George Blackwell played the most lyrical, melodic folk music on his guitar.
After leaving Alabama in 1968 and crashing for a while at Chuck and Joni Mitchell’s Coconut Grove apartment, Blackwell scored a permanent job as opening act at The Flick coffeehouse in Coral Gables. From its opening in 1964 to its closing in 1974, The Flick was a breeding ground for folk and pop stars like Joni Mitchell, Vince Martin ( Cindy, Oh Cindy), John Sebastian ( Welcome Back) and Michael Murphy ( Wildfire).
Versatile, with the ability to caress classical Bach or finger-picking Fred Neil-style folk on his nylon strings, the “big man” on guitar was nonetheless partly responsible for one ungodly sound he never quite lived down:
The clatter of the squawking TV commercial car salesman.
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You see, after Blackwell established an identity as a folk musician on the South Florida circuit, where he would play for more than 30 years, he opened the Sound Track recording studio in North Miami in 1972 with business partner Peter Barnes. There, the two wrote and recorded jingles for Dadeland Mall featuring mellifluous vocalist Liz Seneff, the former Sound Advice home audio and video chain (“Don’t Think Twice, Get Sound Advice”), furniture store Levitz (“You’ll Love It at Levitz”) and car dealerships, including Potamkin.
Blackwell, who died Aug. 20 at age 69 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and suffering a fall at his home in Georgetown, in North Florida, “was the one that originated the damned, screaming car commercials — that was him,” joked wife Lori Baxter from their home on Lake George. “Boy, did he regret that ever since.”
Still, gentler music ran through Blackwell from an early age. From where, who knows? He was an only child, born March 31, 1945, in Opelika, Alabama. His parents weren’t musicians. But his kindergarten teacher told his parents when little George was 5 years old that he would grow up to be a musician. “More than likely, strings,” she had said of his instrument of choice.
Her prediction was astute. Blackwell left Alabama in the mid-1960s to become a troubadour, and toured the folk clubs and ski resorts of Colorado and surrounding states. He moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and met Randy Sparks, who had founded a number of folk acts, including The New Society that featured Blackwell and an up-and-coming songwriter named Michael Johnson, who would score a No. 12 pop hit in 1978 with Bluer Than Blue. The New Society played from Pasadena to Pittsburgh as well as Bangkok and a tour of Vietnam.
Then came his move to Miami and The Flick. “We were friends from all the way back to the Flick days,” said Coconut Grove singer-songwriter Bobby Ingram. “He was a fine guitar player.”
Lights and sound man David Cohen was in the Air Force, stationed at Homestead, when the two first met in the late 1960s. “They told me about this place in Coral Gables called The Flick. I drove up there, and I felt at home because I’m from New York and went to [Greenwich] Village all the time. I got to know a lot of performers, and George and his wife Jenny were so kind to me. Lovely friendship,” he said.
Cohen, who would later work with Blackwell at Bubba’s in the Grove, said Blackwell helped him buy his first tape recorder. The pair recorded plenty of gigs at The Flick and built quite a music library. The sharing of tapes would be helpful when Hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed Blackwell’s copies, Cohen said.
“He was a marvelous musician . . . full-bodied sound and a delight on stage. He was the consummate performer, and people loved him,” Cohen said. “My friend made him T-shirts, and on the T-shirts we had this giant teddy bear. And that is what he was.”
Sound Track succeeded, in part, thanks to Blackwell’s first wife Jenny, Baxter said. “She was the one with the business sense. In any successful relationship with an artist, there’s the person floating in the clouds and the other with the string that holds them and doesn’t let them fly away and get lost. That was Jenny. He was out there in the clouds,” Baxter said, chuckling.
The studio folded soon after Jenny’s death in 1992. Blackwell began performing at open mics again at the Pelican’s Nest in South Miami-Dade, where he met Baxter, a fellow performer, in 1998. The couple also performed at North Miami’s Luna Star Café and JohnMartin’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in Coral Gables before moving to the banks of Lake George in 2003.
“He was one of the wittiest and kindest people that I had ever known,” Baxter said. “He loved his guitar — that was his primary love. He was not attached to material things except for his guitar. And he was a phenom on stage.”
Baxter said she plans to have a memorial celebration for Blackwell, who had no other survivors, “when the snowbirds get into town” later this fall.