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
Two days before Christmas, the Hi-Tone in Midtown Memphis was the scene of an all-star gala rap show with a live band, featuring many of Memphis’ best lyricists, old and new. The DJ and announcer for the occasion was none other than Radio Memphis‘ DJ Bay, and the line-up of performers included such Memphis icons as Tori Whodat, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, as well as guest appearances from Memphis veterans like DJ Zirk. But there were also some outstanding new artists in the house, including a new Memphis rapper named Wala Wyse who was quite impressive, as well as the solo debut of Tune C, Al Kapone’s long-time hype man and a former member of the 1990’s hip-hop group NationWide. Tune performed his new single “Naturally”, one of five recent songs that have been recorded toward his upcoming album The Great Flood. Also fun was an impromptu collaboration between the band’s drummer and DJ Bay during an extended break between live acts. Such drum/DJ duets have caught on in markets like New York, Vegas and Miami, but have not been seen as often in the Memphis market. Altogether, it was a cheerful holiday tribute to our city’s hip-hop past and future.
Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer celebrated the Halloween holiday with an all-star Heaven and Hell bash at the legendary Earnestine and Hazel’s downtown. Music for the night included The Sheiks, Jack Oblivian and Memphis’ rap godfather Al Kapone. By the end of the night, so many people had entered the building that it was nearly impossible to move! It was an epic evening indeed.
I usually spend the Friday before Grambling Homecoming shopping, searching for Grambling memorabilia and ephemera, as well as records and books. But this year, rather than spending the day in antique malls in West Monroe, where in recent years the pickings have been slim, I decided to head over to Shreveport and Bossier City instead, which somewhat proved to be a mistake. I had eaten breakfast at a downtown Monroe restaurant called The Kitchen, and had assumed because it wasn’t raining in Monroe that it wouldn’t be raining in Shreveport. Instead, the rain started in rather heavy at Ruston, and got worse the further west I went. As it turned out, I was dealing with heavy downpours almost the entire day in Shreveport. I spent the day visiting several antique malls, book shops, the new Day Old Records store (which hadn’t existed the last time I was in Shreveport) and flea markets. But the rain made things difficult, and I failed to find anything really of interest. Worse, a lot of familiar landmarks that I knew and loved in Shreveport were long gone, including Murrell’s, Joe’s Diner, Garland’s Super Sounds and Lakeshore All Around Sounds. Don’s Steak and Seafood was abandoned and about to be torn down. However, when I learned that there was an exhibit at Artspace downtown that was honoring Stan Lewis, the owner of Stan’s Record Shops and the Jewel/Paula/Ronn family of record labels, I headed over there to check it out. Actually, a museum was a decent place to be on such a wet and rainy day, and I ended up purchasing a Jewel/Paula/Ronn T-shirt from the museum’s gift shop. As I headed down Texas Street, I came past the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, where the State Fair of Louisiana was going on despite the rain, and across the street at Fair Park High School, the marching band was marching around the school building performing, and traffic was temporarily stopped in all directions. I wasn’t sure if it was a special event due to the fair, or whether it was something that happens every Friday at the school. Unfortunately, the nearby Dunn’s Flea Market, where I often used to find Grambling memorabilia, was closed, presumably due to the rain.
One bright spot in an otherwise dull and depressing day was that the former Smith’s Cross Lake Inn had been reopened by new owners under a different name, Port-au-Prince. This had been my favorite restaurant in Shreveport for many years, before it closed abruptly and was boarded up. The new restaurant has a beautiful setting and decor, but the menu is a little more low-end than its predecessors. The emphasis is on catfish, and while a filet mignon remains on the menu, most of the small crowd that was there ordered the catfish, as I did. For the most part, I was pleased with the food. The catfish was excellent, and the strangely sweet french fries, while unusual, grew on me with time. What I didn’t particularly like was the restaurant’s policy of giving everyone hush puppies, bean soup, cole slaw and pickles, whether they want any of those things or not. Still, the overall experience was positive, and the view of the lake cannot be beat. My dinner there cheered me greatly.
Afterwards, I headed by a new place called Lakeshore Clothing and Music, which indeed had a decent selection of rap and blues compact discs as well as clothing, and then I made one last stop at Rhino Coffee, a cheerful coffee bar on Southfield Road that also did not exist the last time I was in Shreveport. The breve latte they made for me was delicious as I headed back east on I-20.
When I got to Grambling, the rain had stopped, at least temporarily, and I stopped at an outdoor stand and bought a couple of Grambling T-shirts and a Grambling jacket. I made a drive around the campus, where there was actually something of a crowd out and about, taking advantage of the lull in the rain. But there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on, and I could not get in touch with my friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, so I headed on back to Monroe. The rain had started again, and I ended up going to the hotel room and to bed.
The Mid-South Coliseum was built and completed in 1964, during the administration of Memphis Mayor William B. Ingram, and for many years was an important fixture in Memphis for sports and entertainment, hosting Tiger and Memphis Tams basketball, minor league hockey, concerts and pro wrestling. For many high school seniors, it was also the location of graduation. Unfortunately, after the building of the Pyramid downtown, the Coliseum fell on hard times and was eventually closed. A master plan for Fairgrounds reuse proposed tearing it down, like so many other Memphis landmarks. But the Coliseum means so many good times and historic occasions in Memphis, and as a result, a large number of Memphis citizens have come together in an effort to rally support for preserving the historic structure. They have sponsored events called Roundhouse Revivals, in which pro wrestling, vendors, food and live music are used to call attention to the efforts to save the Coliseum, and the at the second of these on November 4, Memphis’ superb reggae band the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy performed, followed by rap godfather Al Kapone and his hype man Tune C, who were unexpectedly backed by the CCDE as well. Although the weather was chilly, a decent crowd came out to enjoy the music and food, as well as pro wrestling demonstrations by Jerry “The King” Lawler himself, and of course the obligatory visits from political candidates.
On a weekday afternoon, I had driven up to Mason, Tennessee after work to eat at Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, and had noticed signs around the little town announcing a “Unity Fall Fest” on September 19.
I remembered years ago in the early 1990’s driving out to Mason with a couple of friends and having a lot of fun at a large festival in the town’s square along the railroad tracks and Front Street, a neighborhood of cafes traditionally called “The Lower End.” That day, there were several hundred people out, live bands, singers and rap artists, and we had had a ball. But the times had not been kind to Mason. Although Mason was somewhat famous for Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken, it was more famous for its rural version of Beale Street along Front Street. Tipton County was technically a dry county, so the clubs along the street were euphemistically called “cafes”, but they ran wide open day and night. Although the town was still in those days controlled by whites, they allowed the Black night life to operate without limits. Prior to the 1970’s, it was probably seen as a social safety valve, preventing the kind of racial schism that had wracked Fayette County, only a few miles to the south. And it was also lucrative. Most towns either didn’t allow such clubs at all, or had closing hours, so Black people came to Mason from Covington, Jackson, Memphis, Brownsville, Somerville, Dyersburg, sometimes even as far away as Cairo, Illinois. One true “club” (as opposed to a cafe) was across the tracks on Main Street, named for a famous Chicago blues club, the Tay-May. It booked acts of national importance, such as Al Green, Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, and local folklore had it that Rufus Thomas first demonstrated the funky chicken there. But by the 1990’s, the music in the cafes had switched from soul and blues to rap and hip-hop, and the level of crime and discomfort to local residents from the Lower End had grown significantly. The city decided to change their ordinances to require the cafes to close at 2 AM, as clubs did in almost every other city and town in America. The results were immediate, and devastating to Mason. Tay-May burned in a spectacular fire and was never rebuilt. One by one, as cafes closed, the city condemned the buildings and had them demolished. Soon only three or so remained. A hoped-for Federal prison provided some jobs, but was not the salvation that Mason residents had hoped for. Soon, many of their retail stores were closing as well. Mason was dying.
The decision to call the new festival a “Unity” festival was also interesting to me. Despite its unusual culture and folklore for such a small town, Mason hadn’t been all that unified through my teenage years. Spiritually more attuned to adjacent Fayette County than Tipton, where it was located, Mason was an overwhelmingly Black community ruled by whites, and while it had not had the protracted discord that Fayette County had, things were still not great. Mason had never had a high school for white children, but it had had a Black high school, Gailor, which closed in 1965. In 1970 or so, the Black Fields Elementary School and white Mason Elementary School had been merged at the Mason campus. Fields was abandoned. In 1979, the principal of the school, Nevill Seay, allegedly kicked a Black parent. When WHBQ’s news crew came out from Memphis to the campus, he kicked a reporter with the cameras rolling. Dr. Isaac Richmond of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) appeared in Mason, and soon the elementary school was being boycotted. A few weeks later, so were many businesses in Mason, including the mayor’s grocery store, although strangely, many of the targeted businesses soon bought ads in Richmond’s newspaper, the Clarksville Voice. Dr. Richmond considered himself an educator, and soon announced the formation of a Black private school, the Mason Community School. Meeting in a former funeral home near Club Tay-May, it attempted to educate the students who were boycotting the elementary school, and it did so while flying the red, black and green flag of Black liberation. The school lasted a couple of years, and then it closed, as did Mason Elementary School, and the Tipton County Schools started busing everyone to Covington schools instead. In addition, old-time residents could speak of other divisive legacies. Although laws said differently, most Black people would not go into Bozo’s to order food or sit down, as they remembered when they were required to order food to go and not permitted to eat inside. And the old-timers shuddered as they crossed a bridge on the Gainesville Road west of town, where they knew a mob had lynched a man back in 1937. By some accounts, the members of the mob had been the leading men of the town of Mason. Perhaps the lack of unity was part of the reason Mason was dying.
September 19 proved to be a bright, blue, sunny and warm day, perfect for an outdoor festival, and so I drove up to Mason and started my day with lunch at the original Gus’s Fried Chicken. Then heading down Front Street, I saw where the downtown area had been roped off, and some tents, tables and children’s bounce houses had been set up. But sadly, the attendance was rather sparse, compared to what I recalled of the festival in the 90’s, and a check of the tents and vendors revealed that the majority of them were sponsored by churches, and only a handful by businesses, and of the ones that were sponsored by businesses, most were from towns other than Mason, where there were now few businesses. One tent, for example, was run by Suga’s Diner, a restaurant about eight miles or so up Highway 70 in the Haywood County town of Stanton. Although music was supposed to be part of the Mason festival, there was mainly just a DJ,and a few local church choirs. No bands or musicians appeared at all. The newly-elected Mayor of Mason was a woman, and she spoke briefly, speaking of the town’s challenges, and reminding her hearers that “with God nothing is impossible.” Kids were doing dances called the “whip and Nae-Nae” and “hitting the quad” out in the square, while the younger kids were bouncing in the bounce house, and their elders were going in and out of the two remaining cafes, the Log Cabin and the Green Apple. I had thought that the festival might provide me with an opportunity to finally see the inside of the cafes, but this proved to be disappointing. I did briefly walk into the Log Cabin, but it was easy to see that I had interrupted the everyday routine of the place. The privacy felt palpable there, and I certainly would not violate it by taking pictures. After that, I chose not to enter the Green Apple. Yet outside, a few people asked me to take their picture. Some of them seemed to think I was working for the Covington Leader and thought my pictures would be in the paper. I had to explain to them that I was a blogger, not a reporter, but they wanted their picture taken anyway. Toward the early evening, kids began competing in a basketball shooting contest, and gospel choirs began singing a cappella on the one microphone near the DJ’s tent. The blues musician Big Don Valentine had posted on Facebook that he would be performing in Mason on Saturday and I had naively assumed that he meant at the Fall Festival. But people were now taking down the tents and the festival was winding down. Wherever Valentine was going on stage at 7 PM, it wasn’t at the Festival. So I left and headed over to Bozo’s Bar-B-Que for a dinner. While the Festival was rather sparsely attended, it had brought a lot of people together, both white and Black. And there had been no fighting or arguing to mar the day. Even the police were cordial. So in that sense, the Fall Unity Fest in Mason had been a success.
While the annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival was going on downtown, the On Location: Memphis Film and Music Festival was also taking place in Overton Square and in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. The music showcases were held in the basement of Cooper-Walker Place, and featured great Memphis musicians from all genres. Memphis hip-hop star Jason da Hater was on stage when I arrived, followed by a new local rock band called One Word. Then Tori WhoDat performed, along with Preauxx and other members of the TRDON camp. Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon showcase was 4 Soul’s performance, with Otis Logan on drums, and extraordinary Memphis vocalist Tonya Dyson fronting Memphis’ premiere neo-soul band. Over at Studio on the Square, a large crowd was watching a preview screening of an upcoming movie called The Man in 3B, with the filmmaker present. Altogether it was a great year for On Location: Memphis on its first Labor Day weekend.