Then there was the curious case of John Archibald, practically the last columnist standing at The Birmingham News. If we understand the story correctly, he wrote a screed marking the last wave of buy-outs at The News, one that washed out Ginny Macdonald and Anna Velasco among many others in Hanson’s Castle.
The piece he wrote alluded to the sadness that the survivors of all of that journalistic downsizing are feeling in its wake and spoke frankly of the economic situation at The News that mandated downsizing in the first place, despite the paper’s comparatively steady circulation. However, Archibald may have exceeded Advance Publications’s acceptable limit for candor, for managing editor Tom Scarritt exercised his prerogative not to run the column.
Yes, it’s nice to have a big color photo above your piece and branding ads throughout the paper, but when you get down to it, a columnist is just an editorial writer who gets to sign his work. Any insignificant blogger can publish with impunity, but if you write for The South’s Greatest Newspaper, there will always be a limit to what you can say.
Speaking of blogs, we might not have known any of this save for the pesky Internet, where Birmingham Weekly’s late lamented Kyle Whitmire generously shared the text of Archibald’s column and where the Media of Birmingham site gave it some context. Archibald and Scarritt both wound up commenting on Poynter Online—kind of a Perez Hilton for ink-stained wretches—saying the kinds of nondescript things designed to quiet tempests in teapots.
That these celebrity run-ins raised so few eyebrows outside the cloistered media community leads to a lamentable realization that Birmingham just doesn’t have the quality of celebs it once had. The nationwide decentralization of fame has turned down the star power even here in the 205, where, way back in the day, being spotted momentarily in the bleachers on The Popeye Show was good for months of neighborhood recognition.
And radio? Those whose voices carried the freight for Top 40 stations walked the streets of America as demigods. Inducting the Hollies into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, Steve van Zandt of the E Street Band eloquently explained rock and roll’s importance in the Sixties: “[It] provided our common ground, our means of communication, our education, our means of venting our frustrations, our strength against the fear of growing up. It gave us hope and faith and somehow instilled in us a belief that there would be a future.”
In a town like ours, where only two or three stations were the conduit for the flood of pop that engulfed America then, the handful of people who talked across the tunes wielded enormous influence over their audience. Tommy Charles, Doug Layton, Duke Rumore and Rockin’ Dave Roddy were among Birmingham’s premiere tastemakers.
Roddy hit his stride at WSGN, “The Big 610,” broadcasting from the penthouse of what was then the tallest building in Alabama, the City Federal building. Under the program direction of Jim Taber (“The Beep-Beep Beatle”), Roddy, along with Walt Williams, Jim Kell (“JK”) and Glen “Daddy G” Powers, powered up a sophisticated Top 40 format, as “The Good Guys,” that would dominate the Magic City’s airwaves throughout the decade.
As music director, Roddy was in a position to play hit records in Birmingham before other cities heard them. “I got word to distributors in the nicest tone possible,” he wrote in an online memoir for Birmingham Rewound. “If a new release was heard first on another station in our market, they could forget about it making WSGN’s play list.” Publishing and distributing the weekly Top 40 list to area stores gave listeners a tangible connection to the music they heard; I’m sure I was not the only kid who stopped by Woolworth’s to see if my favorite songs were headed up or down the charts each week.
WSGN got national credit for breaking “Ode to Billie Joe,” “Spooky” and the beach-rock classic, “Double Shot (of my Baby’s Love”), among others, and as an influential local disk jockey, Rockin’ Dave scored face time on American Bandstand and Where The Action Is. He even recorded a nationally released disk under his own name, a mawkish recitative entitled ”Our Last Goodbye,” which mysteriously made it all the way to no. 1 here.
Roddy also influenced the live music scene in Birmingham as promoter for innumerable dances and record hops featuring such out-of-town bands as the Tams, the James Gang and The Swingin’ Medallions, but also local groups whose popularity earned them slots on the 610 playlist; the Distortions, the Premiers, the Rocking Rebellions. He started out booking venues as intimate as The Cloud Room (at Cascade Plunge), but as crowds swelled, he was obliged to move his events to the far more capacious Airport and Oporto National Guard Armories.
At the latter in 1968, the pop monarch’s reign came to an untimely end. Assisting a motorist stuck in the mud, Roddy slipped into a culvert and broke his back. By the time he healed 18 months later, music had changed for good, and Top 40 was heading for the Golden Oldies. After a flirtation with radio sales, he left Birmingham in 1972 for new business ventures in South Carolina.
We are delighted to note the return of Rockin’ Dave Roddy this Saturday to the Alabama Record Collectors Association CD & Record Show at the Bessemer Civic Center, right off I-59. If you want to see what a genuine local celebrity looks like, show up around 10:30 in the morning and bask in the reflected glow of true stardom.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.