Museums document Alabama’s music history
By Marilyn Jones
Music evokes mood and memory. It is a form of celebration; the cadence of life. It is found in every culture, varying only by its creators, the times and its delivery. It helps us express ourselves.
In Alabama, several museums showcase the talents of our citizens — past and present — who brought music to life from radio pioneers, singers, songwriters, musicians and others collaborating for the art and the listener.
The Alabama Historical Radio Museum operated by the Alabama Historical Radio Society offers the history of Alabama Power Company’s radio station. WSY began broadcasting in 1920 and was the 127th station in the nation approved for broadcasting. Radios from this era are displayed and visitors learn that many listeners built their own radios from instructions in Birmingham Age Herald newspaper articles.
The historic timeline continues into the 1930s, when even the Great Depression couldn’t stop the radio’s popularity, and into the 1950s when television began to take over some programming, but never overtook music.
The Birmingham Black Radio Museum traces the history of black radio in the city since the mid -1930s and has successfully gathered memorabilia, pictures, news clippings, oral histories and personal testimonies “that help depict Birmingham black radio’s evolution and its symbiotic relationship to the black Birmingham area community and the community at large,” according to museum literature.
The project, founded in 1992 by Bob Friedman with support from Gary Richardson, owner of WJLD Radio, also produced the film “A Radio Hero.” The film features Paul White. Dubbed “Tall Paul” in 1962, White was the most significant Birmingham radio announcer of the 1963 movement years. He was the only Birmingham announcer mentioned specifically by the Rev. Martin Luther King in his reference to the Children’s Campaign of 1963. Friedman presents the film to public groups upon request.
The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, also in Birmingham, honors jazz artists with ties to the state. Exhibits in the art-deco museum showcase musicians, band leaders and singing artists including Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Erskine Hawkins and Harry Bellefonte.
Visitors travel from the beginnings of boogie woogie with Clarence “Pinetop” Smith to the jazz space journeys of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Space Arkestra.
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia highlights music-makers from all genres with exhibits illustrating how Alabamians contributed to make the music industry what it is today.
Tours start in the Hall of Fame Gallery that features portraits of inductees painted by Tuskegee artist Ronald McDowell.
In the Popular Music section there is recording equipment used in Alabama-born Sam Phillips’ Memphis Music Service and the contract between Phillips and RCA representing soon-to-be superstar Elvis Presley. More displays feature apparel and instruments from Tommy Shaw of Styx fame, Ransom Wilson’s flute, Jim Nabors’ Gomer Pyle costume, and memorabilia donated by Emmylou Harris, Donna Godchaux, Bobby Goldsboro, Lionel Richie and The Commodores.
The tour continues in the Country Music area and features the personal memorabilia of Sonny James, Tammy Wynette, Vern Gosdin, Jeanne Pruett, Freddie Hart and Rose Maddox. The highlight is the Southern Star tour bus of superstar group – and Hall of Fame inductees – Alabama, giving visitors a first-hand understanding of life on the road.
A classic jazz club facade frames the Rhythm and Blues area. Erskine Hawkins’ trumpet, Martha Reeves’ and Eddie Kendricks’ stage outfits, gold records by Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge and other artifacts are displayed.
The Gospel Showcase memorializes gospel greats Jake Hess, Gold City, The Speer Family and The Sullivan Family.
The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery houses the most complete collection of memorabilia with more than 35 showcases filled with personal artifacts, clothing, the 1947 Gibson guitar and the microphone and stand he used during his last performance, to list a few. The museum also houses Williams’ 1952 Cadillac in which he made his final journey.
Born in Mount Olive, Hank and his family moved to Georgiana and later Montgomery. The Hank Williams Boyhood Home and Museum in Georgiana is housed in the structure where the country singer lived from age 7 to 11. It was there that it is said he learned to play guitar from street singer Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne and sang on the streets for tips. Items on display include a Hank and Hezzy’s original Drifting Cowboys hat, Hank & Audrey’s dishes and custom-made curtains and valance from his Nashville home.
Williams’ career began in 1937 when he won a talent show at the Empire Theater in Montgomery with his original tune, “WPA Blues.” He went on to become one of America’s first country music superstars, with hits like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” before his death at 29.
Other museums honoring some of Alabama’s great performers include The Alabama Fan Club and Museum in Fort Payne; W. C. Handy Home & Museum in Florence; and an exhibit at Isabel Anderson Comer Museum in Sylacauga celebrating native Jim Nabors’ success for his beautiful voice as well as his portrayal of Gomer Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
Alabama Historical Radio Museum: 600 N. 18th St., Birmingham; (205) 967-7000; alabamahistoricalradiosociety.org/Museum.htmBirmingham Black Radio Museum: Carver Theater, 1631 Fourth Ave. N., Birmingham; (205) 902-9487
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame: 1631 Fourth Ave. N., Birmingham; (205) 327-9424; jazzhall.com/
Alabama Music Hall of Fame: 617 U.S. Highway 72 W., Tuscumbia; (800) 239-2643; alamhof.org/
Hank Williams Museum: 118 Commerce St., Montgomery; (334) 262-3600; thehankwilliamsmuseum.net/
Hank Williams Boyhood Home and Museum: 127 Rose St., Georgiana; (334) 376-2396, hankmuseum.com
The Alabama Fan Club and Museum: 101 Glenn Blvd. SW, Fort Payne; (256) 845-1646; thealabamaband.com/fanclub.html
W.C. Handy Home & Museum: 620 West College St., Florence; (256) 760-6434; visitflorenceal.com/things_to_do/w-c-handy-birthplace-museum-library/
Isabel Anderson Comer Museum: 711 N. Broadway, Sylacauga; (256) 245-4016; comermuseum.weebly.com/