I’m learning that dozens of people who were at the Janis Joplin concert at the University of Tennessee’s Stokely Athletic Center in 1969 are readers of Metro Pulse. If not every single issue. Several who missed the first column I wrote about Joplin’s visit, which I’d heard of only recently, caught the second one, which gathered responses to the first one.
The most surprising one came from Ginna Mashburn, who—and I think I should say whom—I’ve known as a retired English teacher and past president of the Friends of the Library. You might recognize her as one of the ladies at the Friends book-sale table at Lawson McGhee. She’s friendly, but when I’m around her, I stand up a little straighter, do not swear, and refrain from chewing gum.
I would not have suspected that she used to hang out with Janis Joplin. Life is funny, though, and it turns out that was the case. “I knew Janis pretty well when she was a student and I was a teaching assistant at the University of Texas,” she says. “She took a sophomore lit class from a good grad-student friend of mine, and we frequently went out to Mr. Threadgill’s to hear her play.” Kenneth Threadgill was the legendary club owner who kick-started Austin’s famous music scene when he converted a Gulf station into a nightclub about half a century ago.
“She performed for beer, a quantity,” Ginna recalls, “and Mr. Threadgill adored her. He would put his hands on his paunch of a belly and yodel and beam at all these early ’60s students who flocked out to his converted service station. Coming from a choral music background, I have the distinction of telling Janis that she was ruining her voice by singing from her throat! Imagine if she had taken my advice. Anyway, my ex-husband and I were at the concert here and visited with her afterwards for a bit. I don’t recall much about the concert except that it made me sad to see her pretty far gone, from the relative innocence of an undergraduate, into drugs and lots of alcohol. I just recall how worn out she looked and how she had aged in just a few short years.”
If you’re an aspiring anything, you might want to spend some time around Ginna. As an English teacher at Webb School here in Knoxville, she was one of the early mentors of Elizabeth Kostova, whose international-bestselling first novel, The Historian, is in production as a major motion picture, and her second book, The Swan Thieves, is just now getting national attention.
In that column, I mentioned that the Rolling Stones had played here, twice—in November, 1965 and July, 1972, both times at the Civic Coliseum. Several remember the ’72 show, the folding chairs, the smell of hashish, the opening act, a talented young keyboardist named Stevie Wonder. I’m impressed how many people remember, after 37 years, which row they were in. I often forget my row when I’m coming back from the bathroom.
Tickets were $6.50. Maybe too much for this 14-year-old paperboy. David Myers recalls waiting in the line that stretched around the Coliseum and being one of the last to get tickets. “They were good seats to the left of the stage on the first balcony.”
Bruce Kawakami, a rock enthusiast who’s done some research on Knoxville shows, says the ’72 show sold a reported 6,500 tickets. “Busloads of out-of-town fans came from other cities, including Atlanta, because the band didn’t play there this tour. There is a bootleg of the show, and you can hear Jagger welcoming fans from other cities.”
He’s collected some articles about the show. The News Sentinel reported it from the police side, as a potential civic threat, a riot that didn’t happen. The old daily Journal, though, sent a reporter who described the show. “Lead singer Jagger, looking like the devil in drag, opened with ‘Brown Sugar,’” he wrote. “His movements and dancing were in keeping with his image as the epitome of evil sexuality. The audience loved it.” It turns out my old friend Chris Wohlwend wrote that.
I heard from only a few who remembered the Stones’ first Knoxville show, in November, 1965. It had been scheduled for 3 on a Sunday afternoon, an odd time for a rock show, but the Stones, then still including the ill-fated guitarist Brian Jones, didn’t show up at the Coliseum until the evening. Many who’d bought tickets for $3, $4, and $5 each got tired of waiting and left. That’s a shame, because even the opening acts were worth the wait: Patti LaBelle, the Vibrations, and the Rockin’ Ramrods.
One of those who stuck it out was Rebecca Williams, who’s now sales manager for the Knoxville Convention Center. “I sat on the third row!” she recalls. “My friend’s father was a city policeman and he even got us back stage into the dressing room after the show. I don’t remember much about it, except that we got their autographs and that Keith Richards sat there and picked his nose.” It seems to be a theme in several early descriptions of the lads. “I remember leaving thinking they were nasty.”
I’ll have to revisit Kawakami’s archives, which yielded several surprises. Bob Dylan and the Band were here in 1965. The New York Dolls, a legendary group on the avant-garde side of pop associated with the origins of punk rock, played here, of all places, at Chilhowee Park’s Homer Hamilton Theater, on July 4, 1974. Bruce Springsteen was at the Civic Auditorium in 1976, after canceling an announced Coliseum show a few months earlier. Others remember an Otis Redding show.
We like to think of Knoxville in the ’60s and ’70s as dull and backward, culturally sluggish. It wasn’t the fault of our music promoters