City Stages: Readers share memories of Birmingham’s largest music festival

Stella McDaniel

Do you remember Birmingham’s City Stages festival? We certainly do. For music lovers in Alabama, City Stages was the place to be on Father’s Day weekend. The festival was a great unifier in the Magic City, 1989-2009, as thousands of folks gathered to hear a wealth of talent perform on several stages downtown.

Diverse lineups at City Stages aimed to please listeners of all ages and backgrounds, and regulars often said they discovered new favorites at the three-day event. Major stars played at City Stages, from Chuck Berry (1989) and Little Richard (1993) to The Flaming Lips (2008) and Kanye West (2004). Lineups also featured noteworthy singer-songwriters, vibrant gospel troupes, rollicking dance bands, bluegrass standouts, interesting up-and-comers and much more.

City Stages started small in Linn Park, grew to cover several downtown blocks, struggled financially in later years, and went bankrupt after the 21st event. But we’ll never forget the popular festival, and City Stages fans still miss the excitement it created here, rain or shine.

For a nostalgic buzz on Father’s Day weekend 2023, we asked readers to share some of their favorite memories of City Stages. Here’s what they said, via email and social media.

Chuck Berry performed at the first City Stages festival in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1989. ( file photo/Joe Songer)

“It was one of the most magical experiences of my life. The first City Stages which was confined to Linn Park was open, friendly, fun and almost no one came to see it! There were no crowds. There were so many good shows over the years and many stand out but one in particular was treasured. To literally sit at the feet of Richie Havens and watch him perform. I first heard of him when I saw the Woodstock movie in 1970-1971. To be at his feet when he performed ‘Freedom’ and ‘Motherless Child’ at City Stages was stellar!” — Rod Scott

“Seeing B.B. King in his green sequin jacket with Lucille. Same show, later got pepper sprayed because the target ducked after starting a fight and it hit me standing behind him not paying attention lol.” — Kevin Gilliland

“R.I.P. City Stages. It was the only festival I went to on a regular basis. Seeing Jerry Lee Lewis was my favorite memory. He was very energetic, he didn’t disappoint. He played standing up and banged on the keys and I think he even stood on top of his piano at one point. Lots of people in the audience were dancing.” — Eric Long

Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy performs on the Miller Lite stage at City Stages 2008 in Birmingham. ( file photo/Jeronimo Nisa)

“Watching Buddy Guy climb onto the fire escape and play from the side of the building. Robyn Hitchcock starting his show and the power went out and he played the set acoustic. Oh, and my friend Scooty Moody would set up camp by one of the stages (maybe Blockbuster) and you were always guaranteed to catch up with some nice folks in the crowd. Squirrel Nut Zippers playing on some tiny stage and about two weeks later they were all the rage.” — Lilla Hood

“My favorite City Stages experience: It was so brutally hot that I decided to head over the nearby mostly-Black church that had gospel choirs playing. Indoors, air-conditioned and, I figured, good music. It was FANTASTIC. I stayed until it closed down.” — Dale Wisely

City Stages 2000

James Brown performs on the Coca-Cola Classic Stage during City Stages in 2000. (Nick Nunnally/ file photo) BN

“Between City Stages and the Birmingham Heritage Festival, I saw everyone from James Brown to Ramsey Lewis, from OutKast, Earth, Wind & Fire to The Flaming Lips. It was great time to be in Birmingham.” — Clarence Cooper

“I was waiting for the Village People to come on, having gone to see them in exchange for my friend Pat Patrick going with me to hear the Klezmatics (stupendous). A little old lady sat in front of us in an old, flimsy webbed aluminum lawn chair and had a blanket over her bowed head. Pat thought she was sick; I thought she was dying. Or dead. No movement. We looked around for a medic and I pondered what the etiquette was for a concert death. Then the Village People fired it up and she threw off the blanket, hopped up on that rickety old chair, started belting out the song with them and went into the arm motions for Y-M-C-A!!! I figured she’d probably live but I wasn’t certain about myself.” — Don Wendorf

“Some of my favorite memories were when I was a teen and didn’t pay to get in and we would sit on the back of my friend’s truck outside City Stages gates and just hang out and listen to music and people watch. THOSE WERE THE DAYS!” — Richard Danner

“One of my favorite memories of City Stages, I remember going every year on Sunday morning to hear Kathryn Tucker Windham tell some of her stories. I remember seeing Sugar Ray in high school with my middle school best friend. They were awesome! I remember seeing Maroon 5 before they got big, they were on a side stage in the middle of the day. One year in college I got so annoyed with the guy I was dating because he wanted to leave Steve Miller Band early because he was tired!” — Amanda Nicole

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was a headliner at Birmingham’s City Stages festival in 2003. ( file photo/Leigh Patton)

“Eye contact with Bob Dylan! He and his band had just begun his, now routine, practice of standing silently on stage (all deadpan) and staring into the audience after his last number. My wife and I were close enough to him to meet his eyes. Much later, I read that he, himself, had enjoyed that same stare from Buddy Holly on his last tour and had been, himself, moved by the experience. I still grin at the memory!” — Jonathan Mayhall

“The year I saw Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ at City Stages when I lost my Birkenstocks. I don’t know how that happened.” — Robin Kimble

“Having to watch Baha Men ‘Who let the dogs out?’ to have a good spot to see OutKast.” — Bobby Bush

“I mainly remember dancing for three days in the dance tent.” — Sandy Horn Rogers

“Randy Newman singing ‘Birmingham.’ Lots of cheers but for varied reasons.” — Avery Vise

“The Band at the same time as the O.J. (Simpson) Bronco chase. The guy in front of me had a portable TV, and we were able to watch it.” — Ann Coyle

“I rode in a limo for two blocks with John Lee Hooker.” — Shannon Hutcheson

“When the Ackleys played on the HomeGrown stage on Fathers Day! My two daughters were in that band and it was very exciting!” — Tracy Crutchfield

“Mac McAnally, Maceo Parker Band, Robert Cray, Kinsey Report, Train and many other great bands. Usually very hot, but a lot of fun. Sometimes couldn’t decide which stage to go to: Coca Cola or Miller Light.” — Chuck Arthur

“Every year from 2002-2009 my family ran the Yarbrough beer tents and Coke trailers to raise money for band trips, school expenses, etc. It was always the best week of the year, the start of summer, Father’s Day weekend, and City Stages. One year I saw my favorite way of sneaking in alcohol. A guy came up and had binoculars around his neck. He bought a Coke and asked for a cup. Poured himself a bit of Coke, unscrewed a lens and poured whiskey straight out of the binoculars.” — Cody Lucas

Sun Ra at City Stages

Sun Ra performed at City Stages 1989, during the festival’s first year in Birmingham. He also led a Giant Puppet Parade. (Photo courtesy of Philip Foster)

“Dancing around the park behind Sun Ra.” — Chris Henderson

“Beatle Bob dancing up front.” — Tim Erwin

“Little Richard singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider.’” — Tuwanna Murray

“The time I got on stage with Rick Springfield.” — Beth Plummer Lippeatt

“Taking Pinetop Perkins through the crowds in a golf cart to get to Bonnie Raitt, the joy of seeing the two of them hugging backstage And memory #2 spending time with Odetta, was like walking with an angel.” — Jilda Watson

“Camp Anytown Unity Glow, 1994, Anytowners dressed in white on stage singing ‘We are the World’ with audience shining pin lights!” — Cathy Ovson Friedman

“Two memories come to mind … One great, one not so much. First: Discovering Paul Thorn at the Blockbuster Stage one Saturday afternoon and listening to him telling the story of getting knocked out by Roberto Duran back during his short-lived Golden Gloves career, then getting to witness his amazing songwriting skill. Second: The Port-O-Potties at the Miller Stage on Sunday afternoon. Damn, that smell will forever be etched in my mind.” — Russell Davidson

City Stages 2008

Children dance to the sounds of Little Nashville Gates on the Publix Childrens Festival Stage at City Stages 2008 in Birmingham. ( file photo/Frank Couch)

“Took my twin daughters, age 4, there in 2009. We were having fun in the kid’s area painting, when I looked over to see one daughter had green all over her mouth because she had eaten paint. She wasn’t upset in the least and I knew it had to be child-friendly paint, but they made us go to Children’s Hospital for her to be observed. After a while, we left the hospital and eventually returned to the festival.” — Maury Levine

“Ryan Adams being so messed up he thought he was in Austin at SXSW. Still a good show, though. I saw Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Stellastarr, Fountains of Wayne, Rachael Yamagata. Good stuff.” — Brian Manasco

“In the early aughts we were right in front of the stage watching Peter Frampton play “Do You Feel Like I Do” and some drunk a-hole started wailing on someone in the crowd. After security escorted the guy away, Frampton said something to the effect of ‘No fighting during my hits.’” — Danner Kline

City Stages

The Progressive Choir performs at City Stages 2009 in Birmingham. ( file photo/Emma Tannenbaum)

“When I worked for Bright House we would sponsor and record Gospel Fest performances at the Methodist Church for the local cable channel. I always looked forward to it, very uplifting. So many great church choirs from all over the Birmingham area. Just brought the house down. Lots of fun to be a part of that.” — Flora Freeman

“Too many memories, we went to all but the first. Had kids in strollers and eventually in a red wagon. We first started bringing lunch in a cooler and would go to the car to eat, quickly decided we missed too much and budgeted so we could eat and get anything we wanted in the venue. Saw so many good bands, and had so much good festival food. My boys are now in various music-related businesses like playing in bands, pressing vinyl, distributing music, and doing box office duties at a local venue. We really miss City Stages.” — Steve Campbell

“I loved it! Was there from opening on Friday until the last note was played on Sunday night. Always got the same spot under a giant tree in the park. I heard so much great music!! A couple of my favorites were Santana, Buddy Guy, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Earth, Wind & Fire, B.B. King. There’s just way too many to list! Wish it had survived a little longer.” — Jan Pienezza

“Such fun memories ..that’s when Jan Hunter and I formed The Hot Tamales!” — Kristi Tingle Higginbotham

Dallas County Line

Richard Scrushy, center, then the CEO of HealthSouth, performed with his country rock band on the HealthSouth Stage at City Stages 1995. ( file photo/Jeff Roberts)

“I loved it! I saw Jerry Lee Lewis, Alabama, the Fabulous Thunderbirds but who can forget the greatest band ever to come out Alabama, Richard Scrushy’s Dallas County Line. lol” — Rob Langford

“I looked forward each year to City Stages, regardless who the headliners were. I enjoyed being around the people, the good food and drinks. Wish it would come back.” — Dee Wilson

“One of the greatest nights for me was in 2006. Con Funk Shun, Morris Day & the Time and Cameo put on a great funk show!” — Chris Flournoy Sr.

Kid Rock at City Stages

Kid Rock performs on the Miller Lite Stage at City Stages 2004. ( file photo/Tamika Moore)

“Kid Rock was the first time I had a true fear I might get trampled to death because there were so many people but it was fabulous.” — Kristine Norris Williams

My brother and I went. We saw Iggy Pop, Martina McBride and Donna Summer. It was so much fun. It was blazing hot, so since we are of Irish descent, we went into a church and listened to an Irish folk band. They were amazing! I wish I could remember the name. With all of the improvements made in the city, I wish they would bring it back.” — Gillion DeNeice Conn

“Remember one year someone was giving a prize, a porta potty reserved for you. That would have been good to have.” — Frank Hawkins

Snoop Dogg at City Stages

Snoop Dogg headlined at City Stages 2006 in Birmingham, Alabama. ( file photo/Julie Peters)

“I went in the later years. Loved it!! Saw Little Richard, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna (met her backstage), Alabama, Taylor Hicks and Snoop Dog, Patty Loveless (met her backstage too). … Fun times.” — Lynn T. Kurtts

“This was my favorite event. I grew up going to City Stages with my Dad, Reid Wurtele. Started going around 6 years old. He took me to see Chicago, Jethro Tull, Peter Frampton while I was still in elementary school. We watched the O.J. Simpson chase on his small TV he brought to watch the big basketball game on. It never failed to rain every year and you had to run take cover under a tent. I went with my grandmother to the Cajun/zydeco tent to dance. Once I got in high school I saw Sugar Ray, Evanescence, Baja Men, Cake, OutKast and so many more with my friends. This was literally my favorite event ever. Then I had my daughter and got to take her when she was 3 to see Lynyrd Skynyrd.” — Leah Ellis

City Stages buttons

Fans collected and wore buttons given away as annual souvenirs at the City Stages festival in Birmingham. ( file photo/Tamika Moore)

“City Stages was a great family event. My family went every year from the opening on Friday til the closing on Sunday night. I would go early to secure our spot in the park for 15 of us to sit together. You could leave the park, walk to other stages and no one would move your chairs and blankets. Awesome affair every year. Always enjoyed the artists on the main stage. Had to get a T-shirt and a pin. (I still have most of the pins.) It always seemed like NBA finals game would be on Sunday and people would be listening to the game and the performers at the same time. One year I had a small TV that used batteries for the power. Good memories of City Stages.” — Brenda Moultrie-Wilkerson

“I’m thinking 1995 … 105.9 The Bear was in its infancy and we were playing some of the bands that were in the lineup. So we had a lot of radio fans stopping by our table to meet the DJs and get bumper stickers, etc. We found a place in the fence near our table where we could sneak in and out by our table. So we brought our own beer and used it to meet girls and radio fans. It was my first real experience of getting to go backstage and see some of the technical stuff that makes it happen. Seeing bands praying, seeing them pump each other up, talk about what songs they may switch to if the crowds didn’t respond. It was cool to meet bands and be a part of the intros on stages and throw out swag. Seeing stage managers direct traffic, seeing groupies do almost anything to get backstage. Seeing security do their jobs. All part of the experience.” — Danny Brewer

The Flaming Lips at City Stages

The Flaming Lips headlined at City Stages 2008 in Birmingham, Alabama. ( file photo/Michelle Campbell)

My favorite memory is when our son was 2. We were playing and running around the house, and he had a kazoo in his mouth. At some point he fell and chipped both front teeth. It was City Stages day and we did not want to take him to the emergency dentist at Children’s, which would have taken the whole day. So we called my dentist, a music fan and friend, and went over everything. He recommended we clean up the blood and head to City Stages. Kid was fine, albeit the chipped front teeth till they came out. Good times.” — Brooks Adams

I performed at City Stages five times (1990-96) as the frontman of the New River Band, then under my own name, then as the frontman of Texas Radio three times on main stages. When not on stage I was all over the event area with my lady Melissa, watching the multitude of interesting people of all ages and ethnicities milling about having fun and smiling, enjoying the incredible vendors’ tasty foods like funnel cakes and gyros, shopping at the exotic booths packed with the most interesting and artistic items, and thrilled to see and hear the many super-talented and diverse musical acts who came from far and wide to play in our fair city. One of my best memories was the magical day David Byrne, Dave Alvin, Tony Joe White, Richard Thompson and Alabama’s own Shelby Lynne all performed on the same stage with David Byrne capping it off with his remake of ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ which got everyone up dancing!” — Hardie McGehee


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