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  • Southern Reverie

Rooted in the Melody: Jacksonville Music History and Heritage

Melody is the rhythmic succession of tones organized as an aesthetic whole or as an agreeable succession or arrangements of sounds. The more you learn about Jacksonville’s music history and their plans to preserve this heritage, there seems to be no better defining theme to tell the story of a city rooted in an agreeable succession of sounds.

DJ's Record Shop, c. 1974, in Jacksonville, Florida
DJ's Record Shop, c. 1974, Jacksonville

Jacksonville, Florida was founded in 1822 and now has more than 500 neighborhoods, covers 840 square miles, is largest city by area and twelfth most populated in the United States, and claims the title of most populous city in Florida with close to a million residents. With a city this expansive and diverse, finding common ground might sound challenging. But, for Jacksonville, the tie that binds is in the music with stories of greats and legends spanning decades and neighborhoods to make this Southern city a profoundly relevant piece of American music history.

African American Center of Enlightenment and Culture

By the early 1900s, Jacksonville’s population was 57 percent African American with many working in the city’s lumberyards, ports, hotels, and railroad industries. But the city was also emerging as a major cultural center for Black citizens and tourists. Ashley Street, as famous at the time as Beale Street in Memphis, is where greats like Ray Charles lived and shaped their careers, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie, Billie Holiday performed, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Booker T. Washington visited.

James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson - Author of "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

The LaVilla neighborhood was a major center of Black entertainment and culture. It is here in 1910 that the first published account of blues being sung on a public stage took place. LaVilla was home to James Weldon Johnson (born and raised here) who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900. In 1905 his brother John Rosamond Johnson set the words to music, and in 1919 the NAACP adopted the song as the Black National Anthem.

LaVilla became known as the “Harlem of the South,” but one could say Harlem should have been dubbed “LaVilla of the North” as individuals like James Weldon Johnson were instrumental in New York City’s Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, a couple of decades after LaVilla began its own rich history.

While much of Ashley Street and the LaVilla neighborhood are gone, there are remnants remaining including the shell of Genovar’s Hall and The Ritz, both where Ray Charles began his career. The most lasting contribution from LaVilla’s history is the music – sounds and melodies created by brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson (Lift Every Voice and Sing), Ray Charles (The Genius), Ma Rainey (Mother of Blues), Arthur “Blind” Blake (King of Ragtime Guitar), Jelly Roll Morton (Father of Jazz), and many more.

Ray Charles LaVilla, Jacksonville, Florida
In 1945, at age 15, Ray Charles left the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine to play in LaVilla at Genovar’s Hall on Ashley Street and The Ritz on N. Davis for around $4 per night.

Birthplace of Southern Rock

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the working class neighborhoods of Jacksonville began seeing musicians and bands creating a music genre with traces of blues, jazz, soul, R&B, and rock ‘n roll which earned the city the title of the “Birthplace of Southern Rock.” Instrumental in this movement were bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band.

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd, around 1973

In 1964 Jacksonville natives Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, Larry Junstrom, Bob Burns, and Gary Rossington named their band Lynyrd Skynyrd after a former gym teacher named Leonard Skinner who hassled members because of their long hair.

Classics IV
Classics IV

They went on to produce major hits like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird,” and others that remain classics today. Members of the band went on to perform in other major local rock bands like .38 Special and Blackfoot.

The Classics IV formed in 1965 founded by Dennis Yost, James R. Cobb, Wally Eaton, and Joe Wilson. Their song “Spooky” was originally an instrumental song that Dennis Yost took to the top of the charts by adding lyrics about a “spooky little girl.” The song is still well known, especially at Halloween, and has been recorded by other major artists since.

Allman Brothers Band
Allman Brothers Band, 1969

In 1969, two brothers from Daytona, Gregg and Duane Allman who had not quite found the right band met Butch Trucks, a Jacksonville native. Joined by Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson, the Allman Brothers Band was born and their unique sound tied blues and jazz to the Southern Rock movement. You can visit many Allman Brothers Band sites and hangouts around Jacksonville including The Gray House and Whitey's Fish Camp. They were known for their live shows featuring jam band-style improvisation and instrumentals.

Common Threads: Preserving Jacksonville Music History

During our visit we had the pleasure of meeting with Chip Storey, who serves on the Board of Directors for The Jacksonville Historical Society (JHS). Storey has been working with JHS to lead teams on the conducting and transcribing of oral histories taken from individuals in the Jacksonville music community. He had a wealth of information, stories, and history to share with us including the JHS exciting project to develop and open the Jacksonville Music History Museum and Performance Venue.

The plans include renovation of a historical building (pictured below), a property owned by JHS. This building was part of the Florida Casket Company who purchased Old St. Luke's Hospital nearby in 1878 and added this building in 1920. The mission is to bring the community together across racial, economic, and generational divides by showing how the city's musical history comes from a fusion of many influences that have in turn influenced each other. The hope is to not only unite Jacksonville in this shared history but to gain national recognition for the city’s place in American music history.

Chip Storey, as part of the 14-member task force to move the idea into reality, shared that the the museum will not only shed light on the music but hopefully what the music history influenced. The Beatles who performed in Jacksonville in 1964 insisted on an integrated concert. A Jacksonville favorite AM radio station (lives on as an FM station) with the call letters WAPE (or as locals call it, The Big Ape) was known for its incredibly strong signal and introducing a varied selection of music. Local DJs like Jerry West, owner of DJ’s Record Shop in Jacksonville, influenced the city’s music scene with their music knowledge and passion. Venues like The Ritz Theatre and Museum and The Florida Theatre do amazing work telling the story of Jacksonville’s music history and showcasing new talent and ideas.

Storey and the task force see the JHS museum as another catalyst to bring a sense of pride to Jacksonville. The vision is to use the museum to open a dialogue surrounding the shared journey from LaVilla to Southern Rock and how this succession of sounds not only shaped music history but Jacksonville itself.

Make your own mark on Jacksonville Music History with a donation for the Jacksonville Music History Museum and Performance Venue. Let’s make music together!

Plan your trip to Jacksonville, Florida to learn more about its music history!

Other notables from Jacksonville Music History

(please drop any names or locations you know of in the comments!)

DJ’s Record Shop (Started in 1974, owned by DJ Jerry West and still selling records)

Mae Boren Axton (co-wrote the Elvis Presley hit single “Heartbreak Hotel”)

Johnny Tillotson (American singer-songwriter, scored nine top-ten hits on the pop, country, and adult contemporary Billboard charts)

Molly Hatchet (Southern Rock band from Jacksonville)

Charles Singleton (co-wrote “Strangers in the Night”)

Whitey’s Fish Camp (major hangout for the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd)

The Gray House (Headquarters for the Allman Brothers Band)

.38 Special (Formed by Donnie Van Zant and Don Barnes in 1974)

Pat Boone (American singer, composer, actor, writer, television personality)

Billy Daniels (Notable for his hit “That Old Black Magic” and one of the first African-American entertainers to cross over into mainstream, honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1977)

Dr. Longineau Parsons II (Jazz Trumpeter, has performed in over 30 countries)

Tedeschi Trucks Band (Southern rock/blues band)

Marcus Roberts (Jazz Pianist)

Ulysses Owens (Jazz Percussionist)

John Betsch (Jazz Percussionist)


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