Tail of the Weak 2.20
Updated: Jan 24
Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
Throughout history, certain small Southern towns have ingrained themselves in the cultural hearts and minds of people around the world. Whether it be through the townsfolk, born or raised there, who went on to fame and fortune—or a hallowed building, whose spirit lingers on, manifested in the ghosts of the music and the people who once played there.
Waycross, Georgia is one of those towns. From Ossie Davis and Pernell Roberts to Gram Parsons, Waycross has had its share of famous actors and musicians. It is also home to the Waycross City Auditorium, a stolid brick edifice that has seen the best of the best sing and play on its humble stage.
Built in 1937 through the help of the local Lions Club chapter with additional funds from the Works Progress Administration project, the City Auditorium was used for gospel sings, wrestling matches in the Forties, some of the best teen dances anywhere in the Sixties, high school graduations—I received my diploma from Ware County High in 1971, as my not so fortunate classmate, Kenneth Hawkins, slid headfirst down the stage stairs—basketball games, and circuses.
Over the years, the building fell into disarray; but, thanks to our local government and forward-thinking citizens, a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax was passed in 2008, enabling the renovation of the historic building that played host to black, white, blues, jazz, country, and gospel heroes of the day. Just check out this list of Who Was Who in the music biz.
Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner, Dizzy Gillespie, the Ink Spots, Hank Williams Sr., Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Minnie Pearl, Bill Monroe, Kitty Wells, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Marty Robbins, Jim and Jesse, Little Jimmy Dickens, Conway Twitty, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Guy Lombardo. Whew!
But it was the night of February 22, 1956 that was a virtual rock toss in the water, causing ripples that affected the lives of many, some still to this day. I'm sure the city of Waycross—at least the teenage sector—was abuzz on that Wednesday, after reading in the Waycross Journal-Herald that Elvis Presley, Country Music's “Mr. Rythm”, would perform two shows that night at 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm.
On the bill with Elvis were Grand Ole Opry favorites, Justin Tubb, the Louvin Brothers, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters featuring June Carter, and bluegrass fiddler Benny Martin. All for the price of $1.25 at the door.
In the audience that evening was nine-year-old Ingram Cecil Connor III (Gram Parsons), who tagged along with teenage twin sisters, Daphne and Diane Delano. It's been said that Gram met Elvis after the show and introduced himself as “the little kid that buys your records”. What is known is that Elvis had a meteorical impact upon Gram Parsons in his desire to become a performing musician, following an endless pursuit of stardom.
Years later, Parsons recorded two critically-acclaimed country albums, GP and Grievous Angel, using the talents of Elvis's stage band—James Burton on lead guitar, Glen D. Hardin on piano, and Ronnie Tutt on drums.
Not to be lost in all of this is the performance on February 22, 1956 by Charlie and Ira Louvin, the Louvin Brothers, whose songs Gram recorded over the years with the Byrds (“The Christian Life”) and with Emmylou Harris (“Cash on the Barrelhead).
I booked Charlie Louvin as co-headliner of the 2009 Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival; and he very graciously recorded his live festival performance, releasing the CD, Hickory Wind : Live at the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull, Waycross GA, in tribute to Gram, the little boy who saw him perform at the City Auditorium 53 years earlier.
To continue the ripple effect analogy, in attendance at the 2009 Guitar Pull was one Bob Kealing, a television broadcast journalist and published author from Orlando, Florida. Mr. Kealing was then in the process of writing a biography titled, Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock.
When he found out that Mr. Louvin was headlining, he called and asked if I could facilitate an interview with the country legend—at the Waycross City Auditorium. My wonderful niece, Mary Beth Kennedy Butler, was in a position of importance with the city and was instrumental in making sure it happened. The Louvin interview framed the final chapter in Kealing's book, thus bringing another story full circle.
On June 9, in just a few weeks, the Waycross City Auditorium will provide the backdrop for one more full circle, ripple effect get-together. “From Calling Me Home To Elvis Ignited”, an event cosponsored by Safe at Home Productions and Hickory Wind Music, will feature a book signing from 6 to 8 pm for Bob Kealing's latest effort, Elvis Ignited, and a fundraiser for this year's Guitar Pull from 8 to 11 pm featuring the original music of Waycross's own Pine Box Dwellers in concert.
Elvis Ignited tells the story of Presley's early career as he performed all around the South, particularly in Florida and in Waycross at the City Auditorium. The author, Bob Kealing, was, until retirement a month ago, an Edward R. Murrow and four-time Emmy award-winning TV broadcast journalist at Orlando, Florida's WESH-TV.
He has also been influential in the establishment of the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, a literary landmark in the National Register of Historic Places, and Gram Parsons Derry Down, a Florida Heritage site honoring the pioneering country rock musician in the town of his birth, Winter Haven.
On a personal level, it gives me a wonderful feeling in knowing that our little homegrown tribute festival has brought people of interest together with common bonds and a passion for music. On a cosmic level, though, I know it's the ripple effect of Waycross, Georgia and the city's Mother Church of Music, the Waycross City Auditorium.
20th Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival Advance Weekend Passes:
Bill McIntosh, Waycross musician, author, and researcher Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin
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