HOMETOWN: London, England
HOW LONG AT UAB?: 20 years
How did you become interested in the history of recorded music?
As an Edison scholar, I followed what Edison did, and that got me into music and film. Initially I taught the history of technology, but students were interested in the media rather than the machines. Music and film are as important in their lives as they are in my life.
Do you really have more than a thousand records in your collection?
I probably have a thousand just on my laptop. But some people in the Birmingham Record Collectors Club and other groups have millions. I had the equivalent of that in gigabytes, but when you’ve got more than 50,000 songs, you start running out of space. Now there’s some soul-searching for every record I acquire; I’ve got to justify it to myself. It’s a challenge because today there’s more music out there than ever.
Do you make any music yourself?
I was in bands, but I convinced myself that my talent was listening to other people play. Then in 1996 the Smithsonian asked me to write a book about the electric guitar, and I learned how to play from one of my former students. Now I find I’m getting pretty good, and I have a very nice guitar collection—about five antique guitars right now. I am especially interested in the guitars the Beatles played.
Why should people know something about the history of recorded music?
It’s the soundtrack of our lives. More than anything else, it expresses our identity. Music and our popular culture are at the center of what we do.
What is the future of music?
In 2004 when I updated my book America on Record, I predicted we would get our music by telephone—in a handheld device. In the future a majority of people will get their music downloaded to handheld devices through wireless Internet, and that device will plug into your home system. However, I think CDs and DVDs have at least 10 more years. People disregard the packaging, but you’re not just buying a piece of music—you’re buying a chunk of the artist, so you need the pictures and liner notes.
The Birmingham Beat
Andre Millard's next project? Charting Alabama’s musical past.
“I’m writing a book about Birmingham music, based on oral histories. People don’t see this as a musical town, but music is a really important part of this city’s life and its identity. In the ’20s and ’30s, we produced some of the best jazz musicians. In the ’60s this was a hotbed of rock ‘n’ roll. You think of Liverpool, New York, and Los Angeles, but I’m surprised by the number of garage bands in Birmingham that were recorded; their music continues to appear out of the blue.
“Rock and roll is Southern music; rhythm and blues is Southern music. We’re in the middle of it, yet we never think of ourselves as musical heavyweights. The music coming out of this state is incredible. I could work on Birmingham music for the rest of my life and still not capture everything. There’s always another band or another song I haven’t heard.”
Andre Millard’s Alabama Hot Five
Hank Williams, “Honky Tonkin’” (MGM) 1947
“This was a big hit for Hank and got him onto the Louisiana Hayride radio show. It highlights the intensity of his voice and some brilliant electric guitar from Zeke Turner, but mainly it’s the words. Nobody wrote about drinking and carousing like Hank, and when he wrote ‘We’re goin’ to the city, to the city fair/If you go to the city, baby, you will find me there,’ he was telling the history of Birmingham. The Complete Hank Williams Box Set has a nifty live radio version, with Hank having fun and drawing out the words—perhaps he had something to drink that night.”
Maddox Brothers and Rose, “New Muleskinner’s Blues” (4 Star) 1948
“The Maddox Brothers (and sister Rose) came from Boaz, Alabama, but tore up the West Coast in the late 1940s with some wild country music and even wilder cowboy outfits. This track should dispel any misgivings about country music being at the heart of rock and roll—the song comes from Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, but the Maddox Brothers start off at a fast shuffle that quickly turns into a stampede as they rock this song out, with some incisive guitar leads from Jimmy Winkle and Bud Duncan over a turbocharged rhythm section. The thing about the Maddox Brothers is that they always seemed to be having so much fun playing their music.”
Baker Knight, “Bring My Cadillac Back” (Kit-Decca) 1958
“This little record almost made a rock star out of local boy Baker Knight and moved the epicenter of rock to Birmingham. Inspired by the playing of B.B. King, Baker Knight formed one of the first rock-and-roll bands in Birmingham, maybe the first, and this song was recorded downtown in Homer Milan’s studio with only one microphone. There is an infectious, pounding beat provided by drummer Bill Weinstein, Shuler Brown on bass, and the piano of A.D. Derby. Glenn Lane and Nat Toderice provide the obligatory honking saxophones that characterized early rock. It moves along at a rapid pace and has a catchy chorus. Birmingham-based Kit Records loved it and sold the master to the major Decca label, which moved 40,000 copies in two weeks. But the big radio stations up North did not like to give Cadillac free advertising and stopped playing it. This might have been the end of the story for Baker, but he moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed a long and successful career as a songwriter; he wrote the beautiful ‘Lonesome Town’ for Ricky Nelson.”
The Premiers, “Are You Alright” (Big Top) 1962
“The Premiers were the among the most popular rock bands of the ‘’60s in Birmingham. They were formed in 1956 by Dale Karrh and Howard Tennyson and were later joined by Pat Thornton and Bo Reynolds. All came from high schools in the west of town: Fairfield, Bessemer, and Ensley. Their name came from a popular brand of drums. This historic live recording was made at one of the Armory shows that brought rock music to kids in Birmingham, but this night was special, and nobody who was there has ever forgotten it. It was hosted by Duke Rumore—the town’s leading DJ. The point of the song was that you were supposed to answer, “Well, yeah” when the band asked if you were alright, but the fun was to yell out, “Hell, yeah!” and this was what hundreds of kids did that night. Rock and roll was pretty innocent in those days. Both this and the Baker Knight song are available on a CD produced by the Birmingham Record Collectors Club called Birmingham Rocks—it’s a great introduction to all the good music coming out of this city in the 1950s and 1960s.”
The Drive-By Truckers, “18 Wheels of Love” (Second Heaven) 2000
“This is an impressive piece of storytelling by one of the most important and critically acclaimed bands to come out of Alabama in the last 50 years. The essence of Southern rock is authenticity, making it real, and it don’t come no realer than this. Patterson Hood tells it like it is, and there is something in his music that strikes me as particularly Southern. At once traditional, but also clearly influenced by the indie spirit, this song shows why the Drive-By Truckers have been acclaimed in New York and London. But for the longest time, the only place that would give them a gig in Birmingham was [local dive rock club] The Nick—and only on Monday nights!”