TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) — An Alabama undergraduate worked security to gain entry. An Auburn student told a white lie to get a second-row seat. Two high school students brought their dates, looking for a good time. All four now share something they say they’ll cherish forever: the memory of watching Joni Mitchell perform live in concert.
Since her first paid performance in late 1962, Joni Mitchell has sold millions of albums and performed around the world, in venues across her home country Canada, across the United States, in Europe, and even in Japan. Only once, though, has the acclaimed singer-songwriter graced an Alabama stage.
Fifty years after the release of her album “Blue” and the recent announcement that the legendary musician will receive a special honor from the Kennedy Center, CBS 42 spoke with several Alabamians who attended Mitchell’s only performance here in the Yellowhammer State, an experience they said they will never forget.
Edward Journey was already a Joni Mitchell fan when he heard she would be performing at the Memorial Coliseum in Tuscaloosa. Then a junior political science major at the University of Alabama, Journey would frequently volunteer at the school’s concerts, a gig that would provide free entry and, often, a free T-shirt.
“It was amazing what we would do for a free T-shirt,” Journey said.
When he heard that Mitchell would be coming to UA, Journey was determined to see her performance. He volunteered for the show under one condition.
“I told them I have to be up front, where I can see the whole show,” he said.
Journey got his wish.
On February 1, 1976, Mitchell made her way to Tuscaloosa to play and was backed by the L.A. Express, a jazz ensemble that had played on her album “Court and Spark” and had been featured on her first live album two years earlier, “Miles of Aisles.”
Tickets were $4.50 for Alabama students and $6.50 for everyone else. For Journey, entry was free, but the memories were priceless.
“That was the time of the singer-songwriter,” he said. “In terms of her phrasing and her writing and vocally, she was just so unique and so interesting to me.”
During his time in Tuscaloosa, Journey saw many big names on stage, including Elvis Presley, Elton John, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. For him, none of them compared to Mitchell.
“The audience hung on her every word,” he said.
After the concert, Journey, who did not have a backstage pass, headed toward Mitchell’s dressing room, where crowds were already lined up to see the star. Someone tried to prevent Journey’s entry, but that didn’t stop him.
“Are you going to stop me?” Journey recalled asking. The man did not.
Journey was able to make it near Mitchell’s dressing room door, where he stood against the wall and just watched. Eventually, the folk star emerged with a bundle of roses that had been left for her. She began to hand the roses out to the waiting crowd. As she did, other fans would reach out, trying to get their rose from Mitchell. Journey froze.
As she passed, Mitchell stopped in front of Journey.
“You look like you need a rose,” she told him, handing him one of the flowers.
“That was the moment of a lifetime,” Journey said.
However, Journey was hardly the only college student in attendance that night.
Shannon Parks, then a 22-year-old business merchandising major at Auburn University, remembers driving her brown Triumph TR6 convertible across the state to see Mitchell play.
When she arrived, Parks had a white lie ready to go.
“I had a camera around my neck, and when we walked in, I told them I was a stringer for The Huntsville Times, which I was not,” she said. “But my mother was a writer for The Huntsville Times, so I’d heard that term ‘stringer.’ So I said ‘I need to be close so I can get some shots.’”
The move paid off.
“They put me in the second row, right in the middle,” she said.
Parks said that the show was the best she’s ever seen, before or since.
“It was awesome,” she said. “It was ethereal, the whole thing. She had such a way with people. It was like we were all in another world. It was surreal.”
Parks did not yet have a copy of “Miles and Aisles,” so when she heard the song “For Free,” which centers around Mitchell seeing a man playing clarinet on a street “really good, for free,” it resonated deeply with her.
“A while before the concert, I had taken my guitar on a trip to San Francisco and sung on the street corner,” Parks said. “I figured I’d take my guitar and see if I could get some money, and I did pretty well there. I had never heard the song before, but now I love it. I was just singing it this morning.”
College students were not the only people interested in Mitchell’s performance that night.
Chad Mize was a 17-year-old high school senior at the time and drove himself and his date to the concert.
Mize said at the time, he wasn’t as big of a Joni Mitchell fan as he would later become.
“I was probably as focused on my date as I was on Joni Mitchell,” he said.
Mize played in a band at the time and said he focused in on the musicality of Mitchell’s performance with the L.A. Express.
“I also remember she tuned her guitar a lot,” he said.
Mitchell was well known for her skills not only on guitar, but also piano and dulcimer. She joked years later that other artists would complain about playing a guitar after she had played it. “An alien’s been playing,” they’d say, saying her songs were composed of “Joni’s weird chords.”
Overall, Mize enjoyed the Mitchell show, which he said was very different than some of the other performances he’d seen in Tuscaloosa.
“When Elton John came through the second time,” he said, “it was a spectacle. He was dressed up like a Vegas showgirl.”
A few years ago, Mize found a poster advertising the Mitchell concert in his childhood home.
“It was still stuck up on the stairs going down to the basement,” he said. “It stayed there for 30 years, thumbtacked on the wall.”
Mize had the poster framed, and it now hangs on the wall of his home office in Vestavia Hills.
Lewis Shumaker, then a student at Tuscaloosa High School, almost missed the concert, which took place on his birthday.
“I wasn’t feeling well at all,” he said, “and I didn’t know if I would make it. But I was determined to go.”
Shumaker would not regret toughing it out.
Like Mize, he would bring a date to see Mitchell.
“It was our first date, and it was a girl I was really crazy about,” he said.
It was his date’s first-ever concert. She was not disappointed.
“Joni’s was really deep, high-level songwriting,” Shumaker said. “The lighting at the concert was so low, and it seemed to make it such an intimate performance. It didn’t feel at all like we were in a large venue.”
Tim Stokes, Shumaker’s friend who later died in a car accident, called Shumaker the day of the concert in hysterics. Stokes worked at the Dickory, a record store on the Strip in Tuscaloosa that has since closed.
“Tim was a huge Joni Mitchell fan,” Shumaker said. “The day of the concert, a black limo pulled up right in front of the [record] store.”
Joni Mitchell stepped out of the limo and entered the Dickory.
“She bought several blues records,” he said. “Tim was so starstruck and was so giddy. He said he was just overwhelmed. Joni Mitchell was just giggling at him. She thought it was so funny that he was acting so starstruck. She smiled and laughed and giggled.”
Forty-five years after the concert, the now-77-year-old Mitchell is having a resurgence in popularity. The anniversary of “Blue,” for example, garnered national attention earlier this year, prompting Mitchell to release a short video.
“Fifty years later,” she said, “people finally get it, and that pleases me.”