This column would be more popular if I just gave in and renamed it Concerts We Have Known. After I wrote about the Civic Coliseum dilemma several weeks ago, I heard from a whole lot of people about a whole lot of great shows over the last 55 years, but two acts rarely mentioned in the same sentence demanded further study: the Eagles and Otis Redding.
In the column, I mentioned that the Eagles had played in the big room at the height of their fame, in 1977. I did not know that that particular concert was a dramatic moment in the evolution of the band.
As an Eagles fan, I was strictly an amateur. I’d sing along with “Tequila Sunrise” when it came on the radio in my Karmann Ghia. No, that’s a lie. My Karmann Ghia didn’t have a radio. It had a radio-shaped hole in the dash through which wind blew. In the winter, I kept it clogged with a towel. In the summer, when I was driving at top speed, 54 mph, the breeze was better than air conditioning. I liked it that way. Or maybe I just liked being 17.
But I know I sang along with “Tequila Sunrise” somewhere, some years before my first disappointment with the actual beverage. And I liked the Eagles better before I saw them on TV, when they looked like too many guys with guitars. Worse, I never understood the concept of long hair carefully combed. If long hair is rebellion, doesn’t combing and blow-drying confuse the message? There was much about the ’70s I didn’t understand.
Anyway, I’m just explaining my ignorance of this bit of Knoxville history that truer fans already knew as part of the legend.
At the time they played in Knoxville that July, 1977, Randy Meisner, one of the original Eagles, was still elemental to the show. He was the lead singer and co-author of “Take It To the Limit.” It was a monster hit in 1976, and naturally one that the audiences expected.
By the time they got to Knoxville, Meisner was sick with stomach ulcers and a virus, and didn’t want to sing the damn song. Its sustained high notes require exertion. Even if I weren’t sick, I’d dread singing that song every night. Especially while the other fellows get to sing easy stuff like “Tequila Sunrise.” The story is that Meisner had a fight with Glenn Frey backstage at the Coliseum, and they didn’t make up. Meisner left the group later that year, and it became a different band.
Perhaps the Eagles’ Knoxville experience was a lesser manifestation of the Knoxville Curse, which has been implicated in multiple performers’ unexpected deaths. Sometimes the Knoxville Curse just splits bands up.
Even more surprising were multiple accounts of Otis Redding performances here. The soul legend’s career as a touring singer lasted only about five years. He was killed in a plane crash in 1967. I would assume many cities never saw him perform at all. Years ago, I ran across an account of an outdoor Knoxville show, sponsored by a radio station, and held out in a field somewhere for the benefit of those who knew how to find it. For years I assumed that was Redding’s only visit. Then, researching the Civic Coliseum, I ran across a mention of him playing a formal concert there.
Wow, twice, I thought. Then I heard from Jim Harb, who remembers another Redding show at the National Guard Armory on Sutherland Avenue, near West High. Harb thinks it was in early 1965, when Redding was well known to soul fans but yet not a major star.
“The Armory was not a huge venue,” Harb recalls. “But even though there was a pretty full crowd, it was easy to get right up close to the stage, as I remember us doing; most of the folks were more interested in dancing. He had a full band behind him as I remember, including a horn section. He played the hits that we wanted to hear—accurate covers of the radio versions—and my memory is that he was relaxed, easy-going, and really enjoying performing. It was a really good concert.”
(People used to dance at rock shows. It was before we learned that it was our responsibility to stand dutifully, never taking our eyes off the band.)
Three times? Maybe four. Still another memory places Otis Redding at Bill Meyer Stadium, the old minor-league ball field at Caswell Park.
Freddie Alexander says he saw Otis Redding play there sometime in the mid-1960s. “They had the stage set up on the pitcher’s mound,” he recalls, “with everybody in the stands. The sound and energy coming from Otis and his band was just incredible!”
So maybe Redding performed here four times. Certainly not impossible. Maybe even more. He was a regional guy. He was from Georgia and recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals.
“The last time I saw Otis was the first week in June, 1967,” Alexander writes. “I had just graduated from high school. The show was at the Coliseum, of course. It was an amazing show as usual.” He recalls, correctly, that it was the week before the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival, which introduced Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar—and Otis Redding—to a mainstream predominantly white audience.
He says he was “devastated” at the news of Redding’s death late that same year. “Of all the singers at that time, Otis was the best.”
During his era, Alexander mentions seeing James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett.
“I feel so fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time in Knoxville history to experience such musical greatness,” he says. “But had the Civic Coliseum not been built, I doubt that many of these acts would have ever made it to town. It was truly the Mecca of Music in 1960s Knoxville.”
In several other respects, 1960s Knoxville offers little to recommend it. Maybe it’s important to remember the shows.