parliament. Soon Kalu saxophonist Lee Charles Mitchell moved to Texas to play with Johnnie Taylor, eventually inviting Williams to Dallas, where the guitarist joined Taylor’s band, Justice of the Peace, in the late 1970s.

Earl Williams worked at U.S. Steel for nearly 20 years before the Latimore job came along. There, he was a guitarist in a company bluegrass band. “We played parties for the superintendent of our plant. And the superintendent heard I’d written a song about a reprimand from him called a ’74.’ I wrote a song called the ’74 Blues.’ He caught me sleeping I don’t know how many times,” Williams remembers, laughing. “So this time I was thinking I was getting fired. I had to go to his office to play it for him. I got all those guys playing that bluegrass, banjos, and fiddles and everything, and he liked it so much he started throwing parties [with the band as the entertainment]. He created that group and called it the Swinging Sinners. So we just played for him all the time.”

After taking a leave of absence to go to Texas to play with Taylor, Williams was in for a shock. “Johnnie Taylor didn’t do a lot of playing when I was with him. He kind of went into a little refuge period there where he’d drink pretty heavy. . . . He’d go and start drinking before he’d get to the show. And most of the time he’d come with his eyes all red—he’d be loaded. And sometimes he couldn’t do more than two or three songs, too.”

Williams returned to Birmingham and U.S. Steel to work several more years before being laid off. Two weeks after losing his job, Latimore called to offer work to Williams and his blues band. “We had to be one of the only groups carrying our own equipment. We had our own sound system, and that’s part of why Latimore really wanted my band,” he admits. “Latimore was really what you would call a chitlin’-type circuit player to survive. His pay was always at the bottom of the totem pole,” the guitarist explains. “Latimore would lower his pay just to keep a job all the time. He always had a philosophy. He said, ‘I’d rather lower my price and play five nights than to have a high price and don’t play but one or two nights. I want to play, whether I’m getting the money or not. I gotta stay sharp.’”

Jheri Curl Days
Williams soon added band leader and management chores to his Latimore guitar duties. His biggest break, however, was when he began to style the singer’s hair. “I was just kinda launching me a new career when they came out with this new hairstyle, the Jheri curl,” recalls Williams. “Do you remember when whites were wearing their hair curly like—what’s that guy . . . “Welcome Back, Kotter”—was wearing his hair? Well, that curl was discovered by Jheri Redding, who was a white guy. And the blacks caught on to it and started wearing their hair real curly. That brought a lot of money into the hair industry. That’s when I joined up!”

Because the band stayed at the same hotels as other acts when appearing on big shows, B.B. King soon enlisted Williams’ hair-styling talents. “When we’d be backstage, they’d see Latimore’s hair and they’d say, ‘Hey, you got you a built-in beautician, huh?’ because I’d be following him around and be fixing on his hair. That’s how it all got started and word just kinda got around, and then one told another about it. . . . I found myself making more money fixing hair in the hotel than I was making playing my guitar. They paid on a celebrity level. On a celebrity level, you could make $500 for a haircut.”

Birmingham’s Afro Blues Band in the 1970s. That’s Williams on the front row at right. Greg Miller (brother of former Birmingham City Councilor Bert Miller) stands in the rear at center. (click for larger version)



“I was doing everybody’s ‘curl.’ I did B.B. King’s hair, I did Latimore’s hair, Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis. I give them their very first [Jheri curl], because nobody really knew about it like I did,” says Williams. “See, they didn’t know what type rolls to use. I used to hang around white [barber] shops a lot—kind of grew up in a white shop, too—because I used to be a shoeshine guy in a white shop. I’d sit there and watch and learn how to cut Caucasian hair. So I was always a barber, and cosmetology, I’ve had that since I was a little kid.”

The Chitlin’ Circuit
“It used to be that they were letting the blues die. And B.B. King went on national TV and said that they were letting the blues die, and he was wondering why we’re not holding on to our heritage, why we don’t value our heritage and why are we letting the history go to nothing,” Williams recalls. “When he was interviewed about that, the whites embraced B.B. King, because at the time B.B. King was losing his slot as being the number one blues player. Z.Z. Hill was knocking him out of his number one spot. In ’83 and ’84, I used to do bookings, I used to put shows together myself. B.B. King was making $15,000 a night, and Z.Z. Hill was at $10,000.”

When asked to elaborate about the “chitlin’ circuit,” Williams laughs. “Chitlins have always been described as the ultimate soul food. If you can get the pig or not, you’ll take whatever you can get out there. You just kinda have to get out there and go for it. The thing is, you need a regular paycheck, ’cause if you don’t get out there for the chitlins, you won’t eat—’cause steak ain’t gonna be available but every once in a while. So you got to pick the chitlins up until you can get to [the steak], and keep yourself in shape. ‘Cause if you just sit down and get all out of shape, you can get forgotten about.”

When pressed for anecdotes from his days with Latimore, Williams picks up his cell phone and makes a call. “Hey Lat! I’m doing this interview and this guy wants to hear some phenomenal stories about the chitlin’ circuit,” Williams says as the distinctly deep-timbered chuckle of Benny Latimore comes from the speakerphone. Latimore is in Mississippi prepping for a cross-country trek to California, happy to oblige a request from his occasional guitarist. The pair laugh about a bass player who could sleep and play at the same time, and the night they played a run-down army barracks in Greenville, Mississippi, where the wiring was so poor that the band had to stop after every three songs to let the electrical circuit “cool back down” before they could resume playing. They chuckle about another former band member who, during tours, would go into housing projects in search of weed. “That was part of his diet,” adds Latimore over the phone, laughing while speculating that the musician was eating marijuana.

“Hey Lat, you gonna eat you some of that boudin while you down there in Louisiana? They make it out of cow blood, don’t they, Lat?” Williams asks. Latimore responds: “Yeah, some of it has got blood in it. You know, cooked blood! [laughs] Some of them places we played in, they had all kinds of things. They had ‘coon’ sandwiches. I don’t know if it was real raccoon or they just called it that or what. But I don’t think I even wanted to deal with that at all.” &

Soul Brother Number One is Done

Soul Brother Number One is Done

It’s show business as usual as the Godfather of Soul is laid to rest.

January 11, 2007

On December 30, 2006, fans packed the 8,500-seat James Brown Arena in Augusta, Georgia, to say goodbye to the hardest-working man in show business, James Brown. The hometown farewell was anything but reverent. A gathering of notorious friends and family created an embarrassing spectacle while Brown lay in an open coffin that gleamed like a polished brass trumpet. Admirers had begun lining up at 9 p.m. the night before to view Brown’s immaculately dressed body—pristine black suit, red shirt, and jewel-tipped shoes. As always, the bouffant hair-do was combed to perfection. The Soul Generals, his touring band, walked on stage as Brown’s longtime show emcee Danny Ray took over as master of ceremonies. The horns knocked out a typically funky riff to a James Brown hit, but something wasn’t right. The world is accustomed to a simple fact: when the band plays, James Brown moves. Instead, a large oil portrait of Brown singing stood near the casket. It was the beginning of an ugly afternoon.

Lying in a gold-plated casket, James Brown is viewed by his wife, Tomi Rae Brown, at Brown’s memorial service in Augusta, Georgia. (click for larger version)

A series of former backup singers took turns belting out James Brown numbers, all except for Tomi (pronounced “Tommy”) Rae Brown, Brown’s widow, backup singer, and mother of the late star’s five-year-old son. Formerly Tomi Rae Hynie, a Janis Joplin impersonator whom Brown met in Las Vegas in 1997, Tomi Rae made headlines when she was locked out of the couple’s mansion in Beech Island, South Carolina, after Brown’s death on Christmas Day (whether the couple were legally married has been questioned). Instead of a James Brown song, Tomi Rae sang Sam and Dave’s “Hold On (I’m Comin’)” as she knelt over Brown’s open casket.

She sang the chorus while staring at her husband’s corpse, her performance marked by what appeared to be a touch of sarcasm. At one point, she snatched a rose from a nearby bouquet and dropped it on top of the singer’s body.

Their relationship had been tumultuous. Tomi Rae had Brown arrested in 2004 for threatening her with a metal chair. The charges were dropped. It was not the first time Brown had been locked up for abusing wives. Third wife Adrienne Rodriegues had him arrested four times during their 10-year marriage.

Michael Jackson’s appearance was predictably dramatic. After a grand entrance into the arena with his entourage, Jackson hovered close over Brown’s corpse, face to face. Speculation based on television images was that he kissed Brown’s cheek. In his trademark childlike voice, Jackson later addressed the gathering: “James Brown is my greatest inspiration. Ever since I was a small child, no more than like six years old, my mother would wake me no matter what time it was . . . to watch the television to see the master at work. And when I saw him move, I was mesmerized. I’d never seen a performer perform like James Brown. And right then and there I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Al Sharpton was in charge at the event. Sharpton appeared distracted throughout the service until he took the microphone to eulogize Brown. He began by welcoming Jackson. “Michael says he don’t care what they say, Michael came for you today, Mr. Brown! I don’t care what the media says tonight. James Brown wanted Michael Jackson with him here today!” The crowd cheered. Sharpton then focused on Brown, noting that the singer had to struggle because “he wasn’t light-skinned with smooth hair. He looked like us.” (Unfortunately, Jackson’s reaction could not be seen when Sharpton said that.) The reverend spoke of Brown in heaven, speculating that he’s probably bragging to Ray Charles about how many people are showing up for his memorial services. (This was the second service; the first was two days earlier at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.)

Sharpton implored, “St. Peter, if you don’t consider it too arrogant, I don’t know too much yet about what you do in heaven. But if you have Sunday morning service, you ought to let James Brown sing tomorrow morning. I know you got angels that can sing, but they never had to shine shoes on Broad Street (in Augusta)! They never had their heart broken! They never been to jail for doing nothing wrong!” From the podium, Sharpton openly criticized police for once “shooting 22 bullets into [Brown’s] vehicle, blowing out the tires . . . and for what?”

Sharpton omitted the rest of the story. In 1988, Brown, high on PCP, carried a shotgun into an insurance seminar next to his Augusta office. He accused the participants of using his private restroom. Brown was then pursued by police for half an hour into South Carolina. The chase ended when the tires of his truck were shot out. Brown served more than two years in a South Carolina prison.

Sharpton then introduced “my rabbi, mentor, and friend, Reverend Jesse Jackson.” Taking the stage, Jackson promptly announced, “James Brown upstaged Santa Claus on Christmas Day by making his transition!” Activist Dick Gregory spoke next. Then came the president of Augusta’s Paine College, who walked on stage in cap and gown to bestow a posthumous Doctorate of Humanities. It had been a four-hour service by the time the coffin was closed. For Tomi Rae, it had ended a little sooner. According to the story she told CNN’s Larry King several nights later, she had been asked to leave the funeral after vehemently denouncing Reverend Sharpton for referring to her on stage as “Tammy.” &