An Interview with Bill Connell
Bill Connell, Gregg Allman, Bob Keller, Duane Allman
Bill Connell’s name has been mentioned on this page more than any other. He truly is a Tuscaloosa music legend.
You have played with some of the best musicians in this country. Very few musicians get the opportunity. Why you?
There is a old friend of mine, Doctor Jim Salem, that teaches Pop Culture and American Studies at the University of Alabama. Years ago he told me, "You have to have the right things packed in your suitcase, be at the right bus stop, to catch the right bus when it comes along". That is what I feel has happened to me, numerous times when I have taken advantage of the fortunate opportunities and experiences in my life.
Do you feel that you have been in the right place at the right time?
I think that almighty spirit that guides all of us, put me there. I don’t think I would have made a lot of the decisions I made without divine guidance. Being associated with wonderful people in the music and entertainment business as well as Public Television helped in so many ways. I’m not any more talented than a million other musicians. They just weren’t at the right bus stop.
You were from the south side of town, weren’t you?
Yep, in the Arlington area, which is close to Meadowbrook and McFarland Boulevard which wasn’t there back then. As a kid I would do the pencils on the books thing in school. Actually anything I could find to beat or tap on. My Grandmother, bless her soul, saw me doing this and I think it made her a little bit nervous. She bought me my first snare drum for Christmas in 1960, I think.
Well you learned fast because I met you in about ‘63 or ‘64 and you were good and gigging then. My ex-wife was Faye Davis, who lived down the street from you.
Wow, I remember her well. I think I had a crush on her. (laughter) I know I did!
If I remember right, you came from a musical family, didn’t you?
Both of my parents were musicians. My father had a 22 piece road orchestra in the ‘30’s until World War II. That was during the Big Band era. Bands had a full horn section and a full string section. Bode Hinton, who was the band director at Auburn was his keyboard player. Several of his musicians went on to play professionally for the top bands of that day. My Mother was a fabulous keyboard player and loved to play. Greg Allman, Paul Hornsby, Chuck Leavell, all loved my Mother. She could play the old gospel stuff but she could adapt it to pop music and make it come out like Aretha. Those guys thought it was wonderful. Her Mother played piano too. I guess coming from a musical family was the reason they were so tolerant of a house full of musicians. Later on there would be 2 road bands at a time staying at their house. Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 musicians staying at their house. I don’t know how they stood it. All those musicians loved them.
What was your first drum kit?
That was in ‘61. My parents got me bass drum and a cymbal. They were Ludwig, blue with a silver stripe. That same year I started playing with some
local older guys and even played with my father. We played Dixieland and Swing at the Elks Club, the Moose Lodge, Tuscaloosa Country Club, places like that. I was 12 years old. That summer I worked for the basketball coach at Tuscaloosa High, Tom Tarleton. He was in charge of the little league field in Northington. He gave me a job in the refreshment stand. I worked all summer to buy a high hat. I was living then. I had a bass, snare,cymbal, and high hat. (laughter) My Grandmother’s next door neighbor had a nephew that was a drummer. We met and he was a wonderful guy. Today I would say
he was like the Paul McCartney of drummers. He was know everywhere. He played rock and roll! I asked him if he would teach me a few things. We got together once a week for several weeks. One night he called me and told me there was some university students forming a rock and roll band and they need a drummer. He asked if I wanted to play with them. He said it would pay better than the Dixieland stuff. We would be playing the frat parties. I’m still 12 years old. The leader of the band was Fred Styles and he called me and asked me to come and audition. I went over to the ball room in the Union Building and passed the audition and started playing the fraternities. Needless to say I grew up quick. But I didn’t drink, smoke, or any of that sort of vices. My total concentration was on the music. My total focus was on becoming as good a rock and roll drummer as Marbry Smith, my teacher. That band was called The Pacers.
That was Fred Styles, Doug Hogue on guitar, Johnny Duran played bass, and a piano player named Sam Hill. Back then we just used the piano at the fraternity or sorority house. We didn’t put a mike in it. We had a little bitty PA system and nothing was miked except the vocals. It was very basic. Looking back I wish I had some recordings of that. We did a lot of black R&B, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Bo Diddly, it was all rock and roll to us. Later The Pacers went through some member changes. We lost our bass player, so our guitar player moved to bass. We found this freshman, that we heard was really good. He was from New Brockton, Alabama. His name was Paul Hornsby. That second year we had Paul Hornsby on guitar. Paul and Fred Styles till this day are still in the music business. Paul and I have a publishing business together which was established in the early 70’s. Fred just finished helping put together a album of stuff we cut with Eddie Hinton. The name of the album is "Beautiful Dream". It’s getting fantastic reviews.
The older guys in The Pacers wanted to go do the beach circuit. I was just 13 and my parents felt I was just too young to go down there and live all summer. So they went and I got a job with a new band that was forming that was Johnny Townsend, Tippy Armstrong, with The Pacers bass player that didn’t want to go to the beach either. That group was called the Night Caps to begin with. That name got changed after about a month because Johnny Townsend was doing some wild things on stage that wouldn’t be considered wild at all today. Johnny got the name Dirty John. So then we went by the name of Dirty John and the Night Caps. When I left The Pacers they got Johnny Sandlin to play drums and changed their name to the Five Men-Its. They added
a saxophone and done the beach circuit. Well low and behold, Doug our bass player got us a job in Dauphin Island and we ended up at the beach anyway. We had to come back except on weekends. We would go down and play Friday, Saturday, Sunday matinees and come back to Tuscaloosa. We played at the Casino which was a young person’s hang-out with a snack bar and a dance room. Kind of like The Casino/HangOut at Long Beach at Panama City Beach. The one on Dauphin Island got blown away by one of those earlier hurricanes. I can’t remember which one, it might have been Fredrick. After that summer, Johnny Sandlin decided he didn’t want to travel from Decatur. So the Five Men-Its asked me to come back and play with them. (The book Skydog:The Duane Allman Story mentions Johnny Sandlin and Bill Connell swapped back and forth drumming jobs many times) Everybody had moved back to Tuscaloosa and was working the frat house and sorority parties because that’s where the money was.
How did you hooke up with the Allman Joys?
On the beach circuit. They were from Daytona Beach and were doing the same thing we were doing. Doug our bass player was the only one of us that was 21. He went into Mobile one night and went to a club called The Stork Club. Playing at that club was a group called the Allman Joys. He
came back that night just raving, I mean just crazy raving about the Allman Joys. He told us that he had invited them out to our Sunday matinee gig. Well Sunday gets here and in walks Duane and Greg and they stayed for the whole set. They then invited us to The Stork Club. So we stayed to hear them rather than going back on Sunday. They got us in even though we were under age to here them on Monday night. Man, we were just blown away. At about the same time there was a huge R&B show with Otis Redding, James Brown, Joe Terry, Sam and Dave, Billy Stewart, big time acts like that in Mobile. Me, Tippy Armstrong, and Johnny Townsend were the only whites in this huge black crowd except for Duane and Greg. We just got to be friends. You
know, we were all doing the beach thing. That how we got acquainted and how I got hooked up with them. When I was a senior in high school, Duane called me in January one night from New York. They had ventured out. They were ready to make it into the big time. Their drummer at that time was a guy named Maynard. He didn’t have any front teeth. They had given Maynard several hundred dollars to go to a dentist and get his teeth fixed. Maynard had blown the money. Duane had told me on the phone that night that when they were traveling every time they would stop at a Stucky’s Maynard would buy himself a bunch of peach sodas and pralines. Duane jokingly told me that ole Maynard had gone out and blow those hundreds of dollars on peach soda and praline. (laughter) Duane said they loved the way I played and wanted me to come to New York. They were going to get rid of Maynard. Not only was my Father a musician but
also a retired Major from the military. He and my Mother wanted me to graduate from high school. I told Duane I could not disappoint my parents. I told him i would not even consider leaving home until I graduated that may. He said Greg stayed in and graduated from high school but he had dropped out. He said he could understand. He told me that the night that I graduated from high school there would be a plane ticket to New York at the Tuscaloosa airport. He told me he wasn’t kidding and they would keep Maynard until then. The night I walked off that stage with my diploma in my hand I called the airport. They had a ticket for me. My Father helped me package my drums and we shipped them air freight that night. When I got on that plane I was 17. I had my best go to church suit on. Going to New York I wanted to look nice. This was after the Beatles had come over and the hippie movement had started. The plane pulled up to the terminal in New York and I looked out the window and see 50 hippies with signs that read "Welcome Bill". They were all wearing bellbottoms, wild shirts, jewelry, necklaces, and all with long hair. Here I am in my Sunday go to meeting cloths on. The first think Duane said to me was that we had to get me some more cloths. When we got in the taxi he gave me $250 to go buy cloths because we had to a gig the next night. This Alabama redneck Methodist boy’s life changed that day.
Saturday, 05 May 2007
The last issue we ended with Bill’s start in the Allman Joys. The Allman Joys were on the road constantly. They played east of the Mississippi mainly but did gig as far west as St. Louis. The Allman Joys came to Tuscaloosa a few times to play at Fort Brandon Armory. Bill was kind enough to give me one of the original posters. It reads, "Gigantic Show and Dance by Atlantic Recording Artist, The Allman Joys, direct from smash shows with the Animals, The Beach Boys, Sam the Sham and Others. Admission $1.50." These shows happened as "Spoonful" played on WTBC. Dreams, the Allman Brothers Band boxed set was released in 1989 which credits Tommy Amato as the drummer. Bill says, " I recorded that whole album. Tommy didn’t play on any of those cuts." We begin here with the end of the Allman Joys.
You stayed with the Allman Joys the whole time they were together. Didn’t you?
Yea, they turned into Hour Glass and went to California while I went to a fighter squadron. I got my draft notice for the Army at 1:00 and by 4:00 that same afternoon I was sworn into the Navy. My father was a retired Major in the Navy and a Commander in the Naval Reserves lived across the street. They started making phone calls as soon as I got my draft notice and my Father swore me into active military duty that afternoon. All my friends had merged into one group (the 5 Men-Its and the Allman Joys) and were in my parents garage practicing. Here I am going into the military, it almost broke my heart. I went into the Navy and was stationed out of Virginia Beach. I was in a mobile unit attached to the John F. Kennedy, as a matter of fact I was on her maiden voyage.
Did you play music while you were in the Navy?
I became real good friends with one of the pilots. He got me into a officers club at a near by base and I sat in a couple of times. I then became a Petty Officer and got to live off base. I had been sending my money back home to my parents and I came back to Tuscaloosa to buy a car.I bought a Dodge Challenger, the first year they came out, a real muscle car. I took my drums back up there and started practicing. So yea, I did play some.
What happened when you got out of the Service?
I got out July 4, 1970 — Independence Day for sure. They were having the first big Pop Festival in Atlanta. I drove down to Macon, that’s where all my friends had relocated. They were all there, Paul Hornsby, Johnny Sandlin, Duane, Greg, everybody was down in Macon. I walk into the studio unannounced and it was a great reunion. Duane grabs me and says "Let’s have a party". That was enough to inspire me to go back into music. They had just started the Allman Brothers Band. Duane told me that he wished he could put me in that band but they really already had it together. He said he would help me all he could to get me work. He did. I worked from 1970 until 1980 with the Bobby Whitlock Band. Bobby played with Delaney and
Bonnie Bramlett. He co-wrote, played keyboards and piano, and sang on Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla album. He did some things with George Harrison. I was so blessed, I got to play Carnegie Hall, I got to be on American Bandstand, I got to play with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, so many things. Neil Young was passing through Nashville while we were there. I had met him in California earlier. He wanted me to quit Bobby and go with him. Like a fool I turned him down. Who knows I might still be playing with him now. (laughter)
Tommy Gardner played with me in Bobby Whitlock’s Band. The Carnegie Hall gig was with Sailcat that did "Motorcycle Mama" with Johnny Wyker. I played with the Winters Brothers. Charlie Daniels asked me to play with him twice. I turned him down because he was on the road so much. Back then out of 365 days, they were on the road 358 of them or something like that. Charlie’s a wonderful guy and I got to record with him. But I just couldn’t work that much on the road. I also got to record with Toy Caldwell and Marshall Tucker. I got to record with Marty Robbins before he died. Now that’s really incredible. When we were recording in Nashville, a lot of mornings Duane, Greg, and and I would have breakfast with Chet Atkins. Now that was real high cotton.
Let’s talk about Eddie Hinton. I knew him as a basketball player with Harry Hammonds, Johnny Townsend, and Paul Bear Bryant Jr. I didn’t know he could play guitar until I went into Muscle Shoals Sound one day in the early days. That day I discovered what a fantastic musician he was. What are some of your remembrances of Eddie?
Eddie moved to Macon, too. The first album he had out was Very Extremely Dangerous which was on Capricorn. After he did that album, he called me and said he wanted to put together a band. We started out with just Eddie and me. Eddie faced me singing and playing guitar and I played drums. That was about the time Eddie started getting a little strange. (pause) I don’t want to say what I think it was. He just couldn’t hold it together. As much as I wanted to play with him I had to leave. That is such a incredible album!
Greg Allman and I were just together. Greg’s got a new home over in Savannah. He invited my wife and I to come over and spend some time with him and his wife. We were looking a old pictures. We remembered Eddie used to just scream for hours as loud as he could until he lost his voice. He did that to get his voice raspy. Greg and I were dying of laughter remembering Eddie screaming.
Here’s something that you might not know about Eddie. Back when I rejoined the 5 Men-Its when Johnny Sandlin left, Eddie was playing guitar with them. Paul Hornsby switched to keyboards, he had been the guitar player. Eddie was a fantastic drummer! He would have me come over to his apartment to give me drum lessons. Not every day, but every couple of days. He taught me some of the most incredible stuff. It was the first time I ever learned to play like a shuffle with both hands and my bass drum. Which later on the Allmans perfected, like in "Statesboro Blues." Eddie had taught me that stuff in ‘62 and ‘63.
Many consider you to be Tuscaloosa’s top drummer. What do you think?
I have never considered myself a success. I look at being associated with a lot of people that became successful. Like I said, you just have to be at the right place. Anybody could have done what I did if they had just been there. I was there. But if you consider the list of musicians I have had the opportunity to play with, I have been so, so very fortunate. Like last year, I got to play a session in Macon with Chuck Leavell between his Rolling Stones dates. That was really fun. He talked about the Rolling Stones like they were one of the local bands around here. He told me that when we were playing together back when, we would play a song two or three times and have it. He said with the Rolling Stones it takes forever.
What did you do during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s?
I went tot hree different colleges and finally got my degree in broadcasting and film in 1979. Again the right thing happened. A producer/director with Alabama Public Television who played guitar walked in on a job I was doing. I talked him into bringing his guitar and amp to a gig I was doing. I told him I would like to do something in television, video, film, or something. His name was Joe Terry, and he told me to come see him and he would introduce me to somebody. So in 1980 I started to work for University Television which was really
Alabama Public Television. I went from one of the crew, to crew supervisor, to operations technician, then became a a producer and director within two years. I started the show Discovering Alabama with Doug Phillips. I did a lot of music, lots of jazz festivals, all sorts of things. I was with Public Television for about 20 years. Next year I started getting my retirement checks. All during that time, I had bands that played on Friday and Saturday nights. My favorite band during that period was Apollo and the DeathWarrants. I also was with the Lifters which included Wayne Perkins, who played with Leon Russell and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. As a matter of fact, Wayne was second to Ron Wood in getting that job with the Rolling Stones. Tommy Gardner played bass with the Lifters also.
Are you active in music these days?
These days I am trying to give something back. I play with some of the younger musicians around here now. From time to time I go down to Little Willie’s and a couple more clubs to set in with these new young musicians. Seeing these guys playing great who are 19, 20, or 21, they are so good. That has been entertaining and inspiring to me lately. It’s great to get to play with these young guys and experience the talent that is coming along. They are the future.