I wanted to know, as well, but finding out was tricky.
I thought I had nailed down the “Riviera” reference when I found a writer in The WPA Guide to 1930s-era Alabama describing how south Baldwin County consisted of a string of “little fishing villages that remind the visitor of the southern coast of France.”
Ah ha, the Riviera.
So I wrote it up as the first time anyone made any connection between that part of the Mediterranean and our part of the Gulf of Mexico.
I was wrong.
Reading my assumption, Cam Plummer, who writes “Yesterday’s News” for the Mobile Press-Register, America’s next great three-day-a-week newspaper, called my attention to a 1937 speech made by Alabama Gov. Bibb Graves on the occasion of the dedication of the new paved highway on the Fort Morgan peninsula. (Governors love to pave roads.) In his remarks, Gov. Graves, whose family loved the beach, spoke of how he “visualized the Alabama coast as ‘the Riviera of the Deep South.’”
Well, there you have it.
But what about “redneck” — more to the point, who connected redneck with Riviera?
My first assumption was that it was Howell Raines, a classmate of mine at Birmingham-Southern College back in the early 1960s who, as a reporter for The New York Times, had written about how former University of Alabama and then-NFL quarterbacks Kenny Stabler and Richard Todd were “Living It Up on the Redneck Riviera” during the offseason. But while Howell felt, as I did, that he was the first to put the words together in print, he conceded that the term had been floating around and he probably “picked it up from the general atmosphere” while he was down there.
One of the places where he might have picked it was Sam and Shine’s Lounge, a bar that was owned, in part at least, by Madison “Shine” Powell, a local musician who reportedly wrote and recorded a song titled “Redneck Riviera.” Howell could not recall hearing the song, but as veterans of the Coast know, memory gets fuzzy fast down there, so he would not rule out that he did.
So now it was possible that “Shine” originated the name, but while I could find people who remembered him, and even an article that mentioned him and quoted the lyrics, I did not have the actual song to support this claim to fame.
Then I got an e-mail from Carl Gates in Foley, who used to play with “Shine’s” band as his father did before him. Carl had come across an online interview I did with Weld for Birmingham, in which I talked about the origin of the name and mentioned how I could not find a copy of the recording.
Sadly, Carl informed me that “Shine” passed away about seven years ago; however, Carl had a 45 rpm of the song and if he could get it transferred to an MP3 format, he would swap me the song for a copy of my book.
We struck a deal.
Mystery solved. “Shine” Powell connected redneck and Riviera in his song, Howell either heard it or heard reference to it, and he wrote it up.
I was happy as a pig in slop.
So I ran my conclusion by Carl, just to make sure I got it right.
And Carl replied with the rest of the story.
“Kenny Stabler,” Carl wrote, “used to be a regular at Sam and Shine’s (even tried to sing a few times). Kenny coined the term Redneck Riviera and “Shine” wrote the song shortly after . . .”
And there you have it.
Or, at least, about as close to it as you are likely to get.
And when Carl and I make the swap and I have the song in my possession, the circle will be complete — at least until someone reads this and remembers something else, and off I’ll go on another expedition into the murky waters of the Redneck Riviera.
But until that someone else comes up with another account of how the term Redneck Riviera came to be, I am going to follow the example of another pro football star who reportedly came in at dawn from a night on the town and was greeted by his long-suffering wife. The conversation went something like this.
She: “Where have you been all night?”
He: “Honey, I did not want to wake you when I came in, so I slept all night in the hammock out back.”
She: “I took that hammock down last week.”
He: “That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.”
And I am sticking with mine.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.