In conjunction with my pilgrimage to the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival October 5th through 7th, 2006, I extended my stay this year in an attempt to soak up the blues culture of the Mississippi Delta.
Upon arriving in Memphis, I dropped my luggage at the motel and headed straight for B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street since I knew Preston Shannon was appearing that night. Three-time Grammy nominee Shannon blends Southern soul and blues and is a mainstay at the club, which does not regularly focus on blues. After chatting with Shannon, I settled in happily lighting up a cigarette which is forbidden in California clubs. With Shannon backed up by a horn section and Norris Johnson on organ, I knew it was going to be a formidable session. Shannon’s gospel-infused vocals authoritively interpreted “Take Me To The River.” His version of “Purple Rain” was slow and soulfully forceful. Mixing styles, he covered an eclectic range of blues and soul and got raunchy on “Dirty Motherfuyer” whipping off a stinging guitar solo. This was definitely the way to start off my journey. By the way, I highly recommend Shannon’s excellent new CD, “Be With Me Tonight.”
After the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival in Helena, Arkansas, everyone heads to Clarksdale, Mississippi which is a short distance down Highway 61 to The Crossroads where a left hand turn takes you to the Hopson Plantation. The Pinetop Perkins Homecoming celebration is held in the Commissary which is a huge building filled with blues memorabilia and antiques from the bygone era when cotton was king.
I settled into my bin (beautifully restored rooms in an old cotton gin building) at the Shack Up Inn on the Hopson Plantation grounds, and took off to the Sunday brunch at Ground Zero Blues Club which is renowned for the co-owner, actor Morgan Freeman. The club is in a huge building in the heart of Clarksdale near the Delta Blues Museum. Country preacher, K. M. Williams, from Dallas, Texas was featured for a Gospel Blues Brunch. He was assisted on several tunes by Washboard Jackson and Williams played solo guitar on old-time spirituals and country blues simulating drums on a board with his feet. His cover of “What Is The Soul Of A Man” was delivered with haunting vocals. His version of the old spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved” was executed on lap steel guitar. Williams poured fire into an intense “Last Train Blues.” Williams demonstrated a startling versatility and this commanding performance was a perfect complement to Sunday brunch.
Back at the Hopson Commissary Pat Morgan welcomed everyone to the sixth year of the Pinetop Perkins homecoming celebration. Perkins, born in Belzoni, Mississippi in 1913, is best known for his stint as the pianist in the Muddy Waters band and has continued to garner fame in his later years for his stamina on the touring circuit and his incomparable boogie woogie style. Bob Margolin played the dual role of host for the event and house guitarist/vocalist. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith launched into a Chicago blues set of vocals embellished with harmonica with an all-star band including his son Kenny on drums, Clay Swafford on keyboards, Mookie Brill on standup bass and Margolin and Little Frank on guitars. Then the legend we had come to honor, Pinetop Perkins, took over on keyboards in a magnificent session of blues.
There were so many memorable performances of the day. Sweet Betty from Atlanta, Georgia demonstrated a powerhouse vocal delivery of deep blues. Paul DeLay was masterful on harmonica and vocals covering a range of material including Jimmy Reed and Frank Frost tunes. The teenage Hiser Brothers, Jacob on keyboards and Kane on standup bass, were so phenomenal that they were kept on the stage most of the day. One of the highlights of the day was the performance by Patricia Wilder backed up by the Hiser Brothers. Wilder’s vocal and guitar skills were amply displayed on “Big Foot Woman.” Her energizing delivery astounded the audience who could not get enough. She joined Michael Burks in a jam later and they proved to be guitar soul mates trading licks and obviously enjoying the dueling.
Vaan Shaw and Michael Burks were stupendous in their individual sessions with dazzling guitars delivering cascading sounds. The jamming extended into the evening with so many fantastic musicians too numerous to mention but suffice it to say that this was one of those incomparable days in the life of a blues fan.
But the day was not over yet because the place to go after Hopson is Red’s in Clarksdale. Red’s bills itself as the home of Big Jack Johnson who regularly performs there when in town. It’s one of those indescribably funky juke joints. It was packed wall to wall this evening and the jam was in progress with Lightnin’ Malcolm holding court playing guitar with various musicians from the festival sitting in. Again, to the delight of her newfound fans, Patricia Wilder took to the stage to strut her stuff on guitar and vocals.
Terry “Big T” Williams, an incredibly talented Delta blues guitarist, and a crew of players from the area came and sat in. In the wee hours of the morning, we finally tore off to catch a few hours of sleep fully blues satisfied!
Clarksdale is profiting from businesses that have moved into town in response to the tourism generated by the blues. One of the newer ventures is the non-profit Theo’s Rock ‘N Roll Museum. Theo gave me a personal tour through this unusual collection of albums (many one-of-a-kind), and music memorabilia covering the whole spectrum of genres from blues to rock ‘n roll. Of course, a visit to Clarksdale is incomplete without a visit to the Delta Blues Museum.
The next two evenings were spent at Ground Zero Blues Club where concerts were being filmed for DVD releases. The first one featured Delany Bramlett who is better known for his work with Eric Clapton and George Harrison. On this evening, he displayed a monumental command of blues on slide guitar and raw-boned vocals while telling tales about his upbringing in Mississippi. He related that he had not performed in fifteen years but one would never have known from the knockout-laden evening filled with Delta-inspired blues.
The second concert featured the Elvin Bishop Band along with his longtime mentor Little Smokey Smothers and special guest, Pinetop Perkins. The band included Bobby Cochran on drums, Ed Early on trombone, Mike Schermer on rhythm guitar and S. E. Willis on keyboards. Bishop’s Chicago-honed blues performance was only exceeded by his exuberant party-making this evening. Bishop shared with the audience a true story of an encounter with a snake while fishing on a boat the previous day with Perkins and Smothers and then launched into his tune “Fishin.” This was a memorable evening of good humor and fantastic performances.
The next day, I headed down Highway 49 to Jackson, Mississippi. Although this was not the shortest route, it was an interesting journey through the countryside passing small towns important in the history of blues.
After arriving in Jackson, my first stop was the 930 Blues Café located in an historic home which has been beautifully restored and filled with folk art and blues memorabilia. Ironing Board Sam, dubbed the “Human Jukebox,” was performing solo on keyboards set up on (one guess!) an ironing board. He demonstrated a vibrant vocal approach while performing an eclectic selection of blues and R&B.
I was introduced to Jackie Bell, soul vocalist, who is often featured at the club but this evening was at the bar visiting with friends. We chatted about her appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival and her trips to Europe and Japan. As a favor to me, she agreed to do a couple of tunes with Ironing Board Sam and another regular at the club, Stevie J. joined in on guitar. Stevie J. toured and recorded with Bobby Rush for many years. Bell knows how to work a room with cat-like movement and richly phrased vocals. She had a way of seductively caressing the lyrics that was compelling.
The next evening, vocalist Dorothy Moore was celebrating her sixtieth birthday at the Queen of Heart’s, Jackson’s oldest blues club in operation for thirty-five years. Emceed by blues scholar Scott Barretta, the musical performances were a tribute to Moore by those who had worked with her for many years. Melvin Hendrex sat in on keyboards (when on the road with Bobby Rush, he was injured in a van accident and is now in a wheelchair). It was so good to see him and we reminisced about our friends in California. Bobby Rush came to honor Moore but did not perform since he was due to fly out to a gig in a few hours. Moore performed a couple of tunes, but when she did the tune for which she is so well known, “Misty Blue,” she choked up with emotion and cut it short. This was one of those magical events that make blues so special with warmth and love permeating the room.
Then I just had to get back to the 930 Blues Café where the Norman Clark Band was in full swing on the bandstand. Jackie Bell joined the band with an electrifying performance of her bluesy soul vocals. Other outstanding performers included Rick Lawson, Ecko recording artist, doing “If Loving You Is Wrong” with ultimate Southern soul.
Dennis Fountain (he was in the film LAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI JUKES) delivered an incredibly soulful performance on "Can I Change My Mind." Charlie Jenkins (former session drummer at Stax) kept the beat up on drums and Stevie J. on rhythm guitar supported Clark who kept things lively with his guitar antics. Wow, where could you find so many talented performers in one room?
Then it was off to Vicksburg, Mississippi for the first annual Willie Dixon Wang Dang Doodle Festival. After driving through the historic sites in Vicksburg, I checked out the Bottleneck Blues Bar at the Ameristar Casino, which yielded no blues, but there was an R&B group on stage, which was worth a short visit.
Held in a parking lot of the Ameristar Casino overlooking the Mississippi River, the festival kicked off on Saturday morning. After the Vicksburg Blues Society Band fronted by Lucille on guitar warmed things up, James “Super Chikan” Johnson did an all too short set but managed to cram in a lot of blues. Johnson’s array of hand-made guitars was put to full use in his performance and his description of them was filed with humorous details. Johnson is one of the most down-home, humble artists in the business and his infectious smile just enhances his incredible talents on guitar and vocals. He exemplified the best of Mississippi blues on his tune “Ground Zero.” He concluded each tune shouting out “somebody shoot dat thang” to the delight of the audience. His band, the Fighting Cocks, featured Laura (LaLa) Craig on impassioned keyboards and she is definitely a star in her own right.
The highlight of the day was the wonderful performance of Pinetop Perkins on keyboards and vocals and this venerable bluesman was bombarded by fans wanting his autograph or just to show their respect with a few words as he sat on the sidelines during the day. Most memorable was when he and Marie Dixon, widow of Willie Dixon, shared some time together. Mrs. Dixon spoke eloquently to the audience about the work she has carried on through the Blues Heaven Foundation and introduced many members of the family who were in attendance.
Other performers included Dorothy Moore, Vasti Jackson, Kenny Brown, and Doug Deming with Fingers Taylor. Larry Taylor, stepson of the late Eddie Taylor, Sr., closed out the festivities with a Chicago-infused set which included an engaging rendition of “Jody Got Your Girl and Gone.”
After the festival, I headed to Memphis to spend the night before catching my plane the next morning back to California. Along a dark I-55 north, all I could see was the white line in the middle of the road and occasional cars passing by, but I could not have been happier after having experienced the most incredible blues journey of a lifetime.
Dorothy L. Hill