MURALS OF OZARK
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Wilbur Jackson Mural
100 N. Merrick Avenue, Ozark, Alabama
The first mural commissioned by the Ozark Mural Program features football legend and Ozark native, Wilbur Jackson. Jackson grew up in Ozark and started his football career playing for D.A. Smith Middle School and then Carroll High School. After a successful career in football, he returned home to Ozark where he started and ran a successful business and remains active in the community.
In 1969, Wilbur Jackson made history on the Tuscaloosa campus of The University of Alabama when Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, head football coach of the Crimson Tide, made the decision to move forward with the addition of African American players to the Alabama football program. Jackson became the first African American football player to sign a full athletic scholarship with the Alabama Crimson Tide. His arrival on campus brought much welcome excitement as racial barriers had been broken not only with the Alabama football program but the Southeastern Conference and in sports as a whole.
Wilbur Jackson is a kind, humble, and athletically talented man who was at the very beginning of great changes at The University of Alabama and beyond. He had a successful college football career, was Captain of the 1973 UA Nation Championship Team, and still holds the record for most yards per carry at UA. In 1974, he was drafted ninth overall by the San Francisco 49ers and voted Rookie of the Year. He ended his career in the NFL in 1982 with the Washington Redskins winning Super Bowl XVII. An Alabama Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Jackson retired from professional football and returned to his hometown to live as a husband, father, business owner, church member, and involved citizen. Ozark considers Wilbur Jackson to be their own Hometown Hero.
Master artist and muralist Wes Hardin was commissioned to create the Wilbur Jackson mural which was completed in 2021. This beautiful mural is an impressive 82 feet long and 26 feet high and is located at 100 N. Merrick Avenue in Ozark.
Dale County Music & Theater Mural
184 E. Broad Street, Ozark, Alabama
The second mural commissioned by the Ozark Mural Program features individuals from Dale County who have excelled in music and/or theater. This mural features Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Lew Houston Childree, Judge Jackson, Gordon Dodson, Dewey Williams, Margie Benson, Julian Tharpe, John H. “Pete” Mosley, David Bolich, Jo Johnston, and Rickey Shirley. Master artist and muralist Wes Hardin was commissioned to create this mural which was completed in 2022.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Willie Mae Thornton was born in 1926 in Ariton, Alabama, to a Baptist minister and his wife. When Thornton was 14 her mother died, and she left home to pursue a career in music. A self-taught musician, she joined the Hot Harlem Revue and traveled the southeast honing her skills as a singer, drummer, and harmonica player.
In 1952, she headlined at the Apollo Theater then later that year recorded “Hound Dog” which topped the R&B charts and sold over two million copies. Elvis Presley recorded his own rendition to soaring success. In the early 1960s, Thornton wrote and recorded “Ball ‘n’ Chain” which was popularized by Janis Joplin. She continued to record and was regularly featured at music festivals in the U.S. and Europe and was one of the few female American blues singers to develop a following overseas.
In 1976, she was involved in a major car accident that left her with difficulties walking, but it did not keep her from performing. She was a main feature at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1979 and in 1983, she performed at the Newport Jazz Festival with artists such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Lloyd Glenn. After her death in 1984, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Big Mama’s “Hound Dog” and “Ball ‘n’ Chain” is listed in the Rock Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Lew Houston Childree
Lew Houston Childree was born in 1936 and grew up in Ozark, Alabama. He started playing the steel guitar at an early age. Locally known as “Little Lew Childree,” by the age of 8 he was performing on WIRB radio and later had a 30-minute weekly radio show on WOOF radio. At 12 years old, he performed on the Horace Heidt Show in Montgomery. Childree grew up next door to Julian Tharpe who shared his love for the steel guitar and is also featured on the mural. Often the boys would bring their guitars to school and entertain their classmates.
After graduating High School, Childree joined the U.S. Marine Corps where he played the steel guitar in the Marine Corps Band. In 1966, he joined Conway Twitty and played the steel guitar on several of Twitty’s albums including “Here's Conway Twitty and His Lonely Blue Boys.” After leaving Twitty’s band, he married and the couple formed the band “Kitty and Lew Houston and the Steel Drivers”.
During his career, Childree worked with many famous musicians including Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, and Charlie Pride. Heralded by many as an unsung great of the steel guitar, Lew Houston Childree was inducted into the Alabama Steel Guitar Association Hall of Fame in 2017.
Judge Jackson was born in Montgomery County, Alabama, in 1883 to a family of sharecroppers. He obtained little formal education and left home at sixteen years old. Eventually, he settled in Ozark, and in 1902 he met Lela Campbell. Jackson began courting Lela, and in October of that year, they married and in time would have 11 children.
Jackson led a full life as a farmer, businessman, composer, singer, songwriter, teacher, and author. In 1934, he self-published The Colored Sacred Harp a collection of 77 shape-note songs written and arranged by African-American musicians in Southeastern Alabama. Jackson composed eighteen hymns in the collection himself. Originating in the 1800s, shape-notes were developed to bring music to the masses and became a popular format for reading notes by a given shape. Jackson’s love of God and the Sacred Harp tradition led him to organize conventions and share Sacred Harp music across the Southeast.
Jackson was not only a successful composer and singer but was also a prominent farmer owning over 300 acres of land and a successful landlord with 15 rental homes. Judge Jackson is fondly remembered today within the Sacred Harp community and by the City of Ozark which named a housing project after him in 1963 and recognized him as an Ozark Civic Giant in 2019.
Born in 1950, Gordon Dodson grew up in a music-loving family in Ozark, Alabama. He credits his brother, Rodney, for encouraging him to learn to play his first song on the guitar. As teenagers, the Dodson brothers started a band and played at local teen clubs, and even made a record. Recorded on the Red Wave record label, the Baron's 45 rpm is now well known to followers of garage bands of the 1960s.
The band later dissolved as members were drafted into the military including Gordon Dodson. While serving in Vietnam, a fellow soldier taught him to play the banjo. After completing his military service, he returned and used his banjo skills in commercials and a documentary.
Dodson went on to play in a wide variety of bands with styles that range from country to rock, blues, and even bluegrass. His work took him across the United States often sharing the stage with many notable artists such as George Jones, Earl Thomas Conley, T. Graham Brown, Stonewall Jackson, Sara Evans, Rhonda Vincent, and more. Later, he returned to finish his education at Troy University and taught guitar at local community colleges. After retiring from teaching, he focused his musical efforts on the 14-string steel guitar and in 2010 was awarded the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame’s Bill Simmons Horizon Award.
Dewey Williams was born in the Haw Ridge Community of Dale County, Alabama, in 1898 to a family of sharecroppers. Williams was brought up singing Sacred Harp hymns with his family and neighbors. Later, he would hone his skills with local music leaders such as Judge Jackson, who is also featured on the mural.
In 1921, Williams married Alice Casey and had 8 children. He worked as a sharecropper, was a deacon for his church, and taught Sacred Harp shape note singing.
In 1955, Williams, Judge Jackson, Henry Japheth Jackson, and other Sacred Harp singers developed the first broadcast of Sacred Harp for Ozark’s WOZK-AM. Williams would later produce and direct a monthly television show on Sacred Harp music for WTVY. After retiring from farming, he devoted himself full-time to teaching and performing Sacred Harp music. He organized the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers in 1970 and directed the group in performances and workshops throughout the Southeast. The Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers even performed in Canada and appeared several times at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. In 1983, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Williams the National Heritage Fellowship, the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. He was the first Alabamian to receive such an award.
Julian Tharpe was born in Skipperville, Alabama, in 1937. At a very young age, Tharpe developed an interest in the guitar and would lay it on the bed to play it, since he was too small to hold it up. As his skills grew, he began playing for audiences in local bars and later on a radio show in Troy. By the age of 14, he was an established musician sharing the stage with Tex Ritter and performing on television and radio shows. Tharpe was known as a master of the 14-string steel guitar and even pioneered the “speed picking” style.
Over the course of his career, he was a solo artist, record producer, songwriter, band leader, business owner, and teacher. He released several albums and LP’s including "The Jet Age" in 1977, "12+14= Country" a Jazz collaboration with Zane Beck in 1978, "Southern Fried Steel" in 1979, "Deep Feelings" in 1984, and "Take Your Pick" in collaboration with Blondie Calderon in 1984. Tharpe toured the country and performed at The Grand Ole Opry, Hee Haw, and shared the stage with legendary musicians such as Ray Price, Barbara Mandrell, Zane Beck, Bobby Caldwell, and more. He was posthumously inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2008.
Rickey Shirley was born in Greenville in 1947 and moved to Ozark in 1970 after graduating from Troy University with a degree in Music Education. That year he married his sweetheart, Maurine, and they would have four children together. Shirley’s love for music was passed onto his children and grandchildren several of whom followed him into musical theater and production.
Over the next 28 years, he served as the choral music teacher at Carroll High School. Music filled his life and was a part of everything he did at home, school, and church. After retiring from Ozark City Schools, Shirley went on to teach full time in Georgia and served as an adjunct professor for Wallace Community College and Troy University. Shirley also served as the music director from 1970 to 1998 for countless plays and musicals produced by Carroll High School. He returned to this role in 2012 where he produced musicals with the Dale County Performing Arts Council and Wish Upon A Star Performing Arts Company. In 1993, Shirley was selected as Ozark’s Man of the Year. Then in 2013, he was awarded the Outstanding Adjunct Faculty award from Troy University.
Born in 1931, Jo Johnston grew up in Ozark, Alabama, where her father, A.D. Kirkland, ran a pharmacy in downtown Ozark. She studied classical music and over her career composed over 100 pieces of music. Three notable compositions are the Army branch anthems: “Above the Best,” written for the Army Aviation Branch; “Essayons,” written for the Army Corps of Engineers; and “Dragon Soldiers,” written for the Army Chemical Corps.
Johnston’s love for music encompassed more than just the military. She collaborated with her daughter, Linda Thompson, to write three musicals together. She also founded Elenjay Publishing and served as president of Apache Records. She was also commissioned to write a song for the Prince of Monaco.
Johnston has received many awards and honors over the course of her career. In 1988, she was presented with the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Award, at the time it was the second highest civilian service award bestowed by the Army. She also received the Katharine Wright Award, the Commander’s Award for Public Service, and the Order of St. Michael (Silver) Award just to name a few.