TIME MACHINE: Kelly’s Basement Jam reunion brings the ’60s and ’70s to the Foothills Fall Festival
By Steve Wildsmith | (email@example.com)
He looms large in the minds of the men and women who once found a second home in the Teen Center, a colorful character who stood at the top of the stairs, held the gate and made sure there was music on the stage.
Kenneth Kelly was the driving force behind the old gathering spot for Blount County’s young people, back in those heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s when social revolution rocked the country, the Vietnam War raged in Southeast Asia and the Civil Rights movement ratcheted up racial tensions in the South. Gordon Acuff, a 1971 graduate of Alcoa High School who now runs Check In Cash Out in Maryville, remembers well how Kelly, a combination of W.C. Fields, Alan Freed, Dick Clark and Col. Tom Parker, loomed large over the local music scene.
“He was a 10-cent millionaire — he was tall and real heavyset with a paunch, but not in the face,” Acuff told The Daily Times this week. “He wore his pants real high, and he always had a cigar in his hand. When he said ‘Alright,’ it came out sounding more like, ‘Alreet.’ He had a regular job managing Shoemaker’s Shoe Store, and every day at lunch, he would go down to Luke’s Pool Hall, which was down the street.
“He went down there, had a pack of crackers and a Coke for lunch, and he played snooker. You didn’t want to play snooker with him, because he was good. And nobody would play him, but he’d get them to do it eventually, because he taunted all the kids. He’d tell them, ‘You’re afraid of this old man!’”
Acuff laughs at the memory, the wonder of youth and the endless possibilities of those days when everything seemed to be changing indelibly imprinted in his memory. It was his friend David Hill, who graduated from Alcoa in 1972, who introduced Acuff to Kelly; Hill worked part-time at Shoemaker’s and called Acuff up one summer, telling him that Kelly needed some boys to do some general work around the store and the Teen Center for a couple of months.
At the time, Kelly had partnered with Johnny Pirkle, the programming director of WNOX-AM in Knoxville at the time. The two men partnered together in an entertainment business called Concept 90; Pirkle handled the advertising, while Kelly put together bands. It was a flush business at the time, with the popular music scene spawning cover bands across the country, and teens at high school dances demanded to be serenaded to the rock ‘n’ roll they heard on the radio. As it is today, Maryville was a bastion of talented young musicians back then, and Kelly soon became the guy to go to if you wanted to play music for an audience.
“You wanted to be one of Kelly’s bands, because he’d get you jobs all over East Tennessee,” he said. “The summer I did some work for him, he comes up to me and said, ‘Do you know any horn players? I’m needing a band.’ I told him I did, and he told me to round them up. He put us together, and we were his band, basically. He booked us in Jacksboro, in LaFollette, in Middlesboro, Ky., and he came up with three or four different band names. One night he’d come up and say, ‘OK boys, tonight ya’ll are Chicago Fire.’ And we’d be playing the next night, and he’d say, ‘OK, tonight ya’ll are Jolt Wagon,’ or, ‘Ya’ll are Stone Castle Creek.’”
The Teen Center was born out of a desire by Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks and Recreation Executive Director Frank Bradley’s idea; it started up around 1968 or 1969, Acuff estimated, and it was Kelly who put in the legwork to make it a success. On the site where Davis Lofts is now located on East Harper Avenue and Cusick Street in downtown Maryville, there used to be a parking garage located beside a pawn shop — in the bottom level of that garage, Acuff said, was the Teen Center.
“There was a 36-door you went into, and Kelly sat up there and held the gate,” he said. “It was a pretty steep stairwell, and it went down to this big room. There was a concession stand down there that Parks and Rec put in, and a stage, and Kelly booked the bands. And everybody who played music around here wanted to get down there and be in one of his bands, because hopefully you’d get to play more.”
Lonnie Carver, a 1970 graduate of Everett High School who now owns Page’s Sewing Machine Services in Maryville, remembers well the first time he played the Teen Center. He was 15 years old, and climbing on stage to play for friends and other teens, he was overwhelmed with the feeling that he had arrived.
“When you played the Teen Center, you were somebody,” he said. “You knew you had made it if you got to play the Teen Center. The kids loved it, because you would go down there and you knew everybody, and everybody was real receptive no matter what you played. They loved it. From a musician’s standpoint, the energy generated by the crowd was indescribable.”
Carver remembers the joint as a big, dark room that could hold up to 300 people, and every weekend, it was packed with local teens starved for something to do. It was hot — there was no air conditioning; only a few fans and a set of large windows behind the stage — and sweaty, but the kids reveled in it. Smoke and beer was the smell of the day, and when he closes his eyes, Carver can still see all of the old faces, smiling and sporting long hair, tank tops and bell bottom jeans — some still around, others gone on to whatever reward awaits them after this life.
“Even now, at 60 years old, I have people say, ‘Hey, man, I remember the time you played the Teen Center and climbed up on the speakers and jumped off in time to the music,” he said. “It’s good to be remembered even at this stage of life for something you did as a teenager.”
Like Carver, Acuff still glows when he tells a story from those days. A brass man, he and his fellow horn players synchronized their steps, picking up tips from black Motown and soul groups popular back in the day, and Acuff remembers one African-American teacher at Alcoa — Mrs. Harris, who taught French — admonishing him good-naturedly about the reputation he was getting down at the Teen Center.
“I remember her telling me, ‘Gordon, you got my little black girls all tore up! They keep saying, “That Gordon Acuff, he’s got soul!”’” he said with a laugh. “It made you feel like a king.”
A couple of years ago, another of those musicians from back in the day, local insurance agent Don Bright — who still plays today with various groups around town, including his own and the Christian outfit SevenDayBeliever — started a Facebook group called Kelly’s Basement Jam; the idea, he said, was to round up old friends and old memories before time won out.
“Some of the guys we used to play with were getting to be in bad health, and we thought that while we’re still capable of doing this, we should probably get back together and restart a couple of things we did in the past,” Bright said. “We used to get together on the Fourth of July at Gary Young’s house, and we decided to start the Facebook group to give everybody a placed to communicate. Over the past year, there’s been a couple of guys who have actually passed away — Dave King, Pat Breeding — and that got us to thinking, ‘Man, it would be nice to have a concert and get together and do something like we used to.’”
Enter Edward Harper, director of senior services at Blount Memorial Hospital and curator of the Roy’s Stage along the ArtWay during the Foothills Fall Festival. A free alternative to the ticketed concerts in Jack Greene Park, the Roy’s Stage shows are free and take place on the grass across from Broadway Towers on West Broadway Avenue in downtown Maryville; he and Bright conferred, and now the “Kelly’s Basement Jam Reunion” will take the Roy’s Stage at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13, in downtown Maryville. Bright is one of the main organizers of the event, and the music on the setlist is familiar to anyone who still listens to classic rock radio: Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by the Temptations and more will get a proper Teen Center send-up, and the men (and women) who take the stage will channel their youthful selves for at least a couple of hours, basking in the light of glory days long gone.
The only thing missing? Kelly himself. No one knows what happened to the portly schemer, the guy who made it all possible and is indirectly responsible for a thousand memories and good times; he moved to Florida in the mid-1970s, and only one person has seen him since. Gary Young was in the Atlanta airport many years ago, he told Acuff, when he heard a familiar voice behind him.
“He hears somebody raising Cain, just going off and saying something like, ‘Well, alreet! I never!’” Acuff said. “I think deep down inside, he always wanted to be a major promoter — and he was that. He brought people together.”