There’s a Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame, yet no place for the city’s all-time musical greats to be enshrined.
The past few years, City of Huntsville leaders have put energy and money into elevating local and touring music here. See the $40 million Orion Amphitheater, $12 million Mars Music Hall project at the Von Braun Center, $165,000 “music audit” and the recently-hired full-time “music officer.”
As Huntsville seeks to enhance its musical future and present, honoring the past would be smart too. Sure, as I’ve written before, there’s never been a truly mainstream-famous band or musician from here. But Huntsville-rooted musicians have won Grammys, been in bigtime bands, toured the world, contributed to notable recordings and otherwise made their mark. Accomplishments worth immortalizing.
There’s already an enjoyable Alabama Music Hall of Fame in the Shoals. As much as Huntsville is wisely piggybacking off Muscle Shoal’s rich legacy, the city needs to crystalize its own musical identity too. A Huntsville Music Hall of Fame – where exactly in the city such an attraction would be located is another conversation – would help with that.
There are many musicians with strong Huntsville roots worthy of such an honor. But it would be crucial for initial inductees to have made an impact not just here but well beyond. Local heroes who largely remained local – like say, ‘60s rock & soul band Ivy Joe and the Snowballs, or ’80s hardcore punk trailblazers The Knockabouts – could (and should) be peppered in later. As could iconic Huntsville concert promoters, radio personalities, venue owners/operators, yesteryear venues and classic concerts.
Below are 10 musicians who’d make excellent first inductees for a Huntsville Music Hall of Fame. This is just my take, yours might differ completely and that’s cool. Think of this as a discussion rather than a food-fight. Whoever you think should be in a Huntsville Music Hall of Fame, I think most of us can agree on this: Honoring our city’s greatest musicians would rock.
“Microwave” Dave Gallaher
Microwave Dave & The Nukes is Huntsville’s signature band, and the group’s namesake singer/guitarist our most iconic musician. During the fertile ‘90s blues scene, Dave Gallaher and co. toured Europe and their music was released worldwide – including a cover of Bo Diddley’s song “Roadrunner” that became a hit in France. Microwave Dave & The Nukes have been feted with multiple blues industry awards.
As talented as he is with a guitar, Gallaher’s just as good with people. The Microwave Dave Music Foundation brings music education to local schools., and Microwave Dave Day’s become a can’t miss local festival. Gallaher’s a tireless appreciator and supporter of Huntsville musicians of all genres.
This is just a blurb. But you could write a whole book on Gallaher and his musical life, and in 2021 such a book was published. Titled “I’m A Roadrunner,” the tome was forwarded by longtime Microwave Dave fan and best-selling author Stephen King.
There’s a case to be made for Microwave Dave & The Nukes being inducted as a band, including present and past longtime members. But one thing’s for sure, any Huntsville Music Hall of Fame must include Dave Gallaher.
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Chalmers “Spanky” Alford
The late great guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford is unknown to casual music fans. But stars like Al Green, D’Angelo and John Mayer revered him like he was the star. His tasteful funk, gospel and soul licks grace D’Angelo’s classic neo-soul album “Voodoo,” Tribe Called Quest hip-hop track “4 Moms,” Green’s R&B comeback disc “Lay It Down” and John Mayer Trio’s blues-rock LP “Try!”.
If you’ve ever wondered what sort of guitarist could fit on both Bee Gees and Tupac Shakur tracks, the answer’s Alford. A longtime Huntsville resident born in Philadelphia, Alford first made his name playing traditional gospel quartet music with groups like Mighty Clouds of Joy.
He went on to play on the recordings of a vast array of stars, including TLC, Whitney Houston, Babyface, Joss Stone, Warren G and Snoop Dogg. Chalmers might be the Huntsville musician most revered within the music industry.
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Drummer Carla Azar has brought the roll to some of 21st century rock legend Jack White’s best solo recordings and concerts. A Grissom High School graduate, Azar has played on the former White Stripes frontman’s solo albums, including “Blunderbuss,” “Lazaretto” and “Boarding House Reach.” Azar can be heard on key tracks including the metallic “Sixteen Saltines” and twangy “Just One Drink.”
She’s also been a member of White’s touring band. And when so, she’s the singer/guitarist’s main onstage foil – the Sheila E. to White’s Prince. A longtime Los Angeles resident, Azar leads her own band, experimental rockers Autolux.
Azar previously worked with alt-rock and indie stars like PJ Harvey and Bright Eyes. Earlier in her career she drummed with Ednaswap, the band whose song “Torn” Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia later covered for a massive 1997 hit.
Azar also played drums on the 1987 self-titled debut album from Prince protégés Wendy and Lisa. She’s on classic-rock gods The Who’s 2019 album “WHO” too, as well as numerous film soundtracks, from “Across the Universe” to “Eat Pray Love.” Azar may have gotten her start humbly, in the GHS marching band back in the day. But her rhythms now resonate throughout the music biz’s top tier, on the regular.
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Guitarist, songwriter and singer Dave Anderson’s talent has taken him to major labels, big tours and hits. In the mid ‘90s, he toured with legendary hard-rockers Van Halen as the guitarist with Birmingham-founded band Brother Cane, Van Halen’s opening act back then.
Anderson can be heard on two of Brother Cane’s three studio albums, “Seeds” and “Wishpool.” Those LPs helped the band, which previously scored with smash single “Got No Shame,” remain a rock radio sensation, with hits like “And Fools Shine On” and “I Lie in the Bed I Make.”
The “Seeds” and “Wishpool” material found Brother Cane, signed to Virgin Records, forging more of their own sound. One that merged alternative-rock with their Southern roots. Four of Brother Cane’s Anderson-era songs appeared in the “Halloween” horror film franchise.
Before Brother Cane, Anderson toured with Grammy-winning gospel duo BeBe & CeCe Winans. After Brother Cane dissolved in the late ‘90s, Anderson went on to join “So Into You” classic Southern band Atlanta Rhythm Section.
Like the aforementioned Dave Gallaher, Anderson’s also quick to compliment and support other local musicians. Which, coming from a world-class talent, means the world to those still trying to figure it out.
Anderson also gave Huntsville music another gift. His son Stone Anderson was the city’s most gifted musician under 30 before passing away unexpectedly in 2021. And while we’re at it, at some point Stone Anderson should be considered for any Huntsville Hall of Fame too. Although Stone left us before making a mark nationally (which he would’ve eventually), he casts a long shadow locally.
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A graduate of Huntsville’s Randolph School, opera singer Susanna Phillips made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2008. Known for her portrayal of Musetta in the opera “La Bohème,” in 2010 Phillips was feted with The Met’s Beverly Sills Artist Award. A soprano, she’s sung at The Met for at least 12 consecutive seasons.
Her performances have been lauded by the New York Times and she’s also been a soloist at Carnegie Hall. Beyond New York, Phillips has held leading opera roles across the world, from Chicago and Boston to Barcelona and Japan.
In 2009, she and childhood friend Matthew McDonald, an accomplished bassoonist, co-founded the Twickenham Fest chamber music festival back in their hometown. Their passion project added a vital sophisticated texture to Huntsville’s musical tapestry.
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The hits keep coming for Johnson High School graduate Kelvin Wooten. The Athens-based musician and record producer, often listed as Wu10 in credits, contributed to recordings nominated for seven 2022 Grammys, for artists including H.E.R., J. Cole, Jazmine Sullivan and Massego.
Since launching his career in the mid ‘90s, often working with the aforementioned “Spanky” Alford, Wooten’s had his hands in tracks by The Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Isley Brothers, Tony! Toni! Tone!, Mary J. Blige, Earth, Wind & Fire, Warren G and Raphael Saadiq to name a few.
“2021 was a year that I put up a lot of shots,” Wooten recently wrote on social media, “making somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 songs a week, maybe 800 joints in the year. Now, only 15 or 20 made it through. For the other 700-plus that didn’t make it, I enjoyed making those just like the ones that did.” That kind of grind hints Wooten’s musical apex is still yet to come.
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By age 20, Larry Byrom was already playing guitar for huge crowds on tour, after joining quintessential ‘60s band Steppenwolf. He not only performed Steppenwolf’s early hits like “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” onstage (and on concert LP “Steppenwolf Live”), he helped add to The ‘Wolf’s legacy, by cowriting and recording new hits with them, like sauntering 1970 single “Hey Lawdy Mama.”
After leaving Steppenwolf in 1972, Byrom became a session musician in Muscle Shoals, performing on records by the likes of R&B howler Wilson Pickett. He eventually moved to Nashville, becoming a first-call session player for a slew of country stars including Faith Hill, Randy Travis, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers and Clint Black.
Byrom also wrote hits for artists like Tanya Tucker and Alison Krauss. He even contributed to Neil Young’s 1983 rockabilly album “Everybody’s Rockin’.”
Byrom’s career would be fascinating even if it ended after Steppenwolf. But he kept finding ways to reinvent himself – and new ways to succeed in music.
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Butler High School grad Carla Russell has a big soulful voice and impressive resume. Known around town for fronting local mainstays Kozmic Mama, as a background vocalist Russell’s recorded on studio tracks by the likes of Steven Tyler, Alicia Keys, Gregg Allman and Clarence Carter.
As part of the background vox trio the Shoals Sisters, also featuring her pals Marie Tomlinson Lewey and Cindy Richardson Walker, Russell sang on FAME Studios sessions for jam-band juggernaut Phish’s 2014 “Fuego” album. On the Phish project, she worked with legendary music producer Bob Ezrin, known for helping make Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Kiss and Pink Floyd classics.
In 2019, FAME general manager Rodney Hall told me, “If I want something really funky and, this is a weird term, but a lead background part or screaming or whatever, it’s usually Carla.”
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When big stars have needed big beats, they’ve often called J.D. Blair. After Shania Twain became a pop-country supernova with her 1997 album “Come On Over,” Blair was often her touring drummer.
Blair, who attended Huntsville’s Lee High School and Alabama A&M University, provided the grooves for Twain’s tours in 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2012, 2013 and 2014. He’s also toured as the drummer for other stars, including Lyle Lovett, Wynonna Judd and Shelby Lynne.
In the studio, Blair’s recorded with artists as varied as Bootsy Collins, Yo-Yo Ma and India Arie. He’s been a frequent and vital collaborator of jam/roots music icon Victor Wooten too.
It takes a unique talent to turn a cappella music into platinum- and gold-selling albums. And that’s exactly what Take 6 did. The organic sound on the sextet′s 1988 self-titled debut LP set them apart in the synthesizer era.
Formed at Huntsville’s Oakwood University, Take 6 have won 10 Grammy Awards over their career. Claude McKnight founded the group, with members over the years including Mark Kibble, Mervyn Warren, David Thomas, Joey Kibble, Alvin Chea, Khristian Dentley and Cedric Debt. (Take 6′s current lineup: McKnight, Kibble, Thomas, Kibble, Dentley and Chea.)
Over the years, Take 6 has worked with giants like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Don Henley, Quincy Jones and Queen Latifah. The group also contributed to Spike Lee’s landmark 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.”
In 2013, I asked McKnight why Oakwood was such a fertile ground for singing talent, as with Take 6. “What has happened for many, many years,” McKnight said, “is that people from all around the world have gone to this college. Thirty or 40 different countries are represented at Oakwood at any given time, even though there are probably only 1,500 or 2,000 students there at any given time as well. It’s a small, concentrated pool.”
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