This is the story as I watched it unfold, and as those who could get into rooms I couldn’t enter shared it with me. Most of it I know to be true, the rest I have on good authority.
The year was about 1965. It was the biggest country music show to hit Birmingham in many years. As a matter of fact, it was so big it made no sense. All over town, music professionals were shaking their heads. Even if he sold out the Municipal Auditorium, filling every seat, how was the promoter, a man named Larry Sunbrock, planning to cover his expenses and pay all the high-priced talent he had booked?
Surely Sunbrock knew what he was doing. He had been a successful promoter at least since the 1930s, when he used to stage wildly popular fiddling contests.
But if you did the math, multiplied the ticket price ($3 or $4) by the number of seats in the old Albert Boutwell Municipal Auditorium (well under 5,000), you couldn’t see how Sunbrock was going to break even, much less make a profit.
The legendary Red Foley topped the bill. Then came Sonny James, followed by The Wilburn Brothers (Teddy and Doyle) and young Hank Williams, Jr., plus a busload of veteran Nashville musicians including Don Helms on pedal steel guitar, and a special appearance by the reigning Miss World.
As if this weren’t enough, local musicians’ union rules required Sunbrock to hire a local back-up band on top of everything else. The best-known local outfit was the Country Boy Eddie Show Band, which featured Wynette Byrd (later known as Tammy Wynette) on vocals and yours truly on piano.
The show had everything but fire-eaters, so Country Boy Eddie brought one along.
The thing to consider is that in those days any one of these major acts might have filled the hall unaided. Red Foley, famous for songs like “Smoke on the Water,” “This Old House” and “Old Shep,” was something like the Bing Crosby of country music, not to mention Pat Boone’s father-in-law. Sonny James was a local favorite and major crossover artist with a string of pop hits. The Wilburn Brothers had their own syndicated television show out of Nashville. Hank Williams, Jr. was only 14 or 15 but had his first hit record on the charts (“Long Gone Lonesome Blues”) plus his famous father’s name and his mother’s road managing skills (yes, Audrey Williams was on the show, too).
No doubt about it, Birmingham was excited. Country Boy Eddie had Sunbrock on his program all week, giving him free air time for promotion. Homer Milam gave him the run of his recording studio to tape radio spots, feeling it was good for business just to be associated with an event of this magnitude. Milam later said that Sunbrock ran up a sizable long distance bill on the studio phone.
As the Country Boy Eddie band took the stage, just before the curtain opened, Hank Williams, Jr. appeared at the piano with a guitar and said, “Gimme an E.” I had barely played the note for him when his mother appeared, glaring at me and telling Hank, Jr., “Don’t be talking to him!” as she pulled him away. I have no idea what that was about. I asked Red Foley about it and he said she was keeping the boy on a tight leash and not letting him out of her sight.
The people in the audience probably had no idea that the opening act included someone who would become one of the greatest stars in country music history. The artist not yet known as Tammy Wynette sang her number and joined in background vocals. It was a strange assembly. The band included Whitey Puckett, an Albino clarinet player (not every country and western act had one of those); Butterbean Flippo, who painted speckles on his face with a magic marker and played electric bass; Johnny Gore, a lady’s man who played hot electric guitar but tended to solo all the way through every song; Mickey, the fire-eater; Mason “Tex” Dixon, Lee Hood and Bill Compton on acoustic guitars; a steel player whose name I don’t recall; me on piano; and Country Boy Eddie on fiddle and spontaneous (and highly realistic) mule noises.
We played our tunes and got offstage, returning later to help back up The Wilburns and Red Foley. At one point Miss World came out and I was asked to dance with her while the band played “The Twist.”
I walked out into the audience to watch Hank, Jr. Everyone in the business had been talking about him. In those days he sang nothing but his father’s material, but he was damned effective in doing it. You could feel the goosebumps rising in the crowd. Hank, Sr. had been dead only about 13 or 14 years, and many of the audience had seen him perform.
Shortly before Red Foley was to go on, there was a commotion backstage. A stretcher appeared, and the promoter, Sunbrock, was on it. Someone whispered that he had suffered a heart attack. I got close enough to see that his usually pink skin was pale. There was a white line around his mouth.
Red Foley leaned over to him and said, “Larry, this is awful. I’m so sorry. Obviously we’ll send everyone home right now and attend to you.”
“No,” said Sunbrock, “no, never mind me.” And, painfully trying to lift himself, he said, “the show must go on.”
“I can’t go out there now, under these conditions,” said Foley. “I couldn’t live with myself, and you like this.”
“Please, Red,” said the man on the stretcher. “Please. For me.”
“All right, Larry, all right.” You could practically feel the lump in Foley’s throat as he promised the fallen promoter that he’d say nothing to the audience and fulfill the commitment.
So we went back onstage and played “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy” and “Old Shep” and the other favorites. The crowd roared its approval.
Later someone came backstage and announced that the gate receipts were missing. It was rumored that a satchel of money had been carried out on the stretcher, under the sheet. Calls were made. None of the local hospitals had admitted a Larry Sunbrock. Someone claimed to have seen Sunbrock’s assistant driving the ambulance, heading out of town.
A few months later I visited Red Foley in his office, in Nashville. He told me that none of the artists had been paid for the Birmingham show. “I understand that Sunbrock put on a rock and roll show the next night in Mississippi,” he said. And a gospel show in Louisiana soon after.
I thought it best not to mention that, unlike the famous people, and unlike Homer Milam, I had been paid for my night’s work. Musicians Local #256 had required the money up front for the local players’ services.
Whether it was the sting of stings or just a bizarre misunderstanding, it was one hell of an experience.
David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.
He can be reached at: email@example.com
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com