I call it “haunted” because every time I walk by there, I hear a little bit of Scotty Moore’s guitar twang backing a young, swivel-hipped Elvis. I hear the high harmonies of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys winging in from the mid-’60s. I can almost see the black cases slamming shut on Lynyard Skynyrd’s equipment as they load-out and get ready to catch a Louisiana-bound plane the next morning. These are ghosts. I’m sure of it.
And, yes, I do walk by there. But not many folks do. Not much reason to make the old auditorium site a destination now. The chunk of land is just sort of in the way these days. The ugly privacy fence only hides dirt mounds and renegade trees and a few chunks of concrete that escaped after the demolition back in 1997. But catch it at the right time of day, and you’ll feel the ghosts.
Ask Gene Berger. He has the memories, sees the ghosts. Berger, of course, hears music every day in the place he owns, Horizon Records. Sit him down and get him talking about the things he’s seen at Memorial Auditorium, and those particular musical memories take his voice down a half step or so, down to a quiet tone that breathes respect. “It seemed like every town the size of Greenville had a big brick box of an auditorium back then.” He pauses, combing through the shows he witnessed at Memorial Auditorium. “I saw a lot of country stuff, legendary acts. George and Tammy, Conway and Loretta. I saw Waylon Jennings (at right) in ’76. And Al Green, I saw him at his peak.” Berger goes on to talk about Green’s Beatle-esque, high-decibel reception by the R&B crowd. “Women were screaming and throwing roses at him on the auditorium stage. Probably throwing other things, too.”
In Memorial Auditorium, Berger saw Linda Ronstadt in her Hasten Down the Wind heyday, when she toured with legendary studio session players like Waddy Wachtel and Kenny Edwards. He saw Foghat in the band’s pre–Fool for the City, post–Savoy Brown era. In 1987, he bought tickets to a benefit concert for soul singer Dee Clark that featured The Drifters and The Shirelles and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. (Yes, that Frogman Henry.) There was one act in the benefit show that Berger can’t forget, the one that still haunts him.
“I saw The Iceman that night,” he says, holding his arm out so I can check out the goose bumps. The Iceman is Jerry Butler, a Chicago soul legend who was the original lead singer for R&B group the Impressions. When Butler hit Greenville, he was a solo act. “I sat in the balcony, and when his voice came over the PA, it was like a fog rolling over the county.” Berger remembers sitting there, promising himself that when Butler launched into one of his biggest hits, “For Your Precious Love,” he was going to flee the balcony and make his way to the stage. And he did. “The place was like half full and back then security was pretty light. When The Iceman broke it down in the middle of ‘Your Precious Love,’ I was right there, right by the stage. Look,” he says, “more goose bumps.”
The 7,000-seat Memorial Auditorium is famous among Southern rock purists because it was the venue for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s final performance on October 19, 1977. Two days earlier, Skynyrd had released Street Survivors, with an ominous cover shot on the album featuring the band surrounded by walls of flame. The band stayed overnight in Greenville and the next morning boarded a private plane at the downtown airport, bound for Baton Rouge. They never made their destination. The plane ran low on fuel and crashed into a Louisiana bayou, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines. Because of the nature of the accident, Capital Records pulled Street Survivors from store shelves and re-released the record with alternate cover art.
The Lynyrd Skynyrd tragedy wasn’t the first time a horrific accident followed on the heels of a Memorial Auditorium show. On August 5, 1973, Stevie Wonder (at right in 1973) played to a massive, enthusiastic Greenville crowd. The next day, he and his entourage left for a benefit gig in Durham, North Carolina. Near Salisbury, the car Wonder occupied rear-ended a logging truck, and the singer sustained life-threatening head injuries. He didn’t perform in public again until March of 1974.
But tragedy is rarely on the mind of music lovers when they talk about Memorial Auditorium. They’d rather talk about the shows they’ll never forget. And if you get a chance to speak with Paul Riddle about his experiences at the auditorium, you’ll get a history lesson. Riddle was the drummer for the seminal Southern rock band the Marshall Tucker Band, from nearby Spartanburg. With their homegrown hybrid of rock, rhythm and blues, jazz, country, and gospel, Marshall Tucker spearheaded the Southern rock invasion in the early ’70s.
The Tucker boys were road warriors, playing up to 300 dates a year in the early days, including sold-out gigs at Madison Square Garden, but Riddle has fond and vivid memories of Memorial Auditorium. “Way back, you know, we played talent shows in Spartanburg at the auditorium there and played Greenville a lot. We loved playing in those halls. The crowd was right on top of you, and we loved that.”
Oddly enough, playing drums during epic Southern rock shows of the ’70s doesn’t dominate Riddle’s recollections of Memorial Auditorium. Ask him which show is at the top of his hit list and you’ll get an unexpected answer: Gladys Knight and the Pips. “Look, I’m pretty critical about the way bands sound, and the auditorium didn’t have the best acoustics, but let me tell you, that night, man, that night I was close enough to feel that sound coming off the bandstand. Gladys was on her A-game. The horn section was amazing. The Pips were locked in. I got to tell you, that is one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Great memory of mine.”
The memory of seeing the legendary James Brown hasn’t dulled for Franklin Phillips, a local computer technician who also owns a small music publishing company. Phillips says that he and his friends “almost lived at the auditorium,” seeing the parade of R&B bands and gospel groups that made Greenville a tour stop. “And when I was eleven or twelve, we heard that James Brown was headlining a show at the auditorium. And get this—we walked from way, way over on West Washington to see the show. Walked by ourselves, just a bunch of kids from the neighborhood. We got into the show for a dollar. James Brown for a dollar,” Phillips laughs.
Phillips says he remembers he and his buddies on the floor of the auditorium trying to mimic the Godfather of Soul’s (at right in 1973) classic dance moves. “We all wanted to dance like James Brown. Oh, and not only did we get into the show for a dollar, but during the show, they threw records into the crowd. A free record and James Brown for a dollar. That’s a deal.” Phillips has to laugh again.
Ask a hundred people about the musical acts they remember at Memorial Auditorium, and you’ll get a hundred answers. The litany of bands and performers reads like a hall-of-fame membership roster: Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, The Monkees, Alice Cooper, KISS, Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, John Fogerty, Parliament Funkadelic, Charlie Daniels, Dave Matthews and on and on. In the early ’80s, if you had ten bucks in your pocket, you might have seen Rick James and his opening act, an up-and-coming singer who pranced around in bikini bottoms and shredded his guitar like the next coming of Hendrix. His name was Prince. And you’d get change back from your ten spot. Tickets for that show cost $9.75.
Or you might have been there the afternoon in 1991 when Bob Dylan went on an unexpected, pre-show stroll around Greenville’s downtown and wasn’t allowed back in the auditorium. A somewhat overzealous security guard told him that there was a Bob Dylan show that night and he was under strict orders that nobody was allowed through the backstage door. Dylan had to enter Memorial Auditorium with his fans who were filing into the show.
Memories. Stories. Ghosts. They never rest easy. Now and then, rumors surface that a four-story apartment complex is planned for the old Memorial Auditorium site. I wonder if the folks that ultimately live in those apartments will realize the sacred ground they sleep on. I wonder if at night, when they close their eyes, if they’ll hear faint sounds coming through the walls, maybe something that sounds like Toy Caldwell’s high lonesome guitar or the high-pitched wail of Al Green’s fans?
I wonder what the living will think when they hear the ghosts playing encores.