It’s the second week of January 1999 and the McCartneys are visiting Atlanta. But not for a concert. On this trip, Heather McCartney is unveiling her line of houseware items at the America’s Mart, and Paul is there to guarantee his daughter ample media play. After helping to promote Heather’s rugs, cushions and other items arrayed with designs inspired by the Huichol and Tarahumara tribes of Mexico, Paul and his son, James, make a smooth exit to explore the side streets of Atlanta. According to Paul, James, then 21, wanted to “visit the funky side of town.” So into the car they climbed; it would be a short ride.
It’s likely the McCartneys had already seen enough of America’s Mart, one of the smothering eyesores designed and built by John Portman for Atlanta’s downtown. Most of Portman’s Atlanta buildings rise, bloviate and squat. On the outside, they turn their backs to the streets. On the inside, they are vast — sometimes creatively utilizing space, but appearing cold and stark. Taking in such monstrosities had the McCartneys looking for an Atlanta not promoted by the Chamber of Commerce. Less than two miles away, they found it.
James and Paul got out of their car near the corner of Broad Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. When Dr. King was alive, this funky part of town served as the hub of Atlanta’s commercial activity. Its great department store, Rich’s, sprawling over 5.15 acres, dominated the corner, but there were other retailers in the area doing solid business as well. The south side of Atlanta’s downtown continued as a shopping and dining destination for blacks and whites into the early ’80s, although white flight and the “malling” of the suburbs cut into the area’s prosperity. By July ’91, Rich’s closed its iconic downtown store, taking jobs and traffic out of Atlanta’s urban core. Naturally, things would get funky.
The urban exploring would do the McCartney men good. Linda McCartney died of cancer the previous March, shortly before she and Paul would celebrate their 29th wedding anniversary. Her passing was devastating to Paul and their children but they were striving to keep busy. While in Atlanta, Heather noted, “It’s obviously been a very difficult time for us this past year, but we’re drawing on the energies and moving forward.” For Paul McCartney, moving forward meant creating new music. In less than two months, he would begin work on a new album of ’50s rock and roll songs, with three new songs of his own thrown in for good measure. Since 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt album, McCartney had rebounded from the musical lethargy that so polluted most of his ’80s material. And less than two years before he started work on the ’50s rock and roll album, he released Flaming Pie, a critically acclaimed work that would become his best-selling album in the United States since ’82’s Tug of War. So McCartney would move forward, and as he ambled down Broad Street, he may have been hoping for some inspiration, something that would result in a new song or two.
On the surface, it looked as if there was no inspiration to be found at Broad and MLK. Rich’s was long gone from the vicinity and despite the 5,000 employees working in the Sam Nunn Federal Center at the old Rich’s property, the streets were quiet and foreboding. Crack dealers and their customers made Broad Street even more frightful for those going to the dentist’s office near by. Neither were they good company for those headed to the corner liquor store for a bottle of Duggan’s gin. Clearly, the area could use some purging — maybe an exorcism. Braving the nefarious surroundings, Paul McCartney stopped in front of Broad Street’s long-established Miller’s Rexall Drugs and saw something intended to ward off Satan. “I was looking in the shop window and I saw this bottle of bath salts called ‘Run Devil Run,’” McCartney said in a press release. “I thought that was a good title for a song. So I was on holiday after that; I started thinking of words for it and it came quite easily.”
McCartney took some snapshots of the store, but preferred photos taken by a professional. He got them, planning to use one for the cover* of the ’50s rock and roll album he would call Run Devil Run, to be released later that year. Run Devil Run extended McCartney’s hot streak, his rock and roll sensibilities firmly in place. As did John Lennon on his ’75 Rock ‘n’ Roll album, McCartney approached Run Devil Run as a tribute to the 50s rock and roll pioneers who had such a strong influence on his musical life. He wasn’t interested in knocking off an “oldies” collection to fill time until he completed a dozen or so of his own new songs. Neither was he interested in pulling from the same ’50s grab bag and then recording the selections rote-like. On Run Devil Run, McCartney filled the old songs with new passion.
Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is embellished with a rollicking Cajun flair — Southwestern Louisiana meets Liverpool, England. The southern region of Louisiana was represented twice more with McCartney’s renditions of two outstanding B-sides by New Orleans natives Larry Williams and Fats Domino. McCartney delivers a fevered “She Said Yeah,” the flip side to Williams’ “Bad Boy” (one of three Williams songs recorded by the Beatles between June ’64 and May ’65). Domino get his props on “Coquette,” a song he covered in ’58, thirty years after Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians made it one of their first hits. McCartney’s take on “Coquette” is delivered with brio, just as Domino did with “Lady Madonna,” one of the more soulful songs McCartney wrote as a Beatle.
Other highlights on Run Devil Run include a driving take on the Elvis Presley classic, “All Shook Up,” the Ricky Nelson hit, “Lonesome Town,” and two McCartney originals, “Try Not To Cry” and the album’s title song.
McCartney takes the soulful longing and regret conveyed by Nelson up a notch or two on “Lonesome Town,” Whereas Nelson’s approach was pensive and soft, McCartney’s is one of sorrow verging on devastation. McCartney’s vocal on “Lonesome Town” calls to mind his performance on the Beatles’ “Oh Darling.”
“Try Not To Cry” could very well be McCartney’s best straight ahead rocker of his solo career. Yes, we are reminded, this is the same guy who so commanded “I’m Down” and “Helter Skelter.”
“Run Devil Run” is an intense number, the sort McCartney belted from the stage years before the term Beatlemania entered the lexicon. Upon a casual listen, the song seems just another rock and roll run-through with snappy chatter that rhymes just so the guys can play fast and hard. But McCartney obviously picked up on something when he looked through the window of Richard Miller’s store with its homeopathic medicines, herbs and talismans. So “Run Devil Run” tells a story of a “holy roller with a mission on her mind.” She spreads the word and screams “to keep her demons away.” The woman’s story may not have differed much from the memories of customers visiting Miller’s Rexall, particularly after it just opened in 1965:
Well by the middle of the summer they were back at the shack
Picking cotton for a living keeping on the right track
Visiting the neighbors trying to spread the good news
Singing gospel music with a hint of the blues
All of them determined to deliver the goods
Man you hear the music coming out of the woods
When Richard Miller’s uncle, Donald Miller, opened his Rexall on Broad Street in 1965, integration, with the force of law in the United States, was just kicking in. The Rexall was truly a pharmacy at the time. A decade or two would pass before national retailers departed urban corners such as Broad and MLK (in ’65 it was Broad and Hunter). There was still hope that the changes so many risked their lives for would be widely accepted. That certain areas wouldn’t be abandoned. That more and more people would embrace the words of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech as opposed to rejecting them. It made sense to a lot of us, perhaps more starry-eyed than realistic. The soundtrack of those times was provided by Bob Dylan, Otis Redding and the Beatles. In fact, the Beatles played less than two miles away from Miller’s Rexall Drugs in August ’65, at the newly-built Atlanta Stadium. 51 days later Dylan would play in Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium, also less than 2 miles from Miller’s, as was the Royal Peacock Club on Auburn Avenue, where Otis Redding, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke and others admired by Dylan and the Beatles performed on multiple occasions. It was a time for hope. After all, Cooke sung of how “A Change is Gonna Come.” Picking cotton for a living, as McCartney phrased it — for little more than sustenance and warmth at the shack, was an honest day’s work by those worthy of their hire. It could also be exploitative, part of the long journey from Middle Passage to I Am Somebody. A change couldn’t come soon enough.
Roll Up For The History Tour …. When disappointed over dashed hopes, to insure sustenance and warmth — at the shack or in the subdivision, people roll with the changes, good and bad. Richard Miller hung in with the changes on Broad Street, where too often he heard of a neighborhood turnaround in-the-making that eventually fizzled. For the second time in a quarter century, a new football stadium for the hapless Atlanta Falcons was going up in close proximity to Miller’s Rexall. Since nearly a billion dollars of taxpayer dollars will eventually be spent on a billionaire’s stadium, there’s hope that jobs and revival will come to the southern edge of downtown Atlanta. But it’s the kind of thing people in the area have heard before. Miller couldn’t hold his breath on rejuvenation forever, so he sold the business two-three years back. It has since relocated to Memorial Drive in Decatur where the staff continues to offer “convenient and affordable spiritual services for those who need a better look or boost in their lives.”
Now it turns out the south end of Broad Street along with neighboring sections of Peachtree Street, Martin Luther King Boulevard and Mitchell Street will get a better look and a long-desired boost. Newport Holdings has bought 47 historic buildings in the vicinity and has brought in professional services firm JLL to help fill the spaces. Coffee shops, food markets, breweries, fitness centers, galleries, entertainment venues — all the usual hipster attractions — will be located along a walkable 8-block spread. The historic buildings will not be razed. They will be refurbished, adding dignity, beauty and human scale to downtown Atlanta, where the usual hyped projects are slick, tacky and too often billed to the taxpayers.
The project will take years to complete but in the process it would be great to bring Paul McCartney back to Broad Street for a one-night performance. As a tribute to Richard Miller, McCartney could play “Run Devil Run” and then follow it with one of his best songs of this century, “Sing The Changes.” For a community finally experiencing positive changes, that will make for a fitting and joyful moment.
* Given the litigious society we live in, the cover shot of Run Devil Run was altered so that Miller’s Rexall Drugs became Earl’s Quick E Drugs. But Richard Miller holds no grudge. At his store he installed Paul McCartney shrine of sorts on a display shelf. However, Miller wishes that McCartney could’ve come by to check it out while picking up some extra potent bath salts.
Images: The photos of Miller’s Rexall Drugs were taken by the author, Jeff Cochran; the album cover is a promotional image; and the bottle Run Devil Run bath salts is a promotional image from LuckShop.com.