Birmingham Buzz Kill

Birmingham Buzz Kill

(or I Hate To Eat And Run….For My Life! )

By Billy “The Pocket” Barner

©2008 

 

(An excerpt from the book titled Real Road Stories Of A Blues Musician being written by musician and author Billy “The Pocket” Barner)


Preface

 In 1972, parts of the Deep South were in an ongoing state of civil unrest. Many white Southerners still believed (or at least acted like) the Civil War was still going on and that “blacks” did not have the same rights as the, “whites”. The tension between the African American community and radically prejudiced factions of the generations old, white communities were at odds over equal right for blacks vs. no rights for blacks. The KKK was very active and visible. Then Alabama Governor George Wallace had his own State Police Force. A Militia made up of clansmen. This gave “Law Enforcement” the Governor’s permission to inflict unlawful violence freely against blacks for no legitimate, rational, earthly or godly reason. Peaceful protesters (both black and white) who were bravely attempting to peacefully bring about lawful change were also being targeted by that faction of the Southern white population. They wanted to “keep Negroes, Jew, Catholics, Hippies and Gays in their place”. That place (in their mind) was either as a slave, at the bottom of a river, hanging from a tree by a rope or six feet under the ground. 

 We, long haired musicians from the Pacific Northwest, had heard stories and seen news clips. We watched movies like Easy Rider and heard about the murder of the three white college students from New York who were sympathizers to the equal rights movement in Mississippi. We never dreamed, in a million years, we would personally witness, endure or otherwise be subject anything of that sort.

 We had traveled and performed throughout a good portion of the South as part of this tour. We had experienced real “Southern Hospitality” and were welcomed and treated with respect by everyone we met. Then our tour took us into Alabama…….. Birmingham Alabama to be exact.

*Hometown Blues Band, out of Tacoma/Seattle was an all white soul/blues band originally formed in 1965. I (Billy Barner) played drums and sang lead and background vocals, Doug Skoog sang lead and background vocals as well as played blues harp, the electric piano and the Hammond B-3, Curt Southworth played tenor sax, alto sax and flute, Thom De Rosa played bass and sang lead and background vocals, Bud Brown sang backup and played trumpet, and BJ Krett played lead guitar. Terry Gunter played bass sax, tenor sax, bass and sang lead and background vocals and was our vocal coach. We were contacted by our agent to do a U.S. tour with African American ATCO recording artist R.B. Greaves that would include the Chittlin' Circuit in the Deep South South.

....and the story begins......

The year is 1972. Much of the South is still in the throes of civil unrest. It’s mid spring and already hotter than Hades in the deep, South. *Hometown Blues Band from Seattle/Tacoma is about a third of the way through our tour as the back up band with soul singer and ATCO recording artist RB Greaves. RB is riding high on his 1970 Billboard #2 hit “Take A Letter Maria” and our shows have been sold out to capacity crowds of energetic RB Greaves fans.

We wrapped up our show at The Landmark Club in Shreveport Louisiana last night and immediately hit the road. We’re scheduled to load in at The Showboat in Birmingham Alabama this morning at 11am for our opening night this evening. We have driven from Louisiana through Mississippi into Alabama over night. We’re approaching Birmingham, as the sun is emerging over the horizon. It feels like someone threw the power switch on a blast furnace the second day light breaks. There are seven musicians and all of our equipment (including a Hammond B3 and Leslie Speaker cabinet) crammed into the 1950’s International Travelall (similar to a Chevy Suburban) and a 1960 Ford Econoline van. The only air conditioning is the roll down type (windows) and the holes in the floorboards of the old Travelall.

The Alabama countryside is beautiful with it’s yellow rolling hills and clumps of dark green trees scattered here and there, but in the distance is a foreboding brownish gray haze over the skyline of Birmingham appearing as if to be strangling the city.

It’s about 5am in the morning as we roll through the streets of Birmingham and all the streets and sidewalks are ominously empty except for three “colored” women with two children standing on a corner waiting for the light to change.

They seem to think nothing of seeing these two broken down looking vehicles approaching. But as we pull up next to them, they notice the giant peace symbol someone has fashioned by repeatedly drawing it with their oily fingers into the dull corroded green paint and dirt on the door of the old Travelall.

I am riding in the passenger seat of the Travelall with the window down and Doug Skoog is driving. There is another musician crammed into a small cubby hole sleeping in a fetal position on top of the B-3 organ located right behind the driver’s seat. As we roll to a stop I say “good morning ladies!”…. I’m waiting for a reply as they gaze at the “Hippy Statement” on the truck door then slowly pan their focus up to a shirtless me with my gigantic, bushy lions mane looking hair and then over to a shirtless Skoog with his long stringy blonde hair and red bushy Amish style beard - then back to the Econoline containing the rest of our rustic retinue. Finally one of them replies (in a thick southern drawl) “ You boys ain’t from round heah is ya”? I start to answer with something to the effect of….. “No we’re on tour with RB Greaves”… and then invite them to the show… when she interrupts with “If ya’ll know what’s good for ya ….you’ll keep right on a goin’ and don’t stop for nuttn' nor nobody”! Our first impression is “Geez! That’s not very friendly”. As we would eventually find out, that was the most friendly and humanitarian advice anyone could have offered and that we should have taken.

RB Greaves always traveled separate from the band. He had plenty of lady friends in each Port Of Call from previous tours, so he always arrived after us from place to place. Before leaving our last gig in Shreveport, RB had told us there was only one motel in Birmingham that musicians stay at. What he failed to say was there is only one motel in all of Birmingham that musicians were allowed to stay at. Of course, being musicians, we failed to get the name or the address of that one motel. But, in spite of my being a “drummer”, I did manage to get the name and address of the Showboat. We drove to the Showboat Club first. The club was obviously not open that early in the morning so we began looking for a place to get some coffee and breakfast and kill some time till we could get into the club to unload equipment and reunite with RB.

We haven’t gone far when we spot a restaurant that is open. We park the trucks and the seven of us emerge from our cocoons and spill out onto the sidewalk. Stretching and yawning as we approach the restaurant we notice two separate entrances. One marked “White Only” and the other marked “Colored Only”. As we saunter in through the “White Only” entrance a voice rings out “We don’t serve yo kind in heah! Go ovah to the cullud sod if y’all ah gonna git served aytall“! Looking at each other in disbelief, we turn and walk back out. Once outside, we discuss what has transpired so far in this surreal city of Birmingham. Someone suggests trying to get served in the “Colored” section, but after misconstruing the warning from the colored woman on the corner as being unfriendly, we decide that wouldn’t be such a good idea. We withdraw back into the cavities of our vehicles and go in search of the Showboat Club to lay low.

The Showboat is bordered with a paved street in front, a dirt alley down one side and a dirt road in back with the Cahaba River bank directly on the other side of the dirt road. The river is the color of creamer-ed coffee and buffered from the dirt road by tall dry weeds. The dirt is dry, red and extremely dusty and the red dirt dust is on everything. The load-in doors are in the back facing the river. One positive aspect was that the rear parking lot and load in doors were on the shady side of the building.

We’re milling around stretching our legs for about five or ten minutes when we hear music from a car radio and the sound of men joking and laughing. The sounds are getting louder and soon a car comes into view. It’s a dirty white 1959 Cadillac convertible with five young black fellows in it driving up the dirt road along the river; obviously still partying from the night before. At that time, Governor Wallace had his own state militia of "Good Ol' Boys". They had zero tolerance for anyone that wasn’t a “good ol’ boy” partying in public after dark. In fact there was a curfew for anyone who wasn’t a white “good ol’ boy”. By the way, “good ol’ boys” did not include “coloreds” or “hippies.” These fellas in the Caddy have obviously been partying behind closed doors till the sun came up and are now continuing their festivities outside in their convertible. They drive past the load in lot where we are hanging out and turn up the ally. As they drive by they see us. One look tells them we are misplaced “Hippies” hiding from view. Intoxicated and looking for entertainment, they seize the opportunity to exercise some verbal revenge on some non threatening non southern white folks without worry of retribution, so they flip us off and yell racial slurs and obscenities at us.

We are doing a great job of ignoring them as they continued up the ally when suddenly our bass player (Thom), blurts out, (in his New York brogue), an impulsive retort laced with “N” words and “F” bombs. A cloud of red dust billows up as the Caddy’s tires crunch to an abrupt stop in the gravel then start backing up. Impulsively, as if on cue, all of us pile on Thom and act like we're beating the crap out of him. Fortunately, the drunken partiers find this to be hysterically funny and drive off laughing there asses off.

Picking Thom up off the ground and dusting him off, we muster to regain our composure. Now we know that we need to find a better place to “Lay Low”. We decide to find a motel to check into and get out of the heat  (both literally and figuratively).

In less than 90 minutes of arriving in Birmingham we’ve:

- gotten a warning from a colored woman to get out of town if we know what’s good for us.

- were banished to the “Colored Only” section of a restaurant by a bigoted white Soul Food Nazi who refused us service.

- narrowly avoided a potential brawl with some intoxicated black youths.

The one thing we have not yet encountered are any “Red Neck - Good Ol Boys”.

We’ve been having a great time in the South up to arriving in Birmingham, but now thoughts of the violent ending of the movie "Easy Rider" and the murder just a few years earlier of the three (student) civil rights workers from New York, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are starting to bounce around in our heads.

We’re trying to control our imaginations and dismiss this type of thinking as silly overreaction and road fatigue. Little do we know that these paranoid thoughts of “Mississippi Burning” style encounters will soon, actually, materialize. What we have experienced in Birmingham up to this point is unnerving at best, but nothing compared to what was to come.

 The river road behind the club is turning out to be not such a safe place. We don’t have the address of the motel where we have reservations, but we know we need to get out of the public eye and the sooner the better….so we pile back into the vehicles and blindly venture out once more. 

We drive around till we find a motel. We pull into the parking lot in front. Curt gets out of the Econoline and I exit the Travelall and together we approach the sliding glass door at the entrance of the motel office. As we approach the door, the desk clerk looks up from behind the desk and spots us coming. With an expression on his face best described as a combination of panic and contempt, he swiftly runs around the check in counter and up to the glass doors. With a repugnant glare in his eyes, he locks the door, turns the VACANCY sign over to NO VACANCY, drops the Venetian blinds and pulls them shut!

One of us utters to the other, “Holy shit! Can you believe this?”, or words to that effect. We return to the trucks to commiserate with our band mates and to brainstorm a new plan. This will be plan “D”.

We decide to go to a phone booth and call a hotel and reserve a room. “They can’t turn away someone with reservations“, we figure. Locating a phone booth, I exit the Travelall with much reservation and make my way to the phone booth, hoping not to be noticed. Nervously perusing the red dust coated yellow pages, I pick out a hotel that's hopefully not far from our location. I call the number. Trying not to sound nervous or Northern, I make reservations and they politely take my reservation. Relieved, I return to the vehicles displaying a thumbs up. Encouraged, we proceed to our newest potential sanctum.

The hotel is a large old brick building and is fairly high class compared to other buildings in Birmingham at the time. We park the rigs at the curb. Once again, Curt and I disembark and go into this hotel while the rest of the band waits in the 100+ degree Fahrenheit vehicles. As soon as we enter the lobby, the desk clerk spots us approaching. We see the desk clerk side step over to the manager, point at us and say something to him. They are both glaring at us as we approach the desk. This doesn’t look good. The manager utters something else to the desk clerk then steps back to the side as if to do something else. The desk clerk does not greet us. …he just abruptly barks “We have no vacancies”! I reply, ‘Oh, well we have reservations‘. The manager then steps back over and interjects ’Did y'all just call and make a rezahvashun?’ ‘Yes I did’ ,I reply. ’Unfahchunutlay, we have a convenchun comin’ in tahday and all ah rooms ah alreaday taken. Yo rezahvashun was taken in airrah and is no good.’ Exasperated, I try to plead with him…‘We only need the room for a few hours. We just got into town. We’ve driven straight through from Shreveport Louisiana’. We’ll be performing tonight at the Showboat with RB Greaves. We have reservations at another motel, but we don’t know which motel it is and won’t know where that motel is for another few hours. We just need to get in out of the heat and clean up. Won’t you help us out? Our money’s good“! I get no reply; just two blank stares. I might as well have been speaking to the concrete pillar next to the desk. Both of them ignored everything I said and then just walked away.

As we walk back out, dejected, we see our band mates standing outside the vehicles. They are all over heated, dehydrated, hungry, road fatigued and getting more exasperated by the minute. As Curt and I approach we see the guys looking at us with hopeful expressions on their faces. We break the news that plan “D” has failed. Their reaction isn’t good. Some of the guys are getting pretty bent out of shape over all of this by now and it’s getting tougher to control the loud outbursts from more than one of them. I can’t blame them. I want to shout the same repartee they are directing at us, but to the cold hearted, prejudiced, people we have encountered, but dare not.

It’s about 9AM by now. It seems so simple…we just need to get somewhere to stay out of sight till 11AM when we can get into the Club and find out where the hell we are staying. I’m feeling like a fugitive on the lam desperately seeking cover. I know we all feel the same way.

Okay, Plan “E”. Try to find an air conditioned restaurant that isn’t segregated and that tolerates and serves Hippie, Yankee musicians. This seems like an impossibly tall order. Where we’re from this would be no problem, but like Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard Of Oz, we’re no longer in Kansas… or in our case Washington State. Back into the vans we go as we embark on our newest quest, determined to succeed.

The city is awake and active by now, the temperature just keeps getting hotter and hotter and the humidity is so high we feel like were drowning in it. We feel very conspicuous as we tool around town in search of our illusive refuge. It’s like we’re in a sirreal parade as we pass by people on the street. Instead of smiles and waves, though, people are ogling at us with disapproving eyes and pointing fingers instead of waving.

Finally, on the outskirts of town we spot a little rib joint. There are no “White Only - Colored Only” signs, just one screen door at the entrance. This looks promising! We park in the dirt parking lot, naively oblivious to the fact that all the other vehicles parked there are pick up trucks. All the pick ups have shotguns mounted inside the rear windows, too, but but don’t notice them until later.

Road weary, tired, wearing wrinkled clothes we’ve slept in while crammed around and on top of our equipment and not able to clean up anywhere, we definitely don’t look our best. We, once again, disembark and head toward the restaurant together in hopes that we may experience some semblance of “normalcy” on the other side of that screen door.

The spring on the screen door squeaks loadly as we open it and enter the restaurant. Inside, three or four of the tables have two to four men sitting at them. One of the empty tables is a large one just inside the door. All the men inside are white farmer types. About half of us have come through the door and none of the seated regulars have paid us any mind.

Suddenly, on the opposite side of the café, the kitchen door swings open as a white waitress hurriedly steps though carrying a large tray piled with silverware and dishes. Glancing our way, with an expression of horror she stops dead in her tracks. Throwing both hand up in horror, she drops the tray. Silverware, dishes and the tray CRASH loudly to the floor. “OH MY GAWD!!” she exclaims in unison with the crash. As the last unbroken dish spins to a stop on the floor you could hear the men’s denim clad butts squeak on the plastic seat cushions of their chairs as they turn, curiously, to see what was the cause of such a shocking commotion.“STOP RIGHT THEAH”! commands the waitress in an agitated and panicky voice. Pointing at the large table just inside the door, she barks the next list of instructions. “Y’ALL JUST SIT RIGHT THAYUH AT THAT THAYUH TABLE. DON'T Y’ALL COME IN HEUH ANY FUTHUH! I CAN SMELL Y’ALL FROM HEUH! I'LL BRING Y’ALL CATFISH AND GREENS AND THAT'S ALL! ALL Y’ALL EAT IT FAST, LEAVE $3 EACH ON THE TABLE AND LEAVE ON OUTA HEUH! AND DON’T COME BACK!

The “good ol’ boys” are glaring at us now with disgust as, one by one, the rest of the seven of us filter through the door. The prolonged squeal and a final slam of that screen door gives us a hopeless feeling... similar to what of an incarcerated first offender must feel hearing the prison door slam shut behind him, while hardened criminals inside salivate at the sight of fresh meat (him). We feel like we’re the main coarse on an all you can eat Hippie Smorgasbord at Redneck Convention. With that super-melodramatic demonstration performed by the waitress and the hateful, snarling expressions on the faces of the redneck regulars, we know this is no safe house. Hell No! This is the lions den!

After moving a few extra chairs to the table we all sit down. Once seated, the silence in the room is unnerving. The first thing to break the silence is the amplified sound in my ears of the blood coursing through my veins. I can feel my heart trying to leap out of my chest. This is truly a fight or flight moment and I, for one, feel like bolting for the door and getting the hell out of here.  

Understand, the guys in Hometown Blues Band are no push-over’s. We don’t go looking for trouble, but when trouble comes looking for us, we don‘t back down. We handle ourselves pretty damned good when we need to and have had to kick some asses in the past. I remember a time, in Bozeman Montana, when Skoog reached over the bar and dropped a bartender like sack of laundry with one punch for unfairly firing us and getting the rest of our tour canceled. And another time when a drunk bartender broke a cue stick over my head while I was shooting pool and the whole band was on him like swarm of killer bees. But those are fodder for another story. This situation was much more convoluted. This was us against the City of Birmingham and the State of Alabama. We know when to stay and fight and when to run.

The rednecks butts squeak on their plasic covered chairs again as they turn back around, saying not a word, but looking at each other cunningly as they resume eating.

We’re thinking maybe this silence is a good sign. Maybe they are just going to ignore us. We start to make conversation with each other and try to act and appear composed. We are speaking to each other sort of under our breath, though, because it was so eerily quiet in there. It is uncomfortable because we know that the conversation was flowing freely in there before our intrusion.

Without looking up from their plates, the rednecks finally break their silence when one of them says “ Ma shotgun’s in ma truck. I thank shootn’em is the best thang’.”

We look at each other with expressions of inquisitive horror and disbelief. Are they talking about us?

We start talking a little louder and trying to make more conversation and trying to act natural.

Just then, the kitchen door blasts open again and the waitress and the cook emerge with our meals. The waitress puts two or three meals on the counter and the cook brings the ones he’s carrying to our table. He quickly puts them on our table then goes to the counter and returns with the meals that the waitress did not want to bring. We thank the cook and ask him for some waters. He brings a tray of waters, puts the tray on the table, wipes his hands on his appron as if he’s just touched something unclean and briskly retreats to the kitchen without saying a word.

We begin eating and re-hydrating ourselves with the water. The eerie silence returns as we eat our catfish and greens.

Suddenly the silence is broken once again.

Naw! Shootin’ em’s too damn fast….too messy!  Ah got ‘nuff rope in mah truck for all ub em’. Ah say we take em out and hang em’. Slow and neat”! says a second redneck.

“Sound good tah me. Let‘s do it!!” says a third guy.

Now we know they are talking about us. And they aren’t just talkin’ about us! They’re talkin’ about killin’ us!

Terrified, we finish consuming our food as fast as we can, using only our eyes to communicate with each other. We slowly put our money on the table and with a nod for a cue we all stand up and start walking toward the door.

At this moment our worst fears become stark reality, as all the “Rednecks” get up at the same time and head toward us.

We break into a dead run for our vans and the rednecks break into a dead run hot on our heals. We hear them knocking over chairs and tables on their way out trying to get to us faster.

Diving into our vans, we peel out of the parking lot of the rib joint in a cloud of smoke and make a beeline for the Showboat. We’re hoping and praying that someone will be there when we get there. We’re hauling ass! Skoogs driving the Travelall with the peddle to the metal. BJ’s right on our tail in the Econoline van with four pick up trucks full of armed, pissed off , blood thirsty rednecks in hot pursuit ! We know we are literally running for our lives! I don’t know how Skoog manages to remember the route back to the club, but thank God he does. We turn onto the dirt river road in a two wheel drift. We’re still a couple miles from the club, sliding and fishtailing and throwing up clouds of red dust from the road. We have to be doing 80 miles an hour in those two relic vans with the rednecks breathin’ down our necks the whole way. Driving through that huge, billowing, blinding dust cloud, made by the speeding Travelall and the river right next to the road, it’s a wonder how BJ or the rednecks keep up the pace without ending up in the river or rolling over.

We see the showboat dead ahead. We roar into the back lot screeching to a stop on the blacktop. Even before our vans stop moving, we’re piling out like rats out of a sinking ship and running for the load-in door. The rednecks screech to a stop right behind us, pile out of their trucks and are making there way toward us with murder in their eyes. Some of us are pounding on the load-in doors and yelling “OPEN UP!! LET US IN!! as the rest of us turn and face the rednecks to begin fighting for our lives.

Like an explosion, the load-in doors fly open and a big fellow emerges yelling “WHAT THE HELL IS GOIN’ ON OUT HEAH”? We instantly run past the behemouth braveheart and into the club. The hefty guy shouts at the rednecks. “ Y’ALL LEAVE THESE GUYS ALONE. THESE GUYS AH MY ENTAHTAINMENT THIS WEEK END. AH PAID GOOD MONEY FO EM‘. NOW Y’ALL JUST GET BACK IN Y’ALL’S TRUCKS AND GIT HELL OUT A HAEH BEFORE AH CALL THE PO-LEECE!

The gallant hero, who has just rescued us from sure death, disfigurement or potential arrest and jail time at the hands of Governor Wallace’s Militia (for defending ourselves), is the owner of the Showboat. With a huge feeling of relief and gratitude we thank him profusely.

After explaining our plight and calming down with some cold beverages, we unload, set up, do our sound check…. and finally find out where the hell THAT musician’s motel is at.

I have since forgotten the name of the motel. I just remember it was really, really funky. There was no air conditioning. I tried filling the bathtub with cold water to cool off. The cold water would not get cold and it was red. We were releived to be somewhere that was safe and where we could clean up and rest. But there was no relief from the relentless Birmingham heat and humidity. Once at the motel we met another really great band that was also staying there called Mothers Finest from Atlanta. Our stay at that motel is another story all it’s own.

Our gig at the Showboat was cut short. We only played the Opening Night. The Showboat owner had heard repeated rumors that the rednecks weren’t giving up on getting us. This was not an isolated incident in Birmingham and the owner was taking those rumors very seriously. He suggested we take them seriously too. He paid us in full for the gig even though we had only performed the one night. We left Birmingham secretively in the dead of night with the owners blessing.

As usual, RB Greaves went on ahead of us.We had lots of time to kill before going on to our next show in Fort Worth, Texas, so we drove to Atlanta, hung out with Mothers Finest and caught one their shows. WOW! Talk about a GREAT BAND! And that is yet another story to be told at another time.

The End

 

R.B. Greaves passed away September 27, 2012. He was 68.

Terry Gunter passed away in July 2013. He was 66

 

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