Late Night Blues and Fun at Wild Bill’s in North Memphis

My friend Sherena Boyce was not ready to go home after the Beale Street Caravan Blowout event came to an end, so I suggested that we go up to Wild Bill’s in North Memphis. Even before Beale Street started charging an admission fee, Wild Bill’s juke joint was a great, authentic blues and soul alternative to the disappointing tourist-oriented entertainment district downtown. Of course, despite its history, Bill’s had been through a string of ownership changes, and a couple of closures, so I wasn’t exactly sure what we would find, as the place was under new management since the last time I had been.

When we arrived, I soon found that the parking lot was completely full, and we had to park on the street nearby. We were welcomed in, and found places at one of the long tables, but the place was nearly packed to overflowing. A good soul and blues band was on stage, with an especially-funky drummer as the rock-hard foundation. Several singers took turns getting up to sing with this band, including the Memphis female blues singer Joyce Henderson.

Although there was hardly room to dance, people got up and did so, including Sherena, who had brought her tambourine with her, and jammed onstage with the band. Unlike a few previous visits where there had been a lot of Midtown hipsters, the crowd on this night was mostly people from the neighborhood…old regulars, and long-time blues fans.

For those wanting to visit Wild Bill’s, you will be welcomed, but some awareness is needed…this is not a hipster bar. There is no beer on tap, and certainly no craft beers. They sell 40 ounces, and they have chicken wings to eat. You will have to sit at tables with people you don’t know. They allow smoking, as most juke joints do. But it is by far the best authentic music and the best authentic atmosphere that the Bluff City has to offer. Don’t miss it.

Wild Bill’s

1580 Vollentine Avenue

Memphis, TN 38107

(901) 409-0081

Delta Easter: Anthony “Big A” Sherrod and the Space Cowboy at Eighth Street Grocery in Clarksdale

When I finally made it back to Clarksdale, there was a fairly large crowd at the tiny Eighth Street Grocery, and a lot of cars parked in the block near it. But the musicians were still outside in the front yard, and though it was after 8 PM, things had not yet gotten underway.

The normal store stock had been moved to make way for tables and chairs, and the band had set up their instruments against the north wall of the building, near two television screens that were hanging there. A large table selling food had been set up near the entrance.

When Big A and Space Cowboy finally came inside and began playing, the place soon filled up to overflowing. The old building was set up on blocks off the ground, and the wooden floor sagged with the pounding it was taking from the dancers. There was hardly room for the tables and chairs, but somehow it all worked. Unlike the experience of hearing blues in a modern club or at a festival, this intimate setting was more exciting, as there was constant interaction between members of the crowd and the musicians, who after all, knew each other, Clarksdale being a small town.

I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to leave, but with me having to work the next morning, I had to leave at 10 PM to make the two-hour journey back to Memphis. I expect the revelry and good music went on far into the night.

Delta Easter: Slow and Easy Is The Pace in Pace

I recalled Pace, Mississippi being the site of some degree of controversy in my younger days back in the 1980’s. Like the similar town of Tchula, Mississippi, the transition from white government to Black government did not sit well with some of the town’s white residents. I recall that some of the controversy was over the renaming of Pace streets for prominent Black citizens. But Pace today is a fairly sleepy and quiet town, although with several juke joints, probably one that jumps late at night on weekends. The local supermarket is vacant, and the downtown consists mainly of clubs- Club Escape, the Brass Rail and Bradley’s Place. The men sitting in front of the Brass Rail were friendly and amenable to my taking photos of the jukes, and told me a little bit about the town. There might have been live music at one time in Pace, but nowadays the clubs strictly have DJ’s, I was told. Although food was being grilled outside, I had decided to have dinner in Cleveland before heading back to Clarksdale for the blues show, and as it was nearly 5 PM, I got back on the road toward Cleveland.

Delta Easter: Desecration of Po Monkey’s, One of the Holy Sites of the Blues

From Drew, I decided to head across to Merigold. I had wanted to see Po Monkey’s juke joint for the first time in real life, and possibly eat at Crawdad’s. I was disappointed on both fronts, as Crawdad’s is not open on Sundays, and Po Monkey’s proved to have been stripped bare. As I told someone later, it would have been better not to have seen it at all than to have seen it like it is now.

I had heard after Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry’s death that the family had decided to have an auction, but I had no idea of the extent. Everything both inside and outside was stripped away and sold, even the signs on the outside. The historic marker seems ironic in front of a boarded-up and stripped building, with draconian “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. The only decorations at the building seem to be votive offerings that fans have left behind, as a sort of commemorative shrine.

I have been told that “it’s complicated,” but given the power of organizations like the Blues Foundation and/or Delta State University, I cannot understand why this most important place could not have been saved. Even now, the building should be restored and redecorated, even if like Club Ebony in Indianola, it is only open at certain special times for special concerts or events. There are people worldwide who would be willing to donate to such an effort. It only needs an organized and co-ordinated effort to make it happen.

Delta Easter: The Dirty Flo Juke Joint at Drew

The number of active juke joints in Mississippi has been declining for some time, so when I saw an entry in Facebook for a new juke joint in Drew, Mississippi called The Dirty Flo, I was intrigued. Furthermore, it looked as if there had at least occasionally been a live band there, so I decided that the next time I was in Drew, I would have to pay it a visit and see what it was about.

The juke joint was on Reed Road north of Drew, and my phone showed Reed Road as a road coming off of Highway 49 at an angle before becoming the Main Street of Drew, but what my phone did not show was that Reed Road was a gravel road, rutted and difficult to maneuver, yet the perfect place one might expect to find a juke joint.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the spot, it was not open. As I found out later, it only opens at certain times and on certain weekends. But it looks like an interesting place to party, and I hope to pay it a visit on a weekend when it is open.

Delta Easter: Prologue: A Brunch at Sunrise Memphis and Third Street, South Memphis

The weekend after the soggy Juke Joint Festival was Easter Weekend, and that weekend got the weather that Juke Joint Fest should have gotten. Easter Sunday was bright, blue, and summer-like, and I decided that it would be a good day to drive down into the Mississippi Delta with my Nikon D3200. So after church services, I headed into Midtown for a brunch at Sunrise Memphis, which has just about gotten to be my favorite breakfast restaurant in Memphis. The weather was so pleasant that they had opened the front doors to the outside patio, and the place was not even particularly crowded.

From there, I decided to head out Third Street, the old Highway 61 by which people would have left Memphis for the Delta (or New Orleans for that matter). It led past a new club called the K3 Studio Cafe, which I had seen on Facebook as the scene of some local music events. The place looked interesting, indicating that it occasionally hosted jazz and jam session events. Around the corner was an old blues club, Club Insight, but it isn’t clear to me whether it is still open for business. But I soon realized that if I spent too much time in Memphis, I would never make it to the Delta, so I headed on out toward Westwood and Coro Lake.

A Wet And Busy Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale

I usually enjoy myself quite a bit at the annual Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, but this year’s festival was both wet and harried, as it poured down rain most of the day, and as I was scheduled to perform with Duwayne Burnside twice.

Upon arriving in Clarksdale, I found that the festival authorities would not allow me to park in the performers’ lot because I didn’t know the password. So I had to park down by Yazoo Pass coffee bar, and I managed to get there for a toffee cookie and a latte. But by then, the rain had really picked up, and I wanted to check out the new restaurant that had taken over the old Pinkbar on John Lee Hooker Street, the Hooker Grocer & Eatery.

With no umbrella, getting there took some doing, using shop awnings as cover where possible, and I still managed to get quite wet. Then, with the restaurant being new, Hooker Grocer proved to be packed to the rafters, with people waiting for tables. Ultimately, I managed to get seated, but the menu was fairly limited, expensive and strange. I ultimately opted for the burger, although without the mustard sauce or pickles, and to my disappointment, they didn’t serve bacon, nor french fries. What I got was a relatively dry burger with cheese, no accompaniments, and a canned drink, for nearly $20. That being said, I loved the blues-themed decor of the place and its atmosphere. Their dinner menu looks more interesting if I ever have the time or inclination. A young woman was inside the restaurant selling R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough T-shirts, hand-made, but she didn’t have my size, and it was nearly time for me to perform at the Cat Head stage. However, now the rain had started in earnest, coming down in torrents, and I with no rain gear nor umbrella. Eventually, it slacked up enough that I felt comfortable heading to Cat Head, where the show was still going on bravely, under a tent that periodically would grow heavy with rain and then deposit it over the heads of the fans. I learned there that due to the rain I would likely have no trouble getting my car into the area to unload equipment, so I struggled back to the parking lot where I had parked the car, and then drove back down to the Cat Head stage.

By the time I got equipment unloaded into Cat Head store, it was just about time to set up and perform. There was very little room for a keyboard, but I managed to get set up, and Duwayne gave a rousing performance as best he could, while water occasionally poured down from overhead on amps, keyboards and our heads. I had left my keyboard bag inside the store, and suddenly, I looked around behind me and realized that the store had closed at 5 PM, which led to immediate panic. With the bag locked inside the store, I would have no way to put my keyboard back up afterwards, or protect it from the weather. Fortunately, when we finally finished performing, I learned that someone had thoughtfully brought it outside before the store was locked. And the rain had stopped enough that I was able to load up and head in search of dinner before my next performance.

Restaurants tend to work from a limited menu during Juke Joint Fest, which annoys me year in and year out, but I managed to get seated at Levon’s with less difficulty than the previous year. Last time, they had been serving their normal, full menu, but this year, to my disappointment, they too had created a limited JJF menu, but at least their signature pizzas were on it. Sherena Boyce soon joined me, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner before we had to head to Pete’s Bar and Grill for my second performance of the night.

Pete’s is an old hole-in-the-wall near the Riverside Hotel, which normally does not have live music, but which makes a great setting for blues. On this particular night, Garry Burnside kicked off the evening of music, and I was not scheduled to perform with him, but he invited me to sit in, and I agreed. David Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough, also came and sat in. He had been sick and some were not expecting him to be there, but he performed and sounded good. With Duwayne, we played until about 11 PM, and it had started raining again.

Sherena said she was going by Red’s Lounge to check on her dad R.L., but I loaded up my equipment and headed out back to Memphis, with lighting flashing off to the west. Although it had been a wet and somewhat frantic day, I was pleasantly content.

A Forgotten Past in Sidon, Mississippi

I decided to head south out of Greenwood, past the Rising Sun subdivision, along the route of Old Highway 7, before it was relocated to Itta Bena, and duly came to a town called Sidon.

Sidon had a lot of streets, but not a lot of businesses downtown any longer. There was a post office along the railroad track, and what looked like some sort of commercial building, no longer used. Other than that, there were houses, a water tower, and a few churches. But on the outskirts of town, I also came across a juke joint called The Palace. A barbecue grill was smoking outside the club, and apparently the proprietors were getting ready for a big day. I didn’t see any indications of live music there, but it looked to be a cool if not historic spot.

Down the county road toward Morgan City, I came to a church and graveyard called Mount Zion, which did indeed appear historic. I took a series of photos there, and of the Yazoo River across the road, before I headed on toward Belzoni.

A Tour of Dyersburg’s Bruce Neighborhood

After a late lunch in Halls, I drove on to Dyersburg. One of the reasons was that a few years ago, I had seen a listing for a cafe that I suspected was a juke joint in a neighborhood on the southeast side of Dyserburg that was surrounded by railroad tracks. I had never been in this area of the city, and wanted to see if there was anything historic in it. As far as where the cafe had been indicated, along the railroad tracks, I found nothing there, and I assume the building had been demolished. But I soon learned that this was the neighborhood where Bruce High School had been, the high school for African-American students in Dyersburg prior to integration. And while I didn’t find anything that looked like a juke joint, I did find some interesting historic structures; the Balboa Lodge was undoubtedly a Masonic body within the Prince Hall F & AM, and the bright-yellow Panama Food Mart stood out against the blue sky overhead. With the sunlight slipping away, I then headed out Highway 412, making my way to Brownsville for dinner at the Mindfield Grill.

Celebrating Mason, Tennessee’s Important Legacy

Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas. 

Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city. 

Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991. 

One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely. 

I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason.