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Front Page - Friday, November 12, 2021

Who, when, where they performed

Carroll’s labor of love chronicles biggest acts to play Chattanooga over the years

Chattanooga broadcaster David Carroll was browsing the comments on his blog when he spotted a friendly argument about an opening act at UTC Arena “back in the day.” Did Lynyrd Skynyrd open for so-and-so, or something along those lines, he recalls.

To settle the debate, the warring parties issued a challenge to Carroll: Could he post all the acts that had played at the arena?

No one had compiled such an inventory, which presented a challenge to Carroll, a news anchor for Channel 3 in Chattanooga.

Or so he thought. Instead, Carroll made a single phone call to a former manager of the arena and within minutes received a spreadsheet containing a record of every show, headliner and opening act throughout the history of the venue.

After Carroll copied and pasted the data to his blog, the accolades rolled in. “I loved taking credit for something I didn’t do,” he jokes.

Then someone said, “Now do Memorial Auditorium.”

Four years later, Carroll is sitting in a lobby at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium with a copy of the 700-page book that grew out of the off-the-cuff challenge on his blog.

Titled “Hello, Chattanooga,” its pages are stuffed with photographs, stories and complete lists of the entertainers, athletes, political leaders and other celebrities who have visited the city since 1900.

From documenting the date a 23-year-old Frank Sinatra appeared as the boy singer for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, to cataloging the famous baseball players who competed in exhibition games at Engel Stadium (Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio were the tip of the iceberg), to revealing that President Theodore Roosevelt visited Chattanooga four times, “Hello, Chattanooga” is replete with the treasures Carroll dug up during his research.

Unfortunately for Carroll, most of these gold nuggets were buried deeper than the spreadsheet he’d so easily obtained.

“When I decided to list the acts that had appeared at Memorial, I thought I’d make another phone call, copy and paste the data from a spreadsheet and be a hero again,” he laughs. “But that’s not how it worked.”

Instead of a neatly organized computerized record, Carroll was presented with handwritten ledgers dating back to 1924, the year Memorial Auditorium opened.

And instead of using his mouse to copy and paste data, he proceeded to reproduce nearly 100 years of information by hand.

“I spent a lot of my off time here because they were careful about letting the ledgers leave the building,” Carroll remembers. “I came here on Friday evenings, or whenever I had a few hours, and worked my way from 1924 all the way to the present.”

As Carroll labored, the project grew. The ledgers from which he was working also contained the records of the Tivoli Theatre, for instance, so Carroll added that venue to his book.

He then pursued the accounts of the famous people who had performed at Warner Park, Engel Stadium, Lake Winnie and more.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right,’” Carroll says.

To amass the data he desired, Carroll expanded his search to include newspapers, promoter’s records, personal archives and whatever else he could get his hands on.

At one point his wife, Cindy, asked a pointed question he had to appreciate: What if he reached the end of his project and no one cared?

“She was being realistic. I was putting all of this time into it, and what if people shrugged it off?” Carroll recalls. “But it was too late to turn back. I had to see it to the end.”

To complete the project, Carroll had to surmount several obstacles – or rather, fill in a lot of gaps.

For starters, Memorial’s records were incomplete. In addition to lost or omitted ledgers, the venue stopped keeping records in 2000, presenting Carroll with a gaping maw of missing information.

In addition, many of the entries in Memorial’s ledgers named the title of a show but not the acts that performed. If Liberace appeared on stage on one date, for example, Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars might have graced the platform on another.

Carroll says he was tempted more than once to publish “Hello, Chattanooga” with the gaps.

“Early on, I thought, ‘This is the official record; it’s all I have.’ I couldn’t run over to the Times Free Press every day and beg them to let me see a 50-year-old newspaper.”

Denying his impulse, Carroll plowed forward and unearthed an invaluable source: NewsBank, a company which archives newspapers. After securing access to its collection, Carroll was able to fill many of the cavities.

“I was able to look at a particular issue of a newspaper and see that the Caravan of Stars included The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and so on,” Carroll notes. “And it’s interesting to know Stevie Wonder played in Chattanooga when he was 13 and had a No. 1 hit.”

Once Carroll had clawed his way to about 2010, he was able to find most of the information he needed online, allowing him to compile the all-inclusive volume he’d been determined to produce.

As Carroll hoists a copy of “Hello, Chattanooga,” he shares some of his favorite tidbits from its pages.

Among his favorite tales to tell at his speaking engagements are the stories of the no-name acts who later became famous.

“There was an ad in a newspaper in 1953 for what was essentially the Grand Ole Opry in Chattanooga,” Carroll begins. “The show was an amazing mix of superstars – the Minnie Pearls, Roy Acuffs and Red Foleys of the day – as well as supporting acts like Marty Robbins, Ray Price and others who weren’t known at the time but would be the next wave of superstars.

“And they were all here for one night on one stage.”

Sounding like he’d found the Ark of the Covenant, Carroll seems to relish each of his discoveries, which range from learning Jimmy Hendrix played guitar for Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson in the early ‘60s to spotting actor John Goodman on a Tivoli playbill from 1974.

Carroll also chuckles at a review in a newspaper of a headliner that also mentions the opening act – country superstar Kenny Chesney, who the critic wrote “looked like a 13-year-old boy wearing his dad’s 10-gallon cowboy hat.”

“We pay big money to see a headliner, and as we’re settling in and socializing, there’s a poor guy or girl on the stage looking for attention, but no one is giving it to them. Then a year or two later, you wish you had.”

Carroll says the most surprising revelation to him was the many famous baseball players who visited the city during the heyday of minor league baseball in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

“Every year as the major league teams were leaving spring training in Florida, the players passed through Chattanooga on trains. And every year, there was an exhibition game at Engel that featured the Cardinals and the Red Sox or the Cubs and the Dodgers or the Yankees and the Indians. The biggest names in baseball played at Engel.”

Carroll didn’t want “Hello, Chattanooga” to be a dry compendium of names and dates, so he dressed it up with the history of each venue, personal anecdotes and the stories people shared with him.

Each one deepened his understanding of what the personalities included in the book experienced while in Chattanooga.

“When Willie Nelson was here around 2000, a stage hand asked him to sign a copy of the [1978] issue of Rolling Stone Magazine with Willie’s picture on the cover,” Carroll says.

“Willie agreed and asked if he could take the magazine to his bus and look at it. When he brought it back, he thanked the guy and said, ‘I don’t remember the 70s, so I just learned a lot about myself.’”

Carroll also broke up the text with 200 photographs, which was far more than the 70 he initially told his publisher he was expecting to include. But after selecting snapshots from his personal collection and issuing a call for pictures of celebrities on social media, Carroll wound up with an embarrassment of riches.

“The response was incredible,” he says, shaking his head. “The book has everything from George W. Bush eating lunch at Porker’s BBQ with two ladies 12 years ago to a picture of Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits signing autographs while skiing after a concert. I’m grateful for that.”

Carroll also appreciates the people who have thanked him for pinpointing the date they became engaged to be married while attending a particular performance, or restoring their memory of the date they attended their first concert.

Like any author who felt uncertain about a book’s prospects before its release, Carroll is breathing a sigh of relief that he didn’t toil on “Hello, Chattanooga” in vain.

“About a month before the book came out, I spoke to a group in Brainerd. The publisher had sent me 30 advance copies, and I sold every one. People would buy a copy, look at it and then come back and buy another one as a gift.

“That night, I told my wife ‘They care.’”

Carroll says he’s simply pleased to have captured a unique piece of the rich history of the city he loves.

“I don’t consider myself to be an historian, but I do feel like I’ve contributed to people having a deeper knowledge and appreciation for this region.

“After I’m gone, perhaps someone will be leafing through the book and see Babe Ruth once played here, or Sinatra once sang here, or Bush once ate barbecue here. And I love the thought.”