The Musical Motherland Tour – Pt. 2
By John Lee
John Lee and Nancy Rapp - Photo creatd by Jim Miller
I recently traveled with my better half, Nancy Rapp, to Memphis, TN, the Mississippi Delta, and to Helena, AR for The Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival and to personally check out all the best BBQ joints in the region. What follows is the continuation of my daily log of our trip:
Day 7- October 4, 2006
We had our last breakfast buffet at The Hampton Inn, West Memphis, AR, and hopped on I-55 and headed south. On the way we hit a major traffic jam just before we crossed into Tennessee and the exit onto Highway 61 to Clarksdale, MS. We were listening to WUMR-Fm 91.7, a University of Memphis jazz station and we caught the beginning of an interview with Sonny Turner, one of the original members of the great vocal group, The Platters. Sonny had great insights into the heyday of the group and the many knock-offs of The Platters that are gigging now. He said bringing legal action against the all the imposters is almost financially impossible. He was a character and very articulate in his answers to the questions about the group’s history. When the interviewer mentioned googling someone, Mr. Turner said somebody googled him the other day and he didn’t feel a thing!
We finally got thru the gridlock and onto Highway 61, then steered our ride into the Delta. We arrived in Clarksdale before noon. The first thing on our agenda was a visit to The Delta Blues Museum. The museum is housed in the old Clarksdale train depot at the corner of Delta Avenue and Blues Alley, right next door to actor Morgan Freeman’s juke joint, Ground Zero.
The Delta Museum is a must see for the blues fan. Some of the highlights were a portrait of B.B. King along with a vintage Gibson Lucille guitar, a display honoring Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and W.C. Handy, a display with dissertations on two famous women of the blues, Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton. There were two kiosks, one with a discussion on the life and death of Robert Johnson and another on Son House and his historic importance with comments by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. There is a large portion of Muddy Waters cabin from nearby Stovall Plantation where Muddy Waters lived before he headed north to Chicago (Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and many others are from this fertile blues area). There is also an artistic rendering of John Lee Hooker by our own Phil Chestnut in the permanent collection at the museum. I really dug singer Denise LaSalle’s dress too. We had a funky good time.
We visited the museum store to buy a few items and then we hit the street, and walked up and down Delta Ave. We stopped in at a very cool store called Cat Head -Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc., which sells Blues CDs, DVDs, books, art, T-shirts, and post cards. This hip business is owned by Blues Revue writer, Roger Stolle. We picked up a few post cards and signed the guest book, and when I looked at the table with free flyers and publications, I noticed the October 2006 Bluesletter, the Washington Blues Society’s monthly magazine. I hadn’t seen that issue before Nancy and I left Seattle. There was to be a good sized article on the gig I was producing, The West Coast R&B Summit, a full page ad of the Summit gig poster designed by Phil Chesnut , and a review of the Crossroad Band’s CD. What a trip! Here we were 2000 miles from home in the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues and I read about me and my partners work and our future show. I have to tell you, I got a big kick out of it.
Inside Cat head
Steve Cheseborough and Bob "The Mississippi Spoonman" Rowell
We hit the streets and headed to Ground Zero for some refreshments. As we walked in, we ran into George Henry, who had we met at Cat Head. George is from Atlanta GA and was in Clarksdale to shoot some photos of the show at Ground Zero that night, Jimmy Thackery and The Cate Brothers Those two groups were there to film a DVD and George was hired to shoot some stills. He invited us to sit at the bar and have a drink. I had my usual, sweet tea, and Nancy ordered a Greyhound. After a bit, George’s wife Lynn made an appearance and joined us for a drink. We listened to both Jimmy Thackery’s and The Cate Brothers’ sound check.
Shortly after, our thoughts turned to food. I had heard about a place not too far away called Hick’s that had a rep for great BBQ and outstanding tamales. The dining room wasn’t open, so we did the drive thru. George, Lynn, and I had rib tips, Nancy had catfish, and we got a dozen tamales on the side. We went back to Lynn and George’s room at Ground Zero to eat our food. The food was very good; the tamales were some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Their room was quite nice with hardwood floors. It looked like a very fine apartment with a full kitchen and a bedroom. A nice stay for sure, once the music died down. The Henry’s needed to get ready for the evening, so we told George and Lynn we would try to hook up with them in the morning. Then Nancy and I went to our room at The Comfort Inn on State Street. We rested and cleaned up some, then dressed for the evening. We stopped by a liquor store on State Street, and Nancy picked up a pint of Jack Daniels for the remainder of our trip. The word in Clarksdale and Helena is that you bring your own booze. The club charges you for a set-up. Now that’s a switch from what we’re used to at home. Ground Zero actually has a liquor license, which is rare for that neck of the woods.
That evening we went to a funky juke joint called Big Red’s. This club’s claim to fame appears to be that the bar is the home of Delta bluesman, Big Jack Johnson. This is a run down spot on Sunflower Avenue, just a few blocks from the Delta Blues Museum. We dug a guitar player that went by the name of, Lightnin’ Malcolm, backed by a drummer. I missed the drummer’s name. Malcolm is a white cat that sounded a lot like R. L. Burnside. I bought his CD and found out he was backed by Gary Burnside, R.L. Burnside’s youngest son on bass and Kenny Kimbrough the late, great Mississippi bluesman, Junior Kimbrough’s son on drums for the recording. The man can lay down a groove.
After Malcolm took a break, we hit the streets and headed towards Ground Zero. We could hear the music clearly outside and chose not to pay the $20.00 cover charge. Both Jimmy Thackery and The Cate Brothers would be playing the Festival in Helena in a couple of days. We did run into Puddin’, who is a black man in his early ‘70s who hangs around Ground Zero. Nancy, George Henry, and I ran into him earlier at the club during our cocktail time. Puddin’ does card and dice tricks for tips or hustle. The guy is a first class character. We then went a few blocks down Delta Avenue where a group of locals and a cat from L.A. named David were hangin’ out on the street and drinking beer. We hung out and talked for over an hour and then we began to fade. We said our goodnights and walked back to our car, and then went back to our room for a much needed sleep.
Day 8 - October 5, 2006
We started the day with a breakfast buffet, but the Comfort Inn’s wasn’t quite as nice as the one we had at the Hampton Inn. But they did have a waffle machine! At breakfast we met two guys that were traveling together from Florida - a cat named John and a blues and jazz photographer, Jim Miller. We discovered they were also going to attend the Festival in Helena. We chatted for a bit and we found out they were two very funny guys and both big blues fans. We said we would probably see them at the Festival.
Then Nancy and I checked out of the motel. We went back to Clarksdale’s historic district near the Delta Blues Museum and Ground Zero. We stopped by the Riverside Hotel, the well known spot where many blues legends would stay when they were in Clarksdale. The owner, Frank Ratliff (everybody calls him Rat), gave us a guided tour. The Riverside was an African-American hospital before 1944. This was the hospital were Bessi Smith died after her car accident in 1937. We thanked Rat for his hospitality.
John Lee and Rat
The Bessie Smith Suite at the Riverside Motel
We went back to the Delta Blues Museum one last time to check out some gifts. Phil Chesnut had told me to say hello to May Smith, a women who worked there. She was in and I think she dug hearing from Phil by proxy. She was quite pleasant. We never did run into George and Lynn Henry again. Nancy and I both hope to see them again. It was time to get to our next room and then to The Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival. So we drove about 20 miles to Lula, Mississippi and checked in to our room at the Isle of Capri casino hotel. The Isle of Capri is the major sponsor of the blues festival. A casino in Mississippi to me means a big buffet, so we had more than our share of Delta Cookin’at the casino lunch buffet and we were ready to rock. We got back in our ride and drove just a few miles across the Mississippi River into Helena, AR and downtown where the music and festivities were taking place.
I had left my sport coat at The Comfort Inn in Clarksdale, so we were going to try and run down John and Jim from Florida. They were going to be staying at The Comfort Inn for the duration of the festival, so maybe they could bring it back to my sorry ass! It was so warm on the first leg of our trip I never wore it at all.
We dug a great set by east coast bluesman Joey Gilmore whose set was highlighted by a tune titled “The Ghosts of Mississippi.” Gilmore is a great guitar man whose style is both passionate and warm at the same time. I first heard Joey Gilmore online from The Waterfront Blues Fest in Portland OR this summer.
I looked over to the backstage area of the main stage and I saw Jim Miller. We chatted and he said John and he would bring my coat from the motel in Clarksdale when they showed up for the Fest the next day. Then Joey Gilmore stopped by to say hello to Jim - they knew each other from Florida. Jim introduced us and we exchanged pleasantries and the conversation turned to Joey’s gig the next night in the Carolinas somewhere. I not sure how far, but it had to be quite a haul. I wished Joey Gilmore continued luck and told Jim I would see him the next day.
I went back to my spot with Nancy and spotted the legendary blues DJ “Sunshine” Sonny Payne near where I talked with Jim Miller and Joey Gilmore. Sonny Payne is the very hip “King Biscuit Time” DJ. Sonny has been doing the show on a regular basis since 1951. He still does the show Monday thru Friday live from The Delta Cultural Center on Cherry Street in downtown Helena. I introduced myself and gave him a copy of The Crossroads Band CD, “I Want it Right Now”. I thanked him for taking the time to talk to me and for accepting the CD. Sonny said, “No. Thank you for what you do.” Sonny Paine is a very nice and gracious man.
DJ Sonny Payne
King Biscuit flour warehouse
We caught some more music next to the levy at the main stage, the highlight being “Jumpin” Johnny Sansone, an accordion and harmonica player from New Orleans. Then we went back across the Mississippi River to our room to rest up for another day of festival and good times.
Day 9 - October 6, 2006
Our day began with a walk through the casino to the breakfast buffet. This little walk made me thankful that I don’t gamble or smoke! The food was outstanding, with grits, an omelet bar, and a section with six or seven different variations on pork. The fresh squeezed orange juice was a real treat! Filled up for the day, we hopped on the casino shuttle to the Festival. It’s a nice service that leaves The Isle of Capri every half hour and drops you off one block from Cherry Street.
I ran into John from Florida and he and Jim had brought my sport coat from The Comfort Inn in Clarksdale. Nancy and I headed to the Houston Stackhouse/Robert Jr. Lockwood Stage where my old musical partner Gary Sloan was the master of ceremonies. Gary has been doing that gig for nine years now. Gary and I go back to my early days when we had Alaska’s first blues band, Proof. He wasn’t surprised to see me; he knew I would be at the Fest. I hadn’t see Sloan in about 15 years, so there were hellos and hugs for a minute or two. Nancy and I also got to meet Gary’s wife Sandy. We chatted for a spell and then we headed over to The Delta Cultural Center to catch Sonny Paine doing the King Biscuit Time radio show. Sonny has been doing this show regularly since November 1951. When the show was over, we took a self guided tour of the center.
This is a great place to check out. There is one permanent exhibit called “Delta Sounds,” stories about musicians with Arkansas roots like Sonny Boy Williamson II, Louis Jordan, Robert Jr. Lockwood, James Cotton, Robert Nighthawk, Albert King, and country stars like Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, and Charlie Rich. There is also a section on the area’s gospel roots called “Tell It! Sing It! Shout It!” There is also an exhibit that runs until April 2007 called “Main Street of the Blues.” One of the highlights of that section was the red suit and the red and white patent leather shoes that the late, great Sam Myers wore at his performance at the 2005 festival.
Then we went back to the main stage, where we caught legendary Delta drummer Sam Carr and the Delta Jukes with Dave Riley, Northwest powerhouse Paul Delay, and Pinetop Perkins with Bob Margolin and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Pinetop is in his nineties and still plays extremely well. I was coming back from a refreshment run (limeade) when I heard someone call my name. Damed if it wasn’t my homeys, Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin’ Daddies! After more hugs and hellos, I told them Nancy and I would see them play the Fest the following night. Tom Boyle and Becki Sue stopped by and said hello to Nancy, but they had a full slate and had to split pronto!
Nancy and I went back to Gary’s stage to hang out and see Dave Riley and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Dave Riley is a young guitar-slinger from the Delta who can play and sing up a storm. He seems to be a solid fixture around the Clarksdale and Helena area. We had seen him earlier with The Delta Jukes. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith fronted his own band on harmonica. I don’t know where I’ve been, but I didn’t realize Willie played the harp. And play it he does. He’s one of the most soulful cats on the instrument I’ve ever heard. What a treat! We ran into Steve Cheseborough and Taizz Medalia one more time and found out they would be playing at a spot a couple blocks away the next day. We said we would drop on by. Nancy and I said our goodnights to them and the Sloans, then walked two short blocks and caught a shuttle back to the casino and our room.
Day 10 - October 7
We woke and showered, then headed to the breakfast buffet. This was the last day of the Fest and the next day we would be heading home. We chose to drive to the Fest and we had no trouble finding a good parking spot. We headed to the Houston Stackhouse Acoustic Stage (at night, when the more electric acts take over it becomes The Robert Lockwood Jr. Heritage Stage). Gary and Sandy were there and we told them we wanted to check out Watermelon Slim and the Workers. They wanted to see them also, so they said they would possibly see Nancy and me at the main stage. While we were diggin’ on Slim and the Workers, we saw our friend Lindy Linderman. Lindy lives in New Orleans in the winter, but rents a room right across the street from us in Seattle for the summers from his friend and ours, Marsha Herivel. We talked for a bit and he wanted to check out some more festivities, as he had only been in Helena for about an hour! We said we would check him at Steve and Taizz’s street gig later in the day.
After Slim and the Workers were finished with their set, we checked out Larry Garner, a guitar player from Baton Rouge. That cat can really play, as soulful as it gets. We soon where jumping from place to place, we saw the legendary Robert Jr. Lockwood (Robert Lockwood passed away a little over a month after his Arkansas Blues Fest performance on Nov. 21st) and he sounded great! We also caught Robert “Wolfman” Belfour. To me he sounds like a mix of John Lee Hooker and R.L. Burnside. He’s the real deal. We then headed over a couple of blocks and caught Steve Chesborough and Taizz Medalia. Steve was singing and playing top-notch country blues guitar with Taizz adding lead and back-up vocals. We saw Lindy Linderman, then we went back over to the Heritage stage and caught one of the finest guitar players working the circuit today, “Texas” Johnny Brown. This cat was on fire, jumping back and forth between Texas swing and soul blues.
This day, like the day before, we ate local. Let me explain. All along Cherry Street the vendors connected with the festival hawk their wares. One street over the locals set up shop and cook ribs, chicken, white beans and the like. It’s down- home and tasty. One day we both had pulled pork and the next I had BBQ chicken and Nancy had beans and corn bread. The local folk were friendly and make us feel at home. Most of them provided table and chairs.
My motto at the Festival - eat with the locals!
Then it was time to check out Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin’ Daddies at The Emerging Artist stage. Becki and the Daddies were pumped and put on a great show. They had the crowd jumpin’ and jivin.’ We stopped by The Robert Lockwood stage and said our goodbyes to Gary and Sandy Sloan. Then we went back to the main stage to get ready for the headliner, The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Becki Sue & Her Big Rockin' Daddies
Nancy and I were sitting on the steps going up to the levee when Lindy Linderman some how found us again. He had heard an announcement that Nancy Rapp from Seattle had won a poster through a drawing. Lindy figured there couldn’t be but one Nancy Rapp from Seattle. We thanked him and said our goodbyes, and Nancy went to the festival store on Cherry Street, not far from the Main Stage. Nancy made it back before the T-Birds began their set. She won a festival poster, signed by the artists. A very nice poster I might add! The T-Birds were rockin’ but not long before they were to finish, we started to head back to our ride. We ran into Tom Boyle and Becki Sue. We talked for a bit, then said our goodbyes and told them we would see them back on the block. The Fabulous Thunderbirds played as we went back to our car. We drove over the Mississippi River for the last time. The next morning we had to drive to the Memphis, TN airport and work our way back to Seattle. We had one hell of a time on this trip.
Day 11 - October 8, 2006
We awoke early, (we had a 12:30pm flight ) cleaned up and departed our digs at the Isle of Capri. We decided not to partake in the buffet. We decided to have some BBQ at the airport instead. We had seen a few BBQ joints in the airport when we arrived there eleven days ago. We drove up Highway 61, to the Memphis airport, about an hours drive, and returned our car to Hertz, then caught their shuttle to the terminal. We checked our bags and went on a search for some grub. We found a Corky’s BBQ. We heard that Corky’s was the real deal, and it was true. This was a great meal to leave Memphis on. I had ribs and Nancy had pulled pork, and as usual we shared.
We flew to Minneapolis, MN to catch our connecting flight back to Seattle. While we were waiting we met a couple from San Francisco who had been at the Festival. We had enough time to have a drink together then we caught our separate planes. While the flight to Seattle was waiting to take off, I heard “What are you guys doing here?” It was my long time friend Isis. She was our flight attendant for our trip back home. It was great to see her! What a way to get back home!
We can’t wait to do the musical motherland tour again. Like I said, this was about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on!
I would like to wish everyone happy holidays and all the best for the New Year. I would like to thank Mike Lynch for maintaining The Jet City Blues blog and for being such a fine editor.
Next year I will change the name of this column to “In The Pocket With Mister Solid.” I have a lot of cool stuff to talk about in 2007. Peace! Catch you on the rebound.
December Blues Birthdays
Robben Ford - December 16, 1951
Lonnie Brooks - December 18, 1933
Joe Louis Walker - December 25, 1949
Bo Diddley - December 30, 1926
Odetta - December 31, 1930
Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) - December 5, 1899 (died 1965)
Jr. Wells - December 9, 1934 (died 1996)
Paul Butterfield - December 17, 1942 (died 1987)
Pee Wee Crayton - December 18, 1914 (died 1985)
Pettie Wheatstraw - December 21, 1902 (died 1941)
Electric bassist John "Mr. Solid" Lee was born in Alaska and has been active in the Seattle blues scene for about 30 years. He currently plays with the Crossroads Band. Photo by Mike Coyote.
Note: All photos that appear in this blog were created by Nancy Rapp, except where noted.