Elton B. Stephens.jpg

Elton Stephens

Elton B. Stephens is among four artists who will be inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame during its induction banquet Saturday at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center in Florence. Other inductees are Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Mervyn Warren and Gary Baker.

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FLORENCE — If it wasn't for the work of Elton B. Stephens, Mark Patrick said, there might not be an Alabama Symphony Orchestra performing for adults and introducing school children to classical music. 

Patrick is general manager and interim executive director for the Birmingham-based symphony orchestra that was in dire straits in the mid 1990s before Stephens and his wife, Alys, became involved. 

"What happened was the orchestra had fallen on rough times and was near bankruptcy," Patrick said. "There had been a lot of contributing factors. They had become reliant on government funding, which can always go away in a flash."

So a group of patrons got together to spearhead a fundraising campaign to revive the struggling orchestra, he said.

As the group was ready to give up its efforts, it was contacted by Alys Stephens, who invited its members to come to her home and talk about their efforts.

Patrick said Elton Stephens was present when the group met with his wife. After 30 to 45 minutes of discussion, he told the group he had a plan to help the symphony, but the members must agree to do it his way.

"Mr. Stephens was a very influential businessman in Birmingham," Patrick said. "Mr. Stephens didn't play an instrument and wasn't musically inclined. He realized how important the arts and music were in the community and believed in that very strongly, as did his wife."

So Elton Stephens went to his friends and fellow businessmen seeking support for the orchestra, Patrick said.

"He helped raise money to bring the symphony back," Patrick said. "He raised the money to have the capital to get the orchestra back in business, and for the endowment for the orchestra."

Stephens raised about $15 million to resurrect the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. 

The Stephens family also donated a large sum of money to the University of Alabama-Birmingham to build the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, the home of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

Being a savvy businessman, Patrick said Stephens created new bylaws for the orchestra that included a prohibition on borrowing money, which would keep the orchestra from going into debt. 

Alys Stephens died in 1996 and her husband died nine years later.

"Their family has continued to support the orchestra for many years," Patrick said.

Elton Bryson Stephens was the founder of EBSCO Industries, a company he started in 1944 in Birmingham. It is now one of the largest privately held companies in Alabama.

"Our state owes a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Stephens," Alabama Music Hall of Fame board member Judy Hood said. "His commitment to keeping the dream alive for the Alabama Symphony was a game-changer. Thanks to him, the symphony remains a vital component of our state’s music culture."

Stephens' induction is unique because he is not a musician, songwriter or producer.

"AMHOF inductees can be musicians or individuals who have influenced Alabama music in a significant way," Hood said. "This could include educators, producers, publishers or patrons who have given their time, passion and resources to advance Alabama music on a state or national level."

In 2014, broadcaster Charlie Monk was inducted into the hall of fame. As a radio broadcaster, Monk spent his high-profile career promoting and providing opportunities for musicians and songwriters. His popular radio show in Nashville, Tennessee, remains a strong force in advancing music.

"Inductees Jerry Wesley and Buddy Killen did not spend their careers as professional musicians, but their passion created opportunities for musicians to excel," Hood said.

Patrick said the Alabama Symphony Orchestra today has 53 full-time musicians and a 40-week season.

"We do close to 100 concerts a year," he said, many of which are in Jefferson County schools.

"I have people tell me every day from all walks of life, including the mayor of Birmingham, they remember coming to see these young people concerts as a kid," Patrick said. "It's something that has a lasting effect."

Patrick will induct Stephens into the hall of fame and Stephens' grandson, Bart Stephens, will accept the award on behalf of the family.

russ.corey@timesdaily.com

or 256-740-5738. Twitter

@TD_.RussCorey

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