The tradition had its roots, if you will, in the untimely passing of The King of Christmas Albums, Elvis Aron Presley, whose likeness was taped onto a red Flexi-Disc appended to the studio Tannenbaum for Christmas, 1977. In succeeding years, some other recently departed musician’s mug would be affixed to the back of the Elvis disk to share the scrutiny of perplexed lobbystanders for that season.
With only room for one representative on the Elvis disk, we were missing out on some prime honorees, so last year we invested in a Holiday Ball Tree custom-made in a Chinese sweatshop for Target or such, which we could now festoon with decomposing composers galore.
Though our friends at The City Paper usually get into the list in a far more meticulous way, we note for the record now the absence of fine musicians less celebrated than Michael Jackson and Les Paul (who shared the top of the DMT this year). There were hot guitarists like Bob Bogle of The Ventures; Drake Levin, one of Paul Revere’s Raiders; Ron Asheton of The Stooges and Sky Saxon of The Seeds. We hated to lose pianists like Barry Beckett, late of Muscle Shoals and Nashville; Larry Knechtel of studios everywhere and Billy Powell, who first played “Freebird” with Skynyrd. Bass players flown included Ean Evans, once from Skynyrd and Orlando Lopez of Buena Vista Social Club, while drummers’ ranks were thinned by the departure of Dewey Martin and Louis Bellson. Farewell to geniuses like Jay Bennett, auteur of Wilco, and Jim Dickinson, emperor of Memphis.
Hillbilly Heaven opened up for Pretty Miss Molly Bee and Hank Locklin, as well as for Dan Seals and Big Bill Lister. Folk music lost Mary Travers of Peter-Paul-and, but Bess Lomax Hawes and Pete’s brother Mike Seeger as well. Blues has to do without Willie King and Koko Taylor, and who will replace saxophone virtuosos like Fathead Newman and Bud Shank? The world gets by now somehow minus Ali Akbar Khan or Claude Jeter or Ellie Greenwich or Lux Interior or Vic Mizzy, yes, the songster who penned the theme song for Green Acres (into Hell or into Heaven he be received, then, none can say).
To banish melancholy contemplation on shuffling off this mortal humbucking coil comes a new book — indeed, the only book so far — by Ben Burford, entitled Chevy 6/35 rpm.
This tome is the Moby Dick of local band memoirs. Fastidiously notating 35 years of playing the hits at venues big and small, Burf has created a one-stop database for debutantes and dilettantes wondering where exactly they were when Chevy 6 rocked their frat or sorority house, breaking the gigs down not only by Greek letters, but year-by-year since 1974, documenting a long strange trip that began at something called the Woodland Forrest Country Club in Tuscaloosa. In a foreword, Burf cheerfully acknowledges, “My obsessiveness is here to serve your needs. This book may look friendly and playful with its kooky colorful design, but it’s thick with information that all fits together, so if you want a bigger picture, most of the pieces are there to create it.”
Indeed there is a bigger picture, but let us dwell a moment more on the candid snaps. Were this merely a mercantile spreadsheet, Chevy6/35 rpm would be slow sledding, but juried artist Burford’s gift for layout plus a man-bag full of clips, photos and brochures elegantly embellish the tale of the tapes. We learn fascinating factoids: while not exactly playing for presidents, Chevy 6 once played for the Young Presidents Organization in Beaver Creek, Colorado; they were actually pulling eight bucks a ticket at the Austin Peay homecoming in 1982 (well, they were opening for Eddie Murphy); they have played “Build Me Up, Buttercup” approximately 4,176 times. So far.
Perhaps my favorite road reminiscence involves the band somehow intersecting the path of Shorty Price in 1979. Many of our readers dreamy-eyed about Mark Ingram winning the Heisman do not know that the greatest Bama fan who ever lived was a legendary dipsomaniac named Shorty Price, about whom I hope Sandra Bullock will produce a football movie one day.
On this particular occasion, the man was at the Phi Delta Theta house in Atlanta, soaking in Alabama’s 30-6 win over Georgia Tech even as Chevy 6 entertained the Grecian brethren. A photo op was arranged during the evening festivities. In the resulting depicted images, Mr. Price, whose first name was Ralph, appears to have recently done just that, and Burford pulls a wonderful diary excerpt (with an O. Henry ending) to give the snapshots a properly elegant context.
Context is what Chevy 6/35 rpm provides, not just for the band’s career but for the era its work spans. A city is often best defined by the music it inspires, but what’s often overlooked is that the most viable musicians may not be the most emblematic. Like another famously vintage local performing group, Three on a String, Chevy 6 has always played music people wanted to hear and that’s one reason they’ve lasted this long. (Proof of their prowess is included in a 2-CD set included with the book’s purchase, with songs recorded live all over the region.)
The thread of Chevy 6’s career is woven into the cultural history of Birmingham in a way that now not even fading memories can unravel, thanks to Ben Burford’s pack-rattiness and deft ways with words. The student of Magic City music, not to mention the Chevy 6 fan who wonders whatever happened to Brenda Burford, better put this book and matching CD set at the top of the gift list. As Ben pitches Chevy 6/35 rpm on the Chevy 6 website, it’s “great on the coffee table, but made for the bathroom.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.