Mike Blackwell 1950-2020
He couldn’t carry a tune, read a note or play a musical instrument and he sure couldn’t dance. But for nearly fifty years Mike Blackwell brought an endless stream of legendary musicians to local stages, performers people never dreamed they would see right in their own backyard.
His first show was in 1968. On his way to becoming student government president at Columbus College he was named entertainment chairman. He needed a band for a campus dance and he hired Lionel Richie and The Commodores straight out of Tuskegee, Ala. Later on, he and high school pal John Shinkle formed BASH Productions and they did a show with Cheech and Chong at the old Columbus Municipal Auditorium.
This socially awkward refugee from Lower Alabama had found his calling. Instead of picking cotton and growing Slocumb tomatoes, he became a musical force of nature.
He staged events all over town … from rockers to rappers, from Motown to the Grand Old Opry and Capricorn … from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Black Oak Arkansas, from the Beastie Boys to Parliament Funkadelic, from Smokey Robinson to Vince Gill, from Three Dog Night to the Four Tops to the Four Seasons.
If they were rockin’, he was bookin’.
His final concerts were a few weeks ago in Hiawassee, Ga. while he was relegated to a hospital bed at St. Francis Hospital suffering from a myriad of issues. Friends had never seen Blackwell go so slow for so long. After more than a month, he was moved to a rehab center and on Feb. 22 he died at the age of 69.
Funeral services will be held Thursday Feb. 27 at St. Paul United Methodist Church, 2101 Wildwood Ave. in Columbus. The Rev. Chuck Hasty will officiate. Eulogists will include longtime friend John Shinkle, local radio personality Al Haynes and high school baseball coach Bobby Howard. The family will receive visitors following the service in the fellowship hall, according to McMullen Funeral Home and Crematory.
Blackwell has sold his last concert ticket and haggled over the price of one last radio spot. After his death, people began to realize there was more to this complicated man than folks at Hank Jr. concerts ever imagined.
Just ask Diane, his wife of 45 years.
She talks about him doing his own laundry … how he cried at weddings and funerals … how he loved to pick fruits and vegetables … and how he raised chickens, guineas, emus, goats and sheep, for critters were his boyhood friends.
She laughs about his cell phone being his office … how filthy his pickup was … how he was a human calculator who added and subtracted better than any machine … how his awkward left-handed scrawl was practically illegible … how he was scared of water and never learned to swim … how he was an old school Democrat who served as county chairman and ran two unsuccessful races for Columbus Council.
But Diane never laughs about his hardscrabble childhood.
Born on May 23, 1950, he was the son of Johnny Lee Blackwell, but his early life was spent as the foster child of Mr. and Mrs. John Carmichael Bottoms on a farm near Slocumb, Ala. They spoiled him and doted on him and he considered them his parents though Mrs. Bottoms died when Mike was 5.
He moved to Columbus to live with Johnny Lee and his second wife Ellen who Mike quickly came to love. He attended East Highland and Double Churches Elementary schools but when summers came he was back on the farm in Alabama.
After graduating from Hardaway High School he started to Columbus College and his life expanded. He discovered politics and a gift for public speaking. He made friends who knew nothing about growing a garden.
He also met Diane Garrard. He was brash and she was shy. Her family was important to the city’s early history. He was a member of the 4-H Club and fond of country life. They were very different but soon became very attached.
He laid carpet and sold used cars and was a backup driver on a bread route. Sometimes Diane rode with him as he delivered bread to local grocery stores. She was with him as he got into the concert business.
She catered backstage meals and never understood how her husband promoted so many country music shows when he despised banjos and fiddles.
Willie Nelson became his best box office draw. Blackwell booked Willie’s gang of outlaws at the auditorium, the stadium, the Civic Center and the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. He did shows with him all over the South and even promoted a tour of Australia and New Zealand. The two of them grew old together.
As a promoter, Blackwell was edgy and aggressive, taking risks on concerts just as he did at poker tables all over town where he enjoyed stirring up trouble with his razor wit.
But to really know Mike Blackwell, you had to meet Amanda and Jenna. When his daughters were born, their Dad began to mellow. When they needed a math lesson, he taught them to play Dominoes. Their love helped a gruff character who liked to leave peas and collards on people’s front porch discover there was more to life than shows and three-of-a-kind.
Those girls were his passion and his love for them never waned. He found a soft side that no one knew he had, though his daughter’s prospective boy friends often faced the Wrath of Blackwell.
Diane taught science and home economics and while she was at school the girls would get in their Daddy’s beat-up pickup truck and join him on his daily tour of radio stations.
When Amanda and Jenna grew up and gave birth to six grandchildren, Blackwell became known as “Pop Pop.” He owned a farm in Marion County where he raised crops and critters. Riding around the fields with his dog next to him in the front seat, he chatted with the children on the phone as he dodged bumps and checked ticket sales.
He enjoyed trips to casinos in Mississippi with his friend and ally Charles Stevens. On a trip back from Philadelphia, Mike realized something was wrong with his buddy. He swerved unannounced into a hospital where doctors went right to work. Charles had suffered a heart attack and Mike’s quick response saved the life of his dear friend.
But people always assumed Mike was bullet proof. Then came his unexpected health problems. As you might expect, Diane, Amanda and Jenna stayed at the hospital most of the time. The girls posted reports on social media, helping friends know what was happening.
Mike had never been shy about telling his girls he loved them. After the recent surgery they would check in with him on the phone. He was never known for his eloquence, but that changed for the man called “Pop Pop.”
Now his words to Amanda and Jenna became sweet and tender: “I love you with my whole new heart.”
And that grizzled old guy really did.
Wife: Diane Garrard Blackwell, Columbus
Children: Amanda Baker (Bobby) Columbus; Jenna Matson (Matt) Augusta.
Grandchildren: Jennings, Miles and James Baker Columbus; Chip, Martha and Samuel Matson, Augusta.
Mother Ellen Blackwell, Columbus.
Brothers and Sisters: Pat Kiel (Alan) Pine Mountain; Terri Murrell, Fortson; Sandra Blackwell, Columbus; Frankie Blackwell, Columbus.
Survived by numerous nephews and cousins and a multitude of friends.
Preceded in death by father Johnny Blackwell and brother Tommy Blackwell.