Thursday, February 21, 2013
Alabama Music Office.com goes to Highland Music on Clairmont Ave. in Birmingham, Alabama. We spent a few minutes slowly videoing this landmark establishment.
Don Murdoch-Highland Music Founder, Hang Glider Pilot and more.
by Jerry W. Henry
I am writing this with a symphony of chainsaws in the background. The tornados changed the landscape as well as lives. Life goes on with its ever-present deadlines that must be met. I feel it is my calling to tell you of Alabama’s musicians and their music offerings. This writing is a form of therapy for me.
I met Don Murdoch when his Highland Music was on Highland Avenue. His music instrument store has long been known as the pro musician’s music store. Highland Music is now on Clairmont Avenue in Birmingham.
He has a full beard with lots of gray. His beard gives him kind of a Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart look. It looks good. He carries a few extra pounds but is in good shape. Don is not one that walks around with a smile. But he is the first to laugh when something funny is said.
I met with Don at Highland Music. I interviewed him in his storage room while one of his best customers watched the store. Don Murdock is a major figure in Alabama’s music history. We discussed many subjects including his take on a few of the pros. I learned several things that I didn’t know about Don.
Don is from Southside in Birmingham. He was raised across the street from Avondale Grammar School. He attended school there and then Ramsey High School. Later he attended Vestavia High School and the Alabama School of Fine Arts where he received his degree in classical guitar.
He played piano very early in life and began playing guitar about the age of 15. He comments, “You know how it was, everybody played guitar back in the early ‘70’s. All of my friends played guitar. I started playing on a Stella guitar. When I really got serious about playing, I bought a Yamaha from Brian York (Tom York’s son) who was a great guitar player. He sold me the Yamaha and threw in a Neil Young Harvest songbook. I spent the next 4 months learning every song in that songbook. I learned enough to get accepted in the Alabama School of Fine Arts.”
I asked about the bands he played with in those early years. I was surprised when he told me, “I did weddings. Back in those days all my friends were playing places like the Cadillac Café and Louie, Louie’s. I was playing classical guitar at weddings. I never got to gig in night clubs because there were not many classical guitar gigs at the Cadillac.” (Laughter)
His next statement really surprised me. Don said, “I never played with any bands and have never played an electric guitar, ever. I don’t even know how to play an electric guitar. I play with my fingernails. I don’t even know how to hold a pick.” Remember this is a man that has sold thousands of electric guitars, both new and used. He is known as one of Alabama’s top vintage guitar dealers.
How did he get into the retail musical instrument business? “Back in high school, the place to go was Brookwood Mall, they had just built it. There was a Forbes there. My buddy and I used to go over there and hang out. There was a guy that worked there that would let us play as much guitar as we wanted. I would think, ‘Man I would love to work in a guitar store.’ Then I went to the University of Alabama from 1975 to 1979. During that time there was a guitar store in Tuscaloosa called The Guitar Shop and I taught guitar there. That is when it really made me want to own a music store. I graduated and couldn’t find a job. My grandmother sold her house and gave each of her grandkids $6,000. I pissed away a thousand of it and with $5,000 I opened the first Highland Music in 1981. I think I had 6 guitars and 4 or 5 boxes of guitar strings.”
He still remembers the first electric guitar he sold. “I sold it to a guy named Steven Pierce from Mountain Brooke. I had picked up the Martin line and I had 3 or 4 Martins and 2 of those were electric, that was back when they made electrics. Steven bought one of those Martin electrics.”
What kept him going in those early days in the music business was his sideline business, crossties. He sold railroad ties. Scott Ottinger lived in his store; he would open up and run the music store until noon. Don would get up early, take his pickup and get a load of crossties. He sold them to landscapers. He made $100 every day selling those crossties. He would then operate his store from noon till closing. That is how he kept the doors open at Highland Music those first 5 or 6 years. It took 7 years before his shop started paying for itself. There was a recession in the early ‘80’s that he survived.
He has had some great customers over the years. Now most of his good customers are the kids of his original customers. Early on his customers were guys like Rick Carter, Rich Kirsch, Massey Taylor and Don Tinsley. Back then they were all in their mid-twenties. One of his best has been Bert Frank, the guy watching the store. He brought in his ‘60’s Martin that morning to fine-tune the set up. Over the years he has bought 25 or more vintage guitars. He has a 1954 ES 175 on lay-a-way.
I asked Don when he got into the vintage guitar market. He replied, “Back in the ‘80’s I would sell a ’66 for the same price I would sell a ’79. I didn’t know. Then I started hearing about people getting lots more for those ‘60’s models. By the mid-’80’s, I realized the ‘50’s and’60’s stuff were bringing much more. It kind of just fell into my lap. The vintage thing really didn’t hit Birmingham until the mid-‘90’s. I collect ‘50’s amps. They don’t bring the price like a ‘50’s Fender or Les Paul would. I usually sell the guitars and keep the amps.”
He once had a very rich local customer that left a vintage ’56 guitar with him on a consignment agreement. He called the number that he had for the owner and found out that it had been disconnected. He kept that guitar in his shop for 4 or more years. At the time he and Bunky Anderson (former co-owner of Southeastern Attractions) were in the vintage guitar business together. They finally sold the unclaimed guitar at the Birmingham Guitar Show for $8,000 and split the money. That guitar would be worth $30,000 today. He also sold a ’62 Lake Placid Blue Stratocaster for $25,000, it being a rare color was perfect for the collector’s market. He told me Bunky still deals in vintage drums from time to time.
There have been many notable artists that have patronized his music store. Bonnie Raitt, Bad Company, Julian Lennon and Miles Davis’ son just to name a few. Sonny Landreth is still a good customer. Don remembers when Sonny played the 2nd or 3rd City Stages. He needed a guitar tech. A guitar technician is one who tunes and cleans a band’s or performer’s guitars during live performances. Everyone was busy that night with the exception of Don. That was when electronic tuners were first out and Don was a Sabine dealer. Don got Jeff Sauls to go with him. He and Jeff knew very little about electronic tuners, especially the complicated kind they had chosen to use that night. When it came time to trade guitars with Sonny on stage, Don had to tell Sonny that it was way out of tune. Sonny just laughed, tuned it on stage on stage and kept playing. Needless to say Don and Jeff learned a lot about electronic tuners that night. Don told me that the first electronic tuners he bought were $265 wholesale. Now you can buy one for less than $20.
Why did Don move his store from Highland Ave. to Clairmont Ave.? Don answered, “I got tired of paying rent. I wanted something that when I got old, like I am now, I could sell it and retire. Instead of renting I wanted to buy something. I had been looking around for something to buy. When this place became available it was kind of a quick sale because the guy had a partner that died and I think he wanted to sell before it got wrapped up in probate. It was one of those meant to be kind of things.”
The storage room where we were sitting was once a branch office for the Birmingham News. Don tells me, “We would sit behind tables that were in this room and roll newspapers. We would meet every afternoon down here. This is where they delivered the newspapers. We would come down on our bikes and roll them here. My route was on Highland. I delivered to all those apartments, like Altamont Apartments. Sharp’s Grocery Store was up front in this building back then. That was in the mid-‘60’s.”
We talked of many musicians. Warren Henderson was mentioned. Don’s comment, “Him passing was a freaky thing because his roommate also passed away. Those 2 guys started the band, Kitchen Sink. They both died of some strange cancer. He was a super guy for sure.”
Oteil Burbage was mentioned. Don says, “Otiel has never played around Birmingham that much. When he did it was usually with Mark Kimbrell. I remember him best with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. He would come in but was never a local hang out guy like Topper (Price), Mark Kimbrell, Milton Davis or Don Tinsley. A very nice guy.”
When Birmingham musicians get together and talk, there are always Topper Price stories to tell. Don said, “There are so many Topper Price stories. Most can’t be printed.” He recalls, “Back when I lived over by the golf course. Before I was married. For about 3 years Topper and 4 or 5 others would get together on Christmas Eve. Topper would cook. He was a great cook! Those are the times I think of Topper the most.” He pauses and then continues, “I had just taken in a radar detector in on trade, installed it in my car. I only had it a day or two. Topper comes by and wants to borrow my car. He comes back. My radar detector is missing. I ask Topper where it was and he says, ‘I don’t know man, I never saw it.’ That kind of stuff happened about once a month with Topper…He died about 6 months after Emanuel Ellinas started working here. He used to freak Emanuel out. You know how he was. Emanuel knew to only loan him the cheap stuff. He would want brand new SM58 mics and would go around the store screaming and cussing when he couldn’t get them. He would leave and go do his gig. He would come in the next day and act like he had totally forgotten what had happened. But that was Topper…When he married Lynn, the day of the wedding; he was to come to my house to get dressed. He shows up way late. When we got to the wedding everyone looked at me like it’s my fault.”
I mentioned that my next interview was going to be with Don Tinsley. Don Murdock said and I quote, “Don Tinsley is probably the best musician to come out of Birmingham.” He pauses and then continues, “He was too early! All that great stuff he did with The Mortals. He was like 5 years too early. He was writing REM kind of stuff way before they came along. He is one guy that should have made it. He didn’t make the big time but he should have. In the music business timing is everything. He’s a great musician, intelligent with shear talent.”
I asked about Chip Snow, the Telluride bass player that worked for Don. He says, “His father died and left him some money. He put a putting green in his back yard. He is kind of a recluse. He’s a mystery; I don’t know what has happened to him.”
Others have had success through association with don and highland music. Sam Timberlake the amp man got his start there. Sam now has dealers worldwide. Emanuel Ellinas now sells his guitar effects pedals to famous guitar players everywhere. Jack White and John Mayer are 2 of his devoted pedal users.
The most surprising part of our interview came when Don told me of his greatest passion, flying hang gliders. With new excitement Don tells me, “I have been doing it for 28 years. Because of Highland Music I get to enjoy my greatest love, flying hang gliders. I have a cabin up on Lookout Mountain that we go to almost every weekend. I do a lot of tandems, which are 2 people on 1 glider. The glider will handle up to 500 pounds. Hang glider pilots are a small group. There are only about 10,000 of us in the United States. My wife also flies. For the last 6 or 7 years we have gone to Mexico right after Christmas every year to fly off those volcanoes down there. We’ve been to California, Hawaii, Guatemala, Peru and lots of other places all over the world. The highest I have ever been was 18,500 feet with no oxygen. Of course that was in 1989, when I was younger. That was in Telluride, Colorado. We used to go out there every year.”
Where does he see the future for Don Murdock and Highland Music? Don answers, “I see a good future. I will be here as long as I can make a living doing this. I’ve got the building paid off. The worst case scenario would be to rent this place out; sell everything on EBay. I own the entire inventory. What’s screwing us now is that restaurants and bars are not hiring bands. Because they are not hiring bands, my sales are down. In the past there were 30 or 40 bands playing around here. The big bands like, Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits, those guys had 4 or 5 other bands that they played in. The Kimbrell brothers are a perfect example. I have been at it long enough to know that things go in cycles. I see the future as being good. I’m going to stay here and keep jumping off mountains and selling guitars.”
On my way out of the store, I said hello to Harold McCollum (Highlands Music’s in-house guitar repairman) and killer guitarist Tim Boykin (Who has been with Don from the beginning.). Yes, Highland Music is the pro musician’s music store.