By: Rusty James
I first met J. Willoughby about 25 years ago at a little dive bar in Pelham, Alabama, that I was part owner of called The Mug Shot Saloon. The Mug Shot was known to have customers dancing on the bar and was a favorite hangout for motorcycle "enthusiasts."
One could say that J. was a somewhat reluctant performer. He was kind of quiet and shy at first, but eventually, he became more comfortable in those surroundings, and he really opened up when the music started. On occasion, his mom and dad would come to see him perform. J.'s dad was John Ed Willoughby, a well-known Birmingham radio personality for over thirty years. Some of you may remember T.C. and John Ed's radio show.
After college, J. started a band called The Newboys, which was a regional success. So much so that the big move to Nashville took place. Signed to Capital Records, he was dropped before their album was released. J. said that he was signed and dropped from some of the best labels in the country.
When I met him, J. was the leader of a three-piece band called The Willbillies. He played a Rickenbacker guitar that refused to stay in tune for more than three songs when the humidity was high. The Willbillies played a lot of Tom Petty tunes and were a crowd favorite. Little did I know that I was listening to the future founder of The Black Jacket Symphony!
In 2009, The Beatles Abbey Road turned 40 years old, and J., being a self-proclaimed music history nerd, was reading all about it. In the meantime, he heard a radio ad for a classical concert (Mozart in the Park), and something clicked for him. He told me that Abbey Road and all of these classic albums would be the classical music of our generation and future generations.
While there were already tribute bands out there dressing up like original bands and playing their music, nobody was approaching it like a symphony, respectfully playing the album, song for song, note for note. That idea gave birth to The Black Jacket Symphony, a unique ensemble created by J. Willoughby.
Their first show was Abbey Road on May 28, 2009. A few of the bands they have covered include The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Prince, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, ACDC, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, and more. Fourteen years later, they have performed 43 different albums across the US.
The band is ever-evolving, depending on the album they are playing. As J. put it, the lead vocalistalist when performing Queen isn't necessarily the right guy for ACDC, etc. He said that he selects the right musicians for each lineup to perform each album., regardless of how many musicians are needed to perfect the music.
My wife, Susie, and I recently celebrated our anniversary by attending The Black Jacket Symphony show at Mobile's Saenger Theater on April 28th. The historic venue opened in 1927 and has been the site of a variety of shows through the years. On this night, The Black Jacket Symphony performed Tom Petty's album Full Moon Fever for Set I and The Greatest Hits of Tom Petty for Set II. It was an experience not to be missed.
The lineup included Ben Owens-guitar, Heath Price-bass, J.Willoughby-vocals, Jess Meuse-vocals, Mark Lanter-drums, Peyton Grant-piano, vocals, and Will Cash-guitar, not to mention Randall Hughes-audio and Forrest G. Larramore-lighting, which was a show by itself. Peyton Grant also does most of the lead vocals on the Allman Brothers covers. Jess Meuse is the lead vocal for Stevie Nicks when they perform Fleetwood Mac. In 2014, Jess also finished in fourth place on American Idol.
Although The Black Jacket Symphony is Birmingham-based, they play many shows in the Scenic 98 Coastal area in Mobile and Pensacola. If you get the chance to see them perform, do it. You will be glad you did!