MURALS OF OZARK
Wilbur Jackson Mural
100 N. Merrick Avenue, Ozark, Alabama
The first mural commissioned by the Ozark Mural Program features football legend and Ozark native, Wilbur Jackson. Jackson grew up in Ozark and started his football career playing for D.A. Smith Middle School and then Carroll High School. After a successful career in football, he returned home to Ozark where he started and ran a successful business and remains active in the community.
In 1969, Wilbur Jackson made history on the Tuscaloosa campus of The University of Alabama when Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, head football coach of the Crimson Tide, made the decision to move forward with the addition of African American players to the Alabama football program. Jackson became the first African American football player to sign a full athletic scholarship with the Alabama Crimson Tide. His arrival on campus brought much welcome excitement as racial barriers had been broken not only with the Alabama football program but the Southeastern Conference and in sports as a whole.
Wilbur Jackson is a kind, humble, and athletically talented man who was at the very beginning of great changes at The University of Alabama and beyond. He had a successful college football career, was Captain of the 1973 UA Nation Championship Team, and still holds the record for most yards per carry at UA. In 1974, he was drafted ninth overall by the San Francisco 49ers and voted Rookie of the Year. He ended his career in the NFL in 1982 with the Washington Redskins winning Super Bowl XVII. An Alabama Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Jackson retired from professional football and returned to his hometown to live as a husband, father, business owner, church member, and involved citizen. Ozark considers Wilbur Jackson to be their own Hometown Hero.
Master artist and muralist Wes Hardin was commissioned to create the Wilbur Jackson mural which was completed in 2021. This beautiful mural is an impressive 82 feet long and 26 feet high and is located at 100 N. Merrick Avenue in Ozark.
The City of Ozark is selling an 8.5" x 11" hardbound commemorative book featuring 23 pages of color photographs documenting the progress of the Wilbur Jackson Mural.
This book can be purchased at Ozark City Hall for $50 each. All proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Ozark Mural Program.
Dale County Music & Theater Mural
184 E. Broad Street, Ozark, Alabama
The second mural commissioned by the Ozark Mural Program features individuals from Dale County who have excelled in music and/or theater. This mural features Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Lew Houston Childree, Judge Jackson, Gordon Dodson, Dewey Williams, Margie Benson, Julian Tharpe, John H. “Pete” Mosley, David Bolich, Jo Johnston, and Rickey Shirley. Master artist and muralist Wes Hardin was commissioned to create this mural which was completed in 2022.
The biographies found below utilized information gathered by Adam Kamerer and Christina Faulkner for a series of articles featured in The Southern Star entitled “Who’s Who on the New Ozark Music Mural.”
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Willie Mae Thornton was born in 1926 in Ariton, Alabama, to a Baptist minister and his wife. When Thornton was 14 her mother died, and she left home to pursue a career in music. A self-taught musician, she joined the Hot Harlem Revue and traveled the southeast honing her skills as a singer, drummer, and harmonica player.
In 1952, she headlined at the Apollo Theater then later that year recorded “Hound Dog” which topped the R&B charts and sold over two million copies. Elvis Presley recorded his own rendition to soaring success. In the early 1960s, Thornton wrote and recorded “Ball ‘n’ Chain” which was popularized by Janis Joplin. She continued to record and was regularly featured at music festivals in the U.S. and Europe and was one of the few female American blues singers to develop a following overseas.
In 1976, she was involved in a major car accident that left her with difficulties walking, but it did not keep her from performing. She was a main feature at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1979 and in 1983, she performed at the Newport Jazz Festival with artists such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Lloyd Glenn. After her death in 1984, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Big Mama’s “Hound Dog” and “Ball ‘n’ Chain” is listed in the Rock Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Lew Houston Childree
Lew Houston Childree was born in 1936 and grew up in Ozark, Alabama. He was named after a distant cousin and Grand Ole Opry Star, Lew Childre, although their last names are spelled differently. In grade school and high school, he performed as Little Lew Childree. After high school, he began using his middle name and went by Lew Houston.
Childree started playing the steel guitar at an early age and by the age of 8, he was performing on WIRB radio and later had a 30-minute weekly radio show on WOOF radio. At 12 years old, he performed on the Horace Heidt Show in Montgomery. Childree grew up next door to Julian Tharpe who shared his love for the steel guitar and is also featured on the mural. Often the boys would bring their guitars to school and entertain their classmates.
After graduating High School, Childree joined the U.S. Marine Corps where he played the steel guitar in the Marine Corps Band. In 1966, he joined Conway Twitty and played the steel guitar on several of Twitty’s albums including “Here's Conway Twitty and His Lonely Blue Boys.” After leaving Twitty’s band, he married and the couple formed the band “Kitty and Lew Houston and the Steel Drivers”.
During his career, Childree worked with many famous musicians including Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, and Charlie Pride. Regarded by many as one of the finest steel guitar players of his day, Lew Houston Childree was inducted into the Alabama Steel Guitar Association Hall of Fame in 2017.
Judge Jackson was born in Montgomery County, Alabama, in 1883 to a family of sharecroppers. He obtained little formal education and left home at sixteen years old. Eventually, he settled in Ozark, and in 1902 he met Lela Campbell. Jackson began courting Lela, and in October of that year, they married and in time would have 11 children.
Jackson led a full life as a farmer, businessman, composer, singer, songwriter, teacher, and author. In 1934, he self-published The Colored Sacred Harp a collection of 77 shape-note songs written and arranged by African-American musicians in Southeastern Alabama. Jackson composed eighteen hymns in the collection himself. Originating in the 1800s, shape-notes were developed to bring music to the masses and became a popular format for reading notes by a given shape. Jackson’s love of God and the Sacred Harp tradition led him to organize conventions and share Sacred Harp music across the Southeast.
Jackson was not only a successful composer and singer but was also a prominent farmer owning over 300 acres of land and a successful landlord with 15 rental homes. Judge Jackson is fondly remembered today within the Sacred Harp community and by the City of Ozark which named a housing project after him in 1963 and recognized him as an Ozark Civic Giant in 2019.
Born in 1950, Gordon Dodson grew up in a music-loving family in Ozark, Alabama. He credits his brother, Rodney, for teaching him to learn to play his first song on the guitar. As teenagers, the Dodson brothers started a band and played at local teen clubs, and even made a record. Recorded on the Red Wave Record Label, the Baron’s 45 rpm is now well known to followers of garage bands of the 1960s.
The band later dissolved as members were drafted into the military including Gordon Dodson. While serving in Vietnam, a fellow soldier taught him to play the banjo. After completing his military service, he returned and used his banjo skills in commercials and a documentary.
Dodson went on to play guitar in a wide variety of bands with styles that range from country, rock, blues, and even bluegrass. His work took him across the United States often sharing the stage with many notable artists such as George Jones, Earl Thomas Conley, T. Graham Brown, Stonewall Jackson, Sara Evans, Rhonda Vincent, and more. Later, he returned to Troy University and completed his master’s degree, and taught guitar at local community colleges. After retiring from teaching, he focused his musical efforts on the 14-string steel guitar and in 2010 was awarded the Alabama Steel Guitar Hall of Fame’s Bill Simmons Horizon Award.
Dewey Williams was born in the Haw Ridge Community of Dale County, Alabama, in 1898 to a family of sharecroppers. Williams was brought up singing Sacred Harp hymns with his family and neighbors. Later, he would hone his skills with local music leaders such as Judge Jackson, who is also featured on the mural.
In 1921, Williams married Alice Casey and had 8 children. He worked as a sharecropper, was a deacon for his church, and taught Sacred Harp shape note singing.
In 1955, Williams, Judge Jackson, Henry Japheth Jackson, and other Sacred Harp singers developed the first broadcast of Sacred Harp for Ozark’s WOZK-AM. Williams would later produce and direct a monthly television show on Sacred Harp music for WTVY. After retiring from farming, he devoted himself full-time to teaching and performing Sacred Harp music. He organized the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers in 1970 and directed the group in performances and workshops throughout the Southeast. The Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers even performed in Canada and appeared several times at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. In 1983, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Williams the National Heritage Fellowship, the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. He was the first Alabamian to receive such an award.
Julian Tharpe was born in Skipperville, Alabama, in 1937. At a very young age, Tharpe developed an interest in the steel guitar and would lay it on the bed to play it, since he was too small to hold on to it. As his skills grew, he began playing for audiences in local bars and later on a radio show in Troy. By the age of 14, he was an established musician sharing the stage with Tex Ritter and performing on television and radio shows. Tharpe was known as a master of the 14-string steel guitar and even pioneered the “speed picking” style.
Over the course of his career, he was a solo artist, record producer, songwriter, band leader, business owner, and teacher. He released several albums and LP’s including The Jet Age in 1977, 12+14= Country Jazz a collaboration with Zane Beck in 1978, Southern Fried Steel in 1979, Deep Feelings in 1984, and Take Your Pick in collaboration with Blondie Calderon in 1984. Tharpe toured the country and performed at The Grand Ole Opry, Hee Haw, and shared the stage with legendary musicians such as Ray Price, Barbara Mandrell, Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers Band, and more. He was posthumously inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2008.
Rickey Shirley was born in Greenville in 1947 and moved to Ozark in 1970 after graduating from Troy University with a degree in Music Education. That year he married his sweetheart, Maurine, and they would have four children together. Shirley’s love for music was passed onto his children and grandchildren several of whom followed him into musical theater and production.
Over the next 28 years, he served as the choral music teacher at Carroll High School. Music filled his life and was a part of everything he did at home, school, and church. After retiring from Ozark City Schools, Shirley went on to teach full-time in Georgia and served as an adjunct professor for Wallace Community College and Troy University. Shirley also served as the music director from 1970 to 1998 for countless plays and musicals produced by Carroll High School. He returned to this role in 2012 where he produced musicals with the Dale County Performing Arts Council and Wish Upon A Star Performing Arts Company. In 1993, Shirley was selected as Ozark’s Man of the Year. Then in 2013, he was awarded the Outstanding Adjunct Faculty award from Troy University.
Born in 1931, Jo Johnston grew up in Ozark, Alabama, where her father, A.D. Kirkland, ran a pharmacy in downtown Ozark. She studied classical music and over her career composed over 100 pieces of music. Three notable compositions are the Army branch anthems: “Above the Best,” written for the Army Aviation Branch; “Essayons,” written for the Army Corps of Engineers; and “Dragon Soldiers,” written for the Army Chemical Corps.
Johnston’s love for music encompassed more than just the military. She collaborated with her daughter, Linda Thompson, to write three musicals together. She also founded Elenjay Publishing and served as president of Apache Records. She was also commissioned to write a song for the Prince of Monaco.
Johnston has received many awards and honors over the course of her career. In 1988, she was presented with the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Award, at the time it was the second-highest civilian service award bestowed by the Army. She also received the Katharine Wright Award, the Commander’s Award for Public Service, and the Order of St. Michael (Silver) Award just to name a few.
The military brought the Bolich family to Ozark, and a love for the town kept the family here. David Bolich attended Ozark City Schools and graduated from Carroll High School in 1972. During that time, he developed an interest in music and at the age of 11 he learned to play the trombone under the guidance of Pete Mosley (who is also featured on the mural). He continued his musical career in high school through the marching band and concert band, writing his first marching arrangement his junior year.
After graduation, he attended Auburn University and obtain a bachelor’s degree in music education and later earned his master’s degree in the same field. He accepted a position as the Associate Director at Carroll High School in 1982. Throughout his career he focused not on awards but rather on his students and their accomplishments. During his tenure, he established the Jazz Fest which brought together high school, college, and professional performers from across the state. The festival was the largest noncompetitive jazz festival of its time and provided novice bands an opportunity to play without criticism, gain experience, and watch and learn from others in the field.
Bolich taught music but his focus was on his students and their future. Leadership, respect, planning, and perseverance were just a few of the values he instilled in them. Many of his students have found success as doctors, attorneys, business owners, musicians and teachers. During his 37 years in music education, Bolich gained the respect and love of his students, peers, and community.
Margie Benson was born in Opp, Alabama, in 1946 and graduated from Auburn University. In 1972, she moved to Ozark, Alabama and taught art which eventually led her to the position of musical theater teacher at Carroll High School. After directing several musicals at Bracken Theater, Benson led the fundraising efforts to renovate the stage at the old Flowers School and transformed the venue into the Flowers Center for Performing Arts. After retiring from teaching, Benson was a director of Looney’s Tavern and Amphitheater, worked at Huntington College, obtained her real estate license, designed and directed the We Piddle Around Theater in Brundidge and was the original director at the Red Door Theater in Union Springs.
In 2006, Benson directed a production of “Conecuh People” which was named one of the 50 Top Things to See and Do in Alabama by the Alabama State Council of the Arts. She also received the Governor’s Award from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the Distinguished Citizen Award for Dale County, and was named a Woman of Achievement in Dale County. Benson’s work continues in musical theater through her production company, Wish Upon a Star.
Dr. John Harmon “Pete” Mosley was born in Evergreen, Alabama, in 1935. He was a very engaged student at Evergreen High School serving as president of his class, band captain, and a member of the basketball team. Outside of school he was active in the Boy Scouts of America and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. After high school, he obtained a degree in music from Polytechnic Institute later known as Auburn University. While in college, he enjoyed marching in the school band, was a member of Kappa Sigma, and served as the part-time band director at Dadeville High School.
After graduating from college, he was hired as the band director at Carroll High School. During his 12 years there, the band earned accolades from many national competitions and festivals. In 1967, Mosley was selected as the Outstanding Young Educator in Alabama. Mosley would eventually return to Auburn University to pursue a doctorate degree in educational administration. After graduation, Mosley returned to Ozark and took a position with Wallace Community College as an administrator. Then in 1976, Mosley accepted the position of superintendent of the Ozark City School system. He received many notable awards during his twenty-year tenure with the school system including Alabama Superintendent of the Year, Outstanding Alumnus of Auburn University School of Education, and the Committee of 10-Plus Annual Award for promoting civil rights. In addition to his professional life, Dr. Mosley was an active leader in the community and volunteered to serve on numerous committees and boards.
Throughout his career, Mosley stayed true to his love of music and arts. He served as the director of the Tri-State Summer Pops Band for high school students for two years and directed numerous orchestras for the Southeast Alabama Community Theater productions. In addition, he arranged for the Alabama Symphony to perform in Ozark several times. Along with Margie Benson who is also featured on the mural, he was instrumental in the creation of the Flowers Center for the Performing Arts.
Mosley loved Ozark and sought to inspire and encourage the young people in the community teaching them to dream big and to aspire to greatness. One of his pupils, David Bolich (also featured on the mural), would later take over as director of the Carroll High School band. Carroll High School dedicated the band room in his honor in grateful appreciation for his service commitment and leadership.