6 Legendary Acts from Alabama, from Lionel Richie to Wilson Pickett
This week's albums chart had an unusual phenomena when the top two spots were filled by performers—Alabama Shakes (Sound & Color) and Yelawolf (Love Story), respectively—from the same state. That state, of course, is Alabama. This is the sort of accomplishment you might expect from California and maybe even New York, but Alabama isn't exactly known for churning superstar musical acts. Music Times decided to mark the occasion by giving a brief look at some of the state's best performers over the years...from Wilson Pickett to Lionel Richie.
You may never have heard of W.C. Handy and that's a shame. Even among history of rock 'n' roll classes, this cornet player isn't hailed as much as he should be. He is, after all, the "Father of The Blues." Was he truly the first man to perform the genre? Of course not—those roots go back decades before Handy got his start. However, his documentation of regional folk inspiration behind his work and his arrangements makes him the first musician to perform "contemporary" blues. While teaching music he travelled the South and transcribed what he heard, eventually moving to Memphis and playing his music at clubs on Beale Street. Those events, plus the park named after him on Beale's home stretch, lead many to believe the "Father of The Blues" was actually a Tennessee native.
Handy wasn't the first musician to be born in Alabama before making it big in Tennessee. Wilson Pickett was trying to get a foothold in the music industry when he travelled to the famous Stax studios in Memphis during 1965, where he recorded what's still his best known song, "In The Midnight Hour." Although that song—his first to top the R&B charts—was actually an Atlantic single, he would record his next few hits with the legendary Stax backing band, Booker T and The MG's. Among the the other no. 1's he would turn out would be "634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)," "Land of 1,000 Dances" and "Funky Broadway," the latter two of which would crack the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10.
If you think you know the biggest country act in the state of Alabama's history...you might need to think again. Sonny James (also known as "The Southern Gentleman") was building up a name for himself when his single "Young Love" became his first single to top the Country charts, and would wind topping the Hot 100 as well. Then...it seemed as if James had fanned out after just the one big hit. Finally, eight years after his first country no. 1, he would peak again with "You're The Only World I Know" and then grab a few more no. 1's after that. The floodgates would collapse during 1967 however, when his single "Need You" became his fifth no. 1, beginning a streak of 16 singles between 1967-'71 that would would reach the top spot on the country charts. Literally every single he put out went to the top. He would end his career with 23 country no. 1s, but his first was the only that would top the Hot 100 as well.
Percy Sledge did not have nearly as many no. 1 singles in his respective genre as James did. In fact, he only had one no. 1 single on the R&B charts. We're willing to argue that it's the most famous song ever to come from an Alabama performer however: "When A Man Loves A Woman." Sledge made his first appearance on the charts worth it, as the single topped the R&B charts, the Billboard Hot 100 and also the Canadian singles chart as well. Unfortunately Sledge's soulful, balladic style never again reached the top of any chart but his first effort was enough to secure his status in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. "When A Man Loves A Woman" never went out of fashion, but it has seen a resurgence in recent weeks due to Sledge's death on April 14 at the age of 74.
You'll be hard up to argue that any performer has better standing among Alabama musicians than Lionel Richie. Although the rest of the performers mentioned on this list have made great records, made history, or just had huge commercial successes, Richie trumps them all, having sold more than 100 million albums as a solo performer and even more when you add his haul as a founder of The Commodores on top of it. The vocalist and multi-instrumentalist topped the hot 100 twice as a member of his first band but then really kicked it off as a solo artist: He's topped the Hot 100 five times, including hits such as "Truly" and "Hello," not to mention three no. 1 albums. He may not be done yet: His last album, Tuskegee (named after how hometown in Alabama), went to no. 1 during 2012, suggesting that he's still got potential for more success on the Billboard 200.
Probably the most obvious artists on this list, Alabama had a mighty impact on the country music scene of the '80s. Sonny James didn't quite have anything on the band in terms of sales...we just wanted to give him a fighting chance. Alabama trumped its predecessor's 23 country no. 1's with 33 Hot Country no. 1's of their own, and 10 no. 1 country albums as well. The group had its own run of no. 1 hits as well, going to the top spot on the country charts for the first time during 1980 with "Tennessee River" (another Tennessee connection?) and then continuing on a romp of 21 consecutive singles ending during 1987 with "Tar Top" (but the band would run out the decade with another six-song streak at no. 1). The band's dominance was such that the Academy of Country Music gave the group its Artist of The Decade Award during 1989. The group is also acknowledged for making electric bass "okay" within country music.