Alabama has an important place in the story of the blues, most notably with Florence native W. C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues.” Handy played a unique role in jump-starting the music scene during the “roaring 20s,” and helped to bring the blues to international audiences. The combined efforts of Handy and another Alabamian, songwriter Perry Bradford, culminated in the first blues recording, “Crazy Blues.” Sung by Mamie Smith and released in 1920, this song became an unexpected, overnight sensation, selling more than 1 million copies in one year. Dinah Washington was born in Tuscaloosa and grew up to become known as the “Queen of the Blues.” Nat King Cole of Montgomery, Birmingham’s jazz greats Sun Ra and Erskine Hawkins with his Orchestra and famous hit “Tuxedo Junction” are all a part of the history of jazz music in America. Dixieland Jazz Bands, such as the century-old Excelsior that performs in Mobile’s Mardi Gras, also fit distinctively in that heritage.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was born on the rural outskirts of Montgomery. She was the first to record “Hound Dog” and was one of the greatest blues legends of the 20th century. Blind from the time he was born, Clarence Carter taught himself to play guitar by listening to the blues. Carter’s classics “Slip Away” and “Patches” helped establish Muscle Shoals, where he recorded, as a center for rhythm and blues artists. Eddie Floyd is another soul singer born in Montgomery. Floyd’s hits included “Knock on Wood” and “634-5789.”
One of America’s most memorable voices is Nat King Cole. Born in 1919, Cole sold over 50 million records in his lifetime including “Unforgettable” and “Mona Lisa.” He was the first African American jazz musician to have his own weekly radio show and the first to have a weekly national TV show. His childhood home is located on the campus of Alabama State University. This same university might have gone under during the Great Depression had it not had one of the best college bands of the 1930s. The Bama State Collegians toured the country and sent back badly needed cash to college. If you are looking for the neighborhood restaurant and bar area of Montgomery, it can be found on Fairview Avenue in the Old Coverdale community.
Since this is the area where F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald lived during the jazz age, it seems only fitting that the 1048 Club would offer live music every day of the week with jazz on Sunday. Other neighborhood restaurants include El Rey Burrito Lounge and Jubilee Seafood. Also on Fairview is Bud’s, a local sports bar. Be sure to check out the Fitzgerald Museum located at 919 Felder Avenue in Old Cloverdale. The museum is the only one in the world dedicated to the Fitzgeralds who lived in a house at this location from 1931 to 1932.
Born near the small town of Grady in rural Montgomery County, Ike Zimmerman was an accomplished blues guitar player. No recording of his performances are known to exist but stories handed down tell of his remarkable playing ability. Zimmerman mentored Robert Johnson whose playing style improved so dramatically that the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the devil was invented to explain the phenomenon. According to the legend, Johnson took his guitar to a crossroad in Mississippi where he was met by the Devil. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was transformed into a musician able to play, sing, and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard. Now it appears Johnson learned his dynamic guitar style not by “selling his soul to the devil” but from Zimmerman. The story may have gotten started because Zimmerman and Johnson are believed to have practiced playing the guitar while sitting in a cemetery.
While in Montgomery, be sure to visit The Alley Entertainment District downtown that features a baseball field, basement jazz club, two performance facilities, an outdoor riverfront amphitheater and a New Orleans-style alley. The Alley connects Commerce and Tallapoosa streets. The entrance on Commerce Street is across from the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center. The Renaissance features live music every night while the adjacent 1,800-seat Montgomery Performing Arts Centre serves as the center for major concerts and shows. The other entrance to The Alley is situated under an historic water tower. Also included in The Alley are: SaZa Serious Italian Food Restaurant and The Alley Bar which features live music, 50 types of martinis, a frozen shot room, and more. One block from The Alley is the Montgomery Biscuits Baseball Stadium.
Live outdoor concerts are held at the Riverwalk Amphitheater, located on the Alabama River. The Davis Theatre for the Performing Arts is two blocks away on Montgomery Street. This 1930s Movie and Vaudeville house is now operated by Troy University and presents enriching cultural performances.
Montgomery is also the location of Montgomery’s underground music club, Sous La Terre on Commerce Street. Look for the stairs leading to the basement to enter the after-hours club that opens weekends at midnight. La Salle Bleu operates at the same location, except on the ground floor. It is open most Thursday nights. Special events are held throughout the year in The Alley Entertainment District.
Just across the Alabama River from Montgomery in downtown Prattville is an historical marker honoring Wilson Pickett. Considered one of the biggest soul stars of the 1960s, Pickett was born in Prattville as one of 11 children. With such hits as “Land of a Thousand Dances,” “Mustang Sally,“ a distinctive soul cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and others which were recorded in Muscle Shoals, Pickett helped to establish the sound of Southern soul. Other places to visit in the Montgomery area include the Rosa Parks Museum, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church and Parsonage, The National Memorial to Peace and Justice, Alabama State Capitol, the Civil Rights Memorial, the Hank Williams Museum and his gravesite.
Tuscaloosa is the hometown of Dinah Washington and final resting place of blues legend Johnny Shines. When she was very young, Dinah moved with her family to Chicago and went on to become one of the most versatile and gifted vocalists in American music. Her hits include “What a Difference a Day Makes” and “Baby (You’ve Got What it Takes).” She also did a remake of fellow Alabamian Hank Williams’ song “Cold, Cold Heart.” Washington became a gospel star at age eight and was discovered by the legendary Lionel Hampton at age eighteen. She was one of the few women of her time to run her own booking agency, Queen Productions. Dinah Washington is known by all as “The Queen of the Blues.” The city of Tuscaloosa has renamed 30th Avenue in honor of Washington.
Like many blues players born in the South, Johnny Shines moved to several cities in the south, only to settle in Chicago for many years. Born in Tennessee, he returned to the South in the 1960s to live in his new hometown of Tuscaloosa. While living in the Tuscaloosa area, Shines taught guitar between his many engagements and in 1975 released “Too Wet to Plow,” one of his most acclaimed albums. His gravesite is in Cedarwood Cemetery south of Tuscaloosa.
His daughter, Caroline Shines, carries on his blues tradition and performs regularly. The street where she lives off Crescent Ridge Road in Holt, a community adjacent to Tuscaloosa, has been renamed Johnny Shines Street. While in Tuscaloosa, be sure to check out the more than 25 establishments in downtown that are the place for nightlife for both University of Alabama students and their visiting parents. Other sites in Tuscaloosa to visit include the Bear Bryant Museum and the Moundville Archaeological Park
Birmingham is home to Tuxedo Junction, a place made famous in song by Erskine Hawkins and his Orchestra; and several entertainment districts, including Avondale’s nightlife scene that includes a speakeasy.
Birmingham’s music heritage runs deep. African-American a cappella quartet singing that developed in Jefferson County as the “Birmingham Sound” in the 1930s and 40s is played today by the local group the Birmingham Sunlights. The Birmingham Sound has been called the direct-line ancestor to the most popular versions of African-American harmony later made famous by The Temptations. Several of the members of The Temptations, the most successful soul group of the 1960s were from Birmingham. Visit the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park in downtown that honors The Temptations and its lead singer.
Nearby is the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame (currently closed for renovation) where you can learn about Frank “Doc” Adams’ work as a member of Duke Ellington Orchestra and the first Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame inductee as well as the work of Erskine Hawkins known for his band’s worldwide hit “Tuxedo Junction” about a local streetcar stop in the Ensley neighborhood at the intersection of Ensley Avenue and 20th Street.
The Birmingham based Original Gospel Harmonettes was a highly successful group from the mid 40s until the lead singer left to become a civil rights activist in the 1960s. Considered one of the most influential saxophonists in the history of jazz music, John Coltrane recorded “Alabama” as an emotional tribute to four African American children who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The recording took place just two months after the tragic incident. You can visit the church. Artists with ties to Birmingham also include great women of the early Classic Blues period, such as Lucille Bogan and Leola “Coot” Grant. Legendary blues drummer Sam Lay, known for his famous double-shuffle, was born in Birmingham as were visionary jazz artist Sun Ra, blues pianist Walter Roland, folk and jazz singer Odetta, and Cleveland Eaton, one of the greatest jazz string players ever. Birmingham is also the birthplace of current jazz performer Eric Essix.
If in the area on Saturday night, be sure to visit Gip’s Place. It is located in the backyard of Henry Gipson’s home that sits beside the big curve along the 3100 block of Avenue C in Bessemer. Gipson was a gravedigger by day and a musician at night. For more than 50 years, he ran his backyard juke joint. Since Gip’s death, his family has taken over the party. There is no exact schedule, which adds to the charm of this authentic juke joint, but you can count on musicians being there most Saturday nights.
Birmingham has several entertainment areas with live music. You can people watch, dance to great live music, and enjoy fantastic dining at Five Points South, one of the city’s top entertainment districts. Stroll along the tree-shaded streets or stop and admire the artistry of the Frank Fleming sculpture, “The Storyteller,” at the famous fountain. Some of the establishments in Five Points South include the famed Highland Bar & Grill, one of the top restaurants in America. Other popular nightspots include Blue Monkey Lounge, Bailey’s Pub, Dave’s Pub.
Another entertainment area near downtown Birmingham is The Lakeview District which is centered on 7th Avenue South and 29th Street. With live music, martini bars, dance clubs, and restaurants, Lakeview packs in the crowds every weekend. Establishments in the area include The Rare Martini Lounge, The Barking Kudu, Innisfree Irish Pub, Oasis, Nana Funks and Moe’s BBQ & Blues Revue Lakeview with live blues-style music Friday and Saturday nights.
In downtown Birmingham, also visit 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Alabama Radio exhibit at the Alabama Power Corporate headquarters. Other sites to see are the Vulcan Museum, Sloss Furnaces and Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.
In north Alabama are four adjacent cities of Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscles Shoals. The largest of these small Alabama cities is Florence, but in the music world the entire area is known as Muscle Shoals.
Starting in the 1960s, top artists from around the world including Aretha Franklin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones recorded their music in Alabama making Muscle Shoals the “Hit Recording Capital of the World.” You can tour the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the historic recording studios of FAME. Drive by the Jackson Highway location of Muscle Shoals Sound.
The artists who made up the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were first studio musicians working for FAME Studio. They later opened their own recording studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound. They became world renowned as the musicians, and/or producers, on such classics as “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett, “Kodachrome” by Paul Simon, “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers, and “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger. They have played on more than 500 LPs. Singer Leon Russell first tagged the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section as “The Swampers.” The name was immortalized later in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The most complete understanding of music in Alabama can be found at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia where memorabilia from careers of Alabamians such as Lionel Richie, Emmylou Harris, the group ALABAMA, The Commodores, Nat King Cole, W.C. Handy, Hank Williams and others are found. The Hall of Fame has its own small recording studio where you can sing over prerecorded songs from the Muscles Shoals Sound era. The Muscle Shoals area had its first international smash with Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” recorded at Quin Ivy’s Studios in Sheffield. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield is also a part of the music history of the area.
Born in Florence, Sam Phillips became a producer, record label owner and the talent scout who is credited with discovering both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Phillips is also regarded as the Founding Father of Rock ‘n Roll.
Be sure to check out The Swampers Lounge at the Marriot Shoals Hotel & Spa. The Sam Phillips Suite at the Marriott contains the Les Paul Gibson guitar that was given to Phillips in honor of his 50 years in rock ‘n roll and as Sun Studios founder. The guitar hangs in an alarmed glass enclosure in the suite. While guests cannot play the guitar, they can play the jukebox in the suite that has the recordings of Phillips’ artists. A framed picture of the suite’s namesake is also located in the room.
Also check to see if the Muscle Shoals to Music Row is being held. You will see an upbeat live music show featuring hit songwriters and artists from across America and local Muscle Shoals performers. Broadcast locally on the radio and sent worldwide by Internet, the show takes place inside the Singing River Room at the Marriott. The Father of the Blues, W.C.Handy, was also born in Florence. Handy’s birthplace, a simple log cabin, is part of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum. Each year, the Shoals area hosts music festivals honoring both Phillips and Handy.
Other sites in the area to visit include Helen Keller Birthplace and the only structure in Alabama designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Rosenbaum House.