The name Grambling was familiar in my youth, more than likely because my dad was quite the NFL fan, and the little historically-Black college in the Piney Woods of North Louisiana had sent an incredible number of athletes to pro football. It also just so happened that we used to pass it all the time as we traveled from our home in Dallas to my grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, or our annual family reunion in Jackson. But Grambling State University would come to my attention first through a movie called Grambling’s White Tiger about Jim Gregory, the first white football player to play for Grambling and its famous coach Eddie Robinson, and later a Coca-Cola commercial featuring the World-Famous Tiger Band further grabbed my attention. So when our family quit having our family reunions in Jackson in the fall of 1993, I made plans to go to Grambling’s homecoming instead. I ended up having so much fun that I have gone almost every year since then.
If Grambling is best known for football, it also has a long tradition of excellence in music, particularly its marching band. Tradition has it that the first band instruments were purchased on credit from Sears & Roebuck by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who was the president of what was then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Jones is said to have directed the band himself, although music education was not his field. Grambling’s excellent band tradition means that a lot of the country’s best Black high school bands come to the annual homecoming parade, determined to show their talent. Many bands from Louisiana come, like Lake Charles’ venerable Washington-Marion, Alexandria’s Peabody, or Tallulah’s Madison. Bands also come from Texas, and from further afield, occasionally coming from University City, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike the previous year, the weather this year was perfect for a parade, and a large crowd turned out to enjoy the bands and floats.
The football game in the afternoon was the occasion for a battle between two of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s best bands, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band from Grambling. The two bands battled back and forth throughout the first half of the game, as did Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and UAPB’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. Outside the stadium were the acres of tailgaters, many with mobile homes or tents, some with DJ’s and most with barbecue grills. It was all in all a great day with good football, good music, good food and good fun.
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.
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.
The Oxford Blues Festival was not held on the Square this year, as I would have expected, but rather on the Grove on the Ole Miss campus, and a good thing, since the entire Mid-South was under a heat advisory and the sun was beating down fiercely. Perhaps as a result, when I first got there, the crowd was rather small, and that despite the fact that the festival was also free. But as the day progressed, from the jazz of Doc Prana, to the bluesy rock of the Zediker Brothers, to the folk blues of Bobby Ray Watson (who had studied with Mississippi Joe Callicott), the crowd grew steadily in numbers and enthusiasm, and ever so slowly the heat began to subside. Female blues singer Joyce Jones was in the audience, and was called up on stage by Bobby Ray Watson and by Cadillac Funk to feature on a couple of songs. Then the Como Mamas came on stage to do some a cappella gospel numbers, and the afternoon was closed out by Blind Mississippi Morris as the sun was setting. Although there was a headline act for later in the evening, the people I was with wanted to head back to the Square for dinner. Despite the outrageous heat, it was a fun day of blues in a beautiful, shady setting.
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On Mothers’ Day afternoon, I saw that Joyce Jones, whom I had seen at Sherena Boyce’s party in Como a month ago, would be performing at Foxfire Ranch in Waterford, Mississippi. The weather was warm and sunny, so I decided to drive down, but I got there about an hour after the gate opened. Joyce performed one song after I arrived, but then turned over the stage to a comedian, an evangelist, a Southern Soul artist with a song called “Pour It In A Cup”, and then a Christian rock band called Destination Up. The latter act was interesting, as the drummer was one of Joyce’s cousins, and although I’m not always a big fan of rock, they were really good musicians and I loved the uplifting message of their songs. Then Kenny Brown came back on stage, with Joyce Jones and a guest artist from Nashville named R. B. Stone and Cameron Kimbrough on drums. They did several traditional Hill Country blues songs, including the standard “Rolling & Tumbling” and “Old Black Man”, Joyce Jones’ variant of the standard “Coal Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie”. Then Lightning Malcolm came up to feature on a song as well. Although it wasn’t exactly what I expected, it ended up being a decent night of music under a full moon and starry sky.
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Although the Levitt Shell season doesn’t start until May, there is usually an earlier special music event or two during the warm weather in April, and this year, the occasion was a tribute to the late John Fry and John Hampton of Ardent Studios, two Memphis music figures who dies within a week of each other. As Ardent has been the most important studio in Memphis since the late 1960’s, their impact on the city and the local music industry was considerable, and so three popular Memphis bands associated with Ardent came out to perform.
First up was the hard rock band Tora Tora, which I had never been much of a fan of, but I found to my surprise that some of their songs had a recognizable Memphis influence. Behind them came the Gin Blossoms, who were produced by John Hampton and had recorded at Ardent. What I didn’t know, however, was that the band was originally from Arizona and chose to record at Ardent because of their admiration for Big Star.
The final band of the evening was the current incarnation of Big Star, featuring founding member Jody Stephens on drums, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and Steve Selvidge on guitar. They played a number of familiar and not so familiar Big Star songs, as well as a reading of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”. A few of the songs featured vocals from the singers of the Gin Blossoms and Tora Tora. The evening ended with the performers standing together and taking a bow in front of the several hundred people who attended. John Fry was also posthumously awarded a note on Beale Street.
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Record Store Day is a worldwide holiday held in April to call attention to an endangered species, the neighborhood record store. Record companies release all kinds of cool limited-edition vinyl LP’s and singles, and local stores often sponsor live performances on the day, and with vinyl sales picking up all the time, the future of independent stores doesn’t seem quite as bleak as it did a few years ago. In Memphis, three stores were official Record Store Day participants, and the first one I visited was Goner Records in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood. Goner is a record label as well as a store, and not surprisingly they made a big deal of the day, with live bands such as the Blackberries out under the gazebo at Cooper and Young, and a store literally full of customers.
Things seemed more subdued at Shangri-La Records on Madison Avenue, although they had opened an hour earlier than Goner. They had decided to have their live music the next day on Sunday, when they were having Son of Mudboy play for an album release party for the reissue of Jim Dickinson’s legendary Beale Street Saturday Night compilation, but there were still a number of crate diggers enjoying their Saturday afternoon by browsing.
The third and final store participating in Record Store Day was Memphis Music, the blues-oriented record store on Beale Street, where the Memphis Music Commission had decided to sponsor live performances. Unfortunately, things were quite hectic on Beale, with a Corvette competition, and the annual Africa In April festival at Church Park, but small crowds gathered to enjoy Memphis singer-songwriter Michael Joyner and the a cappella vocal group Artistik Approach. It needs to also be pointed out that Memphis Music has greatly increased its vinyl selection over the last year or so, and is not just a store for tourists, but is worth a visit from local music lovers as well. It’s selection of import CD”s, particularly those with a Memphis connection, is also worth browsing.
2152 Young Av
Memphis, TN 38104
Tweets by GonerRecords
149 Beale St
Memphis, TN 38103
It’s hard to believe that only a couple of months ago I had never heard of Leon Bridges. Of course, the Fort Worth-based soul singer had already been doing things and beginning to make moves, but he somehow didn’t hit my radar until one of my favorite Mid-South venues, Tupelo’s Blue Canoe sent me an email in January triumphantly announcing that they had booked the up-and-coming young soul star in March, with all the enthusiasm of a record collector proudly showing off his newly-acquired copy of some rare 45 single. And the analogy is apt, because Leon Bridges and his band carefully craft the aesthetics of 1964-era classic soul and rhythm and blues (not R & B). His original compositions have that flavor, and even the appearance and dress style of him and his band members reinforce the retro feel. Not that this is entirely unprecedented, because the last few years have seen the emergence of a number of these types of groups, from Alabama Shakes to St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to J. C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound, to even James Hunter. And in some ways, Bridges and his band have points of similarity with all of that, and yet, Bridges is so young, his band so dynamic and tight, his compositions so personal (the newest released song “Lisa Sawyer” is a musical biography of his mother), his guitar playing so exquisite, that he is something at once familiar and yet brand new.
Freshly back from Europe, Bridges returned to the states with a Monday-night gig at Little Rock’s White Water Tavern, a venerable dive bar that happens to feature some of Arkansas’ best live music. It was in some ways a strange choice of venue, but Leon Bridges’ record label, Last Chance Records is based in Little Rock, and it was also a strange choice of night for a concert, but it is a tribute to Bridges’ rising popularity that the Monday night event was completely sold out, and he played to a standing-room-only crowd.
The building blocks of Leon’s magic are astoundingly simple. His band consists of guitar (two of them when he plays), bass, drums, a saxophonist and three female singers. His voice exudes a youthful naivety and innocence that is eminently appealing, and as he sings of his desire to “come home” to his sweetheart, you could almost imagine that you had been transported back to 1965. While only three songs are currently available commercially, Bridges performed far more on this night, with moods that ran the gamut from 6/8 soul ballads to 1950’s R & B, and lyrics that frequently mention the Mississippi River, New Orleans, even being washed clean from sins, the timeless themes of the South, white or Black. At show’s end, it was hard to imagine that the smiling, humble kid we were meeting is a star, but his single “Coming Home” was the most-donwloaded song in the world last week. And that suggests something exciting- perhaps soul music is finally “coming home.”
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All the years I have lived in Memphis, I had never been to the Buccaneer Lounge in Midtown, but I saw on a live music schedule in the Memphis Flyer that my homeboy Daniel McKee was playing a gig there, so I decided to go. According to the schedule, the show was supposed to start at 10 PM, but when I pulled up, the place actually looked closed. One guy was standing on the porch, and only a couple of cars were outside. But I ventured on in and paid the cover charge, even though the place seemed fairly deserted. My friend Daniel was the first to arrive, and over the next half hour musicians started to arrive, Pat Fusco with his B-3 organ, a drummer who had only recently moved to Memphis from New York and whose name I didn’t catch, indie Memphis rocker John Paul Keith and blues guitarist/singer Dave Cousar. When things got underway about 11 PM, it proved to be one of those amazing, serendipitous nights of music that can happen in Memphis. The song choices ran the gamut from soul to rock to blues to country, with a decided New Orleans bent at times. Dave Cousar and John Paul Keith took turns fronting different songs, and saxophone player Art Edmiston wandered in during the first set. When it seemed like it couldn’t get any better, shortly after John Paul’s soulful reading of “Bring It On Home To Me”, Marcella Simien dropped by to join him in a duet of Lee Dorsey’s “Waiting For My Ya-Ya”, and Paul Taylor came through to sit in as well. The Buccaneer is not a large club, and by the end of the night, it was standing room only, as John Paul Keith closed things out with a very appropriate song, “That’s How I Got To Memphis.” The cold winds howled outside, but it was a warm and cozy night of Memphis music inside.
1368 Monroe Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
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Friday February 6 was some kind of special day for blues apparently, because there were blues performances everywhere. Ori Naftaly was at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis, Duwayne Burnside was at the Blue Monkey in Memphis, Leo “Bud” Welch was at Rooster’s Blues House in Oxford, Albert King Jr and the Final Touch Band was at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod was at Club 2000 in Clarksdale, and Bill Howl-N-Madd Perry was at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale. Choosing between all of these great options was hard, but I finally decided to head for Clarksdale, stopping first at Sardis, Mississippi in order to enjoy a pizza at the superb Tribecca Alley Cafe, and then heading across the Delta on Highway 6. I had intended to check out the Albert King Jr. performance at Ground Zero, but when I first arrived in Clarksdale, I could hear a loud rock-influenced band playing elsewhere downtown, and since I could hear the Hill Country blues influence in it, I started looking for it. At first, I thought that the band was playing in an old warehouse on Sunflower Avenue, but it soon became clear that the sound was bouncing off that building and was coming from somewhere on Delta Avenue, so I walked around the Ground Zero club and found that they were playing in the new Delta Blues Alley Cafe, which is the former Club Vegas across the street from Ground Zero. It cost me $10 to go inside, and I proved to be the only patron, but the duo that was playing was Greenville, Mississippi drummer Stud, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford, and a Native American guitar player named Cactus from South Dakota who periodically hitchhikes to the Delta each year to play. They sounded good, and I spent some time checking them out before I finally headed back across the street to Ground Zero.