Then again, it’s amusing that I hadn’t visited one of their meetings before now, since I do own an LP or two, but I’m glad I finally got to one, because it was a valuable reminder that without Birmingham records, City Stages would be a pallid party.
You wouldn’t know it from the record charts, but Birmingham has always been a vibrant musical city. As immigrant populations arrived at the turn of the 19th century, the town filled with vernacular music the new residents brought with them. A 1901 Birmingham News reported on brass bands and minstrel entertainments at downtown drugstores. In 1918, Fess Whatley was teaching a future generation of jazz giants their musical rudiments at Birmingham Industrial High School. In the Twenties and the Thirties, music halls vied with motion picture theatres to bring the biggest singing stars of the newfangled radio age.
Some of those stars broadcast from Birmingham to the world via local stations, in a time before phonograph records supplanted live entertainment on the air. Before the Depression undid the industry, piano salesman Harry Charles helped blues performers get their music recorded on labels distributed nationwide.
It’s hard to track down the provenance of early Birmingham’s music, but if you want to know how the city fared in the postwar era, the Birmingham Record Collectors have got you covered. Among their various holdings, these collectors can steer you through a rich trove of Magic City music making. “Lonesome Town ,” a Top Five hit for Ricky Nelson, was written by Birmingham native Baker Knight. Jerry “Boogie” McCain cut the blues classic “She’s Tuff” over on First Avenue North. Roscoe Robinson sold a million of “That’s Enough” in 1963, and he’s still performing today. Then there are the young punks of the Sixties, groups like the Premiers, who cut the timeless “Are You Alright?” or the Rocking Rebellions, hip enough to cut a Frank Zappa song at a Muscle Shoals studio and get it played on Top 40 radio in 1967.
Whatever malaise may trouble the corridors of government, the city’s musical scene remains vibrant. City Stages offers only a taste of Birmingham’s musical variety over a crowded weekend, but checking the calendar in each Weekly will show you a real smorgasbord. At venerable spots like The Nick and Zydeco and new destinations like Bottletree or O’kafés, Birmingham audiences get a steady diet of great music week after week. Besides national and regional acts passing through en route to other venues, local musicians — some just starting out and others at the peak of their skills — strive to keep you entertained.
One booking at City Stages this weekend has reminded me of another such period in Birmingham’s cultural life. The peerless Charles Giambrone will be performing Friday night in a recreation of the old combo that used to perform at lounges like Bob Cain’s Canebreak. Back when Bear Bryant was still smoking Chesterfields, these musicians defined night life in the Magic City, with a jazz flair perhaps comparable only to the time when great clubs flourished in the segregated community around Fourth Avenue North.
Hanging with the record collectors reminded me as well that Birmingham lost a great one last week and it seemed to go unremarked. Maybe because he’d lived in Nashville for 20 years and Muscle Shoals 20 years before that, Barry Beckett ’s death merited scarcely a footnote in local publications.
He was one of the Swampers, the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, whose piano playing sparkled on almost too many hit records to enumerate. In an age when anonymous session players accompanied singers on chart records, the young men from Alabama — Beckett, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson — were as renowned in music production circles as the best players in New York or Los Angeles.
It wasn’t just that Barry Beckett could play any song, but he could play any style and he could play it with feeling and, most importantly, in a hurry. The Muscle Shoals players were all quick studies and had to be, because time was money when record producers were trying to cut hits.
Beckett first came to Muscle Shoals in 1967, replacing the legendary Spooner Oldham in the studio band at Rick Hall’s FAME facility. Playing on hits for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge led to higher profile gigs and, ultimately, autonomy when he and his band mates set up their own shop at Muscle Shoals Sound. That was the secluded spot where Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and more would come to cut hit records.
As he got more proficient, Beckett was drawn to producing instead of playing, and in 1985 he left for Music City, where he presided over hit records for Hank Junior, Confederate Railroad and Kenny Chesney.
However, way before all that, Barry Beckett was born and raised in Birmingham, where his daddy, Horace, hosted a program on WBRC radio and reportedly picked a little guitar, too. Though he never learned to read music, Barry played piano well enough to perform on sessions in the early Sixties at Ed Boutwell’s original recording studio on 35th Street, where he is said to have broken strings on an upright once, so enthusiastically did he hammer the ivories.
As with Erskine Hawkins, Tammy Wynette or Sun Ra, Birmingham was only a stopover en route to greatness for Barry Beckett. Thanks to the Birmingham Record Collectors and others who keep such flames burning, we are reminded that not every great musician made a hit record, and ultimately we realize City Stages exists at least in part as a three-day valentine to a community that’s always been a congenial place to get together and enjoy some music.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com