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Birmingham’s Own Sammy Lowe

—by: Craig Allen, Jr.


irmingham is the birth place of many musicians, music composers and arrangers, many of which produced music that resonated nationwide. Several months ago Tommy West wrote an article concerning one of Birmingham’s best known musicians, Erskine Hawkins.

Less known than Erskine Hawkins, but also very successful as well as an inductee to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame was Hawkins’ protégé, Samuel "Sammy" Lowe. An African American-born composer and arranger, Lowe initially worked with many of the great artists of the big-band and jazz eras. He later worked with rhythm and blues and pop song artists, arranging a long list of popular songs.

Sammy Lowe was born on May 14, 1918 in Birmingham to Samuel and Cora Lowe. His father, a carpenter by trade, played the folk guitar. Sammy started playing trumpet in Lincoln Grammar School in Birmingham and began arranging music at Industrial High School.

After attending Tennessee State Agriculture and Industrial College in Nashville, Tennessee on a music scholarship, Lowe joined the Bama State Collegians in New York City. It was 1936 when he first joined Erskine Hawkins, where he wrote, played, and arranged music. That "gig" lasted until 1955, during which Sammy Lowe was involved with Hawkins hit record (1940) of "Tuxedo Junction" and the Laura Washington song, "I’ve Got a Right To Cry."

Sammy Lowe ad

By 1955, the Big Band Era had all but faded (although Jimmy Dorsey would enjoy one last hit record, "So Rare" in 1957). The music field of big band, jazz and blues had evolved into a rock and roll genera. Sammy made the transition gracefully and successfully. While gigging with doo-wop and rock and roll artists, he began to arrange music for jazz artists of the day such as Eddie Heywood, Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, Cab Calloway, and others.

Sammy Lowe

Sammy Lowe

He developed a reputation as a top-notch arranger; while enjoying his own 1952 hit record, recorded under his name—"Easy My Love" by Sammy Lowe (orchestra) on Candlelight Records.

During the 1950’s he married a New York City actress, Betty Hayes. They subsequently had a son, Samuel Haynes Lowe, born September 2, 1954. Son, Sammy Lowe, went on to become a musician in New York, later to return to Birmingham. He died in 2011.

In 1966 Lowe arranged James Brown’s million-selling record, "It’s A Man’s World", which along with another Lowe-arranged song, "Prisoner of Love", resulted in two of Brown’s largest selling records. Lowe also had a doowop hit with the VeLours—"Over The Rainbow,"

Through the 1960’s, Sammy Lowe provided his arranging skills and at times his own orchestra to such artists as The Moments, The Tokens ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), The Platters ("My Prayer"), Little Peggy March ("I Will Follow Him"), Nina Simone, Della Reese, Sam Cooke, and Brook Benton. Al Hirt once called Lowe "one of the best arrangers in the business."

Erskine Hawkins

Erskine Hawkins

In his later years, Sammy Lowe lived on Amsterdam Avenue in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife and son. He died on February 17, 1993 and was laid to rest in his native Birmingham, Alabama.

Sammy Lowe was a success story, negotiating several musical styles and eras.



Recent History Center Acquisitions

Victor Hanson and his wife in 1938.

Victor Hanson and his
wife in 1938.

Victor Henry Hanson (born January 16, 1876 at Barnesville, Pike County, Georgia) was publisher of The Birmingham News from 1910 until his death. As a young man, Hanson founded his own Saturday newspaper, The City Item while still in grammar school. After schooling, he worked as an advertising agent for the Atlanta Constitution and also worked for the Baltimore World and the Montgomery Advertiser.

In 1909 he moved to Birmingham and purchased a third of the outstanding stock in the fledgling Birmingham News, becoming vice president and general manager. When founding publisher Rufus Rhodes died less than a year later, he and partner Frank Glass, bought out Rhodes' widow. Hanson assumed the role of publisher, a job he held until his death in 1945. During his tenure he was able to increase the News circulation by 300% and launched a Sunday edition in 1912.

Victor Hanson’s Desk

Victor Hanson’s Desk Donated by the Birmingham News

To donate artifacts related to the history of the Birmingham region, please call 205‑202‑4146 or bring items to the History Center at 1731 First Avenue North, Birmingham, AL.

1925 milk bottle from the collection

This half pint milk bottle is from the Hansen’s Dairy of Birmingham. It has a special cream top patented in March of 1925. Acquired by Tommy West and purchased with funds from the Jefferson County Historical Association. If you know something about Hansen’s Dairy please contact the History Center at 205‑202‑4146.


Ashtray and swizzle Stick from The Club width=

Ashtray and Swizzle Stick—From "The Club," donated by Patrick Cather and May Townsend

THE CLUB, or the Club atop Red Mountain, is a notable private supper club which opened on June 12, 1951 on the site of the former Valley View Mine on the crest of Red Mountain.


You Can Stand in Three Counties at Tannehill

—by: Jim Bennett


ver get the feeling you need to be in several places at one time? Well you can at Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park southwest of Bessemer off I‑59.

A recently-opened trail leads to the corners of Jefferson, Tuscaloosa and Bibb Counties where a 900-pound granite monument now sits marking the unusual geographical convergence. You can actually stand in three counties.

Thanks to a fundraising effort by Birmingham Architect Walter Anderton, the memorial, built by Southern Memorial, was hauled to the three corners site by park crews who built a mile-long hiking trail to it just off the park’s Iron Haul Road leading up the mountain from the Tannehill Iron Furnaces across an iron bridge.

The Tannehill Ironworks was purposely located near the junction of four counties in 1830 to command a market between Elyton and Tuscaloosa. Back then, Shelby County formed a fourth corner but was moved several quarter sections to the east by legislative act several years later.

There’s a wooden park bench where the Tri-County Trail splits off from the Old Iron Haul Road where you can sit and contemplate the history of the iron trade in the state which began at places like Hillman’s Bloomery at Tannehill way back when Andrew Jackson was in the White House. Back then, there were a few Creek Indians still around. You can think on them too. What a strange site it must have been for natives to see iron pouring from Tannehill’s early forges.

900 Pound memorial at three corners site

900 Pound memorial at three corners site.

By the time the Civil War came along in 1861, the forges had given way to blast furnaces. Tannehill had three of them and they are still there after all this time. They were sister furnaces to Irondale and Oxmoor in Jefferson County and the Shelby Works in Shelby County and the Bibb Furnaces at Brierfield.

While you are sitting there contemplating the olden times, you might also imagine the thundering hooves of Wilson’s federal cavalry passing by on the way to set them all on fire thereby reducing the Confederacy’s ability to arm its soldiers with guns, swords and cannon.

That happened on March 30–31, 1865. It was the largest cavalry raid of the entire Civil War. At the time, Alabama furnaces were producing 70% of the Confederate iron supply.

There’s a lot of history to take in right in our own backyard.

Tannehill Park’s Tri-County Trail

Tannehill Park’s Tri-County Trail.


West Pointer Gen. Andrew J. Gatsis

Survivor Extraordinaire

—by: Judy Haise


mong the most prominent of West Point’s 1,012 graduates* born in Alabama is Brig. Gen. Andrew John Gatsis. Andy survived many scrapes in battle, but his last escape with death was an uncanny attack by Mother Nature.

One of America’s most decorated Korean and Vietnam era commanders, the general has a plaque honoring him in the Heroes Room on the USS Alabama in Mobile.

For his first combat mission, Capt. Gatsis was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation cited his extraordinary heroism in action near Songnae-dong, Korea, against enemy aggressor forces in the 1952 Battle of Christmas Hill (one of the 12 most famous Christmas Day battles in American history recognized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine).

The DSC citation further noted that North Korean hostile forces launched a series of "fanatical attacks" on the part of the main line of resistance where Capt. Gatsis’ rifle Company K, 3rd Battalion, in the 179th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, was situated. Capt. Gatsis personally led a spirited counter-attack, which was halted by extensive mortar, automatic weapons and small arms fire. He called for reinforcements, then with cast-iron nerve led an assault into the enemy ranks, successfully engaging them in bitter hand-to-hand combat, personally killing one and wounding several others. They ejected two Communist regiments.

Andy was again honored for heroism in battle with a Silver Star on the first of his two tours in Vietnam in 1967 when he commanded an Infantry battalion in the First Cavalry Division. He subsequently received every American decoration for valor with the exception of the Medal of Honor.

His family says Andy was innately prepared to excel in many survival tests from birth in 1921 to second generation Greek parents, Pearl Pappas and A.J. Gatsis, Sr., who died when Andy was only 11-months old. He and his only sibling Efro were raised in Woodlawn by Pearl at 101 North 68th Place.

Through the years, Andy would come back to visit Efro and her husband, Alex Cassimus, at home in Vestavia Hills and their landmark Peanut Depot on Birmingham’s Morris Avenue.

Andy’s sons Andy Jr. and John Gatsis, a partner in an electrical engineering firm, and sister Wynne Coleman, both of Raleigh, N.C., recall what fun they had sitting on the big sacks of peanuts when they were kids.

"It was always a big deal when Uncle Andy would come to town," recalls Alex’s great-nephew John Cassimus of Liberty Park. "He was larger than life, like a John Wayne or Charlton Heston-type guy, always soft-spoken."

Andy didn’t easily earn his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which was the springboard for his highly successful 37 years in the Army and stint on the speakers’ circuit. He spoke to civic organizations like the Rotary and Exchange clubs in every state of the union. His rousing patriotic speech at the John Birch Society’s 25th Anniversary celebration is on YouTube.

Capt. Andrew Gatsis

Capt. Andrew Gatsis, second from left, briefing
4-star Gen. James Van Fleet in Korea.

Andy’s wife of 61 years, Alyce Wynne Suiter Gatsis of Rocky Mount, N.C., recalls Andy’s mother saying "he always put his slippers facing West Point every night before he went to bed."

Disappointed he didn’t initially get that coveted appointment, he enlisted in the Army 18 days after graduating from Woodlawn High School in 1939. He doggedly tested his way into the West Point Preparatory School before finally receiving an appointment to the academy with help from Rep. Luther Patrick of Alabama’s Ninth District.

He graduated last (the goat) in the West Point Class of 1945. Gen. Omar N. Bradley reportedly gave only one personal congratulatory quote as he presented 873 diplomas and that was to Gatsis, "You did a good job, lots of good men come from the bottom of the class."

Andy’s driving sense of survival was fine-tuned by West Point’s strenuous physical and mental demands. And his wartime tests served him well in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd caused an unheard of flash flood in the middle of the night inside his home in Rocky Mount, N.C.

He, Alice Wynne and son Andy Jr. were awakened by their Dalmatian and Cocker Spaniel when surging water shot up like geysers through the heat registers. Alyce Wynne recalls the icy cold water was neck high when their daughter Meg Cressionnie’s husband Robert came to the rescue. He and Andy—and the water pressure—finally knocked down the front door. They swam in the dark to higher ground, still holding onto the dogs for more than 75 yards.

It was the first time Rocky Mount native Alyce Wynne can remember the town flooding, but they lost more than half of their possessions—including Andy’s West Point class ring. All 10 homes on their cul de sac had to be torn down. Andy miraculously found his ring when they rebuilt Alyce Wynne’s family home. Andy lived for another decade, passing away peacefully at age 89 in 2010.

*Confirmed by the USMA Archives and Association of graduates, along with a total number of USMA graduates at 69,224 as of December 2012.



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