Midtown Memphis’ massive Railgarten complex is one of several elaborate, trendy live music venues that have opened here recently, many of them that resemble something from Austin or New Orleans more than Memphis. But as summertime venues go, Railgarten is probably the best, with something for everyone, including outdoor volleyball and an large outdoor yard and stage area, as well as a diner, ice cream parlor, ping pong lounge and upstairs deck overlooking the back yard and stage area. It’s not exactly like a beach, but it has a beachy sort of vibe to it. Even so, while lots of local and regional artists have performed at Railgarten, hip-hop is rare there, so when I saw that Al Kapone was sponsoring a cook-out and show to kick off the July 4th holiday, I wanted to make sure to be there. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful, if hot, and when I arrived the place was already crowded indeed. The event was a free show, so there were already a hundred or more people in the back outdoor stage area, with more coming all the time. The opening act was a spectacular local reggae band called Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, which has been wowing crowds in Memphis for several years now. They were followed by several local rappers, including Tune C, Memphis rap veteran Tom Skeemask and Uriah Mitchell. Then Al Kapone came on stage, performing with a live band, the singer Ashton Riker, a dancer or two, some fire-twirlers, and the rapper Frayser Boy, with a show that combined some of his newer material with classic anthems like “Whoop That Trick” and “lyrical Drive-By.” As Al wrapped himself in an American-flag-themed blanket, I looked at the crowd around me and thought about how appropriate his show was for the holiday. Surrounding me was a crowd of many different races, backgrounds and cultures, all united by their love of Al Kapone, Memphis and hip-hop, and there was not one fight or argument to mar the good vibes.
I got an invitation on Facebook a week or so ago from a musician friend, trombonist Victor Sawyer, to come to the debut performance of a new Memphis brass band called the Lucky 7 Brass Band, which was being held at Growlers, the former location of the Hi-Tone on Poplar Avenue across from Overton Park. Memphis has had a couple of other brass bands, the Mighty Souls Brass Band and the Memphorleans Street Symphony. But, because we are not a city that has Mardi Gras (or even the Cotton Carnival any more) and because there is no real second-line culture here, our brass bands are more concert ensembles, and none has the separate snare and bass drums that characterize the average New Orleans brass band, and they may include indoor instruments like a drumset, a keyboard or even an electric guitar or bass. In that regard, the Lucky 7 Brass Band was true to form, including an electric bass rather than a tuba, and a drumset rather than the traditional separate snare and bass drummers. But what it did bring to the table was more of the street edge that the Crescent City bands have, and a tight and clean ensemble sound. For their debut performance, which was all too short at just under an hour, they played cover tunes exclusively, but these ran the gamut from New Orleans standards to contemporary hip-hop, and a good-sized crowd came out (with the threat of bad winter weather hanging over Memphis) to cheer them on. The Lucky 7 Brass Band is one we will likely be hearing a lot more about in the future.
After Bradley Hanson of the Tennessee State Archives sent me a link to recordings made of a fife and drum band in rural Fayette County in 1980, I spent several weeks trying to determine if any fife and drum activity remains in West Tennessee today. Ultimately, I was disappointed, in that I found no evidence of any, but there is still something of a live blues culture in the area around Mason and Stanton, Tennessee. Stores in Mason and Stanton often display flyers for the latest blues or rap events at area clubs or parks. Since Labor Day is arguably the biggest weekend for fife-and-drum picnics, I decided to roll the backroads around the area on Sunday, September 4, in the hopes that I might stumble onto something. Near Stanton, Tennessee, in Haywood County, is a small community across the line in Fayette called Fredonia, that was once a site of much fife- and-drum activity. That doesn’t seem to go on there anymore, but the Gilliam family still holds a large picnic there on Labor Day weekend each year featuring a live blues band, usually Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. This year there were already a lot of cars around the spot and a large crowd was gathered, but because R. L. Boyce was playing in Clarksdale, Mississippi later, I decided not to stop at the Gilliam picnic. Not far away, on Wagon Wheel Drive, I came to what had once been the Bonner Grocery. Now called Mike’s Grocery, it was otherwise largely unchanged from its historic past, even featuring a wood-burning stove in the center of the building. Such stores are common on Fayette County backroads, but while I found the place interesting, it didn’t get me any closer to any fife and drum activity. Ultimately, I headed out to Mississippi for the show in Clarksdale.
New Orleans’beloved Jazz Fest celebrates the wide diversity of New Orleans music, but the Memphis equivalent, the Beale Street Music Festival generally does not feature Memphis’ musical culture or history, despite the occasional appearance of a big Memphis or Mid-South act, such as Yo Gotti or the North Mississippi All-Stars. So people who want to delve deeply into the musical culture of Memphis and the surrounding area must look elsewhere, and fortunately, there is a festival geared particularly to the indigenous music cultures of the Mid-South, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Founded in 1982 by a non-profit called the Center for Southern Folklore, the festival is a free event across two days and six downtown Memphis stages (four of them outdoors) where the best in local soul, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, indie rock, fife-and-drum music, majorettes and drumlines are presented. The line-up is always surprising and enjoyable, but this year’s Saturday schedule involved a number of artists from the Mississippi Hill Country, including veteran Como bluesman R. L. Boyce, who recently released his third album Roll & Tumble on the Waxploitation label out of California, who was joined by guitarist Luther Dickinson at the Center for Southern Folklore stage. The highlight was a song that Boyce improvised on the spot for the victims of the flooding in Houston, entitled “We Can’t Drink This Water.” Young up-and-comer Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, performed on the same stage with drummer Timotheus Scruggs and some assistance on tambourines from his mother Joyce Jones and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. Jones, affectionately known as “She-Wolf”, was herself featured with her band on the Gayoso Stage later in the day, performing several of her original songs, including “Poor Black Man” and “Juke Joint Party”, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the large Peabody Place stage to a decent-sized crowd. These were just a handful of the hundred or so artists that performed each day on the various stages, and while the donation cans were passed around frequently, there were no VIP areas, no fenced-in areas, and no stages requiring tickets or wristbands. A day spent at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival will immerse you in the diverse cultures of the people of Memphis and the Mid-South.
About halfway between Jackson’s Farish Street and Memphis’ Beale Street was Greenville’s Nelson Street, the Main Street of the Black Mississippi Delta. Lined with professional offices, cafes, pool rooms, juke joints and churches, Nelson Street was the place that Black people went in Greenville for nearly everything, from business to pleasure. One place on the street in particular stood out, a legendary blues club called the Flowing Fountain, which had been open just a few short years ago.
Nelson Street began to fall on hard times in the early 1990’s, when crack hit Greenville like a ton of bricks. There had been a lot of comings and goings between the Delta and Chicago, and soon the infamous Chicago gangs were in Greenville streets, and gang graffiti began appearing on Nelson Street bricks. Open-air crack markets and drive-by shootings followed. With Greenville like a war zone, most of the jukes and clubs on Nelson Street closed, and most of the ones that remained decided to shift their focus to a younger crowd, hiring DJ’s to play rap and hip-hop. The one exception was the Fountain, which billed itself “The Blues Capital of the World” and featured local talent like the legendary Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes. Occasionally, tourists defied the warnings from their hotel desk clerks, and ventured to the Fountain for an authentic blues experience. But the presence of rap clubs nearby and the frequency of gunfire in the neighborhood took its toll. Stud Ford, the grandson of the late bluesman T-Model Ford said that the Fountain ended up closing because its older patrons were scared to venture into the area because of the kind of clientele the other clubs nearby were attracting.
The building still sits proudly and a little sadly at the center of what was once the business district. The front has been painted with a sort of gallery of important Black Greenvillians including “Boogaloo” Ames and “Booba” Barnes. Nearby, a historic marker explains the significance of Nelson Street. But there is nothing here anymore but nostalgia. A club on Walnut Street a couple of miles away claims to offer live blues on weekends, but it doesn’t book anyone well-known, and tourists have learned to make their way to Clarksdale if they are searching for the blues. Despite a storied past and great potential, Greenville’s Nelson Street is only a memory.
In my childhood, Interstate 20 east ended at Waverly, Louisiana, which I remember as a railroad crossing with a store (where we would stop for refreshments) and a post office. From there we would have to take old Highway 80 into the town of Tallulah, Louisiana, as we journeyed toward my mother’s parents house in Gulfport, Mississippi, or sometimes to our family reunion in Jackson. I always liked Tallulah. It probably would have been around 1973, and I was six years old. Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” would have been on the radio, or maybe Bread’s “Make It With You”, and I recall the brightly-lit multicolored Christmas trees in the bayou that bisected the little town. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful. Little did I know of another side to Tallulah, more wild and exuberant on the west side of the tracks. There along West Green Street, blues came from jukeboxes or on the bandstands at the Sportsman’s Club, the Fun House, the Green Lantern. Musicians were grabbing dinner at the Hotel Watson before heading to the gig. A few blocks to the north of Highway 80, perhaps the thunderous funk of drum cadences rocked Reuben McCall stadium, or the melodious sound of trumpets and trombones, as the neighborhood turned out for a football game. At the massive Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, a whistle sounded to mark the hustle and bustle of shift change. The West End of Tallulah was a world that six-year-old me knew nothing about.
The first thing that I saw approaching Tallulah from the west along Highway 80 was the large, barb-wire-enclosed hulk of a prison looming to the right of the road. The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company had closed for good in 1983, but it had been laying off employees since the 1970’s. By 1994, with the town of Tallulah really desperate, town and state leaders announced the opening of a private juvenile prison which would provide badly needed jobs. But the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth proved to be a disaster. Many of the jobs paid only $6 an hour. Two massive inmate riots occurred within the first two months the facility was open. And disturbing allegations of beatings, rapes and solitary confinement started to filter out from the institution. The state took control of the facility in 1999, but things improved little. The youth facility was closed in 2004, and then, against the wishes of Tallulah residents, it was converted into a prison for adults. It sits directly on the site of the lumber mill that was for so many years Tallulah’s largest employer.
In the neighborhood to the north of Highway 80 are many small, mostly well-kept homes, but interspersed with them are boarded-up school buildings. One of them, the Madison Alternative School is the former Madison Middle School, which before that was Reuben McCall Junior High School. It was abandoned when Madison Middle School was built next to the new Madison Parish High School far to the south along I-20. Further up, on Wyche Street (named for the first Black police chief of Tallulah, Zelma Wyche) are the sprawling ruins of Reuben McCall High School, which was the Black high school in Tallulah prior to integration. But integration never really happened in Tallulah. Although the town had barely 10,000 people, the decision was made to keep both Tallulah High School (the former white high school) and McCall High School open, with students having the right to choose either. Of course no white children chose to go to McCall, and only a handful of Blacks chose to go to Tallulah High at first. But any integration was too much for a number of whites in Tallulah, and the majority of white students soon left the public schools for Tallulah Academy. Eventually both public high schools were majority-Black. By 2005, the Madison Parish School Board could no longer keep them both open. For one thing, both campuses needed replacing, and for another, enrollment was continuing to decline. They had already closed all-Black Thomastown High School in 2001, merging it with McCall, and decided in 2005 to close Tallulah High School and merge it with McCall to form a new school called Madison Parish High School. For one year the new school used the buildings and ground of McCall High School before moving to a new facility built along I-20 south of town. The McCall campus was abandoned, vandalized and ultimately boarded up.
Abandoned schools are not unusual in Louisiana sadly, but abandoned football stadiums are much rarer. That being said, the abandoned stadium across the street from Reuben McCall High School is a sad and haunting place indeed, with the grass and brambles growing up through the bleachers. Walking past the brick wall where McCall championships were commemorated in paint just made the whole thing that much sadder. The old scoreboard still sits at the end of one endzone, while a strangely twisted goalpost marks the other. The pressbox is open and at the mercy of the weather, and one can only imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday, with the drums booming, horns blowing and the crack of helmets hitting on the field below. Neighborhood kids could have walked to the games back then. Now the whole place lies silent and forgotten.
Highway 80 on the West End of Tallulah is known as West Green Street, and the latter was once an entertainment destination, but little remains today. The Fun House and Sportsman’s Lounge are both abandoned and long-closed, victims of a great migration of Tallulah’s Black community that has been going on since the 1950’s, seeing vast numbers leave Louisiana for the West Coast. Nearly 2,000 moved out just in the years between 2000 and 2010. Down the street closer to downtown, the Hotel Watson remains intact and in good shape, although no longer open for business as a hotel. Built in 1957, the hotel was Black-owned, a reliable place for good food or a comfortable room, and well-known entertainers often stayed there when performing or traveling in the area. Today it seems to function more as an apartment building. In other parts of the West End, a few juke joints and bars still remain. Wilmore’s Lounge and Game Room draws a crowd on weekends, and the Hole In The Wall might just be the smallest night club in the world. One wonders if it was the club Mel Waiters wrote the song about, or if the Tallulah club was named for the song.
Downtown Tallulah hasn’t fared much better than the West End. The city was once home to America’s first enclosed shopping mall, Bloom’s Arcade, but shopping and retail fled the town during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today nearly every storefront on Snyder Street is vacant. A few have only empty facades, with the rest of the building crumbled behind the front wall. Even the venerable Tallulah Club is empty and for sale across from the Madison Parish Courthouse. One thing that hasn’t changed from my youth: the metal Christmas trees decorated with lights are still sticking up out of Brushy Bayou as if it were 1973 all over again.
Looking at so many ruins and so much abandonment left me frankly depressed. The only relief I found was in the colorfully-dressed, boisterous groups of young people that wandered most streets or rode on bikes through the otherwise drab neighborhoods. Their exuberant voices carried on the warm, Sunday afternoon breezes as they headed to parks and basketball courts. Tallulah’s greatest resource at this point might be its youth- the community turns out excellent athletes and musicians. Not only does Madison High School have one of the region’s best marching bands, the Soul Rockers of the South, but Tallulah has a number of talented rappers, rap groups and singers. But, unfortunately, the young people from Tallulah are generally already planning to leave- the Delta town with such a storied past has little future, at least not for them.
In previous posts here at The Frontline, I have discussed the importance of Black fife-and-drum music, both as an African cultural survival among Blacks in America, and also as a form of pre-Blues music, part of the building blocks that came to make up the music we call blues. Despite growing publicity and efforts at preservation, the Black fife-and-drum tradition is remarkably fragile, existing primarily today only in two rural Mississippi counties, Tate and Panola. For those with an interest in this music, the primary event where it can be witnessed (for it is as much a visual spectacle as a musical form) is the annual Otha Turner Picnic, held in the remote community of Gravel Springs east of Senatobia, Mississippi. Usually held on Labor Day weekend, or occasionally the weekend before it, the Otha Turner Picnic began as a small family gathering at Otha’s house on the O. B. McClinton Road. Otha and other fife-and-drum musicians such as Napoleon Strickland, Sid Hemphill and R. L. Boyce were frequent participants, and some line-up of these men appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, billed as the “Como Fife and Drum Band”. Over the years the picnic grew, and now run by Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, has become a two-day festival of blues (and occasionally rock) musicians, and a $5 admission is now charged. But there is still barbecued goat, unexpected appearances from musicians like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-stars, and of course, plenty of fife-and-drum music as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band parades through the crowd between stage acts.This year’s first night featured such performers as Memphis blues/folk singer Moses Crouch, Hill Country blues/rock band the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley, Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars (whose drummer is Sharde Thomas), and Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist who is also a first-rate blues performer in the archaic styles of the 1920’s and 1930’s country blues. But it is the powerful, hypnotic drumming that sets the Otha Turner Picnic apart from other blues festivals, even those in the Hill Country of Mississippi. On such hallowed ground, the snare and bass drum patterns invoke trance, and the fife calls to remembrance an African past. Sharde Thomas amplifies the connection between Mississippi and Africa when she exchanges the fife for a djembe drum, which she plays with her drum squad. As the night gets later, dancers fill up the space near the drummers, some them exhorting the young men on the drums to “beat that thing”, and whooping with delight. Although the music is more raw and basic, the scene is reminiscent of a New Orleans second-line.
Outside the gate, another festival is in progress, a sort of Gravel Springs block party, full of young people, custom cars, motorcycles and rap music. If the atmosphere inside the gates is old-school, that outside is like a rural version of Freaknik. Although there are never any major problems, the young people’s festival makes coming and going to and from the picnic somewhat difficult. All the same, the Otha Turner Picnic is a must-see event for anyone interested in Black music and folklore.
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 visiting the Southaven Towne Center on a recent Sunday, I was somewhat surprised to see a shop called Baseball Rich Clothing. The name suggested an urban clothing store, and Southaven, Mississippi wasn’t exactly the place I would expect to find one. To my surprise, Baseball Rich Clothing turned out not to be merely an urban clothing store, but rather a locally-based urban clothing line, with a considerable number of designs and color schemes. The name springs from the fact that the owner was briefly a minor league baseball player, and the line is one of several new Memphis-based clothing lines that are popping up nowadays (Millionaire Grind and Memphis Mane are two others. Full reviews of them will be forthcoming). I was thrilled with nearly everything I saw, and the only real difficulty was settling on one shirt to purchase, as they had a seemingly-endless variety of designs and color schemes. Their headquarters store is open to the public at the Southaven Towne Center and worth a visit.
Baseball Rich Clothing
6519 Towne Center Drive
Southaven, MS 38671
Memphians reacted with understandable sadness to the news last year that Memphis in May was eliminating the Sunset Symphony, which had been one of the highlights of the annual monthlong festival. For many of us, nothing short of a reversal of the decision would do, but eventually, Memphis in May softened the blow by replacing it with something called 901 Fest, an inaugural day-long event of local Memphis musicians in Tom Lee Park. One of the annoyances of the Beale Street Music Festival, at least to me, is the lack of local artists scheduled, when compared to Jazz Fest in New Orleans for example, so the 901 Fest concept was decidedly exciting.
Across three stages, a number of Memphis artists from all genres performed on a bright blue Saturday afternoon on the Memorial Day weekend, with perhaps the biggest headliners being veteran Memphis rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, and Cody and Luther Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars. Boats were out on the river, people sitting on blankets enjoying music, plenty of local food trucks, and to cap off the evening, fireworks over the river. All in all it was a satisfying day.