Our annual list of people who fascinate, inspire, and make this city a great place to live.
Each year we put together a list of people (and this year we added an event) that we think have had really exceptional years and are poised or equally great things in the year to come. This year our list includes a comedian, a potter, rock and roll stars, equal-pay advocate, two artists, a convention center executive, a marine general turned college president, and the Dia de los Muertos festival. It’s a compendium of achievement we are proud to have associated with our magazine and our city.
By Willie Chriesman
Roy Wood Jr. feels funny. And it has nothing to do with the fact that he is calling from the road, waiting to go on stage this evening at the Punchline Comedy Club in San Francisco. He feels funny most of the time. Especially this past year, Wood has been feeling particularly happy about the progress of his career. Recently named a regular in time for the second season of the TBS comedy, “Sullivan and Son,” Wood has moved full time to Los Angeles and stepped up his live performances. The move to L.A. came on the heels of the cancellation of Wood’s morning radio show on 95.7 JAMZ. Wood says while he harbors no ill feelings following the cancellation, there was not the open communciation he would have wanted with the station management. “I found out because I kept getting these tweets and Facebook messages saying “Birmingham loves Roy” and “We love you, Roy.” I thought for a minute there that I was dead,” Wood says. “I found out on Thursday and had the U-haul packed by Tuesday. I said ‘I guess I need to go apartment hunting.’”
Since beginning his gig on the TBS show, Wood had been working on the radio show remotely from Los Angeles. “It is tough, so I understand. The level of creativity and chemistry takes a hit when everyone is not in the studio together.” Wood says he will always be grateful for the station for the years he worked there (he started as an intern in 2001) and for bosses that never got in his way creatively.
“Nobody loves Birmingham more than me. I like L.A., but I miss the South. The South is home. L.A. feels like a really, really long road trip. But there is only so much you can accomplish in an entertainment career from Birmingham,” says Wood.
Roy Wood Jr. moved to Birmingham when he was in the second grade. His father was the news director at the radio station WENN. “I used to go up to the station all the time with my dad.” Wood grew up in the West End and graduated from Ramsey High School. “I always loved radio because even when I was a kid, I saw how active everyone was in the community.” Wood felt he was funny back in high school. “When I was playing baseball for Ramsey, riding the bench and sitting in the sun at Rickwood Field, I would crack jokes,” Wood says. If he felt funny in high school, that was confirmed in college when he went to open mic nights at Florida State University. Since then, Wood’s career has become a gradual climb from tiny comedy clubs in small towns to television. “I can remember doing comedy in some strange places when I was starting out. I would sleep in my car to save money because I would only be paid $250 for six days of work,” Wood says. He would even sign on for temp work in a city to make extra money during the day before his nightly gigs, and sell CDs of his signature prank phone calls after the stand-up shows.The thought-provoking comedy of Roy Wood Jr. crosses cultural lines and has entertained millions nationwide—on stage, radio and television. Last year, Wood joins the cast of TBS’ new comedy, “Sullivan and Son,” guest-starring as the likable sidekick and best friend of Steve Byrne, who returns to Pittsburgh to run his parent’s local pub. Wood began his comedy career in 1999 at the age of 19 while attending Florida A&M University. By October 2006, Wood made his network television debut on “Late Night with David Letterman.” In 2008, Wood appeared on HBO’s historic “Def Comedy Jam.” Described as “charismatic crankiness” by Entertainment Weekly, Wood has worked with an array of comedians ranging from D.L. Hughley, Ron White, Monique, Bill Engvall and Katt Williams. In 2011, he was selected as one of the top three finalists on Last Comic Standing on NBC followed by an appearance on “The Conan O’Brien Show.” Wood has been a freelance writer for a variety of morning shows, and his prank calls can be heard on more than 40 national radio shows, including Jamie Foxx’s Foxxhole Radio on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio. He has served as an online video blog correspondent for “The Soup” on E! Network. Wood appeared at the 2006 Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in the “New Faces Showcase” where critics awarded him top honors. The Hollywood Reporter called Roy a “standout” among all the New Faces of 2006. The Montreal Gazette declared, “Roy Wood Jr. gives tremendous show” taking “the top spot.” Later that year he performed at the Las Vegas Comedy Festival. In 2009, Wood appeared on the “Bob and Tom Radio Show: The Comedy Tour” a one-hour special, which aired on Comedy Central.
In 2002, Wood earned a slot as one of 10 national finalists in Comedy Central’s “Laugh Riots” competition in Los Angeles. In March 2003, he was selected for Star Search on CBS where he advanced to the semi-finals. He also appeared on “It’s Showtime at the Apollo,” “Live in Hollywood” and the 2005 season of Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend” and BET’s “Comic View.” Wood has also performed on “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson” and BBC America’s “The World Stand Up in London.” Wood has recorded three nationally-released prank call CD’s: “My Momma Made Me Wear This” (2003), “Confessions of a High School Bench Warmer” (2005) and “I’ll Slap You to Sleep!” (2009). Wood has recorded an album of his stand-up comedy that should be released early next year. He also has plans for two new video series for the web. Plus, there is the second season of “Sullivan and Son” coming up.
“It has been an awesome television experience to be able to work with the guys at TBS. Vince Vaughn, as executive producer, is terrific. He can make a suggestion and take a scene from funny to absolutely hilarious. He is that good,” Wood says. “My acting on the series has really become a dance where I collaborate with the rest of the cast. My job is to contribute and really trust the writers and cast.” Thinking back to the end of his radio days in Birmingham, Wood says he is “blessed and fortunate to walk out of one career and into another.”
It’s the “Hold On” that gets you. Brittany Howard’s plea cutting above the bedrock sound of the Alabama Shakes reaches out and grabs you. That voice, that sound, has taken the music business by storm. The group is touring in support of its debut album, “Boys & Girls,” which opened at number one on the Independent Label chart in April and spent 15 consecutive weeks in the top 50 of the Billboard 200, selling more than 325,000 copies to date. “Boys & Girls” is being hailed as one of the best albums of 2012, with Q magazine noting: “The secret to the rapid success of this quartet from sleepy Athens, Alabama was locked in the welcoming roll of the album’s hip-swinging riffs and singer Brittany Howard’s Janis Joplin-like cry.” Paste magazine, which ranked the album in its Top 10, praised its “restless, animal energy.” The band’s performance on the groundbreaking PBS series “Austin City Limits” will air on February 16, 2013. Alabama Shakes—vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, drummer Steve Johnson, and bassist Zac Cockrell—were named Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Association’s Honors and Awards ceremony and Best New Artist of the Year at the Triple A radio conference. Grammy nominations capped off an incredible year for the band members, who played bar dates and worked day jobs (mail carrier, night watchman at a nuclear power plant) as recently as 2011. Alabama Shakes was nominated for Best New Artist, Best Rock Performance for “Hold On,” and Best Recording Package for “Boys & Girls.” The band has been on tour non-stop, playing sold-out headline shows, supporting such artists as Jack White and Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and performing at numerous festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands and Austin City Limits. Alabama Shakes will begin 2013 with a tour of Australia and New Zealand followed by dates in Japan and South America. The U.S. leg kicks off on March 1 in Boise, Idaho, with nearby dates on March 15 in New Orleans and March 16 in Jackson, Mississippi.
Written by Lanier Scott Isom
On the way home from school, my daughter Frances tells me about the most important moments of her day. One afternoon as we were driving down the road, Frances piped up from the backseat that her class had played football in gym that day. Then in an indignant voice she told me that the coach gave the boys the regular leather footballs and the girls the soft Nerf footballs. “It’s not fair,” she said. “It’s like what happened to Lilly.” “Well, not exactly,” I thought. Curious how much a third grader, who’d been living and breathing Lilly’s story for two years as I wrote it, really understood, I asked, “What do you mean?” “It’s the same thing. Just because she was a girl, she was treated different. They didn’t pay her the same, and just because we’re girls, they gave us the Nerf footballs, the soft footballs.”
I smiled to myself and kept driving. Thanks to Lilly, the most fearless and determined individual I’ve ever known or will know, when Frances begins working she will have legal recourse if she’s discriminated against in the workplace. By standing up for what’s right, Lilly fought a battle for pay equity women thought was already won. Even when the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly saying she should have known about her first discriminatory paycheck early in her almost 20-year career, she didn’t give up the fight. She campaigned Congress for two years to restore the law, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to its original intent. Lilly’s acts of courage started with smaller feats. As a child, she yearned for something better. When she was a young mother, she stepped out of the prescriptive role for women in the Post-War South by working outside the home, at the time an act of courage we can’t underestimate. She was still seeking a better life when, in 1979, she applied for the managerial position at Goodyear. Two decades later at the end of her career, her dream for a better life shattered, she was determined to fight back. Her determination carried her through a legal battle she had no way of knowing would deplete her retirement, last almost a decade, and culminate in the passing of a bill bearing her name.
Throughout her life, Lilly has exemplified the complex meaning of strength. She possessed the physical stamina required to endure the grueling demands of a tire factory most of her life; the mental toughness to withstand brutal harassment that resulted in people following her home at night and someone cutting her brake line; the conviction to withstand a legal challenge against a multi-billion dollar corporation year after year; the tenacity to keep campaigning for the passage of the bill while her husband was terminally ill; and the emotional depth to become vulnerable, after all those years of being invulnerable, when she told me her story. It took months before Lilly trusted me. One winter afternoon when we’d been driving around Possum Trot, looking at her childhood home and her grandfather’s farm, we’d stopped at the small family cemetery. Standing in the cold on her grandfather’s grave next to an old oak, squinting her eyes as she looked across the cemetery to the bare brown trees scattered on the ridge, she mentioned as casually as if she were commenting on the chilly weather, “You know, Tot tried to kill my dog once, but Mama backed him down with a butcher knife.” That’s all she said. I didn’t press. That’s how we worked from then on. She gave me a glimpse, a tiny glimmer, the actual facts of the matter as we continued our conversations over days and weeks and months. Lilly’s life story, her defeats and her victory with the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in 2009, remind us that the only true security women have is to do as Lilly has done: stand up for themselves —their daughters—for what’s right. Even then, the job is never finished. To this day Lilly travels and speaks to audiences about pay equity and what still needs to be accomplished with the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Now when Frances hops in the car and tells me about an unfair situation she faced during her school day, I look at her and ask: “What would Lilly do?”
Written by Joe O’Donnell, Portrait by Beau Gustafson
Easily one of the most accomplished leaders in the Birmingham area, Gen. Charles “Chuck” C. Krulak, retired commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the 13th president of Birmingham-Southern College. His administration at Birmingham-Southern has been extraordinary turnaround operation. It is as if a large window has been thrown open and a rush of fresh air has breathed new life into a Birmingham institution that had suffered plenty of financial setbacks and bad press under the previous regime of David Pollack. Fundraising and enrollment at Birmingham-Southern continue to grow under Krulak’s leadership, which has now reached the 18th-month mark. Gen. Krulak and his wife, Zandi, still live in campus housing and are regular fixtures at a wide variety of events at the college from sports to the arts. Krulak has also chosen to take no salary for the work he does at the college. So why at 70, after a stellar military and business career, has Krulak worked so hard to bring Birmingham-Southern back from the brink.
“It all goes back to what we’ve done our whole lives. My wife and I have always been around young people. I have always felt a calling for service to youth. When the time came to strike out in a different direction after leaving my job with the bank, both my wife and I realized our real joy in life involved being with young people,” Krulak says. “People have all sorts of passions in life, our passion is to help the young become men and women of character.
“We visited other colleges, but biggest surprise at the school was the quality of the student body and their desire to be of service. That and the absolutely extraordinary quality of the faculty and the staff,” Krulak says. “That’s not to say there are not difficulties at the college. It has gone through a tough time and we still have a way to go. But what is remarkable is the resilience of the students, faculty, staff and trustees. I would say the ship is off the reef and we are steaming in the right direction. Though there are still some patches we have to take care of,” Krulak says. Despite those patches, Krulak and the college’s board of trustees have held the line on any increase in tuition and fees for the next school year, certainly not the norm in higher education circles. “It is a bold move. Everyone is going to be saying you are having financial problems why would you do that. At the end of the day, you have to be bigger than your individual problems. We need to address the cost of higher education. Based on my own background and understanding of geopolitics and our role in the world, we have to be competitive. The way to do that is to insure our young men and women are well-educated and people of good character,” Krulak says. “I am convinced we are pricing people out of education and I don’t want to do that.”
General Krulak was appointed the 31st commandant of U.S. Marines Corps on July 1, 1995, a post he held until his retirement June 30, 1999. As the senior leader of the Marine Corps, he was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with overall responsibility for recruiting, training, operational readiness, and welfare of more than 220,000 active and reserve forces and 20,000 civilian employees. Following his retirement from military service, Krulak was named in 2001 as chairman and chief executive officer of MBNA Europe Bank in Chester, England, where he spearheaded a financial turnaround for the third largest credit card provider in the United Kingdom and the largest credit card provider in the Republic of Ireland. In 2004, he joined MBNA America Bank N.A. in Wilmington, Del., as vice chairman and chief administrative officer, where he was responsible for corporate development and acquisitions, personnel, and education for the FORTUNE 500 company employing 28,000 people in five countries and 20 locations. Krulak’s long and distinguished military career included two tours of duty in Vietnam and as deputy director of the White House Military Office, where he coordinated the military support for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
His military honors include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star Medal, three Bronze Star medals, two Purple Heart Medals, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the French Legion of Honor, among many others. Krulak currently serves as the co-chairman of the Founders Group of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation which has raised in excess of $150 million to build, equip, and staff Phase I of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He serves on the boards of the Union Pacific Corp.; Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold; Aston Villa Football Club of professional soccer’s English Premier League; Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; and CEO Forum. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Hope for the Warriors, Human Rights First, and Officer Christian Fellowship. A native of Quantico, Va., Krulak received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and his master’s degree in labor relations at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He completed a seminar on International Relations at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. The general is also a graduate of the Amphibious Warfare School, Army Command and General Staff College, and National War College. Krulak and his wife of 47 years, Zandi Meyers Krulak, have two sons: David, a U.S. Navy physician, and Todd, a visiting assistant professor in classical studies at Tulane.
Written by Phillip Ratliff Portrait by Beau Gustafson
Art impresario Greg Wingo doesn’t even try to hide his intentions:
“I would love to be the cultural czar of Birmingham,” says the 35-year-old art impresario and exhibitor.
Through his company, ROAM Projects, Wingo is eagerly paving his road to czardom as an independent curator, bringing artists and institutions together to feed the public appetite for art. In recent months, Wingo and ROAM have launched exhibitions in Second Row Studio the UAB Visual Arts Gallery. When traditional exhibition spaces are not available, Wingo is more than willing to get creative. Last September, Wingo began converting the old Medtown Pharmacy building at the corner of Twentieth Street and Third Avenue North into a pop-up gallery, a temporary art installation within a non-traditional space supported by little or no event promotion.
“The old MedTown Pharmacy had been vacant for a year or so. What’s great about a pop-up gallery is that we were able to take this old space with shuttered windows and old awnings, open it to the public, turn on the old MedTown Pharmacy sign, and immediately people recognized that something was occurring within the space,” Wingo says. To create the Medtown Pharmacy installation, entitled “In Tension,” Wingo turned to Jonathan Brilliant, a site-specific artist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Brilliant constructed his installation out of 60,000 coffee stirrers, 6,000 coffee sleeves and 100 Starbucks straws all anchored to the Medtown interior walls. As the title suggests, tension, not adhesives or fasteners, held the thousands of pieces together into something like a giant bird’s nest spanning the Medtown interior. It was a real eye catcher.
“For those eight days of installation, people were enamored with what was going on in this spot. We had people stopping their cars in the middle of the road, throwing on their hazard lights and taking photographs through the store window. It created great buzz,” Wingo says.
Creating buzz was, in fact, one of Wingo’s chief aims. ROAM Projects curated “In Tension” under contract with REV Birmingham (known then as Operation New Birmingham) as part of ongoing downtown revitalization efforts. According to REV president David Fleming, encouraging foot traffic from one populated downtown area to another is challenging when empty storefronts lie between them.
“We have some great anchor developments downtown like McWane, Alabama Theatre, the new ballpark and the new entertainment district. Our plan is to fill in the gaps between these anchors with new businesses and more foot traffic,” Fleming says.
Installations like “In Tension”, Fleming argues, can replace dead zones with more interesting pedestrian experiences. Fleming likens the pop-up gallery concept to something shopping mall management figured out long ago. “They don’t just have a blank place. They put up a window display, a piece of art,” Fleming says.
According to Fleming, turning to Wingo has been a sensible move. Wingo is passionate about the arts, Fleming says, and he very much wants to see the arts flourish in Birmingham, not just for the sake of art but to build up his community.
For many years, Wingo fed his passion as the owner of dobbs Gallery, supporting himself financially through work in public relations. After the economic downturn closed the gallery’s doors, he invented ROAM Projects and, in the process, reinvented himself. The switch from traditional gallery owner to guerrilla art curator has changed how Wingo thinks about art.
“ROAM Projects allows me greater freedom to curate a wide variety of shows. I can focus on working with any artists and developing shows when and where I like. That’s not necessarily the case when you own a gallery. My focus now is solely on creating the best show possible,” Wingo says.
As a curator with a public relations background, Wingo understands not only the value of collecting art, but of collecting zip codes. Wingo says that he was not shy about asking visitors to “In Tension” where they worked, where they came from and why they were downtown. Wingo says he discovered visitors to “In Tension” from as far away as Philadelphia.
“That corner of Third and Twentieth from about 10:45 to 1:45 or 2:00 has amazing foot traffic, a flow of business people wanting to see new things going to work, going to lunch. Had we put that pop-up gallery one block over on Nineteenth, we would have yielded a third of the visitation and would have worked much harder to get people in. Those who saw “In Tension” where it was saw it unprompted, which was the whole point. You were supposed to discover it. You were supposed to see the sign, see that it was up for a three-week period and decide ‘do I see this now, do I take the chance that I won’t be by to see this again?’ This was an opportunity to show the public that art can be temporary and you must take advantage of seeing it while you can,” Wingo says.
The success of “In Tension” has Wingo thinking big. His wish list includes a trail of industrial iron sculpture leading from Sloss Furnaces to Pepper Place and a downtown light installation climbing up the Alabama Power building. Wingo and ROAM are aiming high and having fun:
“I created ROAM out of my desire to do roaming art exhibits in Birmingham and beyond: nationally, internationally…on the moon,” Wingo says.
Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex executive director Tad Snyder has been hard at work this year, managing the birth of the Entertainment District under construction at the BJCC. The new Westin Hotel at the heart of the district is set to open this month, with a collection of restaurants and retail shops to follow this coming spring. Bayer Properties has been handling the leasing of the district with three notable businesses signed up this past fall: a Texas de Brazil restaurant, and within the $50 million Westin, celebrity chef Todd English’s PUB restaurant and an Octane coffee shop. Expect more announcements in the coming weeks as the district gets set to open.
Tags: Alabama, Alabama Shakes, Americana Music, art, B metro Magazine, band, Birmiingham Southern College, Birmingham, Birmingham Entertainment District, Brittany Howard, civil rights, comedian, comedy, Fair Pay Restoration Act, General Charles Krulak, Grammy, Greg Wingo, Heath Fogg, In Tension, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lilly Ledbetter, MBNA Bank, Music, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Octane Coffee, ROAM Projects, Roy Wood Jr., stand-up, Steve Johnson, Supreme Court, Tad Snyder, Todd English Pub, Zac Cockrell