My heart aches for Birmingham’s old music scene

Terry Barr
Terry Barr

Today’s guest columnist is Terry Barr.

Recently a friend sent me a copy of Blake Ells’ history of Birmingham music, Magic City Rock: Spaces and Faces of Birmingham’s Scene.

It’s a cool read, especially if, like me, you haven’t lived in Birmingham for decades and, at best, have only heard rumors of the continuing Rock and Pop and DIY music scene.

Over the decades music clubs and venues have come and gone in the Magic City—places like Brother’s Music Hall (where I once saw Hank Williams Jr when I should have been studying for my Chaucer final down at the University of Montevallo), The Showboat Club, The Crazy Horse; discos like The Lighthouse, Odyssey, The Gizmo, and Belle’s. Some places like The Nick, Workplay, Zydeco, Iron City, Sloss Furnaces, and Gyp’s in Bessemer still thrive, and Oak Mountain Amphitheater produces excellent regional/national rock shows.

Places like Bottle Tree and so many others, sadly, have come and gone. When I long for my hometown, it’s the music that gets me most—places to hang out with friends and to hear the sounds that nurtured me and that continue to make me feel like a teenager still trying to sneak in to The Crazy Horse.

My home of Greenville, SC, tries, but it’s just not a music town even though I’ve seen some pretty incredible artists here from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles, from Jason Isbell to B’ham’s own St. Paul and the Broken Bones. And a couple of times I’ve also seen Birmingham natives Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires play in small Greenville venues. But even then, such shows just make me miss Birmingham.

Sure, I know our music history has some darker, even violent spots. What happened to Nat King Cole at the old Municipal Auditorium still haunts, even though I was only a child when that meanness occurred. And yes, for a long time, rock and soul shows were segregated as was everything else in Birmingham’s social realm, even though the city’s AM radio stations like WSGN and WVOK played a mix of all sorts of hits in the 60’s and 70’s. The Supremes next to Steppenwolf; if we could hear this mix on the radio….

I spent countless dollars in Birmingham going to live shows, from Bruce Springsteen to Heart, from Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Buddy Miles, King Crimson, Three Dog Night, Neil Diamond (at a Shower of Stars) Badfinger, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Jackson Browne, and Marshall Tucker to America and Gregg Allman.

Once, my friends and I were at Rickwood Field on the Fourth of July to hear a twin bill of Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Uriah Heep. Who knows who promoted that show, but after EW&F finished playing, we got word that Uriah Heep had cancelled. The audience was racially mixed, and other than having to leave early, nothing bad happened to any of us.

At the concert hall at the BJCC, I saw the only British Invasion band I ever got a chance to witness: The Kinks, and, again, though the crowd was mainly white, it wasn’t exclusively so.

My mother also ventured into the Birmingham music scene, attending both Willie Nelson and Chicago concerts. I wish I had gone with her, as I wish for so many things I’ll never get back.

Maybe the best show I witnessed in all my years in town was that Springsteen show at Boutwell. The year was 1975, and though I had two tickets, I couldn’t find anyone to accompany me. Imagine: the auditorium was only half full, and tickets went for $5.00. This was just after Born to Run was released, and Springsteen had graced the covers of both Time and Newsweek. The show went on for three hours, and like so many other Springsteen fans when they finally saw him play, I felt changed, as if my rock sensibilities had progressed into a more mature realm. I’ve seen him three times since then, but Bruce’s show that night in Birmingham will always be the best, likely because it was in Birmingham.

When you look at Ells’ book closely, as I did, you’ll remember bands like Hotel and Telluride—bands that made it for a time, and sadly, bands I had quite forgotten. But what you’ll also understand is that despite all of its changes, good and bad, Birmingham has always hosted and wanted to host our music.

I was long gone when the DIY scene emerged, so I had no idea about places such as Cave 9, nor did I know that Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield is from Birmingham. Love her sound.

I do know, because he’s a family friend, that former Lee Bains and the Glory Fires guitarist, Eric Wallace, has worked hard to make his Firehouse a place for up and coming musicians to learn and perform. What Eric is doing makes me proud; his Dad and I saw that Badfinger/King Crimson show at Boutwell, and we also drove down to Tuscaloosa to see Neil Young. We’ve been pals for all our lives. I love that tradition and family carry on this music, this culture, and that no matter who you are, music is your touchstone, our great equalizer.

And while I missed too many good shows in our town, that doesn’t matter as much as knowing those artists and bands were there, giving it all they had for us. Maybe we didn’t always deserve it, but looking back, I’m proud that we had our chances—that we still have them even in this increasingly strange age.

Terry Barr is a native of Bessemer. He has been a Professor of English at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina since 1987. His most recent essay collection, Secrets I’m Dying to Tell You (Red Hawk Press), is available at Amazon.com, and you can find him at medium.com/@terrybarr.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Click here to sign up for our newsletter. (Opt out at any time)

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

(Visited 2,489 times, 1 visits today)

18 thoughts on “My heart aches for Birmingham’s old music scene”

  1. Yes, to all you said. I still grieve for City Stages and for all the years I volunteered (a few as a board member) working untold hours over a weekend on the VIP Deck hauling ice, helping the caterers, and hauling and slinging beer. Bonnaroo (and other local issues) killed it and no one has ever managed to do it again.

  2. So glad to hear from another Bruce fan! I saw him with a few girlfriends at the Jefferson County Civic Center in 2000, maybe. Did not live here in 1975, but what a great show it must have been!

  3. Don’t forget the Cobblestone on Morris Avenue. Whenever Hotel played there the place would be packed. And Vickie Hallman at the Showboat and her rendition of White Rabbit.

  4. Thanks to all of you! I totally forgot about the Cobblestone, and I don’t know how! I hope to be back in the spring and would love to check our Saturn in Avondale!

  5. Lots going on in Birmingham. Google “Live Nation Birmingham”. Like Terry, I miss some of the venues that are gone. But others are coming up.

  6. I love this. I was an English major down at UM at that same general
    time and enjoyed so many places you named. My measuring of someone’s age is when I’m talking with them and they understand when I say I waited on tables at Spat’s when I was in college or was a bartender at the old Bennigan’s! 🙂

  7. Thank you for your article about the Birmingham music scene. You are right that music is the great equalizer.

    I thought City Stages was the best thing Birmingham ever did. Wish it could come back!

    On another note, my brother, who graduated from Jones Valley High in 1972, told me a story about their senior prom. It was the beginning of desegregated schools in Birmingham and tensions were so high that officials at the high school canceled the prom. Undeterred by this, the black kids scheduled a “prom” at The Apothecary Club downtown and invited the white kids! The band was The Tams! Most people don’t understand that the seventies were the years when black and white kids in Birmingham actually got to know each other. Because of the re-segregation of Birmingham city schools due to white flight and so many municipal school systems that doesn’t happen so much anymore. We are all diminished by it.

    1. Thank you Deborah for sharing this story. Wow, The Tams! And I totally agree about resegregation and white flight stifling the promise that the city once had!

  8. smomething about all of the k Jazz Joints in the Ham as we have always Called it. Studio 98, Ona’s Music Room, Cleve’s Place in Ensley where I was born 68 years ago at Holy Family Hospital. My Parents moved moved to Phenix City, Alabama, and then Mobile, Alabama when I was 12. I only visited the Ham to visit my Grandma in Helena and later to the Magic ✨ City Classic while The Mighty Marching Hornet Band came to run Alabama, A&M little toy band off the field. We marched ALL MALE. No flag girls, stingettes, honey bee’s who I now Love.j

  9. Saw Wishbone Ash with ZZ Top opening at the fairgrounds in 1973ish. The cops shut the stage power on Wishbone Ash during a song due to noise complaints. Later, someone representing the band came to a mike and said “In our country, a professional act is allowed to do a professional show. We won’t be back.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *