Musical Memories Lawrence County’s History in Music: “Life in the Chord of G; Lawrence County’s Musical Legends”

Sixshooter in costume: Joe crisler, Charlie Johnston, Rod wallace, Ed Canada, Jim darnelll and Larry Smith.

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Music is one of the strongest triggers of memory. It can take us back to places we hold near our hearts core faster than any smell, sight or taste. It can evoke a first kiss, driving down country roads with the radio tuned to a favorite station, or the songs of our youth playing in stereo from an eighttrack tape player. It can tug our hearts when a remembered chorus brings back our first heartbreak, or make us unconsciously tap our toes and sway ever so slightly when we hear the songs that we associate with happy times, dancing under the stars on Main Street to Wilson Hood and the Playboys Band the night before the annual rodeo.

If you go back far enough, you’ll find that Wilson Hood and his family were practically born playing music. As they got older, they could play anything they heard. It’s called playing by ear, and the best musicians can do it with ease, never reading a note of music.

Being a musician is something like gambling. If you do it long enough, you will probably get good enough to win sometimes. Other times, it’s just the luck of the draw. If Jerry Lee Lewis hadn’t been discovered first, Lawrence County’s Lanier Sherrill might have been the most famous rock and roll pianist of all time. Both developed their talent by listening to and watching their elders in church. Both started with gospel music and both could play the fire out of those old upright church pianos. Sherrill still does on occasion.

Hood and his siblings sang as a quartet when they were just little kids in church. So did the Sherrill family, Larry Smith, the Mitchell family, and the Terry Brothers, a family band which included Gordon Terry, possibly the most well-known of all Lawrence County musicians.

Hood’s father taught music and as Wilson got older, so did he. He taught himself how to play the guitar when he was a young kid. It paid off for him when he took his band and hit the road. He would later play with Earnie Ashworth and Melba Montgomery. He and his band also played backup for a young Johnny Rodriguez.

Hood and the Playboys even played backup for such well known country and R&B stars as Tina Turner, Tammy Wynette, and others who came to Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals. The band members, while he was in Chicago, were Ray and Harold White, Dempsey and Edward Hood and the following drummers: Larry Smith, Larry Sapp, and Ron Moats, when they played at home.  Sometimes when they played the local National Guard Armory, Larry Smith played with them. Smith, who suffered a bad bout of polio when he was a child was as agile on the drums as anyone with two good legs. He was one of the first disc jockeys at Moulton’s first radio station run by Ray Wallace and also worked at WDRM in Decatur, among other radio stations. Smith was also an accomplished guitar player and bass and baritone singer. He too, grew up in church, playing and singing from the time he was young and later with various gospel groups.

When Hood quit the road to be a full-time dad, he kept up his music by teaching local guys who wanted to learn from him because he had actually been out on the road and that’s what they all yearned to do, playing somewhere different each night of the year, having only one night gigs in each strange city and being homesick and bored with long car rides.

Hood taught the Bradford boys from Hatton, who later had some local success, and Ross Owen, who would come to be a member of one of Moulton’s most famous ‘garage bands’ before the term was made famous.

These young guys longed for a taste of fame, they practiced until their fingers were callused and they worked after school taking out groceries at the Piggly Wiggly or working paper routes to earn money for their instruments. They practiced every free moment in someones garage, barn, or in Hood’s case, the back room of his store.

Some garage band members, like Benny Williams, Ron Motes, Gerry Don Delashaw and Don Shelton, were in the high school band. A few of the others might have helped Hood around the store for the experience of listening to him talk about his days on the road. The members of all of the local bands ebbed and flowed as the guys moved in different directions, some worked nights and couldn’t practice, others went off to college or in whatever direction life took them. Hood and some of the others did make some money playing music, especially if they were on the road. For others, no less talented but rooted here to stay, they simply played any time they were asked, but they hardly ever charged, even though it was hard work loading and unloading their equipment twice each time they did a gig.

These men would set an example for those to come in the following tumultuous decades, the sixties and seventies, when Lawrence County gave birth to a host of talented young men who played for the love of their music, be it country, rock and roll, Southern gospel or bluegrass.

Most of the time, according to Don Shelton, they played at county fairs, high school sock hops (so called because the gym floors were protected from shoes when possible, and dancing on them with shoes was practically a crime) the armories, and for proms, private parties and other social functions.

Shelton met his wife at one of their high school gigs. Her name was Bobbi Johnson and it was her senior prom at Speake. Of course she had a date that night, but as soon as he got the chance, Don moved right in and swept her off her feet. Could it have been his guitar playing that attracted her or was it his smooth lines? Whatever it was, they would be married two years later. The prom was held in the gym at Speake. The principal had instructed the band not to play too loud or too fast. “We played songs like My Girl, Midnight Hour, Sloop John B, and other songs made popular on the radio,” said Shelton. “After the prom ,we moved everything to Butch Walker’s house and played every song we knew and some we didn’t,” he laughed. “It was a blast!”

Yolanda Morgan Smith recalls that night fondly. “We just wanted to dance,” she said. “We had so much fun, and nobody was drinking or doing anything wrong, we were just dancing under the stars.”

There were a lot of dances like that around here in those days. There was a party at someone’s house almost every single Saturday night. Parents figured out that if they wanted to keep an eye on their kids, where better than in their own front yard?

These parties will be remembered as some of the best of times growing up in Lawrence County. Rosemary Weiman Lewey recalls them being such fun, and everyone was dressed in bell bottom jeans  with tie-dyed t-shirts, mini-skirts and go-go boots, love beads, peace symbol necklaces and belt buckles, big round eye glasses or small John Lennon type glasses, lots of vests of all kinds, and the hair, oh my…big hair on guys and girls, bushy afros  and long straight hair on most girls. Some girls who had naturally curly hair would iron their hair to make it smooth. Don’t try this at home, kids! It leaves scars if you mess up.

The attendees would sit in lawn chairs, on quilts spread on the lawn, on the hoods of their cars, backs of their pickup trucks or on the edge of porches where the guys set up. They played for as long as people stayed to listen, taking requests and having the time of their lives. No one recalls parents having a curfew or getting mad about the loudness of the music. They all knew that if it was Saturday night and that their kids were at someone’s house playing music. The band members, as well as the crowds that followed them from one week to another never fought, nor had any drugs floating around. Instead, the bands were tethered by extension cords to the nearest electrical outlet, rather than in someone’s field or a public parking lot and their audiences listened as long as they played, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning.    

These bands were subject to change from week to week, among those you might recall are the 5 Ways, The Legends of Tyme, WC Fields Soul – Kitchen, Razberry Sunshine, Third Stone from the Sun, Sixshooter, Turkey Creek, Dago Coffey and the Percolators, Kinfolk, Jericho and others, which included a whole cast of musicians that came and went, often filling in for one another or quitting and joining another band.

The band members  practiced in their garages, in their dad’s shops, or on their grandmother’s back porches. They often met in a lean-to addition to Benny William’s dad’s garage, in Mike Hill’s living room, in Ron Mote’s dad’s workshop, or on someone’s front porch. “They even make a recording studio out in Dad’s shop, with egg cartons on the walls and had their own label,” recalled Ron’s wife, Janis Kelley Motes, “It kept them busy chasing the dream of producing a hit.”

In 1968, the Legends of Tyme had become one of the hottest of the local bands. They often played at the Moulton, Decatur and Hartselle Armories, for high school dances and once at an Auburn fraternity party. The band entered a talent contest at LCHS, and won third place which paid them $35. According to Mike Hill, they took their winnings and purchased a new microphone.  Since they couldn’t afford a mic stand, members of the band took turns holding the microphone for one another to sing.

They also entered a Battle of the Bands sponsored by Birmingham’s WVOK Radio. Although they didn’t win that one, they gained a lot of good stage experience.  Members of the Legends of Tyme were Mike Hill, Bobby Hill, Spencer Hill, David Alexander, and Benny Williams on drums.

“When we entered the first talent show at school, we played in the auditorium,” recalled Mike Hill, “We were in the middle of our song when Benny William’s drum just started rolling off the stage. Just before we panicked Benny said that we should just keep on playing, which we did. Benny recovered his drum, set it back up and the crowd went wild,” he laughed.

Williams was in the high school band where he played drums. “Bobby Smith who was also a drummer had a drum set,” recalled Williams. “He allowed me to practice on his set, and eventually lead to me becoming the drummer for The Legends of Tyme. When we started the band, we had no idea how popular we and that group of bands would become. It was one of the most memorable times of my life. I only regret that we did not start sooner.”

In ’66 or ’67 a band called The Hourglass played regularly at the National Guard Armory in Decatur. Tommy Pettus recalls every member of the band being a superstar. “I had the opportunity to talk with one of them while he was waiting for his ride one night,” said Pettus. “He was in the area recording his last CD at Fame.”

Pettus mentioned hearing him play at the Armory and he said “Yeah, we were the house band there,” and laughed. It was none other than the legendary Gregg Allman. “I was just about to ask him for Cher’s phone number when his ride appeared,” Pettus chuckled. Members of the Allman Brothers Band at that time were Gregg, his brother, Duane, Roger Hornsby, Pete Carr and Johnny (Duck) Sandlin, a Decatur native. The band from Macon, Georgia, went on to national fame, taking such tunes as Melissa, Ramblin’ Man and Midnight Rider and others to the top of the R&B charts. The Allman Brothers Band was the inspiration for many other bands who aspired to become as well-known. Tragedy struck in 1971 when Duane was killed in a motorcycle wreck. Gregg died in 2017. Although different versions of the band survived with various relatives, it was never the same.  

 Larry Smith (another of the same name, not the one mentioned above) would go on to become one of Lawrence County’s most prolific and long-ived pickers among a lot of very talented musicians. Smith and his lifelong buddy, Rod Wallace, are still considered some of the best musicians to come out of Lawrence County. They both played in bands from high school on to their adulthood. Some of them included Razberry Sunshine (Larry, his brother, Lynn, Rod and Ron Motes, managed by Bobby Gillespie).

Most bands of that era found that the National Guard Armories in Moulton, Decatur and Hartselle offered plenty of space, and would often split the admission in lieu of a set charge. This gave the bands the advantage of not being out a lot of profit if they didn’t draw a big crowd, but usually they had developed a following and the turnout was decent to very good on any given Saturday night. The events were always well run and although a fight did break out from time to time it was not the normal interruption to the sound of the Kinks or Credence Clearwater Revival that drifted through the double doors.

Some bands were strictly rock and roll, and wouldn’t play any country songs, but others did a mix of both. One of the all rock bands was called the Festus Pettus Bionic Band made up of manager Tommy Pettus, and musicians Larry and Lynn Smith, Ed Canada, Spencer Hill and Charlie Johnston. “We were rock guys, but we found that we could make more money playing as a progressive country band called Sixshooter, made up of Charlie Johnston, Ed Canada, Jim Darnell, Rod Wallace, Joe Crisler and Larry Smith.

The difference with Sixshooter was that they dressed to impress. “We wanted to look sharp on stage and be remembered,” said Smith. “Ed Canada’s mom came up with the designs and made several sets of outfits for the band.” The inspiration for some of their costumes were California country groups of the day, The Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and others who dressed in flashy clothes and played good dance music. The band played a lot of clubs along the Tennessee/Alabama line, as well as the usual spots around Lawrence and Morgan Counties.

At one point Smith and Pettus had the opportunity to bring Hank Williams, Jr. to the old coliseum in Moulton. Their band opened for him. After expenses, including Williams’s fee of $3200, they made a profit of exactly $1.00. They could add opening for the country star to their bio, though, so all was not for naught.

Through his construction foreman dad, Larry met several influential people who paved his way to working with the house band at Fame Studios. One of the most influential actually quit the business. Marlin Greene, a Hazlewood grad who, according to Pettus, actually had a fan club before leaving high school, had produced some well received albums (those are big, black CD’s to those of you who are too young to recall what albums were) for Leon Russell before leaving the South for California. He was home in Nashville, though, when Pettus took Smith to meet him. He listened to some of Smith’s music and complimented the young musician/ song writer. “Your stuff is pretty good, but do you really want to be in the music industry?  It’s a hard business and it will let you down,” he told Smith, pulling no punches. Smith ignored his advice and proceeded to spend several years on the road and lived semi-permanently in Dallas for a few years.

And it was hard. Most of these guys are now happily married grandfathers who once dreamed of life in the fast lane. Making music and money, garnering the respect of their peers in the industry and making their mark on the music they loved. But back then, they worked hard to keep up their grades, worked carrying out groceries and other odd jobs to feed their habit of buying newer and better instruments, and falling in love pretty often with the girls who came to hear them sing.

Rusty Morgan was the lead singer in a band called The 5 Ways.  Morgan had a raspy voice and was probably the best lead singer around in those days. A short, stocky guy with a head of long surfer blonde hair that hung perpetually in his eyes, he could cover just about anyone’s song and make it his own. He never went much further than Lawrence County, but he is remembered as one of the best.  Other members of the band were equally as talented. They were Keith Thrasher, Ross Owen, Mike Yarbrough and Jimmy Littrell.

END Part One

Next week, Life in the Chord of G; Lawrence County’s Musical Legends continues with more memories from the 60s and 70s. Look for pictures that will bring back memories of the day when garage bands were some of the only entertainment kids had. Thanks to everyone for sharing your memories!   

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