“My grandparents were immigrants from eastern Germany and France. They went to New York then Atlanta and opened a chain of delicatessens. I am the namesake of my grandfather’s brother who perished in the Holocaust. I retrieved his paperwork at the Holocaust Museum in Paris.
My parents moved to Mobile to start their life and their first apartment was in the Leinkauf district. My father had a ’52 Ford. As we were driving to Mobile, the radio blasted Hank Williams’ song ‘Jambalaya’ at the peak of the hit. I hear it today and it takes me back to laying in the back seat of that pale green Ford in dreamland listening to country music. My mother had a Victrola and listened to other types of music including South American music. I had a diverse introduction to music because it was always around even if no one in my family played it.
I would come home after school and my nanny would be ironing with her Bakelite radio at the end of her ironing board. That radio blared B.B. King, Elmore James, and Howlin’ Wolf from WMOZ, the black station in Mobile. I didn’t understand the sound, but it was magnetic for me. That is where the downfall began and I had no vocabulary to define it. I found out the sound was a guitar and I talked my parents into buying me one when I was 9 or 10 years old. They bought me an acoustic and electric guitar. I drifted off to sleep making sounds with the guitar on my chest. The Seamen’s Club had a piano and I made noise on that. Eventually I took guitar lessons from Luke Morris who was playing in the back of the restaurant. I later took lessons in Los Angeles when I jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. There were some great jazz guitar players and it was monkey see, monkey do lessons. That helped big time.
In high school, I was in a band that called ourselves Mark Five and we played at the Azalea Skating Rink for neighborhood kids. I played the proverbial Silvertone guitar and could play all of the Rolling Stones songs such as ‘Time is on My Side.’
Music has always been a mind-altering substance to me. Chord changes make me feel something. I remember walking into the Dairy Castle hearing Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say Part 2’ and couldn’t believe it. Music is a different journey every night. You feel it when it is happening. Joan Armatrading was the one I had chemistry with. I played with her at Carnegie Hall for two nights in a row. Wet Willie also played at Carnegie Hall, that was a shocker.
I majored in bioligy and minored in chemistry at Alabama because they came easy to me. I was going to go into medicine, dentistry or marine biology. Science is still a fascination. I had a funky little electric guitar and played in alternative bands that played at frat parties. I was always checking out the music scene and saw the Allman Brothers come through Tuscaloosa before they were called The Allman Brothers. They were strange, skinny guys from California. I never thought I would have a career in music or would one day be opening for The Allman Brothers Band.
I graduated in ’68 and came back to Mobile to work in the family business. I jammed at a couple of places and sat in one night at the Harlem Social Club because I could play the blues. Soon after that, someone called me at work and said, ‘You don’t know me, but I am a drummer and heard you play the blues. I have a gig in Panama City for three weeks. The band fell apart on me and I am putting another band together. Do you want to try out?’ Sure. Why not? I didn’t have a guitar case and my guitar strap was a piece of rope.
The drummer was Lewis Ross and they were practicing at John Anthony’s dad’s house in Whistler. Brothers Jack and Jimmy Hall were also there. They looked like hippies and said I looked like Dustin Hoffman from ‘The Graduate’ but gave me the gig. My father understood and let me go. I owe him a great debt. I thought it would be three weeks with the band and then back to work for my dad. I never went back. I was 22 and jumping off the cliff with no wings to fly, but I didn’t care. Things moved so fast from the Panama City gig. The next gig was playing at a club in Springville, Ark. where The Band used to play. We opened for Vanilla Fudge. That was the summer of 1969. Our band name was Fox and we didn’t know how fast things would change. There is no way those kids from Mobile could have predicted where music would take them.”
Rick Hirsch, Part One
(This is the thirteenth story in the series “The Souls of Mobile,” with people nominated because of the good they do for the city. Their faces are now part of the mural “The Souls of Mobile” that Ginger Woechan painted on Hayley’s Bar on Dauphin Street in Mobile. This mural is a collaboration with the Mobile Arts Council.)