Category Archives: Rock and Roll

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

Rock ‘n’ Roll Memories


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Eternal Outlaw

The Eternal Outlaw

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


December 09, 2010


By Keith Richards with James Fox

Little, Brown, 564 pages, $29.99

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Entertainer King

The Entertainer King

Matt Kimbrell takes a final bow, no doubt laughing all the way.


November 11, 2010

Matt Kimbrell was the consummate performer, a superb drummer and songwriter, excellent bass player, and decent guitarist. He was revered as supreme frontman in Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits, the Ho Ho Men, the Mambo Combo, or any other band in which he played. He was also funny as hell. He battled a heart problem for a decade or so, but finally lost on October 13 when a heart attack took his life at age 51 in the Bluff Park home he shared with his brother Mark (a world-class jazz guitarist). It’s the same house where the brothers grew up, with one room stocked with musical instruments and stacks of albums—a playground for a family smitten with music.

Matt and Mark’s late father, Henry Kimbrell—a top-notch jazz piano player who is a member of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, as well as a long-ago local TV personality (when not writing commercial jingles such as “Jack’s hamburgers for 15 cents are so good, good, good”)—hired his sons when they were in their mid-teens to form a jazz trio that played regular gigs at local clubs.

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Matt’s musical prowess on a variety of instruments was impressive, but his stage presence and vocal stylings stood out. “I really feel like on all the Jim Bob stuff, I was kinda trying to vocally imitate Matt,” admits Mats (pronounced Mots) Roden, one of the guitarists and songwriters in Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits, a popular Birmingham band that Kimbrell formed in 1979 with Roden and another high school friend named Leif Bondarenko.

“There’s an expression in opera called ‘heldentenor,’ a rare style of tenor singer, like the Wagner stuff,” says Roden. “Matt could have done that kind of stuff if he wanted to, because he had that kind of voice. He never applied it to classical music, but he definitely had the chops for it. He had a healthy respect for classical music.”

Apart from Sun Ra, the Leisure Suits were arguably the most revolutionary band to ever emerge from Birmingham, introducing the city to punk and New Wave sounds in 1980. Music fans accustomed to classic rock played by cover bands in local bars, where patrons usually sat at tables, sucking down cocktails and politely applauding, could not sit still when the Leisure Suits took the stage. The beats they played were irresistible, and tables and chairs in local venues became relics of the past. Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits transformed the city’s music dynamic as they annihilated the barrier between audience and performer. Soon, anyone with a guitar felt confident enough to write songs, and bands performing original music began popping up all over town, citing the Leisure Suits as inspiration.

Kimbrell was a star whenever he climbed on stage. He was always laughing at his own jokes, which he was never shy to share with an audience, and he imitated a variety of characters, no matter what band he fronted.

“People used to say that one of the great things about playing in the Mambo Combo wasn’t necessarily hearing the songs but hearing what Matt had to say in between songs, because he always had great stories,” recalls Ho Ho Men and Mambo Combo bassist and saxophone player Jeffrey Stahmer, better known as Dr. Ig (short for Dr. Igwanna). “He was a fantastic comedian, and he could always get the crowd going. At Matt’s memorial service people told me they used to come to see us act like fools up there in between songs. Matt was one of the funniest guys I ever knew. He loved to be up there and be the showman. Despite his jokes, his musicianship was always solid.” Dr. Ig laughs when recounting Matt’s fearless knack for entertaining. “We were playing some frat party [once] and [the audience] was acting really dull or stupid or something, and Matt said, ‘Well, then, if you guys don’t like it, for this next one I’m going to take my pants off.’ He actually did, he’s in his underwear, right? So I was playing sax and I decided to do the same thing.”

“At the School of Fine Arts, he was really a troublemaker—but not in a bad way,” recalls Roden, laughing. “All you had to do was climb a drainage pipe and you’d be in some girl’s room. Matt used to do that all the time.” Roden was studying acting at New York University when he and Kimbrell began talking about forming a band. “People were starting their own bands in their own cities. So I called Matt and he said that he was having the same idea, so I moved back to Birmingham to start Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits with him.”

“He knew about jazz because of his upbringing, his dad taught him about all the jazz players,” says former Leisure Suits drummer Bondarenko, who filled in on drums in an assortment of later Kimbrell combos. “Every time we would go over to Matt’s house back in high school, we’d go downstairs into his dad’s workroom and there would be paintings everywhere that his dad was working on. And there’d be a keyboard there, and stacks and stacks of records and a record player, and that’s where we’d hang out.”

A superb drummer, Matt Kimbrell was just as proficient at garnering laughs. (click for larger version)

Ho Ho Men drummer Ed Glaze recalls Kimbrell’s fearlessness as a performer. “He was incredibly funny and ferocious, absolutely fearless. He was a real force to be around,” says Glaze. “This was around ’94. Matt had a regular gig playing at a restaurant in Mountain Brook. It was a good little gig for him. One night he told me, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that place anymore. The other night there was this really drunk guy who kept yelling at me.’ At one point, this heckler yelled, ‘Hey man, why don’t you play some shit we know?” And Matt leaned into the microphone and replied, ‘Because you don’t know shit.’ He said the manager came up to him and said, ‘We need to talk.’ So Matt took a vacation from that restaurant gig. He’d always laugh at his own jokes, then suddenly quit laughing and have this deadpan look on his face. Between songs, besides just making up stuff in the songs, he was doing comedy routines. The later at night it got, the funnier he got.”

Glaze recalls when the Leisure Suits had a gig booked at St. Andrews Church on Southside. “Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits had suddenly broken up and Matt called to ask if me and Walter Kelly wanted to put a band together in two weeks to play that gig, because he didn’t want to lose that show. That’s how the Ho Ho Men started,” recalls Glaze. “We later started the Mambo Combo when Walter started going to law school. Matt eventually asked me if I wanted to be the drummer, but I don’t think Matt was really that satisfied with my drumming because he told me that I could only use two drums. He’d try to sell me on the idea of not using a full drum kit. He was like, ‘Yeah, man, basically this is like Moe Tucker’s setup for the Velvet Underground. This is like the pure soul of rock. (laughs) And you are the soul of rock, so two drums is all you need.’”

“We used to play benefits,” Glaze continues. “He needed to make a living playing music but he was real good about playing benefits even if we didn’t get paid.” One of those occasions was a benefit for Children’s Hospital. “Dr. Ig had this song called ‘Organ Donor.’

It was off-color and (vulgar). The local daily paper had a write-up of the benefit and wrote, ‘Perhaps the most appropriate song of the day was the Mambo Combo’s “Organ Donor.”‘ That song has lyrics about drinking double shots of Jack Daniels and whips and chains. And then it goes into the chorus: ‘I pulled an instant boner and became her organ donor.’”

Mambo Combo’s final show was in 2001. “We had this gig somewhere in Five Points South and it’s supposed to be a Mambo gig,” Glaze recalls. “Ig and I showed up, and the marquee out front and all the flyers on the windows announced that it would be the Matt Kimbrell Experience playing that night. We were like, ‘So, Matt what do you know about this?’ And Matt went, ‘Oh, yeah, about that. Well, man, I’m putting out my own CD of my own songs. And I thought maybe we’d pull in more people [if Matt's name was on the bill].’ There were maybe 10 people there. That was our last show.”

One of my favorite memories of Matt was in the early 1980s when we appeared together, unscheduled, on WBRC television’s Country Boy Eddy Show. We gathered at my house the night prior for an all-night rehearsal to learn “Route 66″ and the rockabilly classic “Brand New Cadillac.” Our rehearsal turned into a party, which we took to Red Mountain around 3:30 that morning, drinking and gazing out over the city while waiting for Country Boy Eddy to drive up, which he did at 4:45. When he arrived, he eyeballed us suspiciously as we approached him with our guitars. I asked Eddy if we could play on his show at 5 a.m. We were obviously intoxicated (Kimbrell quit drinking many years before he died), but Eddy smiled and said, “Sure you can. But you boys keep your language clean because I’ve got a family TV show.” We behaved, and rocked the Channel 6 studios.

Boutwell Studio co-owner and sound engineer Mark Harrelson recalls a jingle session Kimbrell worked on several weeks before his death, recording a new version of the original Jack’s Hamburgers jingle that his father wrote 40 years earlier. (Henry Kimbrell passed away some two decades ago.)

“What we got was an order for a long version of the jingle that they were going to use for some kind of corporate presentation,” Harrelson says. “All I had was a 12-second piece of audio . . the singing part (‘Jack’s Hamburgers for 15 cents are so good, good, good’) So Matt, Mark, and I got together and tried to figure out how to stretch the original out to three minutes. They put a bunch of solos in it. It was really fun. They laughed and talked about how they made fun of that jingle when it came out originally until one day their father finally said, ‘Y’all need to quit making fun of that jingle, because I wrote it.’ Matt just did what he always does, which is to come in and attack what was [originally] a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. Matt was very serious about it, and was very good and played his ass off.”

Matt’s older brother Mark recalls the pair playing with their father as teens. “We were probably both in high school when we started playing with our Dad. We did lots of country club work,” he says. “Me and Matt also played together in bands well before Jim Bob and Ho Ho and all that. I think Dad was probably a bigger influence on me than Matt . . . Dad would encourage us, and say stuff like, ‘Love the songs but then do them your own way.’”

When asked if Matt could make their father laugh as easily as he could friends and strangers, Mark replies, “Yeah, he could. Matt had this innate ability to make people laugh, but it all came from Dad, though. Dad was the instigator and the originator of all things weird and funny with the Kimbrell boys, you know? He kind of gave us carte blanche to go ahead and be absurd.”




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Another Time, Another Place, Another Lost Act
The meaningful sound of Matt Kimbrell and Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits

It was a big deal when Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits made their live debut in Birmingham back in 1979—mainly because these locals were at least as talented as the major-label headliners for whom they opened. The Romantics had a power-pop hit with “What I Like about You,” and the band members of 3-D were former country-rockers from Long Island dressed in skinny ties. Both were sharp acts, but Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits offered a true punk vision that night at Brothers Music Hall.

Their five-song First Time EP came out in 1980. More spazzy than brash, the EP was a solid collection of songs that included two musical manifestos: “Basic Music” celebrated the band’s simple sound, and Matt Kimbrell’s “White Trash Rock” acknowledged their unlikely success.

In those early days, Kimbrell was the default frontman with his billing as Jim Bob. The other Leisure Suits—except drummer Leif Bondarenko—had similarly clever pseudonyms. The band dropped those, however, by the time their 1982 self-titled album was released. Kitsch was no longer commercial, and the band had matured beyond their name. Sadly, the ambitious album left them in that fatal gap between a New Wave band going glossy and a rock band trying to find a home for its quirkiness on college radio stations.

Kimbrell went on to front the Ho Ho Men, whom I first saw live in 1986. He was wearing safety goggles and lurching through a noise-rock rendition of an old Jim Bob tune called “Steamy Paradise.” This was another band with three ace songwriters but a lot less commercial ambition. They managed only to release some cassettes; plenty of great songs ended up lost.

Those include Kimbrell’s “This World Is Killing Me,” which was no joke—especially if you contrasted the onstage Matt of 11 p.m. with the dead-eyed Matt you’d find wandering town in a 4 a.m. stupor. But that was at the end of the 1980s. Kimbrell got his personal life together in the decades to follow. The Ho Ho Men evolved into Mambo Combo, who performed for another 10 years. By the end of the 1990s, Kimbrell was constantly in demand as a live drummer and considered one of Birmingham’s most versatile session musicians.

Kimbrell spent his final days playing to decent-sized crowds as a percussionist with Taylor Hicks. I saw Kimbrell a few years ago and mentioned an old song of his to him. He seemed touched that anyone would remember something from that long ago, which made me feel better about being nostalgic when I learned of his death. I decided to ceremoniously open an ancient, sealed copy of the Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits album. It was too warped to play. Matt would have given that a rimshot. & —J.R. Taylor

Elvis in Context

Elvis in Context

Elvis Presley on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

August 23, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.” &