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Rock 'n' Roll Comes to Birmingham
Rock 'n' roll came to Birmingham in the form of recordings — shiny black lacquered 78 rpm promotional discs sent to radio stations by the record companies. Station WVOK went on the air in Birmingham in 1947. An AM station of 10,000 watts, it covered most of North and Central Alabama as well as good portions of Georgia and Tennessee. It was the work of the Bends and Brennan families, and Dan Brennan was there from the beginning: "When we signed on, a Capitol transcription library was our only source or primary source of entertainment. Big 16-inch discs, and they had some interesting programming, among others they had Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, some others, Pee Wee Hunt. They had a number of singers and some country & western, Tex Ritter and some of those people, Nat King Cole and the King Cole Trio. They would have maybe four or five selections on each side, and it would be just an opportunity to play them. The other form of music was a 78 rpm record ... The only company that gave us records in the beginning was RCA. We did get some help from them, but most of the others did not. We actually had to purchase records. When we first signed on, we played a form of pop music; the Capitol library was pop. We did have some country & western too, but it was primarily pop, then within the first couple of years we had switched over to country & western. Partly because of audience demand, and partly because some of the live bands we had on the air were country & western.
"We had dances and we had bands that would perform at the Bessemer City Auditorium. We just did that as a means of kind of spotlighting the groups that were playing on the air. We gave them an opportunity to make a few dollars and also to make the station look a little different. Not many stations in town had any live functions like that that they participated in. We played records while the bands took a break. I remember one of the dances at the Bessemer Auditorium. I remember the first record, first true rock 'n' roll record I played: 'Rock around the Clock' by Bill Haley. I remember people did not dance — they looked like they did not know what in the world they were hearing. I knew at the time  it was still, it was very popular already in some parts of the country, but our audience we had on that dance floor did not know what it was. Our first exposure to rock 'n' roll was really rockabilly. It was kind of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and some of those Sun recordings. As a matter of fact, we played a combination of country & western and rockabilly in the beginning and it was probably a transition to rock 'n' roll music."
Baker Knight was in a rockabilly band called the Nightmares in 1955, with Shuler Brown on bass, Nat Toderice and Glen Lane on saxophone, and Bill Weinstein on drums. They had, in his words, "a country rock sound" with steel guitar and piano. "We had started a band when Elvis came out and I had learned to play guitar well enough to get a band going." Knight said they were "the first rockabilly band in Birmingham ... and the American Legion [venue] in Leeds [a community close to Birmingham] was the first time the Nightmares played." Later on they played "the Mountain Brook Lodge, which had mostly pop groups, and the people came rushing in to hear rock 'n' roll, people had never heard it before ... People would come and stand around bandstand and stare up at us, whatever songs were popular, 'Blue Suede Shoes,' black music, I could sing that stuff ... R&B [rhythm and blues] brought them together, Bo Diddley stuff, people loved it — it was something different."
The radio stations playing that "Bo Diddley stuff" in Birmingham were some of the few African American stations in the country. As the South was segregated, Birmingham's biggest radio stations — WAPI, WBRC, and WSGN — broadcast to a predominantly white audience. The first inroads into the segregated airwaves were short programs devoted to African American sacred music, featuring the gospel quartets whose sweet harmonies and soaring lead vocals appealed to both races. William Blevins, Nims Gay, and Sadie Mae Patterson all broadcast gospel shows on white radio in the early 1940s. The African American businessman A. G. Gaston sponsored Birmingham's Gospel Harmonettes onWSGN. On April 19, 1942, WJLD started broadcasting from Bessemer. It carried gospel shows, popular music, and news. In 1946 a white disc jockey called Bob Umbach began the Atomic Boogie Hour, playing rhythm and blues and imitating the patter of black deejays, just like Dewey Phillips in Memphis. It was the only station in Birmingham that broadcast black music. The Atomic Boogie Hour was so popular it often ran for hours every day, and it lasted until 1953.
In 1949 Shelley Stewart got a job with the newly opened WEDR, a white-owned station aimed at the black audience, and as "Shelley the Playboy" he brought the exciting sounds of R&B and rock 'n' roll to an awed audience of teenagers. Ed Reynolds, who managedWJLD, started WEDR radio in 1949 — another station aimed at the African American audience. By the 1960s WENN was the premier radio station in Birmingham programming African American music, with two of the city's most popular deejays: Shelley Stewart and "Tall Paul" White. Record collector Ben Saxon remembered: "You grew up listening toWJLD and WENN and Shelley the Playboy and Tall Paul." "Can I get a witness!" roared Shelley over the air after he played a hot song, and thousands of Birmingham teenagers agreed with him. As one of them said: "We was all listening to Shelley." Baker Knight: "B. B. King was just starting in and they were playing his records on the black radio station ... This was 1952. I was over at the black radio station before white people knew that they had such things ... We went over to the black radio station, and that was unheard-of in those days, and we'd listen to B. B. King records." The black stations had an illicit attraction: "You had to get closer to the music," remembered David Bryan, and this meant traveling to the black sections of town, ducking down in the car as you traversed the mainly African American Northside. If you could not get the signal, you were left out of it. Tony Wachter: "So it is strange how cut off we were. I felt extremely cut off. Even though WENN was broadcasting in my youth, if they were I didn't know what it was — we could not get it."
Listening to the radio at night was one of those shared rock 'n' roll pleasures. Ben Saxon: "I don't know how I first started listening. Transistor radios were just coming out. I had one that was in the shape of a rocket ship. It was only AM, of course. The nose was the pull-up antenna ... I had a really strict father, who would make me go to bed at eight at night. I would take the radio with the earphones and have a great time listening to the music until I went to sleep." On a clear night you might be able to pick up Louisiana Hayride coming from KWKH from Shreveport, or B. B. King playing records at WDIA in Memphis, the "mother station" of rhythm and blues.
As rock 'n' roll became more accepted, more radio stations began to program it. Loud, brash, Duke Rumore ("the loud mouth of the South") established himself as the leading rock 'n' roll disc jockey at WSGN — the major player in Birmingham's radio in the 1960s. Vocalist Henry Lovoy and Ben Saxon remembered him and "all that New Orleans soul and R&B that he used to play. It was kind of like an Alan Freed of the Birmingham area. He brought that new sound here to us." Bob Cahill: "You could listen to black radio, but I don't think other than in the morning when you were going to school, because for most teenagers the Rumore brothers probably had their ear in the afternoon. The reason was that they would play the latest, and if Duke said, 'Hey, I've got a new record from somebody,' everybody would listen and he would play it at 4 [p.m. — after school]." Davy Roddy was another popular rock deejay. Fred Dalke: "One of the biggest things in the '50s and '60s was that radio had personality, they had radio personalities, as compared to today — a lot of these deejays are clones. In those days every deejay that became big and popular had their own way of doing things, like Dave Roddy, and they called him 'Rockin' Roddy,' and he was on WSGN and he was like the deejay to listen to, he was cool, and all the kids listened to him on Friday nights."
Disc jockeys were well connected to their audience; they did their business in person, meeting the listening audience in the numerous promotional activities they arranged. Duke's brother Joe Rumore of WVOK — at 50,000 watts the most powerful station in the state — had one of the most recognized voices in Alabama. His daily presence on air made him a family friend for those who listened in: "I couldn't get through the day without Joe," said one of them. Joe would deal with as many as 250 letters from his listeners every day. In 1954 the two brothers opened Rumore's Record Rack on 1802 Second Avenue, which gave them a retail outlet for the records they played on air. Deejays played a more personal role in music than they do now; they were there on the stage introducing the artists, making appearances at retail stores and record hops. Ben Saxon and Henry Lovoy agreed, "We had a radio family at one time in Birmingham. Back then you knew or felt like you knew Dave Roddy or Dan Brennan or Joe Rumore. They were your friends."
Popular Entertainment in the 1950s
Much of Birmingham's live music at this time was being played by dance bands — not the great swing bands of the 1940s, but smaller, more flexible groups. Harrison Cooper started playing saxophone at Ensley High School in the 1930s: "I organized a little Lombardo-type band. Guy Lombardo. Everyone liked him then. So we just got bitten by the bug and his music, and started copying his arrangements and we were just teenagers. We played Birmingham, but it was actually after high school. So we had this real professional-sounding band and we would broadcast on the local radio stations WBRC and WAPI and just go all over the country. The signal went out and we would get letters about going to different places to play ... We played all around Birmingham at different clubs, the hotels, dances at the country clubs. It was a very danceable-type band. In 1935 we were playing at the Ritz Theatre and there was this girl and her husband who liked our band a lot and they were moving to South America ... They liked our band so well that they told us when they left that they would try and book us down there. Sure enough, they did. We went down there in January of 1935 and stayed for six months in Buenos Aires. That was really the climax of that band. After we came back from South America we played around Birmingham for a while and I guess it just kind of wore off. We all just went in different directions." After graduating from school Harrison Cooper joined Herbie Kay's band in Chicago: "I played with that band until I was drafted in World War II. Then when I got into the army I organized a band there. I was fortunate to have a band all during the war. We had a big Glenn Miller–type band at that time. That was about 1941–45. That was about the swing time. There was Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and there were a lot of big bands at that time. So after the war was over I came back to Birmingham and stayed about six months, and then I decided to go back up to New York, and when I got there I got a job with Benny Goodman. I was with Benny for about two years, and I came back to Birmingham to organize my own band here. That was about 1947. So I picked up where I left off years ago. We played all the places around Birmingham. The Pickwick Club was very popular. They had a big dance hall in the back of the hotel. It was very popular, all the high school proms were held there and it was just a very busy place. We also played at downtown at the Municipal Auditorium, we played a lot of dances there. The Thomas Jefferson Hotel, the Tutwiler, they all had ballrooms. Country clubs like the Fairmont, Hillcrest, Birmingham, Mountain Brook, we played a lot of those places, a lot of those social dances. We were a busy bunch."
Tommy Charles had started training his voice for opera, "but I saw people around me who had less voice than I did making a lot more money and having a lot more fun singing ballads, pop ... Don Cornell [vocalist of the Sammy Kaye band] was an influence, Sinatra was an influence, Perry Como, who is a guy you haven't heard of. Bing Crosby, of course." Charles was soon making a name for himself as a radio personality: "I made national radio with a band called Horace Height, which was a national touring band that was onCBS, and I made them in 1953 ... Back then I sang everywhere ... I played here at Mike's South Pacific, and also played at Carmichael's [nightclub] ... And Carmichael was a real hip kind of guy, dressed in real fancy clothes, and he introduced me ... and I came roaring out from the sidelines and the band's playing the introduction to my song and I grab the microphone off the stand, and I'm going to put on a show, then I knock my tooth out and it falls on the floor." The life of a musician in the 1950s was "with whiskey and people having a good time ... But some of the things I could tell you, you couldn't put in a book. Because back then, performers just got women. I don't know why ... and I don't mean it with anything illicit necessarily, just women like to meet performers. And the sexual revolution hadn't taken place yet, so it was not a big deal."
In the 1950s the record companies and radio stations served the adult audience. Dan Brennan: "We really wanted to get, for our clients, more of the adults than we did the young children. We reached them with rock 'n' roll too. I think as many adults liked Elvis as did the youngsters. I don't think our goal was ever to try and just reach teenagers or anything like that ... So while the first listeners might have skewed toward the younger age groups, the final result was a family audience ... So for commercial reasons it was more profitable to us to sell our sponsors' products to adults than it was to sell them to youngsters."
Birmingham had many dance bands and venues for them to play. Vocalist Cousin Cliff: "I want you to write down Harrison Cooper first ... He is a pianist and is just wonderful ... Dewitt Shaw, he had one of the best bands in Birmingham. He really played most of the dances around here, he and Harrison Cooper. They used to play the old Pickwick [Club] ... Buddy Harris had a real nice dance band that was real sophisticated, but they were not real big though ... Another person would be Tant, Buddy Wallace Tant ... Eddie Stephens had a band also ... He had a big band, about fifteen or twenty pieces. He used to play at the Cascade Plunge and the Cloud Room. Do you remember Cascade Plunge? They used to have those big dances out there called convocations of social clubs ... Just a lot of big bands out there ... Ted Brooks is another person, boy, he was really good ... in fact, he played shows with me at the old Shades Mountain Country Club ... Lou Mazzeret was a band director, and he used to play down at the Blue Note Club. That used to be downtown. Henry Kimbrell is another one. He used to play at all those society functions ... Back when I was going to school, Woodlawn [High School] and all, we used to have sorority and fraternity parties. We used to have lead-outs, where all the boys bring out the girls through this pretty arch and all, and they have this big theme and usually have big bands."
The scores of bands that played the big hotels downtown, the dinner and dance clubs like the Pickwick and Blue Note, the country clubs and private supper clubs, all depended on providing music for dancing. Harrison Cooper: "Bill Nappi had a dance band that was pretty big. It was a dance band mainly. These were all mostly dance bands that were around here. There was Paul Smith. There were a lot of little old bands like that around Birmingham at that time. They were very popular. There were as many dance bands around at that time as there are rock bands that are around now. Everything is rock now; back then everything was dance."
Tommy Stewart, one of the great trumpet players of the swing era, hit the road early: "The snake oil and medicine shows used to come from Atlanta, and a lot of them left with musicians who could read [music]. Plenty of tent shows came through. Over by Parker High School, there was a big old field over there. These guys came through and sell you some Hadecol, snake medicine or something — some of that stuff was colored water. They had live bands and I played with some of them. I made some money when I was about sixteen traveling with a circus ... Birmingham was a hotbed for music ever since I was a little boy. You had bands like the Fred Avery Band, John L. Bell, a piano player had a band, John Hands had a band in the 1940s. Fess [Whatley] had a heck of a band. When Sun Ra left [around 1946] his band was still playing here."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Magic City Nights"
Copyright © 2017 Andre John Millard.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents<P>Introduction<BR>Rock 'n' Roll Comes to Birmingham<BR>Records and Rock 'n' Roll<BR>The Garage Bands<BR>On the Road<BR>Race and Music in Birmingham<BR>Music in the Struggle for Civil Rights<BR>The Beatles Are Coming!<BR>Birmingham and the Counterculture<BR>The Muscle Shoals Sound<BR>Southern Rock<BR>Opportunity Knocks<BR>The Morris Avenue Boom<BR>Decline and Fall: The End of Southern Rock<BR>The New Wave<BR>The Next Big Thing<BR>Music and Community<BR>The Curse of Tommy Charles<BR>Birmingham Music in the Digital Age<BR>Notes<BR>Index</P>
What People are Saying About This
“With a wealth of recollections and insights from the musicians themselves, Magic City Nights is an engaging work that uncovers an important part of American musical history.”
“Andre Millard has written a highly informative and entertaining book abou the rich musical legacy of Birmingham, from the sock hops to southern rock. One of the finest music history tomes of the year!”
"With a wealth of recollections and insights from the musicians themselves, Magic City Nights is an engaging work that uncovers an important part of American musical history." Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul
"Andre Millard has written a highly informative and entertaining book abou the rich musical legacy of Birmingham, from the sock hops to southern rock. One of the finest music history tomes of the year!"Michael Buffalo Smith, author of Capricorn Rising: Conversations in Southern Rock