Alabama signed a recording contract with RCA Records in 1980, launching a career that to date has resulted in 21 gold, platinum and multi-platinum albums, 42 No. 1 singles and more than 65 million records sold. Alabama has received over 150 industry awards including eight country music Entertainer of the Year honors, two Grammys, two Peoples Choice Awards and their very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They were named the Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music in 1989 and Country Group of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1999.
Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, Jeff Cook and Mark Herndon are also known for their charitable endeavors. Alabama has received the Bob Hope, Minnie Pearl and Country Radio Broadcasters' Humanitarian Awards and the B.M.I. President's Trophy for their public service contributions. Randy Owen was on hand to receive the President's Award, which has been presented only three other times. Alabama has also been the recipient of 23 American Music Awards since 1983, including their prestigious Award of Merit.
After more than two decades in the spotlight, virtually all of that time at the top of their game and the top of the charts, you'd think Alabama had done it all. After all, they were country music's first supergroupthey've sold millions of albumsand they've received nearly every award and accolade. But there was one thing that remained, one thing Alabama had to yet to attempt. And it was the one thing no one ever thought they would dosay "goodbye."
In May 2002, Alabama stunned the world, announcing plans for a Farewell Tour in 2003. It hardly seems possible. But, true to the form we've come to expect from Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, Jeff Cook and Mark Herndon, they're planning to make their departure from touring with class and grace.
The Alabama American Farewell Tour will consist of at least 40 cities from coast to coast and will be a celebration of the band's storied career. In conjunction with the Farewell Tour is the release of Alabama's 24th album on RCA. Titled, In The Mood: The Love Songs, the recording features 23 tracks 21 of the group's best known love songs and two new recordings.
Two newly recorded tracks, "I'm in the Mood" and "The Living Years," lead off the album. The former is a smoky love song that glows with the trembling intensity of smoldering embers, recalling the sensuality of "Feels So Right" 20 years earlier. The latter may be a new take on Mike and the Mechanics' 1989 No. 1 pop anthem, but Randy's plaintive vocal backed by Teddy and Jeff's signature harmonies convey the same love between a parent and child that made "In Pictures" a No. 1 hit.
Alabama's fans have honored them in countless ways, securing the group's place in country music history. But the millions of albums they've sold, the awards they've won, and the hits they've created tell only a small portion of Alabama's story.
Theirs is an amazing career, stretching across more than two decadesand for three of the guys, it's been more than 30 years. In the late '60s, cousins Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry discovered they shared a common interest in music. Joined by Jeff Cook, they started playing on a regular basis, eventually leaving their hometown of Fort Payne, Ala., to hone their talents on the club scene, most notably in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at The Bowery under the name Wildcountry.
"The first time that Randy, Jeff and I got together and started singing, we felt like we had something different there, something special," Teddy Gentry recalls. "The harmony and vocals were the first things that jumped out [and showed me] that this was something unique that we could build on."
With a name change, the addition of drummer Mark Herndon in 1979, a major label deal and songs like "My Home's in Alabama" and "Tennessee River," Alabama became, seemingly overnight, a driving force in country music, essentially changing it forever.
"It's really hard to measure or quantify, because the fact is they opened the door for a lot of the modern-day bands that are there. And at the same time, musically, they pushed the boundaries," RCA Label Group Chairman Joe Galante remembers. "They opened a whole generation's ears to what became country music and drew them into the formatit was enormous."
"They really have a way of saying something different," Galante adds. "I'm always amazed at how they can come up with a little turn of a phrase or a little guitar lick or an entire approach to a melody that is different. And there was an energy and a personality that they put into it. They're a band that all of us will talk about for a long, long time to come."
Energy and personality were just the start Alabama put a new face on country music. Teenage boys and 20-something men who had been sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the names of bands like Yes, Boston and Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1978 had Alabama's trademark logo across their chests by the time they left high school and graduated college a few years later. At the same time, the group's soulful southern ballads stirred emotions in women of all ages, drawing huge female audiences to their shows.
Alabama was, quite simply, blazing a path that would take country music to new places and in new directions. Sure, established country superstars like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were enjoying crossover success at the time, but the foursomerelative newcomers in 1981made their way into the Top 20 on the pop charts as well. "Feels So Right," "The Closer You Get," "Love in the First Degree," "Lady Down on Love" and "Take Me Down" all received pop airplay.
At the time, male and female soloists shared the country spotlight with a handful of vocal duos and harmonizing groups. The word "band," by and large, only applied to the musicians that backed a high profile singer. Suddenly, there was a "band" on the chartsand Alabama was that "band." They played and sang, and country music was rocked in much the same way as the pop world in 1964, when the arrival of a "band" called The Beatles ended the era of the vocal "group," ensembles like The Drifters and The Ink Spots.
Alabama concerts became immediate sellouts whenever and wherever tickets went on sale. Many of those who flocked to Alabama's live performances with their state of the art production were not necessarily fans of country music and did not listen largely to country radio. Because of Alabama's impact on the format, however, more and more new listeners were being attracted to country. Alabama's multi-platinum record sales and their energetic concert approach helped to stamp a new identity on the country music industry. Alabama was leaving its legendary mark in concert arenas, record stores and on country radio. Their approach to country music attracted fans of all ages and continues to do so today.
Alabama's live concert approach mirrored the band's club days while playing for tips at The Bowery in Myrtle Beach. Being able to react immediately to song requests meant money in the tip jar. The band's upbringing on country, gospel, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rock -n- roll and southern rock enabled them to perform with ease everything from Acuff to ZZ Top.
Now, in the huge concert venues and setting new box office records all over North America, Alabama stayed true to their course. Every night's show was unique, reflecting new, live interpretations and arrangements of the band's rapidly growing list of hits in their set list. Each show was specially tailored for that particular night and that particular audience. The band could also weave an instant request, if necessary, into their set just as easily as they had done during their night club days.
Randy Owen says, "We really tried to push the boundaries of our music. We worked very hard at trying to make every live performance a special experience for our fans. We still feel the same way. It was important to all of us that we never got comfortable with what we were doing at the time. We constantly developed new arrangements and a new approach to our live shows without losing the feeling that made these songs hits in the first place."
Alabama's music was broad based, attracting a huge fan following of varied ethnic backgrounds and musical tastes. Jeff cook adds, "Every night was different, no two shows were the same so we wanted to give the audience a performance that wasn't just like the one before. Many times we did two sold out shows in the same place on the same day so we pulled songs in and out and added new ones to change things around."
Mark Herndon continues, "We were among the first country acts to introduce what was considered at the time to be rock -n- roll production on our tours. We employed a lot of ideas, set designs and video innovations into our shows. I believe Alabama provided a new dimension to the format. I'm proud to have been a part of what we were doing that helped attract younger audiences to our concerts without alienating our older fans."
Teddy Gentry agrees, "Every night before I walk on stage I know that there will be people in the audience who have never seen Alabama before. I want us to be able to do something that will make them feel good about having been there and that they will always remember us by. We've always kept our level of expectations high. We've always been our best and worst critics."
"Alabama knocked the door down for self-contained bands to come along and be a part of country music," explains Mark Miller of Sawyer Brown. "Before [them], it was Merle Haggard and The Strangers . . . Buck Owens and The Buckaroosthe bands were always backing up the artists. There was never a self-contained band, truly, until Alabama came along."
Mark and his band walked through the door Alabama had opened, and others followed. "From day one we watched Alabama. They were the thing that you looked at. 'Hey, manlook what they did!'" says Dana Williams of Diamond Rio. Marty Roe adds, "They were the hope for bands in country music."
And their legacy extends into the new millennium. "They're the people that have influenced me and the band the most," says Dean Sams of Lonestar. "They're a class act. I will make one of their [Farewell Tour] showsyou can count on it." Kenny Chesney has opened for Alabama, and, he explains, "To a lot of people it's a big ego trip. But Alabama, they just go out and they play music. They were the first guys to treat me like I belonged out on the road."
It's impossible to quantify Alabama's impactnumbers, however huge, fail to fully depict the role they've played. Perhaps because the numbers themselves are so massive, it's hard to grasp and place them in any real perspective. Nonetheless, consider these facts:
Alabama was the first group in history to win the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year award and the only artist to win this award for three consecutive years. They were Entertainer of the Year for five straight years for the Academy of Country Music, accomplishments that have never been duplicated by any other artist (solo or group).
Starting with "Tennessee River" in 1980, they racked up a string of 21 consecutive No. 1 hits. 21 more would follow.
With 65 million albums sold worldwide, they're one of the 20 best-selling acts of all time. In the U.S. alone, Alabama has sold more albums than Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan. They've outsold veteran rock bands like Chicago, Journey, Foreigner, Boston and even The Doors. And Alabama is one of the five biggest-selling country acts and the best-selling country group of all time, with career album sales that surpass those of Willie Nelson and Reba McEntire. The band was named Recording Industry Association of America's Country Group of the Century.
Attempting to find a numerical means to "sum up" Alabama's success actually becomes a staggering prospect until you realize that all you need is one figureone statisticto say it all. Set aside the millions of albums . . . the awards, the accolades, even their unprecedented collection of hits, and look simply to the fansthe countless fans they've touched over the years. Picture the husband who sees his wife in "Close Enough to Perfect," and the wife who thinks of him when she hears "Once Upon a Lifetime." The teenager who got his first kiss as "Feels So Right" played on the AM radio in his parents' car, and his daughter who thought it was so cool when her dad's favorite group teamed up with hers to sing "God Must've Spent a Little More Time on You." The couple who heard "Love in the First Degree" when they met, had "Forever's As Far As I'll Go" played at their wedding, and now recall strains of "How Do You Fall In Love" as they turn the pages of their wedding album during a shared evening in front of the fire. Look at those people, add up those numbers, count every person who's been touched by the music of Alabamathen and only then will you truly see the incredible legacy these four men have created. Alabama's magic will always be preserved on discs like In the Mood: The Love Songs and it will always live in the hearts of their fans.
"We've done a lot of things in our career by pure accidentthere's been a lot of luck involved," says a humble Randy Owen. But there's one other rule that Randy knows has served Alabama well: "Following our hearts and our feelings."