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The Roots of Rock and Roll in the Rocket City by Jane DeNeefe

Huntsville's rock and roll scene got its start in a racially segregated world. Black and white neighborhoods and business districts coexisted side-by-side downtown, with separate record stores, churches and night clubs. When Sun Record tours came through Huntsville, Alabama, with recording artists like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers and His Musical Warriors, they  played for young white audiences at the Dallas Street Armory. Jedge Daniels, a teenage drummer at the time, remembers that the Armory shows were “exciting; you could feel something was happening,” but there were no black artists. Black musicians played in black neighborhoods, like on Gallatin Street, up the hill from Big Spring, where black audiences enjoyed live shows featuring Bobby Blue Bland, or Wilson Pickett when he was with the Falcons, at Adella's Supper Club. Ivy Joe Milan recalls, “I used to sit outside on top of a brick wall. I wasn't old enough to go in but you could hang out and hear good black bands and singers.” Down on Church Street, the epicenter of the black business district, Howling Wolf or Joe Tex might play at a juke joint near the depot. The early days of rock and roll in Huntsville saw very little musical interaction between the races. (Photo of Ivy Joe and the Snowballs )

 When Bill Brandon was growing up on Church Street in the fifties, there was no black-owned radio station in Huntsville, Alabama, because WEUP wasn't founded until 1958. He recalls: “I'd listen to groups like the Coasters and the Five Royals on my old phonograph, standing in front of the mirror and holding an old brush as a microphone, pretending to be onstage.” The white-owned, country-oriented stations did not play black artists. Jedge Daniels remembers WBHP's country DJ Slim Lay also playing Elvis Presley even though “it was pretty obvious he wasn't singing country.” Before long,"all you could hear was Elvis.” They were playing Elvis records in Brandon's neighborhood, too, where the attitude was, “we knew he was white and sounding black, but it was good and we liked it.”

As for Daniels, the first time he heard a record of Little Richard playing “Tutti Fruity,” he says all his previous musical taste “went out the window.” So Daniels ventured into Brandon's neighborhood to buy records. “I do remember sticking my head into the black clubs on Church street and waving at the musicians and them waving back,” he says, “but I didn't have the nerve to go in. Huntsville was a small, segregated southern town in the late fifties so there was that color barrier that couldn't be crossed. I do think music began to break down some of those barriers.” Brandon, who went on to record in Muscle Shoals, agrees that music helped foster communication between the races. Eventually, he explains, “working with white guys was no big deal, because music was a common ground."

Be sure to check out this YouTube audio of a Billy Hogan singing  "Shake It Over Sputnik."

The above article was adapted from an earlier piece published in Huntsville's Valley Planet. The Roots of Rock and Roll in the Rocket City is part one of a series of articles by Jane DeNeefe celebrating The Year of Alabama Music. Next month we will explore how the civil rights movement and the British invasion affected Huntsville's rock and roll scene.

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