The Athens where I began school at the University of Georgia 50 years ago this fall would seem rather quaint to today’s students.
It was not yet what historian Grace Elizabeth Hale would describe as “the first important small-town American music scene and the key early site of what would become alternative or indie culture.”
No, the small Northeast Georgia city that would become internationally famous for bands like The B-52’s, R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Drive-By Truckers and Of Montreal was not yet a musical hotbed. That would come a few years later, with the fervid art-rock scene chronicled in a couple of film documentaries and several books — the most recent being Hale’s 2020 volume, “Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture.”
Michael Simpson, whose politically activist hard-rock band Ravenstone would form at UGA a few months later, described the Athens music scene in the fall of 1970 as “nascent.” He said it mostly consisted of “cover bands” playing the hits of the day in local nightclubs.
A lot Athens-based bands in the years leading up to 1970 had focused on playing fraternity and sorority parties on the Southern college circuit, including the Embers (which featured Terry Melton, later of Mad Dog Melton and the Laughing Disaster, and Dixie Grease), the Jesters (featuring Harold Williams and Davis Causey) and King David and the Slaves, a band originally from Jesup that had future local musical hero Randall Bramblett as a member.
Still, the seeds of the Athens scene that the world would come to know already were being planted. Owen Scott, a friend of mine since kindergarten, was playing in a folk/classic rock covers band called Black Narcissus that included Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland, who a few years later would become members of The B-52’s. (In fact, the first time the B’s played together was in Owen’s parents’ basement.)
Owen recalls Black Narcissus never really jelled, but they spent a lot of time jamming at a farm owned by a couple of local teachers. “As far as I recall, we never played anywhere except at a house we rented on Georgia Avenue in the summer after we graduated. … We did a cool cover of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ [and] also did an unorthodox rock version of the hymn ‘Joy to the World’ (not the Hoyt Axton 3 Dog Night classic).”
Added Owen: “It was a formative time for the future B-52s.”
But, Athens in the fall of ’70 was not yet chockablock with clubs offering live entertainment, mainly because most UGA students couldn’t drink legally (which, of course, did not stop them from drinking). The legal drinking age wouldn’t be lowered to 18 until 1972, when the Athens nightlife scene grew by leaps and bounds.
The main outlets for live music in the Classic City were the Last Resort, open since 1967, which featured mostly touring folk, blues and jazz acts, such as Gamble Rogers, Elizabeth, Odetta and Towns Van Zandt. The first weekend of fall quarter, 1970, Jeff Espina was at the Resort for three nights.
There also were several hotel lounges in town that had live music (with several, like Daddy’s Dollar at the Key to America, featuring country acts, or rockabilly like Sleepy LaBeef), a few rougher spots, like the VFW on Sunset (where there was as much fighting as dancing), and a couple of jazz-pop venues, including the prime date spot, Gigi’s Italian restaurant on Baxter Street, which had singer Myrna Rose and her combo. My classmate Johnny Barrett also recalls dinner music (featuring some members of UGA’s Redcoat Band) at the University Club out on the Macon Highway.
Another regular venue for country music in the fall of ’70 was the J&J Center on the Commerce Highway, which also had multi-act rock music bills once a month, but mainly was known for its Thursday night pro wrestling.
However, if rock is what you wanted, the main off-campus venue in the fall of 1970 was Between the Hedges, located in the basement of the venerable burgers-and-beer joint Allen’s, in the Normaltown neighborhood near the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School (now UGA’s health sciences campus). Simpson recalls he always liked playing the Hedges because “we could play whatever we wanted to, as long as people bought beer.”
(Other legendary rock clubs that many UGA students of the time remember came a bit later: Your Mother’s Moustache in downtown Athens wouldn’t open until February, 1971, next to the Glass of Hill Wall head shop on Wall Street, with which it was affiliated. The Station, a dining and entertainment complex located in the old Southern Railway depot near downtown, featuring T.K. Harty’s Saloon, also would open later in 1971. And, one of the best-known 1970s Athens clubs, the B&L Warehouse, opened in 1972.)
Of course, there was more to local music in the fall of 1970 than just rock and country: R&B star Bettye Swann (“Make Me Yours”) lived in Athens at the time, and a thriving Black music scene centered around such clubs as the House of Blue Lights, Hawaiian Ha-Le and Killian’s, as well as venues like the Army-Navy Club and DAV.
Among the Black acts of the day were Grains of Sand (who toured regionally), the Fabulous Tropics, the In Crowd, Anthony Shield and the Imperials, Family Rebirth (which later became Common People Band), Funk Factory, and a pair of bands featuring local educators.
Walter Allen’s Rhythm Ramblers was led by our assistant principal at Athens High (who always joked he couldn’t read my Mom’s handwriting on notes asking for me to be allowed to leave campus to go to the orthodontist).
And, there was Armell Stroud and the Twisters, featuring one of the high school’s art teachers. The following summer, a couple of friends and I were the campaign staff for a local lawyer who was making a futile longshot run for mayor against the incumbent. One Saturday, we rented the county’s Showmobile (a bus turned into a mobile stage) and parked it at Beechwood Shopping Center for a daylong rally that culminated in a show by Armell and the Twisters, and I manned the mic to introduce them.
There actually was some intermixing between the local music scenes, with my friend Owen playing briefly with the Imperials, which featured a couple of classmates, Bobby Daniel and Reginald Whitehead, on trumpet. “I was typically the only white guy in the chitlin circuit joints we played,” Owen recalled.
And, Bennett Johnson, a local Black musician who had succeeded Dr. Allen as band director at Burney-Harris High School — before it merged with Athens High to form Clarke Central in the fall of 1970 — was a member of Athens’ top rock act of the late ‘60s, Leaves of Grass. While the band was a frequent headliner at Between the Hedges in Normaltown, “we played all over the South,” Johnson told me recently.
Whitehead said the Leaves had an “awesome” sound, and The Athens Observer, in a later history of the local scene — dubbed the Normaltown River of Music — said Leaves of Grass was “considered by many the best band ever formed in Athens.”
Band leader Jack Williams said the original Leaves of Grass “was formed out of what was left of a band called The Nomads, which was originally based in Lancaster, S.C. The Nomads was an R&B group and Leaves of Grass was a response to newer rock music — Steppenwolf, The Rascals, Procol Harum, etc.”
By the fall of 1970, Leaves of Grass had changed its name to Crossover, with the addition of a couple of new members: Bramblett and Causey (who later would gain fame as part of Chuck Leavell’s post-Allman Brothers band, Sea Level).
Another of the band’s members, Linda McMullen DePascale, said Crossover did “mostly covers, which we were spectacular at doing … because there were at least six of us who could sing. The harmonies were very, very intricate.”
Linda was a trained vocalist, and Williams, who was a music major at UGA and had perfect pitch, arranged everything.
The band “rehearsed rigorously every day for at least four hours,” Linda recalled. “It was a deadly serious endeavor to us all. We were most famous for our Crosby Stills and Nash pieces: ‘Suite Judy Blue Eyes,’ ‘Woodstock,’ ‘Teach Your Children,’ ‘Our House,’ to name a few. ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ by the Band was another crowd pleaser. … My job was to do ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Joni Mitchell, who I actually got to meet at the [Capricorn] Studios in Macon.”
“Crossover found its real strength in the songs that Randall was beginning to write,” Williams said. “We got the attention of Phil Walden, owner of Capricorn Records, who brought us to Macon to make demo recordings of these songs.”
But, he said, there were “some deep rifts” in the band at that point, and Crossover split during the Capricorn sessions, in late 1970 or early 1971. Bramblett and Davis went on to a stint with Laughing Disaster before Bramblett formed his own band.
Still, most of the musical performances attended by UGA students that fall were on (or adjacent to) campus, not in nightclubs.
Famous groups past their prime, and lesser current acts, like Hydra, played Memorial Hall (home of the UGA student center at the time), either in the ballroom or in a club called Dante’s Domain that had opened up a year or so earlier in the former site of the UGA Bookstore in the basement. Originally, rock bands, including the remnants of Big Brother and the Holding Company, played under the club’s black lights, but University Union officials, dismayed that the shows were drawing pot-smoking hippies, decided to switch to a coffeehouse folk music format by fall of 1970.
(Dante’s also sometimes had movies and speakers, including a “Rap Session ‘70” series that featured UGA’s own Dr. Eugene Odum, the father of modern ecology and founder of the university’s school of ecology.)
Also that fall, there was big-name entertainment, presented either by the University Union or the Interfraternity Council. The bigger concerts were held at the Coliseum (not yet sporting the Stegeman name), and, that fall, the headliners included Bob Hope, Steppenwolf, a Homecoming concert with the Chambers Brothers and Friends of Distinction, and a Macon-based group called the Allman Brothers Band opening for Pacific Gas and Electric. (DePascale remembers Leaves of Grass/Crossover opening for the ABB at a Sunday concert in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.)
For those who wanted something other than rock that fall, pianist Peter Nero played the Fine Arts Auditorium, as did the Atlanta Symphony.
Various religious student centers also offered entertainment, generally of the coffeehouse variety, though the Catholic Center did have a beer and pizza party one weekend. Nancy Miller Sizemore remembers attending shows at the Presbyterian Center. “My parents didn’t allow me to attend a lot of ‘nightlife’ places! They thought the local community theater and the coffee house were OK.”
Mini rock fests featuring the likes of Crossover occasionally were held on campus at Legion Field, or the new People’s Park that students had carved out of an overgrown vacant lot near the high-rise dorms.
The Red & Black ran a review of one such fest, where the rise of the counterculture was highlighted by the reviewer, who complained that those attending mostly were “a motley group, hardly representative of the university’s student body.” While there were “a few well-dressed Greeks,” she said, “the center of the crowd smelled of smoke and body odor.” It was “absolutely sickening,” she said, and “a dirty disgrace to the university.” The paper was flooded with letters of protests for the next few issues.
Actually, the campus cultural divide described there wasn’t always so clearly drawn. We all had denim in common.
Kappa Alpha member Tom Hodgson, with whom I’d gone to school most of my life, recalled “standard everyday wear” for Greeks was “jeans and polo-style shirts. I wore a lot of T-shirts because I worked at Farmer’s Hardware from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. every day. Not the preppy look some might expect.”
I remember a lot of flares or bellbottoms and, like Tom recalled, “lots of weird-colored shirts with huge collars.”
But, looking at the Edwardian dandy stuff that Gunn’s and Gibson’s and the other men’s wear shops advertised in the Red & Black that fall, I have to say I don’t really recall seeing guys dressed like that, even going out on dates, though Tom said that “on the very rare occasion that a jacket and tie were required, we came pretty close to this.”
I do remember a fair number of double-breasted suits and blazers, and, for casual wear, the previous year’s CPO shirt-jackets were still in stores.
Fashion shows for female students were held at Snelling dining hall and the Bulldog Room that fall, and trends included longer skirts, gaucho pants worn with boots, coats, vests, straight-leg pants, shoulder bags, heavy jewelry, T-shirt tunics, wide leather belts, buckskin and snakeskin handbags, and dog-collar necklaces.
Abrams Casual Shop was selling fringed handbags, long coats and jackets, leather and suede vests and pants suits. The University Shop was touting colorful shirt-dresses, desert boots by Clark’s of England, and bandito belts.
In the skirt-length debate — mini vs. midi vs. maxi — most UGA women appeared to go either very short or very long; the midi rarely was seen.
One thing you did see a lot of on women was long leather boots.
You also saw quite a few guys sporting longer hair (not the Greeks) and lots of longer sideburns. Shag hairstyles for women were starting to show up, though the classic ’60s long hair parted down the middle still ruled.
Where did students go on dates? More often than the nightclubs, it probably was the movies.
On-campus movies were presented in the South P-J Auditorium, and the eclectic offerings of older films that quarter included “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “You Are What You Eat” and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”
Off-campus, Athens boasted five cinemas (including the newly renovated Palace, which opened that fall) and two drive-ins, but the releases available that fall weren’t among Hollywood’s best. Films playing Athens included Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in “Sunflower,” Brian Keith, Ernest Borgnine and Suzanne Pleshette in “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came,” Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson in “Too Late the Hero,” Franco Nero in “The Virgin and the Gypsy,” Joe Namath and Ann-Margret in “CC and Company” (a biker movie), Peter Boyle in “Joe,” Liza Minelli in “Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon,” Elliott Gould and Paula Prentiss in “Move,” Barbra Streisand in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” Gregory Peck in “I Walk the Line,”
Lauren Hutton and Robert Forster in “Pieces of Dreams,” Michael Crawford in “Hello-Goodbye,” George Peppard in “Cannon for Cordoba,” Carrie Snodgrass and Richard Benjamin in “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” Martin Balsam and the busy Richard Benjamin in Catch-22,” Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in “WUSA,” Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef in “El Condor,” Lee Marvin in “Monte Walsh,” and such now long-forgotten titles as “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” “The Revolutionary,” “Soldier Blue” and “Savage Wild.”
Probably the best offerings were reissues of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” the Buster Keaton silent film “The General,” “Monterey Pop” and Disney’s “Son of Flubber” and “Fantasia.”
Of course, this was before the movie rating system shut X-rated fare out of mainstream movie theaters, so you could catch the occasional adult film, including the notorious “I Am Curious Yellow” at the Beechwood Cinema, and late-night showings of films with titles like “Caged Desires” at the Georgia Theatre on Thursday and Friday nights. The Athens Drive-In leaned toward sexploitation films like “The Birth of Triplets” (see the actual onscreen births, “nothing left to the imagination!”) and “No Greater Sin.” Alps Drive-In had mainly second-run mainstream features, like “John and Mary” with Dustin Hoffman, and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”
What else did UGA students do when they weren’t studying? Some joined clubs and organizations; some got involved in student politics; some campaigned against the war in Vietnam.
And then there was the age-old college recreational option: drinking. Although the legal drinking age still was 21 that fall, there was no shortage of drunk 18-year-old freshmen on and off campus.
This is one area that Greeks and freaks had in common.
As Tom remembers it, “Coeds did not feel comfortable going out without dates in 1970. They might go with a date to the lounge at the Holiday Inn and maybe a few other places. But in my little world (frat life) the girls tended to stay in their dorms or sorority houses if they did not have dates.”
That changed in the late fall of 1970, he said. “A little bar with 25-cent draft beer and peanut shells on the floor was right across Hull Street from the old bus station. It was called The Rail [later the Dog House]. For years, it was a guy-only place with the occasional date on a lucky boy’s arm. Then, one night, probably on a dare, a carload of Chi Omegas bellied up to the bar and ordered a beer. They were greeted with open arms. In fact, within a week it was known around town that unescorted girls were welcome at The Rail, and it felt like Mardi Gras every night.”
Bars did their best to entice students, too. Joe Costa remembers the Cave (formerly the Big Bamboo), out on the Atlanta Highway, “had a mug of beer for a nickel between 5 and 6 every evening! That was the place to go if all you had was change in your pocket.”
The Fifth Quarter, then owned by former Georgia football player Gene “Swino” Swinford, was another student favorite. Said Sam Richwine: “I remember one cold evening trying to sneak a pitcher out under my jacket. I probably looked about six months pregnant. As I approached the door, I was collared by the bouncer and separated from my prize. I was told never to come back. Apparently, they either had short memories, or did not harbor any ill feelings, as I was back in a few days.”
Of course, not all students were big drinkers. “I honestly don’t recall ever hanging out at a bar until my junior year,” Darrell Huckaby said, “but I snuck out every night at midnight and hit the Waffle House on Lumpkin and Milledge. Gained about 30 pounds.”
“If we did drink,” said my Athens High classmate Deanie Fincher, “we drank at someone’s house that year I lived in the dorm.”
For those who preferred to drink on their own like that, rather than in the bars, the road to the nearby town of Arcade, known for cheaper beer than you could find anywhere in Athens, was frequently traveled.
But, if you wanted to stock up in town, a popular place was Bubber’s Bait Shop on Broad Street.
Bubber was known for, ahem, flexible policies toward student customers.
As my friend Joel Provano recalls:
I was living in an apartment off campus, and my roommates and I had gone home for the weekend. We all returned on Sunday afternoon and wanted to drink some beer, but nobody had any. We were regular customers of Bubber, and knew that he lived in the back of the store, or at least he stayed there frequently.
His reputation of selling to minors was well-known, so we figured he might be willing to sell on Sunday as well.
We piled in the car and drove to the Bait Shop and, sure enough, we could see through the glass doors that Bubber was inside. We knocked on the door and Bubber came out. The conversation went something like this:
Bubber (irritated): What you boys want?
Me: We want to buy some beer.
Bubber explodes: Buy some beer!!! Are you crazy? You know it’s illegal to sell (expletive) beer in this state on Sunday. You want me to get locked up?
Me: Well, we just thought maybe …
Bubber: What y’all want, a couple of six packs of Bud?
Joel summed up: “He charged us just a little extra, and we went happily on our way.”
You know, no matter what the year, that just may be the most Athens-UGA story I’ve ever heard.
— Bill King
Thanks to Jason Hasty, Owen Scott, Jack Williams, Linda DePascale, Michael Simpson, Reginald Whitehead, Clarke McKeever, Bennett Johnson, Johnny Barrett, Tom Hodgson, Deanie Fincher, Joe Costa, Joel Provano, Bill Berryman, Greg Veale, Roy Bell, Lynn Hardman, Darrell Huckaby, Chris Jones and all those folks commenting on Facebook.