by: Ron Williams
The 60’s at The Southernaire! Into the 70’s. Great soul music. Dancing (and fighting). Bob’s Place. Bouncer Joe ‘Cool’. Ken Stabler. Johnny Musso. Vernon Studdard…Big Ben Atkins & The Nomads. Alfred Wright Jr. If you’re in your 50’s (or older), you’ll remember most of these places and people (or not remember..depending on how much alcohol you consumed during those days).
It was a special time and place in history, especially in Columbus, Mississippi. And especially across the river where these ‘activities’ took place in the area we now call ‘the island’. The Southernaire’s long and famous (if not rocky) history is a ‘legend’ in itself. And the nearly 9 year run by Vernon, Alabama singer Big Ben Atkins (63′-71′) is the most legendary period of them all.
Want to know just how ‘famous’ The Southernaire really was? To describe how well known this special place was is best described to me by Jerry Gibson. Jerry, a Vietnam War veteran, told me a story a few years back while having coffee at the Huddle House in Columbus. Jerry said he was in the jungles of Vietnam in a fight with the Viet Cong (late 60’s). He crawled into a foxhole and was soon joined by another American soldier from another division. The two exchanged greetings and the soldier asked Jerry where he was from. Jerry said he told the soldier, “Oh…a little town in Northeast Mississippi that you’ve probably never heard of..a place called Columbus, Mississippi”…to which the soldier replied, “Oh..The Southernaire Club..i know it well”. Jerry was perplexed…i mean, what were the chances?…two guys meet halfway around the world in a war zone and a foxhole and this guy knows about The Southernaire? Amazing!
Ben Atkins & The Nomads became a fixture at The Southernaire. Patrons came from West Alabama, Columbus, Mississippi State University, Ole Miss, the University of Alabama…and points in-between, to hear one of the best known bands around. And Ben became the centerpiece of attraction with his blue-eyed-soul vocals coming from a white guy from West Alabama who, to be honest, sounded like the black artists making up most of the songs the band would cover at the club.
From Ben’s website, www.bigbenatkins.com , part of his bio reads: ‘Although now residing in Huntsville, Al, Ben’s roots in music began in Vernon in the early 1960’s while still in high school – singing for dances and assemblies at school. He later started singing professionally at functions and clubs in Columbus, Mississippi.
Ben began his recording career in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1964 at the world renowned Fame Studios. But, his first record, ‘Come On Over’ was not released until 1966. It was an instant regional success, since Ben had already had many followers by that time. ‘Come On Over’ has become Big Ben’s “signature song”. The record was selected the number one record of the year in 1967 on WTBC, the number-one radio station (at the time) in Tuscaloosa (the home of the University of Alabama). It was soon followed by ‘It Would Take A Miracle’ which was also very successful regionally. Ben had five more singles released over the next four years, but the biggest break was yet to come. The break came when he became the first caucasion vocal artist ever signed to a contract by STAX records in Memphis. The company was the leader in rhythm & blues music with the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett and many other African-American artists. Big Ben is one of the original groups of artists called the ‘Founding Members’ of The STAX Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. He has also been selected to the Achievers category for the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. (Most of Big Ben’s recording was done at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and at STAX Studios in Memphis).
I recently conducted a question and answer session with Ben…that conversation follows..
RW: Let’s go back to the beginning. Was the Southernaire your first gig? Where did it all begin? And tell me about your relationship with our mutual friend, Hollis Roberts. Tell me about the Southernaire experience.
My first gig was a joint on the Walker/Jefferson County line in Alabama, called the Allstate Club. It was one of those places where you play from midnight till about 4 A.M. All the Birmingham clubbers would show up there after the clubs in town had to shut down for the night. I was lucky to get home with $10.00 in my pocket. The Southernaire gig was my first long-term gig. I was there from 1963-71. I had many great experiences there in my eight years there. My band, The Nomads were as solid as a house band could be. They were, Hollis Roberts on guitar, he played as smooth as silk, in the vain of Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery and Howard Roberts, really a classy guitar player. On drums was Matt Moskal, a good singer also. Clement Thomas on bass, famous for playing his bass upright, like an acoustic. On keyboards was Perry Barker. He was a great B3 hammond man. He was also a very good drummer. Jerry Morgan was also one of my guitar/keyboard players who also sang. My only horn player there was Jerry Mize on tenor sax.
We had a lot of people pass through those doors in our tenure there. People from everywhere, including Ken Stabler have made mention of the old “Southernaire Days”. It is also mentioned several times in the book “Hey Baby Daze”, a recent publication about Southern bands and their experiences playing for college students.
RW: Who were your major influences, music-wise, growing up in the early days that shaped your country-soul sound?
BBA: My youthful days in Vernon were very formative in my music. I used to listen to WLAC and “John R” out of Nashville at night. He played all the old great R&B music that I grew to love. Artists like Ray Charles, James Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Otis Redding and many more that I admired so much. My absolute favorite is Ray Charles, who shares my birthday. Ironic, huh?
As for country music, I was into the soulful country acts like Charlie Rich, a great, great singer. I had only one song that ever made the country charts, it was in 1978, and titled “We Don’t Live Here, We Just Love Here”. It made the Top 40 in Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World charts.
The person who actually influenced me in my early years was Vernon native Dan Penn, who I grew up with. We spent a lot of time between Vernon and Muscle Shoals in the early days of Shoals music. Dan and I were close friends growing up. In fact, Dan produced my first record, “Come On Over”, which he and Spooner Oldham co-wrote. That was a “One Take Record” recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals.
RW: Do you know if Hollis is still alive? Dan Penn and I have been searching for him. Last we heard, he was driving a logging truck and living near Belk, Al. Also, Dan Penn says that Columbus holds a special place in his heart. I would bet you feel the same way. What an incredible musical history we have from Muscle Shoals, West Alabama, down to Columbus and Northeast Mississippi. Who would want, musically speaking, to be from any where else?
As far as I know, Hollis is still alive. And also, I’ve heard that he is driving a truck for the Newman trucking people in Belk.
Dan Penn is right, Columbus holds a very special place in my heart for the music, the great friends and fans, band members, and a whole lot of great memories. It was, after all, the cradle of my musical career. I didn’t actually start there, but it was where I truly learned about how to entertain people. What I learned in Columbus, I’ve made a fifty year career of. And I don’t regret one day of it.
RW: How special is it to be able to do the annual New Years Eve celebration at the Trotter Convention Center and be able to party with your friends while helping the kids of Camp Rising Sun?
BBA: Ron, Nothing makes me happier than to come back to Columbus and perform. It is especially satisfying to do the New Year’s Eve celebration at the Trotter, just knowing that it is helping the deserving kids of Camp Rising Sun. It also is very satisfying to see the faces of people who have followed me for many years to come out and see The Class of 65 and me perform and celebrate the new year. I am really looking forward to a huge turnout this year. And for those who won’t be able to attend, I’d like to wish them a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
RW: We also had one other mutual friend from ‘back in the day’ Ben. Big John Mihelic of Statue Records in Tupelo. What a great music man he was.
BBA: Ron, You’re right, John Mihelic was way ahead of his time in knowing talent. He produced some very good R&B music back in his day. In fact, he produced my second single record, “It Would Take A Miracle”, and the “B” side, “I’ll Step Aside”.
I’ve seen articles of praise to him from music journalists from all over the world. If John had had the budget to step up his recording studio, he could have been right there in the hunt with Muscle Shoals. Too bad he left us in his prime, he was a good man.
Ben and his band, the very popular Class of 65, will be performing at the Trotter Convention Center on New Years Eve. Tickets are $50 per person and benefitting Camp Rising Sun. The ticket price will include admission, Open Bar (Brew and Cocktails) champagne at midnight, heavy hors d’oeuvres, party favors, breakfast buffet and a really good time is promised. For more information contact Glenn Baldwin at 662-386-1542 or Kenneth Montgomery at 662-327-2663.
To book Big Ben for any type of function, you can contact him by calling 256-512-9680. Or visit his website for booking info www.bigbenatkins.com
This article is for entertainment purposes only.1