Knoxville, November, 1969. A strange time and place by any measure. On the west coast, there was talk about legalizing marijuana. In Knoxville, there was talk of legalizing wine. Knoxville was reportedly the biggest non-Utah city that didn’t offer wine or liquor by the drink. It had been legalized for package sales only nine years earlier—you could buy wine and liquor by the bottle—but Knoxvillians hadn’t tolerated liquor by the drink since the saloon ban of 1907.
The same time we couldn’t drink a glass of wine with dinner at Regas, or buy a beer on Sunday, Gay Street was bookended by two porno cinemas, the Gay Street Art Cinema, near Vine, and the venerable old Bijou, East Tennessee’s oldest and most historic theater. They both advertised their shows with lurid posters, and with display ads in both daily papers. That November “the Bijou Art Theatre” was showing The Joys of Georgette. The Gay Street Art Cinema touted Love Camp 7: “All the youthful beauty of Europe enslaved for the pleasure of the Third Reich.” Even the Drive-Ins were going porno. The Twin-Aire offered The Babysitter: “She came home to sit with baby...and ended up with Daddy!”
The Knoxville Journal accepted the big display ads for those movies, in the same issues that derided “Peaceniks” and predicted a groundswell of popular support for President Nixon.
That’s the Knoxville of my childhood. Some people observe I’m a little odd. No one who lived in Knoxville in the 1960s is altogether normal.
There’s no way of telling how much of that one astonishing young lady from Texas noticed when she arrived that November. Knoxville, 1969, might seem have seemed like some weird porno prison camp itself if not for the fact that it was on the touring map of some great musicians.
The first half of November saw shows by country legends Carl Smith, Faron Young, Carl and Pearl Butler, and the Osborne Brothers, plus a three-day stand by Loretta Lynn’s Rodeo at the Civic Coliseum; the already famous singer performed alongside the cowpunchers. Charlie Rich was playing a club on the outskirts of town, the legendary Indian Rock on Rutledge Pike. David Van Vactor’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra presented a “pops” concert of much-requested classical pieces by Tchaikovsky and Mozart; other classical shows that month featured visiting violinists.
Several nightclubs, even on Kingston Pike, featured soul bands like the Soul Culture ’69 and the Velvets, but they all bowed to “The Living Legend, the Man, the Humanitarian, the World’s Number One Entertainer, James Brown,” who was to play at the Civic Coliseum on Nov. 14—two days after an appearance in the same room by Meadowlark Lemon’s Harlem Globetrotters.
Brown had played here before, and would again. The musical act who pops out at you on old newspaper pages appeared in a little-heralded show at UT on Saturday, Nov. 8, 1969. The show wasn’t advertised nearly as much as Loretta Lynn’s Rodeo the weekend before. The main performer was a young, charismatic singer who had less than a year to live. She sometimes performed as if she knew that.
IT WAS HOMECOMING at UT, and Doug Dickey’s undefeated Vols, #3 in the country, were facing South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Before a sellout crowd of 65,000, the Vols, led by quarterback Bobby Scott and linebacker Steve Kiner, beat the Gamecocks in a tougher-than-expected battle. Among sports junkies, word was that second-string guard Phillip Fulmer might start the following game.
At halftime, young Sen. Howard Baker presented roses to the Homecoming Queen. For Homecoming, it was the very end of an era. The following year, UT’s Homecoming Queen would be a man with a paper sack over his head.
The ground was shifting. Knoxville was no Berkeley, but by the fall of ’69, UT students were beginning to express anxieties about the war. The UT Vietnam Moratorium Committee, led by charismatic student activist Peter Kami, was bringing antiwar Senator Charles Goodell, Robert Kennedy’s successor, to speak at UT later in the month.
Soon after the big game, students began congregating at the Stokely Athletic Center, the Vols’ basketball venue on Volunteer Boulevard. The 8 p.m. show in the big room was a double bill, presented festival style—still a novelty in 1969. Seats were available, but optional.
The show started 45 minutes late. The first act was the James Cotton Blues Band, led by the eponymous Delta blues harmonica player, formerly of Muddy Waters’ band.
The second act was Janis Joplin. She’d never had a top-20 single, but college students knew her name. She’d been a sensation ever since the Monterey Pop Festival two years earlier, and had three gold albums to her credit.
The Journal didn’t mention the show. The News Sentinel offered a tiny paragraph on page B-9 of the Sunday paper, referring to “Janis Joplin, jazz singer, and other jazz musicians.... Over three hours of jazz music was presented.”
Only the Daily Beacon covered it. “Dressed in a filmy, deeply cut blouse and skin-tight bells of luminescent peacock blue, Miss Joplin belted out her songs to a crowd which stood, flailed its arms and sang along.” She chided the audience for its good behavior. “The temperamental Joplin was in ‘a very good mood’ Saturday night, according to her associates. She even took the time to sign autographs for her loyal, teenage groupies massed backstage.”
There’s little description of the music. She probably played with the Kozmic Blues Band; their album, Kozmic Blues, had been released in September. It had generated some buzz. More than 9,200 turned out to see Joplin sing in UT’s big basketball court.
“Good mood or bad, the show ended short at 11:15,” reported the Beacon, “when members of the crowd mobbed the stage and broke the table holding the public-address system.”
Alan Schlossberg, president of Nahheeyayli, UT’s traditional student cultural association, which sponsored the visit, said, “Pandemonium is the only way to describe it.”
Joplin’s band broke up the following month. She died of a heroin overdose 11 months after provoking a Knoxville audience to dispense with its usual decorum.