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The Last of the Hardest Working Men in Showbiz

The Last of the Hardest Working Men in Showbiz

Local musician Rick Carter continues to plug away, doing what he loves best.

Carter and the late Gatemouth Brown in recent years, hanging out at Gatemouth’s Slidell, Louisiana, BBQ joint during a Rollin’ in the Hay gig. (click for larger version)



August 20, 2009

Birmingham guitarist Rick Carter is one weary fellow. He’s performing solo on a Sunday afternoon at a Five Points South bistro where the patrons are more interested in conversation and eating lunch than listening to some fellow strum a guitar and sing. “And I thought I was an artist,” Carter says with a touch of cynicism as he extends a hand after finishing his set. He is worked every joint imaginable in 40 years of playing music, so he simply rolls with the punches. Though evening audiences ripe on alcohol are no doubt preferable, Carter remains the consummate professional in the face of mid-afternoon apathy, even if he does keep an eye on the clock in anticipation of quitting time.

It’s no wonder he’s tired. A few hours earlier, Carter finished a set in Auburn at 4 a.m. with his popular bluegrass trio Rollin’ in the Hay, returning to Birmingham around 7 a.m. By noon he was setting up gear for the Sunday afternoon job. “I’m gonna go home and take a nap,” he sighed after finishing his set, desperate for some much-needed sleep before his rockabilly-swing band Frankie Velvet and the Mighty Veltones take the stage six hours later at Metro Bistro for their weekly Sunday night gig.

“I started playing music in 1966,” he says on a recent afternoon at his Shelby County home, where an American flag is proudly displayed in the front yard throughout the year. “The first money I ever made as a musician was in 1967, when I was 14. I was playing with my band the Invaders in a teen club at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina.” Carter’s father was a career Air Force officer. (The Hawkins B. Carter American Legion Post 235 in Fultondale is named in his honor.) The family moved to the Philippines in 1968, where Carter formed a band called The Great Wind Controversy.

I walked into my little dressing room and there stands Bob Dylan. He says, “Hey Rick, that’s pretty crafty using that Band song to finish the set.”

“We chose that name because it sounded psychedelic,” he says, laughing. “We played Steppenwolf, did a lot of soul stuff like ‘The Letter,’ ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.’ I played a Farfisa organ and we all wore matching clothes. In the Philippines, you got your clothes made because you didn’t really have access to new clothes unless you ordered out of the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and whatever you ordered took six months to arrive. So it was easier just to get a Sears catalog and tell a tailor, ‘I want that shirt or those pants,’ and the tailor would custom make you a shirt for a dollar.”


The band became fairly popular. “We got to be pretty big on all the military bases in the Philippines and we went on the Filipino TV equivalent of ‘American Bandstand.’ We were the only American band that had ever been on that show. We had to take my family’s maid with us ’cause we didn’t have a work permit to allow us to be paid by Filipinos. So they had to pay the maid and she gave the money to us.”

Rick Carter chats with a few Telluride fans at the Wooden Nickel in the late ’70s. The bar later became The Nick. (click for larger version)




By 1970, Carter was living in Selma, Alabama, where his father was stationed at Craig Air Force Base. There he started the band Truffle and added Allman Brothers songs to the set. “We played all that dual guitar stuff,” he says. “I learned every Dickey Betts lick. In Selma, there was the Ramshack where they had high school dances. But at Craig Air Force Base, you had a teen club, an officer’s club, an NCO club—all those private parties. So there really was a nice little thriving music scene in Selma.” (A rival band with whom Truffle competed for jobs was The Born Losers, which boasted future HealthSouth founder and convicted felon Richard Scrushy as a member.)

“In 1975, I got the dream job of a lifetime—playing the Ramada Inn in Selma in the house band, six nights a week with Larry Hall and The Summer Breeze,” Carter says. “We had to wear powder blue leisure suits and got to live at the Ramada Inn, and each band member had his own room. I got paid $145 a week. We walked down the hall to work. All the food was free because the restaurant was right there. I don’t think we even drank much back then, maybe beer. But we never had to pay for that. We played that gig from June ’75 till March of ’76 before it dried up, which was a heartbreaker. I knew I had to do something, so I moved to Birmingham.”

The High Life
In Birmingham, Carter landed a job selling ice cream from a popsicle truck. He started Telluride in 1977, and the band soon established a following at the Wooden Nickel, now known as The Nick. “By that summer, Telluride was doing so well that I quit my day job and started playing music full time, which I’ve done for 32 years now.” For a bar band, Telluride traveled with an impressive amount of equipment. “We were the only [bar] band that had an 18-wheeler. We wanted to have the biggest show we could,” Carter explains. “We wanted to have the biggest light system, the biggest P.A. system. People thought, ‘Man, they must be the best band around. Have you seen the size of their truck?’ We had a four-man crew that loaded and unloaded the thing. It was a full-blown production. In the ’80s, it was the show, baby! The more lights you had, the better you sounded to audiences. That wasn’t necessarily the way it should be, but that’s the way it was.”

In his home recording studio, a couple of red Miller Beer guitars are mounted on the wall like museum pieces. “When Telluride was sponsored by Miller in ’85 and ’86, you had to have all the Miller signage up [in each venue]. All the beers on the stage had to have the labels pointed out toward the audience,” Carter remembers. “We had to play the Miller guitar and the Miller bass on at least one song a night. So, we’d do ‘Bad to the Bone’ and we’d play the slide guitar parts with Miller beer bottles. It was actually very advantageous to us. We sent [Miller] our calendar, and by the time we got to the gig, they already had us set up for radio interviews, record store appearances, backstage meet-and-greets, all that kind of stuff. They would fly us up to Milwaukee and do symposiums and teach us how to do interviews and all the basic things you need to know about media etiquette or how to say the right thing and how not to sound stupid, basically. And they’d give us a nice, big check.”

“We were the only bar band that had an 18-wheeler. People thought, ‘Man, they must be the best band around. Have you seen the size of their truck?’”

Telluride was playing at Louie Louie’s in Five Points South in 1985 when a familiar-looking piano player walked into the bar. “Nicky Hopkins [former pianist for the Rolling Stones, among other bands] was in town on a promotional tour for a book called Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard,” Carter recalls. (Hopkins had played on a soundtrack album of the same name that Scientology founder Hubbard had produced to promote the novel. The book was later made into a movie starring John Travolta.) Hopkins asked to sit in with the band. After the set, he invited Telluride to play with him at a record convention in the Cayman Islands. Essentially, Telluride would be working for the Church of Scientology. Carter was skeptical that the trip would ever materialize. “Hopkins took all my contact info, and about a week later my mother called me and goes, ‘There’s a package here for you from FedEx,’ and I said, ‘Well, open it up.’ She does and it’s 12 tickets to the Cayman Islands. So I called our booking agent and told him to cancel all our shows because we’re going to the Cayman Islands. Oh, he was all in an uproar, saying, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t cancel Louie Louie’s or whatever it was.”

“The Cayman Island trip was awesome. But we didn’t know too much about the Church of Scientology at the time,” Telluride co-founder and guitarist Moose Harrell recalls in an interview from his Nashville home. “I feel like Telluride really set a standard for the way to be successful in that era, even if we didn’t hit mainstream success,” Harrell says. “We were a good, living example of what hard work and dedication can do for you. A lot of it came from Rick, he has an exceptional amount of drive. He’s always been a real professional. A lot of the stuff that Telluride did, and the way we did it, carry over into my life today, too. But we had more fun than anybody has a right to in 37 lifetimes.”

In 1994, Carter formed Rollin’ in the Hay. “Moose had quit Telluride, so we had replaced him with Barry Waldrep, who was really a bluegrass player,” Carter says. “He and I would sit around in hotel rooms and play bluegrass. So I thought if we could add a bass player, we could go out and pick up some extra money. We hit some kind of strange, odd niche, because within two or three years, that thing got huge. It just swallowed Telluride. We were doing Monday, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. And then we were getting offers for Fridays and Saturdays, and were making three times what Telluride was making per night. It was time to get off the road with Telluride. Rollin’ in the Hay was right before O Brother, Where Art Thou? and all that kind of stuff.”

Rollin’ in the Hay scored a contract with CMH Records to record for the label’s “Pickin’ On” series, which featured bluegrass instrumental versions of songs from popular bands played by studio musicians and bands like Rollin’ in the Hay. “We did right around 20 of those Pickin’


Fourteen-year-old Carter, at far right, and his band the Invaders playing the opening of a TV and radio shop in Sumter, South Carolina, in 1967. (click for larger version)




On CDs,” Carter says. “Pickin’ On the Allman Brothers, Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, Tim McGraw, R.E.M., Travis Tritt, all kinds of things like that. But the biggest one that we did was Pickin’ On Widespread Panic. When Telluride used to play Athens, Georgia, every time we’d go into the frats, there was always these three guys that didn’t look like frat boys hanging around. And we used to do the best Allman Brothers. That was my inspiration. So, one night I finally asked these three guys, ‘Who are you guys? You’re obviously not in a fraternity.’ And they said, ‘Oh, we got this little acoustic thing going called Widespread Panic.’ And I was like, ‘Well, good luck to you.’ And then years later, I’m doing a Pickin’ On Widespread Panic CD. That one busted us loose with that jam band genre. So now, Rollin’

in the Hay is the breadwinner. We get airplay in the British West Indies, Japan, The Netherlands, Germany.”

Business, as Usual
“I got a check one time for foreign royalties for my song ‘Sail Away’ that I wrote in Selma,” Carter recalls with a grin. “Telluride recorded it. The check was for a bunch of money, so I called BMI and said, ‘Are you sure this is for me?’ It was for foreign royalties, which can come in two or three years later than the actual play period,” he explains. “We had a hit with that song in Europe and never knew it until after the fact, because if we had known that, we’d have gone over there. I bought a National steel guitar with that check, so I can always say I bought that guitar with a song. The license plate on my Corvette says ‘SONGS.’ That’s what bought it, songs and royalty checks. I wrote a song called ‘Redneck Girl’ and my wife at the time said, ‘Don’t ever play that song for anybody. That’s the stupidest song I’ve ever heard.’ So I gave it to J. Hawkins at the Florabama [Lounge]. He always played those kind of nasty songs, silly songs. He was playing at the Florabama one time and Jeff Foxworthy came in. Foxworthy has a record label called Laughing Hyena. They do all those CDs you see at truckstops and convenience stores that say ‘Truckers’ Favorites.’ Well, ‘Redneck Girl’ ended up on one of those. Turns out I get this big giant royalty check for that song, and I showed it to my wife and she goes, ‘You are kidding me! Somebody bought that?’ And I told her, ‘More than one person bought it, baby.’

“To say that I’m addicted to work would be an understatement. I love to play music but I also have always understood the business aspect of it,” Carter admits. “But you do have to ultimately have the songs. If you don’t have the songs, you’re just another band. If you want to eat, it just depends on how good you want to eat. And I always wanted to eat steak. But ultimately I always wanted to just play music. And the more I played music, the happier I was. That’s why if you play with me, you’re gonna work. Rollin’ in the Hay just did seven shows in seven days in seven cities, and I’m 55. So I haven’t slowed down in that department.”

Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
Rick Carter’s first solo record was Loveland. He assembled a large entourage of local musicians and singers he dubbed the Loveland Orchestra that opened for Bob Dylan. “We did four shows opening for Dylan in ’93 and ’94. For the show in Huntsville, I told the band, ‘Let’s close with “The Weight.” We’ve got all these voices and everybody can sing really well, and by then everybody’s ready for Bob, so that’ll kind of secure our success as the opening act if we play that song and do it well.’ I walked into my little dressing room after we came off stage and there stands Bob Dylan. He walks up to me and says [nasal voice], ‘Hey Rick, that’s pretty crafty using that Band song to finish the set.’”

Carter developed a friendship with late jazz and blues guitar legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. “We were playing in Slidell, Louisiana, at a barbecue joint, and Gatemouth had a little piece of the place [as part-owner]. Rollin’ in the Hay used to play there and Gatemouth lived nearby and used to come hear us and sometimes sit in on fiddle,” Carter says. “He used to tell me that his favorite food was grape jelly. One day he called me when he was in Birmingham playing a blues festival downtown, and told me to come eat dinner with him. So I went backstage and they were bringing the catered food in. Sure enough, they bring in a big jar of Welch’s grape jelly. We’re having catfish, green beans, and baked potatoes, and Gatemouth takes about a quarter of that jar of jelly and drops it right in the middle of that catfish. I said, ‘Damn, grape jelly on catfish?’ And he said, ‘Didn’t I tell you I love grape jelly? Grape jelly is on top of everything I eat!’”

Carter once booked bands for the Star Dome when it was a music venue (before becoming the Comedy Club). His chores included an afternoon spent babysitting Bo Diddley. “Bo Diddley and I went into Mike’s Pawn Shop at Christmas time, and there was this guy buying his son a guitar and amp. And the guy goes, ‘Damn, Bo Diddley!’ And Bo said, ‘That’s right.’ And the guy said, ‘I’m buying my son a guitar, which one should I get?’ And Bo said, ‘Well, don’t buy that red one! Get that black one, don’t buy no red guitar.’ And I’ll be damned, because I’ve seen pictures of him for years where he played that red Bo Diddley guitar. Guess he didn’t want anybody else to have a red guitar. Then Bo said, ‘Watch this. I guarantee you he’s gonna ask me to sign it.’ So the guy asked him to sign it and Bo turned to me and goes, ‘I told you.’

“Back at the hotel, he wanted some barbecue, so I went to Golden Rule. And this is a sight I’ll never forget. I knocked on the door with his barbecue, and Bo opened the door and he was in a pair of boxer shorts and cowboy boots, no shirt, and he’s go that damn cowboy hat with ‘Bo’ on it. I gave him the barbecue and he said ‘Thanks,’ and slammed the door, didn’t even ask me in.”

His career in music has afforded Carter a comfortable lifestyle. While walking through his bedroom to look at some photos in his office, I did a double take at what I thought was a casket. It turned out to be a tanning bed. “I’m the weirdest guy in the world,” he laughs. “I have a refrigerator in my bathroom upstairs, I have a tanning bed in my bedroom, and a washer and dryer in the closet in my bedroom. At my age, I don’t want to have to walk downstairs to get a Coke, and I don’t want to have to drive to the tanning bed place, and I don’t want to have to walk downstairs to get my damn clothes. They’re all right here. I’ve got my rock ‘n’ roll crib.” &


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 http://tinyurl.com/gips1). “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.” &

CIty Hall — The Deep End


The Deep End

He can’t say why or how, but Mayor Langford believes that an equestrian center and an Olympic-size swimming arena will revitalize the crime-ridden and economically depressed Five Points West area.

April 17, 2008
Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford’s mastery at communication often seems to hypnotize many members of the City Council. At the April 8 council meeting, even Councilor Joel Montgomery—who often resists freewheeling spending—was drinking Langford’s Kool-Aid. Montgomery and five other councilors supported allotting $48 million for the mayor’s proposed upgrade to Fair Park and the surrounding Five Points West district—which Langford says will cost a total of $90 million.(Councilor Roderick Royal voted against the proposal, Councilor Abbott abstained, Councilor Bell was absent.)Predictably, Councilor Valerie Abbott remained suspicious of Langford’s economic notions. “I’m in favor of this concept. However, you know me. I’m always waiting for those little details,” admitted Abbott. “And in this case, I just want to get to the bottom line. I would like to approve money to develop a plan today, but not necessarily to allocate all the money, because at this point I do not know exactly what the money will go for.” Langford’s redevelopment plan for Five Points West includes an Olympic-size swimming arena [natatorium], equestrian facilities, and an indoor track at Fair Park. Several businesses, including hotels and retailers, are scheduled to open in the immediate vicinity as part of the area’s economic revitalization. The bulk of the funds for this project will come, at least initially, from funds raised by the increase in business license fees approved by the council three months ago. Though at the time those funds were earmarked for construction of a domed stadium. According to Langford, monies would not be due until 18 months after construction on a domed stadium had begun. Until then, according to Langford’s plan, funds generated by the license fee increase will be the primary funding source for the Fair Park plan. Other funding for the revitalization project will come from a one-cent sales tax previously approved by the council for economic redevelopment, as well as money previously approved for Fair Park but never spent.

Regarding the development’s commercial versus its sports/athletic components, Abbott favors the latter, fearful that current Five Points West businesses might not be able to compete with new businesses. “I would like to see a redevelopment plan and a legal agreement, something we can sink our teeth into,” the councilor said as she also inquired about an ongoing operational funding source for Fair Park. Abbott also wants to know what the economic impact would be. That kind of information is often available whenever city economic development is proposed, but in this instance no economic impact study has been undertaken.

When Councilor Carol Duncan simply asked about the cost of the natatorium (or “swimming pool,” as Council President Carole Smitherman refers to the facility), Langford said the pool would cost about $12 million. “I’m not going to get emotional about any of this anymore. This is too long coming in this city,” said the mayor with obvious disgust. “Without the retail component out there, all we’ve done is build another stadium. You’re going to have to have the retail component in order to be sure that it is maintained. This area has so longly needed something out there. Let’s don’t piecemeal it. If you’re going to vote it, vote it . . . If the Council decides today that you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. I will not bring it back.”

Councilor Roderick Royal wanted to delay the item until after the council receives the 2009 budget in two months. “Since we are contemplating using business license fees—the money that we said to our taxpayers that we were going to use for the dome—the question is: how do you replace this money? And will that affect our ability whenever we do decide, or can build a large facility?”

“We must have about 17 different projects going on in this city,” Royal continued. “Now, I’m not a very smart guy but I will say this: we may need to stop and look at and evaluate how far we’re come. And whether or not any of those projects have really moved. Rather than just continuing to promise out and promise out. I don’t think that’s good fiscal management.” Royal proposed that the council “wait until we get the budget in hand so we can assess our fiscal health for next year and perhaps the following year. And so that we can also look at the evaluation of the 15 or 16 other projects that have been proposed and the Council, either tacitly or formally, has approved.”

Langford denied that money for the domed stadium is going to be used for Fair Park improvements. “The minute they let bids on this stadium, payments will become due 12 to 18 months later,” said Langford. “This city has the fortunate benefit today to be able to use those funds now to do these projects.”

Councilor Montgomery supports Langford’s Fair Park proposal because the money is available. “Councilor Hoyt, this is in your district, and I support you on this. And I don‘t care who likes it,” said Montgomery. “The bottom line is we need economic development in this city. There’s no question about it. That area has been neglected for the longest time. Now you can spin it any way you want to and try to make this look like we’re overspending up here. I don’t vote to overspend taxpayers’ money in this city!”

Council President Smitherman agreed that the council should seize the opportunity to redevelop the Five Points West area. “If we don’t take this money and put it over to the side, then we will never see a new Fair Park,” she said. “It won’t happen. We’ll just take that money and say, ‘Oh, we can go and repair some streets with that.’ Sure. We need it anyhow. Or we can go and we can do some other kind of economic development. And you look up and that money will be squandered all over the place.”

Smitherman believes that the Fair Park development will “spread development over in my area just like it will in everybody else’s area. It may be in Five Points West, but it’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the whole city of Birmingham . . .” She said that Fair Park will show critics that the council can do more than “bring a Wal-Mart.”

Councilor Royal later objected to Smitherman’s lack of adherence to proper parliamentary procedure. “And that means you are out of order again. And you just need to chill out. And that’s what I think,” Royal told the council president. Smitherman replied, “I think I need to use a gavel on you.” Royal again called for “point of order” once more, asking, “Madame President, is that a threat or some kind of assault?” To which Smitherman said, “Nah, I don’t go there, like you.”

• • •
Holy Rollers

At the April 8 Birmingham City Council meeting, Mayor Larry Langford announced that he had ordered 2,000 burlap sacks for use at a citywide prayer meeting to combat crime. Langford displayed one of the burlap bags and said he will ask area ministers to participate in a “sackcloth and ashes” ritual as the Bible commands. “When cities—in the early part of the world’s history—when they had gotten so far from God, begun idol worship and all kinds of crazy stuff that we’re doing even today, that community came to its senses,” explained the mayor. “And the Bible tells us that they [wore] sackcloth and [put] ashes on their faces and they prayed. And God heard their prayer . . . To get this community back on the right track, we need to understand the power of prayer.”

Langford has worn his religion on his sleeve during his first four months as mayor and has led a Bible study group each Friday morning in the city council chambers. “I got a call from someone saying that I need to quit mentioning God’s name so much,” said Langford. “And so I politely asked them what in hell did they want? Because there must be something in hell we want because a lot of us are working real hard to get there . . . If you’ve got a problem with God, take it up with Him.” &


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.” &