by Jane DeNeefe
First among Alabama cities to integrate public facilities relatively peacefully, Huntsville could thank musicians and the Army for modeling positive race relations for the rest of the city. The Army made sure local bar owners understood that soldiers would drink only at establishments where all races were welcome. At times, musicians found themselves bonding across racial lines in hostile or challenging situations. Racial harmony grew through deceptively simple means, like through individual acts of friendship, and through the reverence teenage rock and rollers felt toward music by black artists.
Jack Robbins laughs now at the name of his first band: “Why we were called The Soul Seekers, I don’t know because we were a bunch of honky white boys. There were four of us, and we dressed like the Beatles and played a lot of that stuff. I do remember we had a venue to play and it was out on the arsenal, the Teen Club. I was also playing in the Officer's Club when I was about 15-years-old and I wasn’t old enough to be there. Back then it didn’t matter how old you were, you could play. The music we played, nowadays I would call it bubblegum music. Top forty bubblegum music. I actually played organ and trumpet at the same time.” (Photo courtesy of Jack Robbins. Berlin Robbins (far right), Hazel Robbins (2nd from right), and legendary jazz musician Al Hirt (center). Robbins and Hirt became friends while playing with each other in 82nd Army Air Force Band during World War II.)
Four clubs on Redstone Arsenal provided steady employment for live bands in the 1960s: the Officer's Club, the NCO Club, the Enlisted Men's Club and the Teen Club.
Rockophiles Query: What ever happened to The Soul Seekers?
Jack Robbins: “I was talking to one of the members on the phone about that. He and the guitar player got drafted and had to go off to the navy. That got me right at the time to go to school. I went off to the University of Tennessee and they went off to the navy and I couldn’t play with them. The draft broke up a lot of bands, and a lot of good musicians ended up in the army. Especially from here. I actually didn’t think this band was as good as some of others, the early Tiks and The Precious Few.” A future installment of this series will explore the importance of the Tiks and the Precious Few in Huntsville's pop music legacy.
When the Rockophiles asked Jack about the first time rock & roll made an impression on him, he was quick to reply “The Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction.' "I was in Tupelo visiting my cousins when it came on," he continued, "and I said, 'Wow that’s cool, man.' I didn’t really play that much British music. We always played a lot of old soul stuff. We were listening to James Brown, Otis Redding , all that stuff coming out of Muscle Shoals. That was a real inspiration because we were so close. Of course, Elvis Presley was an icon at that time. I was from Tupelo so we would go over there and he was playing around in there. He’d play the State Fair. We had an opportunity to see him up close and meet the guy. His family was from there. My cousins were friends with Elvis’s cousins.”
Next month on Rock and Roll in the Rocket City: funk pioneer Fred Wesley joins Redstone Arsenal's racially integrated 55th Army Band as a trombone soloist