In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
When I saw that a place called the Dirty Crow Inn had opened in a former convenience store on Kentucky Street at Crump Boulevard in South Memphis, I was initially wary, as the menu out front was short on choices, with wings the most prominent feature (and I am not a huge fan of wings). But after reading a positive review of the burger there, I decided to make a special trip down on a Sunday evening to see what the fuss was about.
The Dirty Crow Inn is a “new” dive bar, if there can indeed be such a thing. It’s fairly small inside, with a quaint and homey feel, and posters all across the ceiling. There is also an outdoor deck with more tables and chairs, and a place for occasional live music. The primary difference from more traditional dive bars is the gourmet-leaning menu, with such things as soy-ginger wings and poutine fries. The rather simple burger is still a thing of beauty, with the buns toasted and buttered, and bacon and cheese added. If it isn’t the best in Memphis, it’s got to be in the top five, and the french fries that came with it were equally tasty. There are occasional special food features as well, of which the bacon-wrapped smoked shrimp was the most outstanding, and while there is no dessert menu, the Dirty Crow Inn has cupcakes from the nearby Pink Diva bakery. As if all that wasn’t cool enough, the kitchen stays open until 2 AM, so it is a perfect destination after the club, the theatre or the show. Here’s hoping that the Dirty Crow Inn will become another one of Memphis’ legendary hangouts.
In the early days, when Tennessee was just becoming a state, Memphis had two rivals for dominance of the trade on the Mississippi River. Randolph, on a bluff some 30 miles north of Memphis, was the county seat of Tipton County, and about 30 miles north of Randolph was Fulton, in Lauderdale County. Since I had never been to Fulton, nor to Fort Pillow State Park, I decided to head out there one afternoon after a day of substitute teaching at Arlington Elementary. So I grabbed a late lunch at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason and then headed out through Covington to Henning, and from there out to where Google Maps told me Fulton should be. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed, as there is really no trace of the town of Fulton. There is a Baptist church, although the building looks fairly recent, and a few houses, all of which also look fairly recent. If there was a business district once, there is no trace of it now. But I did enter Fort Pillow State Park, and got a beautiful view of the Mississippi River from a bluff inside the park. From there, I headed north through the Wildlife Management Area until I got to the beginning of Highway 19, and a community called Ashport. While Ashport is never mentioned as a rival river port to Memphis, it must have had some significance, as it was on the river, and there was an Old Ashport Road that clearly ran from Jackson, Tennessee to the area. But there was little trace of Ashport, just as there was little trace of Fulton, with one exception- an amazing, monstrous ruin of a building on Highway 19. Covered with soft drink and beer signs, it appears that the building was most recently called Pop’s Place, and must have been either a beer joint or a grocery store, or perhaps some sort of combination of both. But the old brick two-story building with a wide set of steps in the center was clearly built to be something else, perhaps a school, although a check of the internet yielded little information, and it is hard to imagine the need for a school that big in the sparsely-populated flatlands near the river. Just beyond the ruin, the road climbed a fairly steep cliff on its way toward Ripley, and the view back toward the river in the sunset was beautiful. Unfortunately, there was no good place to pull over and try to grab a photograph of what I was seeing, and no guarantee that my camera could capture it either. So I headed on into Ripley, grabbed a blizzard from the Dairy Queen, and hit the road back to Memphis.
People who know me know that I’m not a huge fan of modern-day Beale Street. In its current garish, Disneyland-like iteration, it seems like a travesty upon the street where blues became famous rather than a tribute to it, and bad cover bands seem to be the order of the day, along with mostly mediocre food and plenty of alcohol. So I was less than thrilled when my musician friend Otis Logan suggested that we go to B. B. King’s on Beale Street, but I like going out with friends, and he was supposed to sit in, so I agreed to go. Beale at this time of year is pretty much a ghost town, even on weekends. Winter is the off-season in Memphis, as we get weather every bit as cold as St. Louis or Cincinnati, and people wanting great music and a warmer climate are heading further south to New Orleans, not shivering here. But there was a decent-sized crowd in B. B. King’s, all the more amazing since it was a Thursday night. I ordered a fudge brownie, which was actually delicious, and sat down at a table as the band was walking up on the stage. The band this particular night was known as the B. B. King’s All-Stars, and an impressive bunch of Memphis musicians they were. They were tight and together as a unit, and they played a couple of funky instrumentals before bringing up their vocalist, a soul singer named Rodney Tate whom I had never heard of, and he was also quite good. One of my bigger complaints about Beale Street in recent years has been how little of the music heard on the street is actually classic Memphis blues or soul, but the music at B. B. King’s on this particular night was exactly that, and it was thrilling to hear. Due to a late start, the Memphis musicians who had gathered in the club hoping to sit in did not get to, but it was altogether a fun and exhilarating experience. Perhaps I’ll venture there more often.
On the last Saturday in January, there was a kickoff party for the new year to call attention to the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival, which will be held on Labor Day weekend this year. The party was held at Phillip Ashley Chocolates in the Cooper-Young neighborhood, and guests had an opportunity to sample the world-famous chocolates, as well as gourmet coffee from Memphis’ own Ugly Mug Coffee roasters. A few guests won free tickets to the festival screenings of Oscar shorts held at the Hard Rock Cafe. The excellent music was provided by renowned singer-songwriter Juju Bushman.
I was looking for a frozen yogurt place (and Atlanta is full of them) but they all seemed to have closed already, as it was a weeknight. So when I saw Jeni’s Ice Cream in the Westside Atlanta area, the first thing I noticed was that it was open, and even crowded. And the second thing I recalled was that I had eaten Jeni’s Ice Cream once before, from a food truck on a South by Southwest parking lot in Austin. But the permanent stores have far more flavor choices (such as the peanut-buttery Buckeye State which I ordered) than the trucks, and the all-natural ingredients make for great flavor and texture. I also have to notice and appreciate the later hours than most other Atlanta frozen dessert shops, which means that when most places are closed, Jeni’s is likely still open. The Ohio-based company makes its ice creams with only natural ingredients and flavors, and is definitely worth a visit. In addition to the Atlanta store, Jeni’s can be found across Ohio and in Nashville, Tennessee. When all else fails, it can also be ordered online and shipped to you where you live.
As I headed back toward the CBD, I drove through the Central City area, and with the weather blazing hot, when I saw a snow-cone sign on Washington Avenue, I took a detour onto the side street and found a snowball stand called The Red Rooster. While New Orleans people are familiar with snowballs, I need to point out that New Orleans-style snowballs are quite different from the snow cones that are sold elsewhere across the country. Not only are the flavors different, but so is the ice, which at the better snowball stands is shaved. This particular stand also serves food, and has a shrimp po-boy on the menu that I will have to try on a future visit. The street where the stand is located looked familiar to me, and might have been the location where I visited Eddie’s 3-Way Records back in the 1980’s. I recall that it was on a side street off of Washington Avenue, that it was a block from a housing project (likely the Magnolia Projects), and that there was a snowball stand nearby that served po-boys. Further down in Central City, I came to a number of inspirational murals, which are common in New Orleans. One listed the Zulu Nation Laws of Success, as well as a number of famous men and women and was attributed to the Central City Art Project. Another one stated “Be The Change You Seek.” One of the things I love about New Orleans is the prevalence of public art, official and unofficial, even in the roughest neighborhoods.
Great espresso-based drinks are not always easy to come by in Northeast Mississippi, so I was thrilled when I heard about the new AC’s Coffee in New Albany. The attractive little coffee house is located at the head of the new Tanglefoot Trail, a walking and biking trail from New Albany to Pontotoc that follows the right-of-way of the old Kentucky, Ripley and Ship Island Railroad built by Colonel William Falkner (whose son would add a “u” to his name and become a famous writer). On my brief stop at AC’s, I tried a breve latte, and was quite pleased, and was told that they also have frappes, some baked goods, and occasionally live music as well. AC’s has an address on South Railroad Avenue, but there is actually no such street, although it appears on maps. It fronts onto the Tanglefoot Trail, a block south of Bankhead Street, and can best be accessed by parking on Bankhead or North Railroad, and walking down the Tanglefoot Trail until you see the coffeehouse on your left.
When Memphis’ African-American repertory company the Hattiloo Theatre moved to new digs in the Overton Square area earlier this year, many probably wondered what would become of their old location on Marshall Avenue, closer to downtown. Those questions were answered recently when a portion of the space became the Dizzy Bird Lounge, a place that states its intention to become a jazz club in Memphis, something that our city has badly needed since the closure of Cafe Soul a couple of years ago. The space is relatively small but comfortable, with a downstairs lounge decorated with African-American artwork, and a small upstairs loft with tables and chairs. Although the theme of the place is jazz (“Dizzy” refers to Dizzy Gillespie, and “Bird” to Charlie Parker), the music on stage the night I visited was a soulful singer-songwriter from Memphis named Barbara Jenice, who was performing with keyboardist Timothy Moore and a percussionist, as well as a couple of special guests who sat in. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, the Dizzy Bird intends to have spoken word or neo-soul type events on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and more mainstream jazz on weekends. They currently offer fruit and cupcakes, and are otherwise BYOB, at least for the time being.
I had been invited by my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC Brass Band, to go around with the band to their gigs on the Saturday of Satchmo Fest, and for the better part of the afternoon I had. But when I found out that there was an hour and a half interregnum between gigs, I decided to head out to Lake Pontchartrain and try a restaurant that I had been seeing for about a year but had never tried called The Blue Crab.
Elsewhere in this blog, I have discussed the odd fact that the seafood cuisine of New Orleans and of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are rather different, despite close proximity, and that while it has been fairly easy to find fried seafood in New Orleans, it has not been nearly as easy to find the kind of gourmet seafood that is fairly common in Biloxi, Gulfport or Bay St. Louis. That now seems to be changing, and while Hurricane Katrina decimated the old seafood restaurants on the West End, a couple of new restaurants have appeared along what New Orleanians call the Lakefront, and the Blue Crab is one of them.
All of the new restaurants along Lakeshore Drive have certain things in common, chief of which is beautiful views of the lake, the marina and the yacht club, and the Blue Crab is no exception. The view from its outdoor dining deck is truly amazing, and the resort ambiance is far more akin to something from Florida than something from Louisiana. As for the menu, there is little unusual for a New Orleans seafood place, and the prices are fairly reasonable. I opted for the fish of the day, which was pompano, and had it prepared in an almondine style, where the fish was breaded and fried, then topped with a butter-based almond sauce. As one might imagine, it was amazingly good, and accompanied by french fries that were golden brown and delicious. I chose to end my meal with a slice of key lime pie, which I enjoyed while watching the sun go down in the west over the marina. All in all, I was pleased with the Blue Crab, and will likely return.