login | Register

Rock and Roll in the Rocket City Part 2: Rock and Roll Boomtown

by Jane DeNeefe

Last month in The Roots of Rock & Roll in the Rocket City we explained how Huntsville, Alabama's rock & roll scene got its start in a segregated society. Now the story continues into the sixties with more memories from Huntsville musicians, including drummer Terry Barkley of the Shandells and the multi-talented Jack Robbins of The Tiks and the Precious Few. The direct quotes from musicians are drawn from the research efforts of the Rocket City Rockophiles.

Ciick on the link to hear the Shandells performing their original tune with the irresistible title “To the Woods, by Swuft Wolf.”  (photo of the Shandells)

By the early sixties Huntsville was a boomtown, with NASA and Redstone Arsenal attracting workers from around the country. Jack Robbins' dad Berlin Robbins, who was Al Hirt's bassist, had moved his young family from Tupelo to Huntsville to start a music store. Trombonist and funk pioneer Fred Wesley, stationed out at Redstone Arsenal, “played all around town in the early sixties.” Despite the social upheaval of the times, the process of racial integration was more peaceful in the federal “shop town” of Huntsville than it was in the rest of the state.

Audiences both white and black were attracted to a big James Brown show at the Madison County Coliseum. Everyone agrees the coliseum's bouncy acoustics sounded terrible, but it was Huntsville's biggest venue. Terry Barkley recalls that James Brown, who started three hours late, “was accompanied by a whole band with strings, three set drummers who could play like nobody's business, and his back up singers, the Famous Flames. From the beginning to the end it was 'wow!' Fully choreographed. The white bands like us just stood on the stage and played and sang, but here everyone was moving, all kinds of stuff going on every second.”

Huntsville's teenage bands started incorporating James Brown moves into their acts. Jack Robbins, Ivy Joe Milan and others thrilled audiences with sliding across the floor, falling to their knees and yowling like James Brown. Huntsville singer Bill Brandon laughs, "First time I'd ever seen a man kiss himself."

By mid-sixties Huntsville had a wealth of teen dance clubs where kids could hang out and enjoy live music. Clubs called the Rocket and Roll-it, the Unique Teen-a-Go-Go and Bradley's Cafeteria hired local teenage bands. Dunnavants Mall, the teen center at Redstone Arsenal and the Madison County Coliseum also hosted rock & roll events where local bands could play. Musical influences ranged all over, from Wilson Pickett to Bill Haley to Boots Randolph and more. As pop music progressed, Huntsville's musicians were inspired by British bands like the Animals and Herman's Hermits, and the blue-eyed soul of the Young Rascals. Jack Robbins and keyboardist Tommy Graham were drawn to the early Rolling Stones.

But no one influenced sixties rock & roll in Huntsville as much as the Beatles. Terry Barkley tells a story was replicated all over the country :

“Yeah, the Beatles. February 1964, on Ed Sullivan. Sunday night the family was sitting around the TV when Sullivan came on. They made a real visual impression, the matching Edwardian suits, cool guitars, screaming girls, and their names being flashed up on the screen since we didn’t know them as individuals then. I wasn’t totally into rock & roll before that night. I remember my brother and me making eye contact during the performance and something passed between us like 'we can do that!'”

When Huntsville's baby boomers saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Rocket City exploded with garage bands. The Barkley brothers, like teenagers across the nation, swapped their marching band instruments for Silvertone guitars and low-end Ludwig drums. They skipped their next hair cuts. With enthusiastic audiences and plenty of places to play, Huntsville's youthful rock scene flourished. But the Rockophiles interviews show that eventual realities like the military draft, college and disco put a damper on the garage band era. Next month Jack Robbins will explain more about the nature of Huntsville's music business in the sixties.

 Related Links:
The Roots of Rock and Roll in the Rocket City 

    Celebrating the Year Of Alabama Music

related tags


Currently there are 0 comments. Leave one now!

Sirius Satellite Radio Inc.
Copyright 1998-2018 by Swampland Inc. All rights reserved.