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First cousins Randy Owen (born December 14, 1949; lead vocal, rhythm guitar) and Teddy Gentry (born January 22, 1952; vocals, bass) form the core of Alabama. Owen and Gentry grew up on separate cotton farms on Lookout Mountain in Alabama, but the pair learned how to play guitar together; they had also sung in church together before they were six years old. On their own, Gentry and Owen played in a number of different bands during the '60s, playing country, bluegrass, and pop on different occasions. During high school, the duo teamed with another cousin, Jeff Cook (born August 27, 1949; lead guitar, vocals, keyboards, fiddle), to form Young Country in 1969. Before joining his cousins, Cook had played in several bands and was a rock & roll DJ. Young Country's first gig was at a high-school talent contest; performing a Merle Haggard song, the band won first prize -- a trip to the Grand Ole Opry. However, the group was fairly inactive as Owen and Cook went to college.
After Owen and Cook graduated from college, they moved with Gentry to Anniston, Alabama, with the intention of keeping the band together. Sharing an apartment, the group practiced at night and performed manual labor during the day. They changed their name to Wildcountry in 1972, adding drummer Bennett Vartanian to the lineup. The following year, they made the decision to become professional musicians, quitting their jobs and playing a number of bars in the Southeast. During this time, they began writing their own songs, including "My Home's in Alabama." Vartanian left soon after the band turned professional; after losing four more drummers, Rick Scott was added to the lineup in 1974.
Wildcountry changed their name to Alabama in 1977, the same year the band signed a one-record contract with GRT. The resulting single, "I Wanna Be with You Tonight," was a minor success, peaking in the Top 80. Nevertheless, the single's performance was an indication that Alabama was one of the most popular bands in the Southeast; at the end of the decade, they were playing over 300 shows a year. After "I Wanna Be with You Tonight," the group borrowed $4,000 from a Fort Payne bank, using the money to record and release their own records, which were sold at shows. When GRT declared bankruptcy a year after the release of "I Wanna Be with You Tonight," the bandmembers discovered that they were forbidden from recording with another label because of a hidden clause in their contract. For two years, Alabama raised money to buy out their contract. In 1979, the group was finally able to begin recording again. That same year, Scott left the band. Scott was replaced by Mark Herndon, a former rock drummer who helped give Alabama their signature sound.
Later in 1979, Alabama self-recorded and released an album, hiring an independent record promoter to help get radio play for the single "I Wanna Come Over." The band also sent hundreds of handwritten letters to program directors and DJs across the country. "I Wanna Come Over" gained the attention of MDJ Records, a small label based in Dallas. MDJ released the single, and it reached number 33 on the charts. In 1980, MDJ released "My Home's in Alabama," which made it into the Top 20. Based on the single's success, Alabama performed at the Country Music New Faces show, where they were spotted by an RCA Records talent scout, who signed the group after the show.
Alabama released their first RCA single, "Tennessee River," late in 1980. Produced by Harold Shedd, the song began a remarkable streak of 21 number one hits (interrupted by the 1982 holiday single "Christmas in Dixie"), which ran until 1987; after one number seven hit, the streak resumed for another six singles, resulting in a total of 27 number one singles during the decade. Taken alone, the number of chart-topping tracks is proof of Alabama's popularity, but the band also won numerous awards, had seven multi-platinum albums, and crossed over to the pop charts nine times during the '80s.
In the '90s, the group's popularity declined somewhat, yet they were still scoring hit singles and gold and platinum albums with regularity, and it's unlikely that any other country group will be able to surpass the success of Alabama. The group disbanded in 2006 following a farewell tour and two albums of gospel, 2006's Songs of Inspiration and 2007's Songs of Inspiration, Vol. 2, but they reunited in 2011. A third gospel album, Angels Among Us: Hymns & Gospel Favorites, was released by Gaither Music in 2014. In September 2015, Alabama further sealed the relaunch of their career, delivering Southern Drawl, their first album of all-new material in 14 years. Guitarist, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Cook revealed he was living with Parkinson's disease in 2017, and he dropped out of their touring lineup the following year, though he participated in a 50th Anniversary Tour in 2020. Cook died on November 7, 2022, in Destin, Florida, at the age of 73. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine