As far back as the ’50s and ’60s, USM played host to a number of big-name concerts. Reed Green Coliseum, built in 1965, and Bennett Auditorium both welcomed musical guests. We’re talking BIG NAME musical guests.
While some of these highly-acclaimed musicians performed with the USM symphony, others were just touring bands, who made a stop in the Hub City, usually on a week-day night following a stop in Memphis, Birmingham, Mobile or New Orleans on its way to Texas, Florida or other venues along the way.
In addition to these performances on campus, there were other venues around town that welcomed the multitudes for a tune or two.
South of town, the Hi Hat Club in Palmer’s Crossing hosted some really big acts in its day. Tal’s Music Emporium on Hwy. 49 North reportedly welcomed the likes of Clint Eastwood and Miss Mississippi winners as its guests. Two downtown venues, Benny’s Boom Boom Room and the Thirsty Hippo, have welcomed their fair share of musical acts. Brewsky’s, the newest of the bunch, has done a stellar job of bringing in some big names during its short time in the Hub City.
Music on the Southern Miss campus may have very well started with Bud Kirkpatrick, a USM alum who went to work in the Student Union as a student helper in 1957. After graduation he assumed the job as manager of the Student Union, Student Government Association, the yearbook and all student activities, as well as discipline of all student activities.
It was during this time that a student by the name of Jimmy Buffett was on campus. He and Kirkpatrick became “buds,” with Buffett hanging out around Kirkpatrick’s office.
“I’d get calls from people who wanted a band, for one reason or the other, and I would always put Jimmy in contact with them, as he had a band or was part of a band at that time,” said Kirkpatrick in a 2014 interview with Signature.
When Wimpy’s, the old grill in the student union, moved out, Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to turn that space into a hangout of sorts and had people in to play.
“When that didn’t work out, I turned the place over to Jimmy and he charged at the door and kept the money,” said Kirkpatrick. “I had good student entertainment and Jimmy had an income. When he graduated, he went on to seek the big time. Years later I had him back to play in the grill.”
And campus concerts were born.
During Kirkpatrick’s tenure as producer for The Collegiate Scene, a national magazine for student leaders, Kirkpatrick made a lot of important entertainment contacts. He would take vacation time, travel to New York City and sell to entertainment, film rental and yearbook companies. He also served on the board of directors for the National Block Booking Conference, which booked entertainment, lecturers and films for campuses. Through his work selling ads for his collegiate magazine, he became acquainted with entertainment agents which helped when booking acts for the university.
It was during this time USM welcomed Bob Hope to campus for two shows. Following the show on Friday night, Hope invited Bud and wife, Virginia, to New Orleans, where he was performing Saturday.
The Lettermen performed on campus in the early ’60s and it was clarinetist Pete Fountain who presented the premiere concert when Reed Green opened its doors.
Kirkpatrick also remembers the concert where Glen Campbell opened for Bobbie Gentry in 1968. Kirkpatrick said a “green” Campbell was a bit shaky and unsure what he was going to do once he got on stage.
Mississippi columnist Rick Cleveland remembers that night like this in an August 2017 column published in Mississippi Today.
My introduction to Campbell had come a couple of years earlier, in March of 1968, also in Hattiesburg, at a concert at Reed Green Coliseum on the Southern Miss campus. Campbell opened that night for Bobbie Gentry, who had just hit it big with Ode to Billie Joe. She was Mississippi’s darling and a crowd of 6,100, some of whom had to sit behind her, showed up to hear her and watch her perform.
Gov. John Bell Williams was there to introduce Gentry, presenting her a House-Senate resolution commending her talent and her success.
Campbell, from Delight, Ark., was pretty much an afterthought, someone to warm up the crowd for the main act.
Funny thing happened: Campbell absolutely stole the show. He killed it. He did ‘By the Time I get to Phoenix,’ ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘Gentle on My Mind’ – all songs that were either budding hits or soon would be.
Then, in a tribute to Elvis Presley, he did a rousing collection of The King’s hits and brought the house down with ‘Hound Dog.’ If you closed your eyes, you’d have sworn he was Elvis. If you opened your eyes and looked at Campbell only from the neck down, you’d have still sworn it was Elvis. He had all the gyrations.
His set remains one of the most memorable concert sets I’ve witnessed.
And I well remember, as he walked off the stage, my mama leaned over to me and said, “I wouldn’t want to be Bobbie Gentry right now. Nobody should have to follow that.”
And she was right.
That’s how I’ll remember Glen Campbell.
TOP OF FORM
Kirkpatrick, who established the university’s first public relations department, also helped originate the University Activities Council, which at its origination, was the programming subdivision of the R.C. Cook University Union. The organization went on to play an important role in producing future concerts.
Kirkpatrick retired in 2002.
Dr. Joe Paul, who retired from his post as vice president of Student Affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2015, served as the USM activities director between 1976 and 1984 and had a hand in a lot of big shows and kind of took over where Kirkpatrick left off.
“We had Buffett twice, Steve Patton twice, the Doobie Brothers, Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire and more,” he said, back in his former cubby on campus.
But it was on Jan. 21, 1971, Paul’s senior year at Bay St. Louis High School, that he attended a Chicago Concert at Reed Green Coliseum on the USM campus, which would eventually become a second home to Paul. After 39 years on campus, he retired and now serves as the new Customer Service coordinator for the City of Hattiesburg.
Prior to Paul’s employment on campus in 1976, he also saw Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steppenwolf.
Prior the fall of 1976 when Paul started working on campus, where one of his main responsibilities was serving as advisor to the University Activities Council. Today that organization is known as the Southern Miss Activities Council (SMAC). It was the Activities Council that sponsored the many popular music concerts for the university. Paul had a hand in producing these from 1975 until 1985.
Paul had just been on the job about three weeks when Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Review rolled into Reed Green Coliseum on May 1, 1976. The Rolling Thunder Revue was a concert tour by Dylan with a traveling caravan of musicians, including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Dylan’s setlist had 21 songs, including Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind, Lay Lady Lay with Baez’s cover on Railroad Boy.
Paul said the guy who had been working before him, Marlo Robinson, came back to help with the concert, even though he’d already left.
“He had booked and run shows, so he came back and showed me how to do it,” Paul said.
Also during that year the campus welcomed Jerry Jeff Walker, Gino Vanelli (Oct. 6), Stephen Stills (Nov. 9), The Dirt Band and Steve Martin.
According to Paul, Martin’s first album was just out and he was on the edge of being famous. His two-hour performance on Dec. 8, 1976, was held in Bennett Auditorium, as were other such shows for comedians, magicians and smaller more intimate events.
Martin also returned the following fall. Paul said Martin’s performances were among the most memorable, “very cutting edge.”
Paul remembers Martin at the end of his show saying, “‘Let’s all go to Burger Town and get a hamburger’ and led the whole audience out and across Hardy Street to the burger joint that’s no longer there. But he didn’t pick up the tab for everybody.”
Paul said that as funny as Martin is and was, off stage he was quiet, introverted and highly intellectual. “He wasn’t just a fun-and-games guy to hang out with. He was a serious craftsman of his art.”
The Doobie Brothers (Nov. 1, 1976) was one of the larger acts the activities council ever hosted, and the Commodores (Nov. 11, 1977) was a sellout.
There was also Boz Scaggs (Dec. 4, 1977) and Earth Wind and Fire (around 1978). The ’70s rounded out with the Beach Boys (Oct. 7, 1979) and Peter Frampton (Oct. 22, 1979).
The ’80s saw the likes of Kool and The Gang (Jan. 23, 1980 and ’81), Alabama (early 1980s), Buffett (Oct. 31, 1980), Steve Forbert (Nov. 10, 1980), Ronnie Milsap (Jan. 31, 1981), Hank Williams Jr. and the Burrito Brothers (Oct. 22, 1982), Cheap Trick (Nov. 5, 1982), Joan Jett ()ct. 12, 1983) and Blue Oyster Cult (1985), the last concert with which Paul had any dealings.
Paul said Buffett’s performances were memorable because he was an alum. “For part of the first concert, he put on a USM football jersey and the second time, he put on a Kappa Sigma shirt,” said Paul.
“And the only thing he did when he came to town – on both visits – was want to go see Mom Reid, who was the Kappa Sig housemother. He would go over there and spend a couple of hours with her visiting, just one on one.”
Buffett attended Auburn his freshman year and pledged Sigma Pi there, but pledged Kappa Sigma when he transferred to USM. He made a brief stop at Pearl River Community College between the two.
Legend has it that it was at the Sigma Pi house that Buffett learned to play guitar from an older fraternity brother.
Paul said even though Buffett was an alum, his concerts were handled just as any other concert, through an agency. “There was an inclination that he wasnted to be here,” said Paul. “He was on a Southern tour and we were able to book those acts, but that one was special, because he was kind of our first big alum who hit it big in the music industry, so it was hugely popular.
“The interesting thing about Buffett, he was drawing crowds in the ’70s and its 2018 and he’s still drawing bigger and bigger groups, so he has a staying power that not many of these other groups could speak to.”
For an upcoming Buffett concert in Charleston, S.C., tickets start at $73 and go up to $1,052. Tickets for his USM concerts were $5, if not free.
“We supplemented that,” said Paul. “At first we would make admission free for students (they were already paying a Student Activities fee), so we were underwriting. We weren’t really running it for a profit and then we would always have a reduced fee, which may have been the $5, for an amazing amount of talent.”
Robert St. John remembered the 1978 Buffett concert at Reed Green for its link to the Minit Mart on 28th Avenue, across from Forrest General Hospital, where the “teenagers” hung out when he was a kid. St. John described that location as the epicenter of the Hillendale neighborhood.
Buffett identified that location as THE “Mini Mart” in his song “The Great Peanut Butter Conspiracy.”
Paul said Willie Nelson had and has quite a reputation for having a good time. “So even though we prepared dressing rooms, he would stay in his bus, and you see a steady stream of some kind of smoke coming out of there.”
One of Nelson’s requests when he came to town was that he wanted someone to take him fishing and Paul said they would arrange for someone to take him in the afternoons.
With Blue Oyster Cult in 1985, Paul said the shows had become more technical. “They were the first band to use lasers,” said Paul, of the band’s affinity to spread different colors all over the coliseum through the use of the lasers.
“Somebody from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality came down and was trying to shut us down and prohibit the show because they thought those lasers were dangerous, which they were not,” said Paul. “I remember it was a very tense back and forth all day long event before somehow we were able to convince him that it was safe to go on. They had been in 32 other venues with this and there hadn’t been any problems.”
Another story Paul tells is about the chain link fence around the perimeter of the coliseum. “Because most of the tickets sold were general admission, on a couple of occasions – the Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire concerts, the crowd waiting outside in anticipation actually pushed the fence down. There were a lot of eager patrons.”
A POPULAR PLACE
So, what was it that drew these big name and up-and-coming acts to the Hub City? Paul said it really wasn’t the facility (Reed Green Coliseum), “because it really was a challenge.”
Paul attributes the popularity of the university as a concert venue to its location between more major venues. “At that time, colleges and universities were also pretty important sources for record sales, which has changed,” he said. “We could pick these up on an odd date.”
He said if the Doobie Brothers were in Birmingham on a Saturday and New Orleans the following Friday, then Southern Miss could pick them up Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. It was a matter of taking a look at tour schedules and we had good relationships with major agencies and kind of picked those places that are in between. Paul said promoters also knew they could charge colleges more of a premium, because it was a for-profit business. “Being able to accommodate week-night shows, which didn’t seem to hurt us too badly, especially with the younger folks, and to be in the right geography were a big help in securing such acts.”
So what happened? Why aren’t big name music acts not making regular stops in the Pine Belt?
The industry and the market changed, according to Paul. “Our first big barrier was that the Reed Green Coliseum was not built as a multi-purpose facility,” said Paul. “Many hope when it’s renovated one day it will be. But the one thing we could not do in that facility was to suspend the sound and lighting from the ceiling.”
He said they worked around that for many years. And added expenses also came from having to rent a suitable stage and stackables for large speakers, which would obstruct the view for some concert-goers. Paul explained that after a while, tours came out with their own sound and lighting and if you couldn’t suspend it from the ceiling, you were out of the game, so that was a big one.”
The expense was another challenge. “Productions became much more elaborate,” he said. “Think about the era of Michael Jackson. It wasn’t just about stacking the speakers and getting some lights, but all this other stuff. The coliseum was not a large venue, so the megastars started kind of exclusively heading to much larger facilities, which would seat 15,000-20,000. They did fewer shows, but with higher volume.”
In the end, the “demise” of such concerts was a combination of a small market, bands not scheduling mid-week gigs anymore, a facility that wouldn’t accommodate all the new bells and whistles bands incorporated into their shows, the modern technology and increasing expense the university couldn’t carry.
“It was all those things working together,” said Paul. “It was a golden time, a golden era, but the whole industry is so different today with the modern technology and access to all kinds of music. Almost every student has their own unique playlist and they go to smaller venues and see bands that are not hugely popular, outside of your megastars, your U2, your Cold Play or whatever it might be.”
Paul said the size of the crowd really depended on the act. “We almost always broke even and sometimes made a small profit; at other times we did not.”
Some of the biggest crowds for concerts Paul managed included the Commodores, Earth Wind and Fire, the Doobie Brothers and Alabama all probably drew between 8,000 and 9,000. “For some of these concerts, like Chicago or Earth Wind and Fire, if the fire marshal had been there we would have been in trouble because we were stacking people in there,” Paul said.
Paul noted that usually bands would only play one venue in the state, but on occasion they might have also played Jackson.
“Mississippi State was very active in the concert business,” said Paul. “Their facility was a bit more modern and accommodating. I remember during the same period of time they had Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, but they usually didn’t play both them and us. It would usually be Memphis or Birmingham, maybe Jackson, then New Orleans, Baton Rouge or Houston.”
Paul said the unique thing about all the behind-the-stage work is that other than himself and whoever the coliseum manager was, the shows were all produced by students.
“In the University Activities Council, we had a music chair and a technical chair and other than that our students did it all,” he said. “They were the ticket takers, the roadies, transportation.”
He noted that one of the great challenges back then was how many doors the coliseum had. “People were always trying to sneak in, some in very inventive ways such as a Coca-Cola delivery person, complete with uniform. “Our poor students had to man those doors,” he said. “We hired as many police as we could afford and that was a lot but still couldn’t put one on every door. The students got to see the concerts through a crack in the door trying to keep people out.”
Paul said producing Bob Dylan through Blue Oyster Cult was a lot of shows and a lot of fun. “And the students would learn so much about the business of entertainment, how to deal with cantankerous managers, but usually the musicians were just as nice as could be.”
Bands were known for having riders on their contracts that asked for all kinds of different things from music to transportation.
Paul remembers a particular incident when the Doobie Brothers came to town. “I don’t know if it was as a prank or them just being mean spirited, but one of our young student drivers was driving them and they actually asked her to get out of the car. They took it and left her, not in an abandoned way, but a few blocks from campus.
“These musical events served as life experiences for the students who produced these shows and it was really a lot of fun. I think a lot of valuable learning came out of it as well.
“And Bud (Kirkpatrick) was the Godfather of this whole thing.”
Not speaking on behalf of the university because he’s retired, but from his own perspective Paul believes the three deciding factors for not hosting big-name concerts now are the facility, market size and the expense.
“One day out there I think a lot of us hope the Reed Green Coliseum will be renovated in a major way,” said Paul. “A plan would be to renovate it in a way that it would service as a a municipal-type facility. With the help of the cities, counties, states and federal government, it could become a venue again. At that point shows like Disney on Ice and other such productions could be a part of the whole scene. “I’m sure the leadership in this area is all kind of focused in on that, but it’s It’s got to happen one day, hopefully sooner than later.”