Magic City Nights: Birmingham’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Years, by Andre Millard (Wesleyn University Press, 2017)
By James L. Baggett
About 10 years ago, while visiting rural England, I met a genuine Southernphile (and yes, that is a word I just made up). When a young hotel clerk learned I was from Alabama, he engaged me in a long and animated conversation about his love for Southern pop culture.
While his sources were dubious (his favorite movie was Smokey and the Bandit and his favorite television show was The Dukes of Hazzard), his fascination was sincere. What he loved most of all was the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I don’t care about the politics,” he said. “They just sound so bloody good.”
Historian Andre Millard found a similar lack of interest in politics, especially the politics of race, among many of the musicians interviewed for his book Magic City Nights. The book draws from an oral history project started by Birmingham club owner Aaron Beam and later joined by Millard, a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Like the very fine historian he is, Millard looked for a narrative, a structure to frame the history of rock and roll in Birmingham. And like many historians who examine the American South, he expected race to play a major role in that narrative.
And why shouldn’t he? “The history of music in Alabama,” Millard writes, “shows a constant interaction between black and white players.” In the 20th century, he writes, the “exchange of musical ideas that led to rock ‘n’ roll was part of a long tradition of interracial sharing and copying.”
While black and white musicians seldom performed together in the 1950s, they could listen to one another’s work on records and the radio. In the interviews, Millard finds musicians more interested in the music than its historical construct. Black musicians in particular were often colorblind about their music. They understood the indignities and dangers of Jim Crow, but they played what they liked, or what their audience (often white) wanted to hear.
But if the story of rock ‘n’ roll in Birmingham is not a story of race, then what? Millard finds the defining narrative in another of Birmingham’s neuroses, a seemingly unshakeable sense of inferiority. Birmingham, from its founding, has been a city that dreams big but often comes up short. Birmingham never became the largest city in the South, or the greatest producer of iron and steel, or a major sports town, or a place to rival Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville as a music town. Morris Avenue was never a threat to Bourbon Street.
Many of Birmingham’s rock musicians, promoters, and fans saw local music in the same way they saw the city, not quite as good as someplace else. The musicians who stayed often labored in frustration, not feeling support from local radio or fans. Other musicians, some say the better ones, left. As one musician told Millard, “once they realize that they really do have musical talent, they get the hell out of Dodge!”
Because Magic City Nights relies heavily on oral history interviews with musicians, much of the narrative follows the ambling rhythm of a conversation. This approach works more often than it does not. Magic City Nights offers the reader a serious historical narrative and, for those of us of a certain age who grew up in Birmingham, pleasant memories from our youth. It would be difficult to write about popular music without generating a good dose of nostalgia, and Magic City Nights brings back memories of thumbing through albums at Rumore’s Record Rack, or catching shows at Brothers Music Hall, where Elvis Costello, Bob Marley and Dire Straits performed in the incongruously ornate old Hollywood Country Club. Millard takes his readers from the Blues roots of rock ‘n’ roll through Southern Rock and New Wave, from DJs Tommy Charles and Doug Layton burning Beatles records to the once proud music festival City Stages.
While the story of rock ‘n’ roll in the Magic City is a story of missed opportunities and disappointments, it is first and foremost a story of people who love their music. Because when you put aside the politics and the inferiority complex, you still have the songs, and they sound so bloody good.
About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, a Birmingham archivist, has assisted with research on many of the 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama since 1970. He reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state for Birmingham Watch. He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history. Baggett received the Alabama Library Association’s 2019 Eminent Librarian Award.