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Dinah Washington was born in Tuscaloosa and grew up to become known as the Queen of the Blues. Nat King Cole of Montgomery, Birmingham’s jazz greats Sun Ra and Erskine Hawkins with his Orchestra and famous hit Tuxedo Junction are all a part of the history of jazz music in America. Dixieland Jazz Bands, such as the century-old Excelsior which performs in Mobile’s Mardi Gras, also fit distinctively in that heritage. Soul music arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues. Lionel Richie, The Commodores, The Temptations and Percy Sledge are among the many soulful legends to make their mark in the music world. This leisurely fly-drive tour follows in their footsteps.
Please note: Drop-off fee for the car hire applies and is payable locally
Distance: 126 miles
Born in Tuskegee, Lionel Richie grew up on the campus of Tuskegee Institute where most of his family had worked for two generations. While attending college, Richie and other students formed The Commodores, one of the most successful music groups of the 1970s known for both their ballad Easy as well as their funky dance floor hit Brickhouse. In 1982, Richie left the group for a solo career that included songs such as All Night Long. Richie and Michael Jackson co-wrote We are the World.
Tour the campus of Tuskegee University where the Tuskegee Golden Voices Choir still performs and where The Commodores were formed. Drive past the Commodores Museumat 208 East Martin Luther King Street, or call ahead to arrange a tour of the studio which was purchased by the Commodores in 1976 and used as their private facility for rehearsals and recordings. While you are in Tuskegee, you may want to visit the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and the Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center.
Distance: 39 miles
A 30-minute drive to Montgomery will take you to the birthplace of Nat King Cole, Willie Mae Big Mama Thornton, Clarence Carter and the man who taught Robert Johnson how to make a guitar really sing. Willie Mae Big Mama Thornton was born on the rural outskirts of Montgomery. She was the first to record Hound Dog and was one of the greatest blues legends of the 20th century. Blind from the time he was born, Clarence Carter taught himself to play guitar by listening to the blues. Carter’s classics Slip Away and Patches helped establish Muscle Shoals, where he recorded, as a center for rhythm and blues artists.
Eddie Floyd is another soul singer born in Montgomery. Floyd’s hits included Knock on Wood and 634-5789. One of America’s most memorable voices is Nat King Cole. Born in 1919, Cole sold over 50 million records in his lifetime including Unforgettable and Mona Lisa. He was the first African American jazz musician to have his own weekly radio show and the first to have a weekly national TV show. His childhood home is located on the campus of Alabama State University.
Distance: 133 miles
From Montgomery, travel Highway 82 to Tuscaloosa to visit the Alabama Blues Project. Here you can learn about blues legends and their role in the history of music in Alabama. Tuscaloosa is the hometown of Dinah Washington and final resting place of blues legend Johnny Shines. When she was very young, Dinah moved with her family to Chicago and went on to become one of the most versatile and gifted vocalists in American music. Her hits include What a Difference a Day Makes and Baby (You’ve Got What it Takes). She also did a remake of fellow Alabamian Hank Williams’ song Cold, Cold Heart. Washington became a gospel star at age eight and was discovered by the legendary Lionel Hampton at age eighteen. She was one of the few women of her time to run her own booking agency, Queen Productions. Dinah Washington is known by all as The Queen of the Blues. The city of Tuscaloosa has renamed 30th Avenue in honour of Washington.
Like many blues players born in the South, Johnny Shines moved to several cities in the south, only to settle in Chicago for many years. Born in Tennessee, he returned to the South in the 1960s to live in his new hometown of Tuscaloosa. While living in the Tuscaloosa area, Shines taught guitar between his many engagements and in 1975 released Too Wet to Plow, one of his most acclaimed albums. His gravesite is in Cedarwood Cemetery south of Tuscaloosa. His daughter, Caroline Shines, carries on his blues tradition and performs regularly. The street where she lives off Crescent Ridge Road in Holt, a community adjacent to Tuscaloosa, has been renamed Johnny Shines Street.While in Tuscaloosa, be sure to check out the more than 25 establishments in downtown that are the place for nightlife for both University of Alabama students and their visiting parents. Sitting on the corner of University Blvd. and Greensboro Avenue is Brown’s Corner Duelling Piano Bar and Grill. From this point, you can walk in any direction and find live music most nights of the week, but especially if you travel one block toward the Black Warrior River to 4th Avenue. Here is where Little Willie’s Jazz and Blues Club, Rhythm and Brews, The Filling Station, Gnemi’s Top Shelf Bar and Capone’s 4th and 23rd are located. Other sites in Tuscaloosa to visit include the Bear Bryant Museum, Moundville Archaeological Park and the Westervelt Warner Museum.
Distance: 57 miles
Take the short drive to Birmingham, home to the more than 100-year-old Birmingham Music Club; the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame; Tuxedo Junction, a place made famous in song by Erskine Hawkins and his Orchestra; and Ona’s Music Room, a jazz club that has been listed as one of the top 10 in the nation.
Birmingham’s music heritage runs deep. African-American a cappella quartet singing that developed in Jefferson County as the Birmingham Sound in the 1930s and 40s is played today by the local group the Birmingham Sunlights. The Birmingham Sound has been called the direct-line ancestor to the most popular versions of African-American harmony later made famous by The Temptations. Several of the members of The Temptations, the most successful soul group of the 1960s were from Birmingham. Visit the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park in downtown, which honours The Temptations and its lead singer. Nearby is the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame where you can learn about Frank “Doc” Adams’ work as a member of Duke Ellington Orchestra and the first Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame inductee, as well as the work of Erskine Hawkins known for his band’s worldwide hit Tuxedo Junction, about a local streetcar stop in the Ensley neighbourhood at the intersection of Ensley Avenue and 20th Street.
The Birmingham based Original Gospel Harmonettes was a highly successful group from the mid 40s until the lead singer left to become a civil rights activist in the 1960s. Considered one of the most influential saxophonists in the history of jazz music, John Coltrane recorded Alabama as an emotional tribute to four African American children who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The recording took place just two months after the tragic incident.
Artists with ties to Birmingham also include great women of the early Classic Blues period, such as Lucille Bogan and Leola “Coot” Grant. Legendary blues drummer Sam Lay, known for his famous double-shuffle, was born in Birmingham as were visionary jazz artist Sun Ra, blues pianist Walter Roland, folk and jazz singer Odetta, and Cleveland Eaton, one of the greatest jazz string players ever. Birmingham is also the birthplace of American Idol stars Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, and current jazz performer Eric Essix. Ona Watson, whose Ona’s Music Room draws crowds and has a loyal following of music lovers, also lives in the area.
If in the area on Saturday night, be sure to visit Gip’s Place. It is located in the backyard of Henry Gipson’s home that sits beside the big curve along the 3100 block of Avenue C in Bessemer. Gipson is a gravedigger by day and a musician at night. For more than 50 years, some of the best musicians around have been coming to his backyard to play. There is no exact schedule, which adds to the charm of this authentic juke joint, but you can count on musicians being there most Saturday nights. Many Sundays you can find Cleve Eaton playing at the Open Door Café in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook or on many Wednesdays at Old Car Heaven in downtown Birmingham.
Birmingham has several entertainment areas with live music. You can people watch, dance to great live music, and enjoy fantastic dining at Five Points South, one of the city's top entertainment districts. Stroll along the tree-shaded streets or stop and admire the artistry of the Frank Fleming sculpture, The Storyteller, at the famous fountain. Some of the establishments in Five Points South include the famed Highland Bar & Grill, one of the top restaurants in America. Bell Bottoms, and Zydeco are two of the places to hear live music. Other popular nightspots include Blue Monkey Lounge, Bailey’s Pub, Dave’s Pub, Club 1120, Club Rize, The J. Clyde, The Nick, and Twist n Shout. Located inside Hotel Highland is the H Bar, where you can live jazz music Tuesday through Thursday and blues on Saturday.
In downtown Birmingham, also visit 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Alabama Radio exhibit at the Alabama Power Corporate headquarters. Other sites to see are the Vulcan Museum, Sloss Furnaces and Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.
Distance: 112 miles
Travel to the northwest corner of Alabama to the four adjacent cities of Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscles Shoals. The largest of these small Alabama cities is Florence, but in the music world the best-known area is Muscle Shoals.
Starting in the 1960s, top artists from around the world including Aretha Franklin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones recorded their music in Alabama making Muscle Shoals the Hit Recording Capital of the World. You can tour the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the historic recording studios of FAME and the Jackson Highway location of Muscle Shoals Sound. The artists who made up the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were first studio musicians working for FAME Studio. They later opened their own recording studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound. They became world renowned as the musicians, and/or producers, on such classics as Respect by Aretha Franklin, Mustang Sally by Wilson Pickett, Kodachrome by Paul Simon, I'll Take You There by The Staple Singers and Old Time Rock and Roll by Bob Seger. They have played on more than 500 LPs. Singer Leon Russell first tagged the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section as The Swampers. The name was immortalized later in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama.
The most complete understanding of music in Alabama can be found at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia where memorabilia from careers of Alabamians such as Lionel Richie, Emmylou Harris, the group ALABAMA, The Commodores, Nat King Cole, W.C. Handy, Hank Williams and others are found. The Hall of Fame has its own small recording studio where you can sing over pre-recorded songs from the Muscles Shoals Sound era. The Muscle Shoals area had its first international smash with Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman recorded at Quin Ivy’s Studios in Sheffield. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield is also a part of the music history of the area.
Born in Florence, Sam Phillips became a producer, record label owner and the talent scout who is credited with discovering both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Phillips is also regarded as the Founding Father of Rock ‘n Roll. Be sure to check out The Swampers Lounge at the Marriot Shoals Hotel & Spa. The Sam Phillips Suite at the Marriott contains the Les Paul Gibson guitar that was given to Phillips in honour of his 50 years in rock ‘n roll and as Sun Studios founder. The guitar hangs in an alarmed glass enclosure in the suite. While guests cannot play the guitar, they can play the jukebox in the suite that has the recordings of Phillips’ artists. A framed picture of the suite’s namesake is also located in the room. Also, check to see if the Muscle Shoals to Music Row is being held. You will see an upbeat live music show featuring hit songwriters and artists from across America and local Muscle Shoals performers. Broadcast locally on the radio and sent worldwide by Internet, the show takes place inside the Singing River Room at the Marriott from 8-10 pm on Thursday evening during show season: approximately mid spring to late fall. The Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy, was also born in Florence. Handy’s birthplace, a simple log cabin, is part of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum. Each year, the Shoals area hosts music festivals honouring both Phillips and Handy.
Other sites in the area to visit include Helen Keller Birthplace and the only structure in Alabama designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Rosenbaum House.
Distance: 69 miles
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