Every April, the Juke Joint Festival takes over Clarksdale, Mississippi, bringing blues fans from all over the world to the small city in the Mississippi Delta, but this year, on the Wednesday before the festival, Memphians were given a taste of the festival in advance, with performances of Garry Burnside, Carlos Elliot Jr. and Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce at the new Tin Roof Memphis in the former Hard Rock Cafe spot on Beale at Rufus Thomas Street. The Tin Roof has pursued an adventurous and better-than-average booking policy since its opening, with heavy blues leanings, and the decision to book two Hill Country blues legends with arguably the best South American bluesman was an inspired one. One of the high points for me was hearing Carlos Elliot’s southern-soulish “Got This Feelin” for the first time. Although the venue’s ambiance was more that of a nightclub than a juke joint, the dance floor was occasionally crowded with jukers, and a good time was had by all.
Jazz is the forgotten piece of the Memphis music puzzle. People who are familiar with Isaac Hayes, Al Green or Otis Redding have likely never heard of Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Joe Dukes, Jamil Nasser, Sonny Criss, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern or Phineas Newborn Jr. Yet the histories of jazz, blues and soul are interwoven in Memphis. A young Phineas Newborn Jr played on some of the early Sun blues records. Free jazz saxophonist Frank Lowe played with Con-Funk-Shun in the early 1970’s. Isaac Hayes’ first LP was a jazz trio record with Duck Dunn and Al Jackson Jr, and elements of jazz would be present in all his career. Much of our city’s jazz history springs from one particular high school, Manassas High School in North Memphis, which was home to Jimmie Lunceford, Jimmy Crawford, Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and much of that great legacy was the result of an incredible musician and band director, Emerson Able, who recently passed away. So when Johnny Yancey told me that there would be a jam session at the Blue Note on Beale Street in honor of Mr. Able, I decided to head down there, and found the club filled to overflowing. An all-star group of musicians was on stage, including Bill Hurd on saxophone, Sidney Kirk Sr. on piano, Sidney Kirk Jr on drums, Ralph Collier, Johnny Yancey and Mickey Gregory on trumpets and others. At least part of the purpose was to raise funds for instruments for the Manassas band program, and if it proved nothing else, the amazing Thursday night of music proved that Memphians will turn out to support authentic jazz in an accessible, welcoming environment. The jam sessions will continue to be held on the first Thursday of each month.
Blue Note Bar & Grill
341 Beale St
Memphis, TN 38103
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
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Goner-Records/73295355242 Tweets by GonerRecords
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.
The Ghost Town Blues Band is a group of young Memphians that first garnered a lot of attention during the International Blues Challenge a couple of years ago. They’ve had a couple of albums out, and, despite the name, these young men play everything from blues, to soul, to funk and even rock and roll. This year, they decided to record and release their third album Hard Road To Hoe themselves rather than working with a record label, and they decided to hold the album release party at the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street during the International Blues Challenge.
With it being a Thursday, I really hadn’t expected a large crowd, even if the IBC was going on, but in fact the cafe was packed to the rafters, and there was absolutely no place to sit, so I grabbed a standing spot in front of the stage, and soon the Ghost Town Blues Band came marching into the club like a brass band playing “When The Saints Go Marching In.” After that, it was a good mix of rock-n-roll and blues covers, as well as GTBB originals, with the most outstanding song being “Seventeen”, the single from the new album, which is a soulful slab of down-home rock and roll.
When Memphis rapper Tune C and I headed downtown for the album release party for Frayser Boy’s new album Not No Moe, we heard a drumline playing on Beale Street. There had been a Grizzlies game in the FedEx Forum, so at first I thought it was the Grizzline drummers, but the beats they were playing didn’t quite sound right for that. As it turned out, it was just a random line of local youths, playing a very funky series of cadences indeed. Such drumlines had been common on Beale during its first ten years or so, when there were no barricades or ID checks, and buskers were common along the street, but this was the first time I had seen such drummers on Beale in nearly 20 years. It felt (and sounded) good.
Memphis’ young new C3 Blues Band was formed toward the end of last year, and has been gigging mostly in Jackson, Tennessee, with an occasional Memphis appearance here and there, so I was thrilled when I heard that they would be playing on a Tuesday night at the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street. The Rum Boogie is one of the oldest clubs on Beale Street, and one of the most popular, and this was the band’s first opportunity to perform on the legendary street in Memphis. C3 was originally a sort of blues power trio, but in recent weeks has added a second guitarist. For the Rum Boogie gig, they also added a saxophonist, and some new songs as well, particularly an amazing reading of the blues standard “As The Years Go Passing By”, which was the most impressive song from their first set. By the middle of their second set, the dance floor was filled.
Easter Sunday afternoon after church proved to be an absolutely beautiful day, so I headed first down to the Blue Note on Beale Street in Memphis where my homeboy Tune had started working to try the food there, and had a bacon cheeseburger, which I can truly say is the best burger on Beale Street. Then, with nothing else to do for the day, I decided to head down into the Mississippi Delta with my camera, taking pictures and finally ending up at The Blue Biscuit, Trish Berry’s excellent restaurant in Indianola. Two things stood out about my trip overall that afternoon, one of them the extent to which many of the Delta towns’ business district are basically ghost towns, all too many of them collapsed into absolute ruins, even though the towns themselves are still inhabited. The other thing that I noticed was the groups of young people walking in many of these places, still dressed in their finest clothes. In a few of the towns, family reunions and gatherings were going on either in private yards or parks. At Drew, for the first time, I saw walls and makeshift shrines commemorating young people who had been murdered, yet Ruleville looked cleaner and more prosperous, and families had gathered in its park to enjoy the afternoon. Nearby, on the stretch of Front Street traditionally nicknamed “Greasy Street”, two clubs were jumping, the venerable Club Black Castle which I remember from WCLE radio broadcasts back in the day, and the more grown folks-oriented Main Event next door. But at the next town of Sunflower, something else was going on altogether. The town seemed abuzz with young people the moment I entered it. They seemed to be in yards, in parks and on every corner, in what seemed to be a festive mood, so I gave little thought to them as I headed downtown to start photographing old and historic buildings. Sunflower, which was an historic battleground in the Civil Rights Movement (the legendary Fannie Lou Hamer was from nearby Ruleville), is home to a Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee offshoot called the Sunflower County Freedom Project, which has taken over the row of historic buildings along the railroad downtown. However, I noticed almost immediately that Gangster Disciples graffiti had been spray-painted on the back of a stop sign, and not long thereafter, I heard police sirens heading into the downtown area. Apparently a brawl had broken out between two young women, in which bystanders had soon joined in. I parked my car outside a juke joint called Club Wide Open, as people gathered on the corner to see what was going on. “Oh, boy! Look at them run”, said a man from the club as a group of young men came running from the neighborhoods to the north toward the corner of Quiver and Martin Luther King where the fight had broken out. As I walked in that direction, I noticed pieces of hair weave strewn along the street, presumably from the fight, but as I got to the corner, I realized that the town police had sprayed pepper spray, and I caught some of it, so I prudently made my way back to my car. The remaining crowd seemed reluctant to disperse. “I want to know who jumped my muthafuckin cousin!” one young man kept yelling repeatedly, and I realized that the problems stirred up by the fight were likely to persist all night, so I got back to my car and headed on to Indianola.
It was nearly sundown when I reach Indianola, but there was just time for me to get some beautiful shots of the sun going down over Indian Bayou. The B. B. King Museum was closed, as was Club Ebony and 308 Blues Club (whose owner had been found dead earlier in the month), but the Blue Biscuit was open, and there was a decent crowd inside although there was no live music on Easter Sunday. I ordered my favorite meal there, biscuits and barbecue, which is exactly what it says it is, pulled pork placed between the halves of four buttermilk biscuits. It is truly incredible, and something that has to be tried to be believed. Afterwards, I made a drive around Indianola, but found very little going on, and called my DJ partner Bigg V to see if he knew where things were jumping off, but I couldn’t reach him either, so I started the drive back to Memphis. I considered stopping off at the Black Castle in Ruleville, but having to work in the morning, I thought better of it, and drove on into Memphis.
On Saturday night February 8, an all-star contingent of Memphis rappers and fans took over the Hard Rock Cafe on Beale Street to celebrate the release of Lil Wyte & Frayser Boy’s new duo album B.A.R. on Phixieous Entertainment. Wes Phillips, Jeff Phillips and Terrance “DJ Bay” Long of Select-O-Hits were in the building, as well as La Chat, Miscellaneous, Criminal Manne, Al Kapone and Thug Therapy. Unlike a lot of album release parties, people actually performed, and coming as it did after a big University of Memphis Tigers win at the Fed Ex Forum, it was a fun night indeed.