MY LIFE IN ALABAMA
MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
THE SIXTIES (music, paranoia, & color TV)
BEAR BRYANT & ME (a true story)
MOVING TO BOSTON
MY RECORDING CONTRACT
FOLK TREE CONCERTMAKERS
DISCOVERING TRACY CHAPMAN
GARRISON KEILLOR & A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
HOW DO YOU GET TO CARNEGIE HALL ?
“SAVING THE LIFE” OF MY CONGRESSMAN, JOE KENNEDY
A LITTLE GOLF, THEN A LOT OF PHOTOGRAPHY
OK, let’s begin at the beginning –
I was born less than three months before the end of the first half of the 20th Century, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, across the street from the famous Delta Crossroads where Highway 61 and Mississippi Highway 6 meet, at the Coahoma County Hospital, on October 10, 1949.
If you are born, as I was, in the Mississippi Delta, and you are a musician and an amateur musicologist, as I am; you, by birth, get to stake a small claim at Ground Zero – the birthplace and home of The Delta Blues.
I paraphrase Robert Frost by saying that my life would not, otherwise, be the same. Being literally born at the Crossroads, I feel that I have some Delta Blues running through my veins.
For many years I was a concert producer in my adult life. My very first live event was presenting Johnny Shines, who was a great Delta bluesman and traveled alongside Robert Johnson, in concert. In high school we used to dance (or stand around and watch) The Allman Joys, an early version of the Allman Brothers, who regularly played at The Fort Brandon Armory in Tuscaloosa. I am a child of the South, born in Mississippi and raised in Alabama. Music is a large part of my life, personally and professionally. My heart beat rises to the sound of a National steel guitar, any kind of a back beat, and the harmonies from this great Southern musical heritage from Clarksdale, to Muscle Shoals, from Macon and Jacksonville to Tuscaloosa, Tupelo, and Nashville. The songs of the South are the songs of my life.
From November, 1949 until May, 1980, I called Alabama home, spending my first twenty-five years in Tuscaloosa (my hometown) and then five more wonderful years in Birmingham.
Small World: I went to a nursery school in Tuscaloosa that was located in the middle of the University of Alabama campus, behind what is now the Tri Delt house. Later, my elementary school was across the street from the campus and Bryant-Denny Stadium where the Tide rolls on Saturdays in the Fall.
From the time I was three weeks old until I was in the fifth grade, I lived within sight of the University and the stadium. Only my Junior High was away from the campus, because my high school, Tuscaloosa High, was less than a mile down the road from the University. I would go on to graduate college at Alabama, enter law school there (I dropped out), then get a Masters Degree at Alabama, all of this over a twenty five year span, and all of this within this microscopic geographic radius of less than a mile in my home town of Tuscaloosa. From 1967 to 1975, when I moved away for good, I always lived within this one mile radius of the Alabama campus. Tuscaloosa is my home, my base, the original center of my world.
In ’75 I moved to Birmingham where I fell in love, had a boatload of friends, and started playing music and getting gigs. The five years I lived in Birmingham were the best. In 1980 I moved up to Boston it has become the other center of my life, and it has been that way for the past 32 years.
Part I – CAR KEYS
In 1964 I got my driver’s license and my Dad gave me the Pontiac Catalina every night except Sunday. I would leave right after supper and I drove all over Tuscaloosa night after night throughout high school. Cruising around. We all listened to WTBC AM. I had the windows rolled down and the radio cranked before I had backed out of the driveway. Freedom. That’s what it was and that’s what it felt like. Fresh air. No teachers, no parents, one rule. I had to be back by 11pm. Freedom has its limits.
Tuscaloosa was a cruising town. Everybody drove around looking at everybody else driving around. We all listened to Tiger Jack Garrett on WTBC. It was our town. Gas was 27 cents a gallon and it was nothing to drive fifty miles on any given night, just us cruising around Tuscaloosa in the Alabama dark.
T-Town is, and was, a real fine place to be from. Of course, since the April 27, 2011 EF4 tornado, Tuscaloosa has been on the minds of a great many, myself included, as Tuscaloosa literally picked up the pieces and began to heal and rebuild itself. What took only a handful of minutes to destroy will take years to fully recover from.
PART II – THE SIXTIES
At the beginning of the Sixties we had crewcuts, flat-tops, conks, Butch Wax, Brylcreem (“A little dab’l do ya”), Vitalis, and bee hive hair-do’s. By the end of the Sixties you could add Afros, mop tops, the twiggy look, male pony tails, long flowing hair, beards, muttonchops, mustaches, the bandana look, and women who did not shave their legs or armpits. Men with flat-tops, by 1969, were either in the military, a cop, or your dad.
The Sixties gave us the full out assault by Madison Avenue, which figured out how to sell us what we didn’t know we needed, but had to have. Keeping up with the Joneses became how you kept score. For some inexplicable reason I repeatedly said that I wanted a gazebo. It was a running family joke.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a color television set. I didn’t know there was such a thing as color television, until I saw it. Oh my Lord! Looking back, it still remains one of the highlights of my childhood and one of those special moments. On January 1 1960 or 1961, my whole family was invited to our next door neighbor’s house to watch a New Year’s Day parade and a New Year’s Day football bowl game. Don Dixon, our neighbor, was the Chairman of the Department of Radio and Television at the University of Alabama, and he was probably one of the first, around Tuscaloosa, to own a color set. My sister and I flopped down on on a rug in front of the TV set and Don Dixon stepped between us and turned on the TV. The gazebo immediately dropped right off the wish list.
What did we watch on TV in the Sixties? Surprisingly, a lot. We watched Captain Kangaroo, Sky King, Rin Tin Tin, the Wonderful World of Disney (only on Sunday nights at 7pm), Bonanza, Riverboat, the Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, Country Boy Eddie (locally in Birmingham, which was where our three stations were located), Cousin Cliff (also local. He was sponsored exclusively by “Jack’s Hamburgers …just 15 cents and so good, good good”.), Teen Time Dance Party, Saturday morning national cartoons like Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse, the Mickey Mouse Club, the Wide World of Sports, the Friday Night Fights (boxing, brought to you by Gillette), the Saturday afternoon baseball Game of the Week, Maverick (“Cousin Brett…Cousin Bart”), Family Affair with Sebastian Cabot and Brian Keith, Have Gun Will Travel starring Richard Boone, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, I Love Lucy (I didn’t), Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and in Tuscaloosa we watched The Benny Carl Show, and on and on.
“PRESIDENT KENNEDY HAS BEEN SHOT!”
I remember President Kennedy’s assassination. I had just turned fourteen a month earlier and I was in the 8th grade. I heard the news came over the intercom while we sat in class at Eastwood Junior High. We were told that President Kennedy had been shot. We were not told that he had died. I will never forget the eruption of cheers that rose up from some of my classmates. That stunned me then and it stuns me now. I remember staring out the window wondering. Alabama was not Kennedy country, but Jesus H.
It was a Friday afternoon. We had just returned from the lunchroom when we heard the news on the intercom that the President had been shot. Then half the class was cheering. I walked home most days and it was rare for my Mom to be there to pick me up, which she did that afternoon. My mom was crying softly and it was then that I learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
It was a somber weekend and my family and I sat by the TV for three or four days. It was very scary and unreal. I was given permission to stay home from Sunday school to watch the national broadcast, so I, along with millions of others, saw Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down live on television. That added to the disbelief and strangeness.
Five years later I got to shake the hand of Senator Robert Kennedy, who was running for President, just four or five months before he was assassinated. We had already lost Dr. King and Viola Liuzzo and many more. Those things stay with you, and they damn well should.
In all the years that I was in Alabama I don’t believe that a single candidate that I supported actually got elected. I have always been political in the sense that I followed state and national elections closely. My state of Alabama was not blessed with the finest of leadership in the governor’s mansion down in Montgomery. Among the winners that I did not support were “Big Jim” Folsum, John Patterson, George Wallace, and Lurleen Wallace, George’s wife, who ran and won after George got stopped by term limits. Lurleen got the title and George kept on governing. These were not my people. George Wallace was a bigot, and as the face of Alabama politics, was an embarrassment who gave our state a black eye. It always worked out that my candidates never won. They were too liberal, or not right wing enough. When I lived in Alabama, it was a running joke that I never got to vote for anyone who had actually got himself elected.
When I moved to Boston and the trend turned decidedly in my favor. Ted Kennedy was my Senator for thirty years. I cast votes for Paul Tsongas, Ed Markey, Tip O’Neil, Barney Frank, Joe Moakley, Joe Kennedy, Jr., and John Kerry to name some on that list of extraordinary American public servants. They all won. I did vote for Bill Weld when he was a democrat. He later changed party affiliations and moved to New York state. Massachusetts politics was not without its dark side. The state senate was run for many years by the brilliant egomaniac, William Bulger, a Shakespeare quoting, self promoting, conniving son of a bitch, who’s brother was, and is, the infamous gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger. Between Alabama and Massachusetts, I saw the good, bad, and ugly that both states had to offer.
PART III – DRUGS, MUSIC, & METAMORPHIS
I have always agreed that “clothes make the man” and I am ready to debate anyone thinking otherwise. In 1969, practically overnight a brand new style appeared that was in direct competition with our buttoned-down Ivy League wardrobes hanging in our preppie closets. Suddenly there were suede fringed jackets, turquoise jewelry, and faded bell bottom jeans with button fly zippers. The Counterculture began to arrive.
You could set yourself free and buy a stonewashed, hand embroidered denim work shirt that made you look like you had casually rolled in from Montana. My personal favorite was paisley. I had several paisley shirts that were favorites. Check out the headbands and the tooled leather belts and polished peace sign necklaces. Why not pick up a hash pipe, a lava lamp, and some rolling papers while you are morphing practically overnight from your father into your favorite lead electric guitarist. Somebody marketed his way to hundreds of millions of dollars and the influence is still present in America’s psychological sense of laid back fashion.
A generation as self absorbed as we were, found its voice essentially through music. And you needed to look the part. And yes, there were drugs. There was a smorgasbord of available ways to get high when I was a student at the University of Alabama. I chose to sidestep most of it, except for the occasional amphetamine (pulling college all nighters cramming and writing) and the occasional toke as weed passed by. I was cautious and careful, primarily because in Alabama, back then, you could go straight to prison and do hard time at Kilby for a single joint.
There was justifiable paranoia. OK, maybe there was some unjustified paranoia as well, but that goes to the heart of what paranoia is all about. It will make you jumpy. You would be lying if you lived through these times and never saw dope being flushed down the toilet. It was toker beware.
You couldn’t afford to be careless. Somebody actually would get busted, somebody else might be a narc. In a brave young generation that didn’t trust anyone over the age of 50, paranoia was the ghost watching you from the four door grey Ford parked right outside your place, man. That is the simple reason why I went very light on the drugs, although I certainly looked the part. Instead, I drank socially, but I did not participate in the “head shop atmosphere” and as such, I can remember the Sixties perfectly well.
here is a little secret that I know-
It wasn’t just the Sixties that were cool. So were the first half of the Seventies. I consider that the “peak” of the “Sixties” was a seven year stretch from 1968 to 1975. You could say that the Sixties were fifteen years long and you would be absolutely right, from my point of view. Those years were crazy and sometimes catastrophic, encompassing the Vietnam escalation and national pushback from a generation (us) who were called upon (drafted) to do the fighting. We questioned our political leadership, with good reason, as it turned out. Those seven years cover Woodstock, Nixon and Watergate, Bernstein and Woodward, Dan Rather and the Enemies List, terrible ghetto riots in many major American cities. Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy dying violently, the amazing ground swell of support for Senator Eugene McCarthy, Fire Sign Theatre, underground FM radio (thank you Courtney Haden), which was hugely important to me (Geronimo’s Cadillac by Michael Martin Murphy and The Legend of the USS Titanic by Jaime Brockett, are but two examples), the second massacre at Wounded Knee, and the advent of Southern Rock. Definitely the advent of Southern Rock.
Of course it was all of that, and much, much more. But those were some of the high and low points in those unique, troubling, and dazzling years. I practically memorized the complete works of Kurt Vonnegut as each new book was published. I listened to Eat A Peach, Viva Terlingua, and Workingman’s Dead. I watched the Dick Cavett Show and a great deal of television. I saw a lot of great music being made, even writing a bunch of my own songs. Then the Vietnam War ended, they stopped drafting us, and Nixon flew off into the sunset. We thought we had won. FYI, I was called up for military service and was sent down to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery by military bus, around 1968, for an Air Force physical prior to my immediate induction. Knee surgery, eight years earlier, and two flat feet I never knew I had, got me back on the bus heading home, as 4F, rather than on a plane to the jungles of Southeast Asia.
PART IV. COLLEGE DAYS
For lack of anything else to do, I got a Masters Degree in Higher Education. This was during the Kent State / “Four Dead in Ohio” era, and my life, which had previously been part frat house, began to evolve. I pretty much lived a similar version of Animal House during my freshman and sophomore years, including at least one spaghetti slinging, freaking hilarious food fight toward the end of a suppertime at the fraternity. If you saw the movie, you saw my life. Except I think we had better characters and more live soul bands at weekend frat parties. I changed into a semi-long haired liberal, trading my chinos & madras Gant shirt, as well as my ROTC uniform for fringed bell bottoms. In conservative Alabama it was an interesting time to be walking around. Which I wasn’t.
In the summer before my sophomore year (freshmen were not allowed to have cars on campus) I special ordered a brand new 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Midnight blue with a black vinyl top and the latest Audio Research eight-track tape player. Six weeks later it arrived on the lot at Lancaster Motors on 10th Avenue. I had my own cool-as-grits two door coupe with bucket seats and a console shifter. Chrome in all the right places. A fabulous grille and roof swoop to complete one beautiful American automobile.
I once had her out on the I-59 at a hair over 125mph, just to scare myself. Windows down, music all the way up. I remember the V8 power and Steppenwolf screaming “Magic Carpet Ride.” I was happily singing along at the top of my lungs. Fast forward to 2012 and now I drive a midnight blue Prius with satellite radio and an iPod connection. Sadly, no chrome. But I do love the great mileage. I feel I am doing something for the environment, making a political statement of sorts, and in a small way, helping us off Middle East oil. The Cutlass Supreme and the Prius are pretty much tied for first place among all the cars I have owned.
THE HEAT – the ALABAMA STATE TROOPER kind of heat
While at the University, I worked, for a while, pulling the all night shift at Dills Motor Court just off campus. Two Alabama State Troopers lived there three nights a week. They would park their two cruisers and simultaneously walk, more or less, through the glass door in a show of force. And there they found ME, sitting at the front desk weeknights. I gave them their respective room keys and they would unwind a bit in the small lobby before going to their rooms. These were men who could send me to prison for a lot less than a good reason. I had the telltale semi-long hair. I wore denim. I had a ring that was turquoise and silver; a sure sign of the drug use. LOL. I knew that they knew that a lot of people about my age, that looked more or less like me, were out there smoking pot and getting high. I was a ready made target should they have chosen. They even talked to me about drug conspiracies on one occasion. It seemed like they were giving me advice. They thought that drugs were a Northern conspiracy to destroy the South. I did not argue with them under the circumstances.
So, there they were, two Alabama State Troopers. Month after month, in the wee hours of the morning, they rolled in, flat-topped and sidearmed. I was always trying to act nonchalant, but they were dangerous, and believe me, we sure as hell did not look like each other. I didn’t think we were on the same side of the argument.
As I have mentioned, during my transition to the counterculture, I migrated from Gentleman’s Quarterly to letting my freak flag fly which is how I probably looked sitting behind the counter, at the nearly always empty, Dill’s Motor Court. Most nights it was three or four guests tops, half of them Alabama State Troopers.
PART V. MY CAREER IN MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
In 1972, I went to work as the Assistant to the General Manager for the Birmingham A’s. Birmingham belonged to the Southern League and AA baseball had been a fixture in Birmingham for so long, that Rickwood Field is actually America’s oldest baseball park. I came on board with the A’s in January of 1972. Then in the middle of the 1972 season, Detroit’s one time thirty game winner, Denny McLain, who by now was an Oakland A got shipped to us in Birmingham, which was an impossible setback for this once great ballplayer. McLain’s life and baseball career had been literally coming apart at the seams for some years. His baseball skills were badly eroded and his attitude was L’ infante terrible.
The day-to-day operations in the front office of a AA minor league baseball team was about to change. McLain arrived at Rickwood Field, for the first time, and quite a few of America’s national sportswriters and reporters were there to meet him. Among them was Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times. Jim was one of the great baseball writers and he would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and is now enshrined in the Writers Wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Denny McLain was not amused.
Actually McLain was a total asshole to the writers, the front office (me included), his teammates who were hardly his team “mates”, and apparently everyone else he ever met. As the Director of Publicity and Promotion, this was an unprecedented opportunity. McLain wasn’t having any of it, which while understandable, just made my job tougher.
Naturally, Denny McLain wasn’t happy with the demotion from the Bigs, to AA minor league baseball. Rather than accepting things and showing some class, Denny McLain was angry and difficult to deal with. Phil Caveretta, our manager, who was a gentleman, and a baseball lifer had his hands full. Years later, 60 Minutes did a piece on McLain, who had served time in jail for racketeering and drug smuggling. That says it in a nutshell. So long Denny McLain.
I used to love going to games in Birmingham. We lived about an hour away from the ballpark but as a kid, my Dad usually took me to Rickwood Field several times every season. I have a powerful memory of a large woman in a black fitted dress, who was sitting in the row below us, get hit by a screaming foul ball. It hit her in the left side about waist high and she never tried to get out of the way. She sat there almost motionless and I cannot remember her crying out when it struck her. We were sitting in the right field bleachers about 15 rows up and beyond the first base. I brought that ball home and I think I may still have it somewhere.
In those days my favorite player on the Birmingham Barons was a hotshot little infielder named Bob Micelotta. Bob was our shortstop and he was all hustle. I always have had a warm spot in my heart for Rickwood. Years later, when I was first hired, our General Manager, Glenn West, took me around the ballpark and showed me row after row of vintage lower box seats that had originally been part of the Polo Grounds in New York City. Here we were in this tiny bandbox of a baseball stadium in Birmingham, Alabama and our best seats had the old New York Giants (now the logo of the New York Mets) “NY” in wrought iron at the end of every row.
ME & THE BLUES
I started listening to music on AM radio in the 50s. I watched Teen-Time Dance Party, American Bandstand, and Hootenanny on a black and white television every week like clockwork in the early 60s. I remember my first 45rpm record purchase. It was Jimmy Carroll singing”Big Green Car on the Hi-hi-way.” I convinced my parents to let my younger sister and me fly in a DC3 prop to see Peter, Paul, & Mary in a rare Southern concert in Huntsville, Alabama around 1964. Music, both popular and off the beaten path, has been a cornerstone and a touchstone of my entire life.
In college I saw the legendary, first generation Delta bluesman, Mississippi Fred McDowell perform not long before he died. Fred was way up in years, but he could still play some. It was an honor to see him at all. There were maybe two or three dozen people in the place. Fred was a little wiry fellow sitting alone on the makeshift stage.
I wished I could have seen him in his prime, but I count myself as lucky having seen him at all. Good Mornin’ Little School Girl, Red Cross, Fred played them all. He died in 1972, so the best I can figure is that I must have seen him around 1970. It was summertime or maybe in the spring, and the show was in a very small place behind the Corner Drugstore that didn’t stay in business long. “Kokomo” me, Fred.
Speaking of the Delta blues, I became acquainted along the way with Johnny Shines. Johnny had traveled with, and was a protege of, the legendary and seminal bluesman, Robert Johnson. He is the one that “sold his soul to the Devil” at the Crossroads.
Coincidentally, I was born in a hospital right beside that crossroads in Clarksdale. By my count, that ain’t exactly six degrees of separation; so if you don’t mind, I will claim my Delta birthright and my lifelong love of the art form. Bellhouse (barrelhouse, ie, dance) all night long.”
I like to say that I was “acquainted” with Johnny Shines. He lived in my hometown, actually he and his wife lived in Holt, Alabama which was across the street from the Tuscaloosa city line. Johnny was a cautious man for good reason, and his screen door, while usually open, was there to reluctantly welcome those of us who worshiped at his feet, as acquaintances not quite as friends.
The first concert I ever produced was Johnny Shines, in Birmingham, for a benefit at UAB’s Cogswell Auditorium, for the alternative school I was teaching at. The date was March 25, 1979. The black and yellow poster has been on the wall of my office since 1984.