Words and images by Luke Barber
Since the early 1920s, Jacksonville has been a city that allowed music, art and culture to thrive.
Generations of musicians have opened themselves up on the stages and even in the parks of Jacksonville and, although the names and memories have changed, one thing that has remained consistent is the city’s dedication to forging a multitude of artistic identities.
There are countless venues throughout the area that have allowed the city to birth such a notable music scene – one that is recognized locally, nationally and even internationally. Here are just a few.
The Florida Theatre
The Florida Theatre is located right on the corner of Forsyth and Newnan streets, just one block away from the popular strip of watering holes called The Elbow. This building was constructed as a movie theater in 1927 on the site of an old police station. The grandiose venue was the first one in town to have central air conditioning. Controversy struck the theatre in August 1956, when Elvis Presley was set to perform six shows over two days. Local law enforcement officials and evangelical types were up in arms over Elvis’ provocative dance moves. One local judge even went so far as to prepare arrest warrants for “impairing the morals of minors” if his movements became too explicit. The shows went on without any celebrity arrests, and a month later Elvis made his live TV debut on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Regardless, this controversy catapulted the Florida Theatre into the national spotlight. To this day, the Florida Theatre still showcases a variety of events ranging from theater and concerts to comedy shows and ballets.
The Ritz Theatre
The Ritz was built in 1929 on the west end of downtown in the LaVilla neighborhood, which was also called “the Harlem of the South.” The area was a well-known African-American neighborhood; the culture and heritage brought people to the neighborhood, but the entertainment scene brought people from all over to The Ritz. As a part of what became known as “the Chitlin Circuit” to traveling African-American entertainers, The Ritz was welcoming and held a variety of events — concerts, film screenings, theater — that primarily attracted African-American crowds. Ray Charles, who went to school at St. Augustine’s School for the Deaf and Blind, was one notable performer who found himself playing in front of crowds there often. The club was closed in the 1970s, and continued to deteriorate throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1998, The Ritz was refurbished and reopened along with a museum of LaVilla history.
Gator Bowl Stadium
Although technically the Gator Bowl Stadium itself doesn’t still exist, there are portions of the old stadium that are still intact and being used at EverBank Field, the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. While the site was mainly used for sporting events, it made its mark on American music history in September 1964. At the time, The Beatles had embarked on their first United States tour. There was only one Florida stop on the tour — Gator Bowl Stadium in Jacksonville. This show would prove to be an utter disaster for the famed British pop group; it was The Beatles’ first and last time playing in Florida. Prior to the Jacksonville date of the tour, the band caught wind of plans for the Gator Bowl crowd to be segregated. They refused to play until the promoter guaranteed that the crowd would be undivided. They did indeed play to an integrated audience that night, but the show was almost cancelled the day of the concert for a few other reasons. Two days before The Beatles landed in Florida, Hurricane Dora struck the coast with a fury. On the day of the show, Ringo Starr’s drums had to be nailed to the stage to keep them from being blown away by the wind. Additionally, mere moments before the group took the stage, they were informed that a camera crew was present. The band would not play unless the crew left because they knew that the footage would be sold with no royalties going to The Beatles. The crew was kicked out, and the show went on.
Willow Branch Park
Willow Branch Park is just one of the gorgeous parks nestled in Jacksonville’s Riverside community. While the park is a hotspot for neighborhood hoops-shooters and baseball players, its role in music history oftentimes goes unrecognized. In fact, it was the location of some of the earliest jam sessions by a group that would later become known as the Allman Brothers Band. The then-unnamed group would host free concerts in the park with an inconsistent rotating lineup of musicians playing music together. The jam sessions were famously marked by the usage of multiple drumsets and guitars, along with psychedelic mushrooms. The Allman Brothers Band made their official debut at the Jacksonville Armory in March 1969 and would go on to be pioneers in the rock and roll scene, blurring the line between psychedelia and Southern blues rock.
Robert E. Lee
Living in Jacksonville, it’s easy to grow tired of hearing about Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band of hooligans from the Westside of Jacksonville. They’re local legends for selling millions of records and having their career tragically halted in 1977 when a plane crash in Mississippi killed their singer and one guitar player. But even though their biggest hit was about Alabama and not Jacksonville, the band never strayed too far from its Duval County roots. In fact, the band’s name derives from the name of a gym teacher — Leonard Skinner — that a few of the Skynyrd boys had when they went to Robert E. Lee High School near Riverside in the mid-1960s. Skinner apparently would send the young rock and rollers to the principal’s office for having their hair too long, prompting the sarcastic misuse and adoption of the coach’s name. Years later, the band would frequent a Jacksonville bar called The Still, a watering hole that was owned by none other than Skinner himself.
Everyone has seen the iconic Jacksonville skyline, that view of the city as seen from Friendship Park. The historic park was opened in 1965 and contained the largest fountain at that time. That same year, construction began on the museum that remains adjacent to the fountain, now called MOSH. Lynyrd Skynyrd would go on to play at Friendship Park throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the 1990s and 2000s, Friendship Park and the area around the park became a highly sought out destination for skateboarders and BMX bikers. This attraction to the park as a skateboarding and biking cultural center was captured in a music video for a song called “Over It” by noise rock band Dinosaur Jr.
Einstein A Go Go
Einstein A Go Go was a small venue in Jacksonville Beach that hosted some of the most important rock shows in Jacksonville history. It was an all-ages music venue that was opened in 1985 by a family named the Faircloths who understood the importance of inclusion and establishing a welcoming environment within a music scene. The venue survived for 12 years before its lease expired without ever serving a single drop of alcohol. Many alternative rock staples — Nirvana, Living Colour, Faith No More and Sonic Youth to name a few — came through and played legendary shows for crowds of angsty teenagers.
Milk Bar was a bar that was around all throughout the 1990s, located in the heart of downtown on Adams Street. The bar, which had a name that tipped its hat at Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, was a prime spot for underground shows – seriously, the bands would play in the basement. Jacksonville’s Limp Bizkit cut their teeth on the Milk Bar stage, with their aggressive music and theatrics bringing out massive crowds, gaining them worldwide recognition. The venue was fortunate enough to host a variety of big-name acts like Blink-182, De La Soul, Corrosion of Conformity, Fugazi, White Zombie; the list goes on and on and on. Famously, Pixies got in a massive argument and departed from the Milk Bar stage, refusing to come back out after only playing three songs in a display of tension that attracted national attention. Now a Caribbean restaurant called De Real Ting Cafe, Milk Bar closed its doors at the turn of the century.