I bought this photo for a few dollars a few years ago at What’s On 2nd? in Birmingham. It’s undated and un-located, but it’s a beautiful, rare glimpse-in-action of the vaudeville road show, Sugar Foot Sam from Alabam. There’s a lot going on in this photo, onstage and off.
Richard Penniman, who became Little Richard, worked on the Sugar Foot Sam show, circa 1949-’50. Almost as soon as he joined the troupe, they put him in a dress and changed his name to Princess Lavonne. “One of the girls was missing one night,” he later explained, “and they put me in a red evening gown…. I looked like the freak of the year.” From a brief tenure with Sugar Foot Sam, Richard moved to the King Brothers Circus and then to the Tidy Jolly Steppers, where he also worked in drag. Next, he got work “with the L. J. Heath Show from Birmingham, Alabama. It was a minstrel show, a little carnival. And they wanted me to dress as a woman, too. They had a lot of men dressed like women in their show. Guys like Jack Jackson, who they called Tangerine, and another man called Merle. They had on all this makeup and eyelashes. I’ll never forget it.”
I love the photo above, both as composition and historical document. One wonders which of the women onstage are and aren’t women. It’s the only photo I’ve seen of the Sugar Foot Sam show — anybody out there know of others? Or have anything else on the L. J. Heath Show?
Notes: Quotes from Little Richard are from The Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White. For more cool old photos and music and history, follow my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram or Facebook, or follow this weekly-ish blog.
1. Fifteen or twenty years ago I started taking pictures of boiled peanut signs on the side of the road. Over the years I’ve developed a pretty sizable collection of these images, and for the rest of this summer (through sometime in early August, when a new school year starts), I’ll be posting one boiled peanut photo a day on Instagram. If you’re an Instagrammer, take a moment to follow @lostchildradio to stay abreast of the progress.
I’m seven days into the series so far. Here’s some of what’s up there already.
2. This week I’ve been trying to reorganize one of the most important sections of my book on Birmingham jazz. A stack of index cards has proven useful. Below is my reshuffling of a chapter on John T. “Fess” Whatley, Birmingham’s extraordinary and influential “Maker of Musicians.” (The notecards might be cryptic to you, but know that they represent progress — at the bottom of today’s post, I’ll post a few paragraphs from this chapter.)
3. Yesterday I was asked to give a talk in Tuscaloosa on the late Sumter County, Alabama, singer Vera Hall. Here is a recording of Vera Hall singing. And here’s Moby’s famous 1999 remix of one of her songs, “Trouble So Hard” (reimagined by Moby as “Natural Blues”). And here are a few illustrations from my talk…
First a drawing I made of Vera Hall:
Not totally finished, but here’s a tribute to other Sumter County singers, part of my “Book of Ancestors” project, described in a recent post:
And here’s Ruby Pickens Tartt, who introduced the singers above to many visiting folklorists and writers, including the father and son John and Alan Lomax. (Anticipating the abundance of T‘s in “Tartt” I got carried away with the letter R and added an unnecessary extra. Oh well; I will try her again another time.)
Here’s, lastly, what Vera looks like on the big screen:
Thanks for reading. Finally, if you’re curious to read some of the Fess Whatley chapter outlined above, here are a few quick paragraphs. My book explores the ways in which Birmingham’s black community, through much of the 20th century, fostered an overlooked but significant jazz tradition. The schoolteacher-bandleader John T. “Fess” Whatley was at the heart of this culture, sending scores of his pupils and band members out into the larger worlds of jazz. A previous chapter describes Fess Whatley’s own musical roots and his rise to prominence in Birmingham’s segregated school system; the chapter outlined above delves deeper into his story, exploring the unique nature of his influence and the creation of his larger-than-life persona. Here’s an excerpt:
Whatley’s corporal reprimands were legendary. Fess would count off a tune, recalled trumpeter Amos Gordon, “One, two, three, four”—and “if you didn’t come in, he’d crack you across the head with a stick.” J. L. Lowe, perhaps the most avid of all Whatley’s admirers, remembered the ritual of Fess’s rappings: “He hit me three times a day,” Lowe said. “One was to start me off, the second lick was if there was a mistake, and the third lick meant ‘that’s enough.’” Fess was known even to strike his students on stage, mid-concert, if they’d played a wrong note. In the town of Gadsden, about sixty miles east of Birmingham, trumpeter Tommy Stewart experienced Whatley’s disciplinary style when his mother arranged for a private lesson. “My mama knew that I needed to have some contact with him,” Stewart said, “because that was the man who had developed so many [musicians] already. When I first came in, he hit me on my knuckles—I hadn’t even played. He said, ‘I know, Mr. Stewart, I’m going to have to get you for something, so hold your hand out.’ Bap! He hit me on the knuckles and told me to start playing.”
Other Whatley stories were embedded in Stewart’s family history. Years ago, Stewart’s grandfather had started a community band and, the story goes, “they got Fess to come down here once a month to help develop the band. When Fess walked in, he said, ‘I want to hear some music. I don’t want any mistakes’—and pulled out his .45!” Whatley kept the gun visible on the table throughout the rehearsal. “He carried a .45 with him all the time,’ Stewart laughed. “Never shot nobody, but he always kept everybody intimidated.”
In Fess Whatley’s band, explained Sammy Lowe, “everything was done in a businesslike way.” For starters, everyone in the band had his jobs: “One guy would set up the music stands, another would put the music out—and by the way, each fellow had to keep his book in numerical order or risk a fine—other members would help the drummer set up, and so on down the line.” Most importantly: “According to Fess, there was no excuse … I repeat: no excuse but death … to be late.” For Whatley, time was everything. Gigs began—and, just as important, no matter how well the night was going, no matter how eager the audience, gigs ended—on the precise minute advertised: with a bit of “Home Sweet Home” Fess and the band signaled the end of each evening’s performance, ushering dancers out the door and back to their sweet homes. Tardiness was the greatest sin, a preoccupation remembered by all Fess Whatley’s players: for every sixty seconds a player arrived late, he’d incur a separate fine. “One night,” remembered Sammy Lowe, “we were to leave for a gig at 7:00 P.M. At exactly 7:00 PM Fess said, ‘Let’s ride.’ We started off just in time to see a band member rushing around the corner. Fess kept on driving, refusing to wait for him. That night Fess fined him for being fifteen seconds late.”
Years after Fess’s death, his old students and disciples still referred to what they called “Whatley Time”: that strict adherence to the clock the bandsman had ingrained in his musicians. “If I had an appointment with the devil himself,” he’d told them, “I’d get there fifteen minutes early—to find out what in hell he wanted!” Fess seemed even to move with the built-in timing of a human metronome. “Even the way he walked,” said J. L. Lowe: “it was with rhythm in his mind. One, two, three, four. It was always like that with him.” Like a lot of Whatley’s musicians, J. L.’s brother Sammy insisted late in life that the Whatley training instilled in him an unbending sense of punctuality: after a long and prolific career he could count on one hand the number of times he’d arrived anyplace late. For the Lowes and others, Whatley Time, reinforced by knuckle-raps and fines, became an instinct.
Okay; all for now. More later. Happy Saturday to you.
One Saturday last April my radio show was visited by a troupe of Girl Scouts; they were working on their music badges, and one of the moms (my friend Marnie) asked me to talk to them about radio and share a little music history. I decided to focus on some of the Alabama music that I play on the show, and as a kind of handout I made them a little zine they could take home: “The Girl Scouts’ Guide to Alabama Music Heroes, Volume 1.”
The girls and their moms and a few dads came, and we talked about Alabama music and zines and radio. I recorded them singing a couple of songs, one of which I played over the airwaves a week later. “Make new friends,” the girls sang, “but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.” After the show, the troupe went on to make new friends at Seasick Records for Record Store Day, in further pursuit of their music badges.
Originally there only existed about a dozen copies of the zine, and each was the property of a Girl Scout. But last month, for the opening of an art / history / photo show I put together at Crestwood Coffee, I decided to make some more copies for the general public, giving the zine its worldwide, non-Scout debut. If you want one, you can pick up a copy at the coffeeshop or at The Jaybird in Birmingham, or you can email me for one (email@example.com). They’re $3 each (plus shipping), or just $1 for Girl Scouts.
The show on the coffeeshop walls, both its content and design, was actually inspired by the original Girl Scout zine. “What is the Soul of Man?: The Roots of Alabama Music” highlights many of the state’s music heroes and traditions, with historic photos and original text. Included are more than a few forgotten heroes a handful of legends, all of whom made substantial marks on their musical communities and culture. It’s a history that incorporates jazz pioneers, old-time fiddlers, blues women, country brother duets, civil rights foot soldiers, rural singers, rock-and-roll harbingers, and more. The show is only up for another couple of days, through Tuesday, March 6, so I invite you to come out to the coffeeshop before it closes and check it out.
After I take this down I think I’ll continue expanding it for some other location. There are a few segments I meant to get to before it went up, but never did — Muscle Shoals soul, Sacred Harp singing, Gennett Records’ 1927 Birmingham sessions, and so on — so hopefully there’ll be more to come, somewhere down the line.
In the meantime, come check out the current installation while you can. Hopefully you’ll find some history there that’s news to you.
I spent a couple of hours today at the library, working on a project I’ll fill you in on later. I didn’t find a whole lot of what I went to the library looking for, but I did stumble into this happy tangent: photos of music and musicians from the history of Alabama’s DeKalb County.
All of these images come from various installments of the DeKalb Legend, a publication from Landmarks of DeKalb County, a nonprofit devoted to historic preservation. Landmarks put out a bunch of these books in the ’70s, compiling photos that stretch back into the 19th century. Included are all sorts of scenes from daily life, spanning much of the region’s history — but the images that got my attention, one or two of them every hundred or so pages, were those of the county’s musicians and singers. The Louvin Brothers grew up in DeKalb County; so did members of the band Alabama. But these scattered photographs give some insight into the everyday music of everyday people, a glimpse into a narrow geography’s wide-ranging musical culture.
It’s an incomplete record, of course, and we’re left to imagine the sounds themselves. But a dozen such photos from every county in the country would open up to us a history we’ve, at best, hardly heard.
Take a look:
Photograph captions in the DeKalb Legend offer some details but leave others to the imagination. Here, “two unidentified ladies serenade Jesse B. (Peter) Horton, Jr. about 1902.” Beyond that the Legend simply adds: “Horton died in 1904.”
“Joe Shields and his singing group at DeShields School — 1910.”
A blurry image from Chavies, Alabama, c. 1915: a big crowd for the “First Sunday in May singing.”
A “patriotic musical” from 1918.
DeKalb County High School band, 1927. F. S. Thacker, band director, at right.
“Prayer Changes Things”: a scene from the Monroe Tabernacle, a “non denominational church built by Mrs. J. P. Monroe,” pictured here sometime in the 1930s. There’s a lot to look at in this one. I’m interested in the man outside, seen through the window, and in the moments (not pictured) when the boy, more or less center, picks up the small guitar in front of him. I’m curious too about Mrs. J. P. Monroe.
Sacred Harp singers, Mt. Herman Baptist Church, 1949. Leading the singing are Jack Stiefel and Riley Garrett: “the young and the old,” the caption says.
“An old tradition: fox hunters dancing in the streets of Fort Payne about 1950.”
“Newly formed band at Frederick Douglass High School in 1952,” directed by Lillie L. Trammell.
A political rally in 1956, Williams Avenue School, Fort Payne. Adlai Stevenson for President: “For All Of You.”
“Musicians who specialize in modern spiritual music” — posed in front of a historic home in Fort Payne, sometime (undated) in the ’60s or ’70s.
And speaking of the modern — check out teenage rockers the Viscounts, also from Fort Payne, playing the “weekly hootenanny” at the DeKalb Theatre, 1963:
The second Viscount from the left, by the way, is Jeff Cook, age thirteen; later he and a couple of cousins would form the band Alabama, a group clearly steeped as much in rock and roll as in country.
I’m going to leave you with this: a record the Viscounts (or VT-Counts) cut in 1964, “(This Is) Our Generation” — a 1960s Alabama teenage manifesto I’ve become kind of obsessed with. Give it a listen. I’ve transcribed the text, as I hear it, underneath the link.
Greetings and salutations
And all words indicative to a hearty welcome,
My celestial friends
This is Sweet Daddy Whitley
Talking to you cats and chicks about our generation.
Have you ever heard any music like this before?
This is our generation.
We made it what it is today.
Talk about the good old times
There were no good old times
This is it
There’s no need to wait around
This is it
This is our generation.
And his soul cries out: let me hear some more of that guitar
That was the high priest, Jeff Cook, on lead guitar
And in the background you can hear bassman Bailey
And along with him is
on rhythm guitar
This age where rockets, satellites
And his soul cries out,
This is our generation
As I count the (ways of life? waves of rye??)
They cry out, let me hear some more of that swinging sound
That’s soul music
It comes from the heart
They think they had music a long time ago
This is our music
And before I close I would like to remind you
This is our generation.
This is it.
Live it up.
Smile a while.
That’s as good a place as any, I guess, to end this post:
This is it. Live it up. Smile a while.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. Okay, one last photo: I have to add that my favorite image of them all doesn’t take music as its subject, but I couldn’t leave it out. The image, which I included also at the top of this post, is labeled only “Collinsville School Boys, about 1898.” No explanation beyond that is offered, other than the boys’ names.
They are, for the record, from left to right: Jesse Green, Victor Hall, Stanley Brindley, Charlie Hall, L. B. Nicholson, Carl Norwood, and Carl Brindley.
Last September, Lloyd Bricken, Lillis Taylor, and Glory and I opened up this little space in Birmingham called The Jaybird. We’ve got books and zines for sale, and we’re also the home of the Alabama Zine Library, a reading room and archive of independent, DIY, handmade publications. We have live music once a month, and an art opening every other month. This whole thing is a community-driven, homegrown creative experiment not intended for profit. We don’t intend to be here forever, but we’ve promised at least 12 months of programs and gatherings and are doing are best to facilitate a series of beautiful, warm, and inspiring moments. So far, so good.
A couple of weeks ago, we opened our third art installation, and it’s been a great pleasure to spotlight the work of two local artists, Elnora Spencer and Roger Stephenson. It’s a visual exhibit that’s deeply steeped in music, especially in the blues: Roger’s photography offers portraits of blues and jazz musicians in performance, and Elnora–who is best known for her own sensational, soulful singing–invests her painting with the same depth of feeling, rhythm, and passion that’s at the heart of her music. This Friday, February 9, Elnora will be the featured performer on our stage, and we can’t wait for her to fill our little room with her giant voice, surrounded by her own artwork and Roger’s intimate musical portraits.
If you live in Birmingham, I hope you’ll come see this art show–and Friday night’s performance would be the ideal time to come check it out. We’re also open every Saturday from 11 to 4, which gives visitors a good chance to get up close to the art; this show will be on our wall until sometime mid-to-late March. And for Elnora’s upcoming concert, we’re adding to the walls a good bunch of brand new paintings and drawings not included at our opening. On the blog today, I’m posting a bit of information about the installation, but most of all I hope you’ll come check it out in person.
Roger Stephenson is a freelance photographer specializing in performer and performance photography. He is an official photographer for the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge and is a contributing photographer for Living Blues Magazine. His photos have been featured in numerous publications across the world and have appeared on musicians’ websites, album covers, and concert posters. You can find more of his work at www.rogerstephensonphotography.com.
Stephenson’s distinctive eye celebrates the soul of the blues, the buoyancy of jazz, and the intimacy and energy of live performance. His subjects include both legendary performers and the unheralded masters of the blues and jazz traditions. Among the portraits in this show you’ll find the faces of many of Alabama’s own homegrown musicians, from jazz legends Dr. Frank Adams and Cleve Eaton to blues hero Willie King—and you’ll encounter such iconic musical landmarks as Gip’s Place and Freedom Creek. There are even a couple of recent images taken here at The Jaybird—and a portrait of this show’s other featured artist, Elnora Spencer.
“Dr. Burt,” by Roger Stephenson
“Elnora Spencer,” by Roger Stephenson
Stephenson calls this series “Listen, Can You Hear the Music?” and he hopes the images will appeal to the ear as much as the eye. “I feel my photograph achieves its objective,” he explains, “if you feel you are there at the venue with the musician.” If you can hear the music, he says, the image has done its job.
Elnora Spencer paints the world as she sees it. Her paintings and sketches range from the autobiographical to the mystical, from the humorous to the profound. “My paintings,” she says, “are my view of the world—they show the good that I see in the world. Some of it’s what I want the world to be, my view on the way the world should work.” Many of Spencer’s paintings come to her in dreams. “I put the visions I see in my head into the painting, and it makes me feel better. Sometimes I feel like I’m in that world while I’m painting.” All in all, Spencer hopes to capture in her art what she calls the mystery of life: that mix of good and evil, of highs and lows and striving and dreaming that makes up our time on this earth. One of her key themes is that anything can change in the blink of an eye. And throughout her work there are angels, the protective spirits that look out for and watch over us. Through all of life’s ups and downs, she says, “the angels are always there.”
“The Soul,” by Elnora Spencer
“Heavenly Music,” by Elnora Spencer
It’s no surprise that there is a musical quality to many of Elnora Spencer’s paintings. In addition to her work as a visual artist, Spencer is best known as a dynamic and beloved blues, soul, and jazz vocalist. She’s worked with and opened for many blues icons—B. B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Koko Taylor, and others—and she’s long been a mainstay of the Birmingham scene, routinely bringing down the house with her own powerhouse vocals. She will be performing at The Jaybird on Friday, February 9—a night we can guarantee you don’t want to miss. Here’s a little preview–video recorded last year during a series of engagements in Argentina.
Once again, we’re grateful to get to work with these artists, and we’re grateful too to everyone who’s come out already to check out the installation. We hope to see you soon at The Jaybird.