Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the Pocket with Mr. Solid

Return to the Musical Mother Land Part I

By John Lee

My better half, Nancy Rapp, and I recently traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta, and to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (the King Biscuit Blues Festival) in Helena, Arkansas. Here’s what we did from my perspective:

Day 1 - Friday, October 3rd

My buddy Dan Newton, our guitar player and keyboard man from The Crossroads Band, gave us a ride to SeaTac Airport. We caught a 10:30 AM flight to Minneapolis, Minnesota and then we caught a connecting flight to Memphis. Travel went by without a hitch. It just took awhile!

We picked up our rental car, which was supposed to be a Ford Focus, but Hertz upgraded us to a Toyota Camry. A very nice car, and good mileage too! Our motel, the Hampton Inn, was located in south Memphis not too far from the airport. A very short ride, for sure. Just before we left the airport we grabbed a copy of "The Memphis Flyer," a weekly newspaper that combines politics, arts, and entertainment similar to our "Seattle Weekly." When we checked in to our room, we picked-up a copy of the Memphis daily paper, "The Commercial Appeal." Then when we went right to the "Go Memphis" section (arts and entertainment) and saw that the great Stax artist William Bell was playing a free show that night backed by the great band, The Bo-Keys. It was 8:30 PM and the show started at 7:00 PM. The show would be done or nearly over by the time we pulled it together, so William Bell was a no-go. We looked to see what else was going on and saw that the Pink Palace Museum was having a four day crafts fair and fund raiser at Audubon Park, right near the University Of Memphis. We decided to check that out the next morning just before our trip to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

We both were very hungry, and talked about eating at Popeye’s right across the street. Popeye’s it was for some damn good fried chicken, red beans and rice, and biscuits. For fast food that was some mighty fine eatin’. Plus, the restaurant played some great New Orleans R&B. Popeye’s originated in the Big Easy. We were already on our way to getting in a Southern state of mind. It had been a long day and a good night’s sleep was in order. Tomorrow would be our first full day in the great city of Memphis, Tennessee.

Day 2 - Saturday, October 4th

We started our day off with a real nice complimentary breakfast in the lobby of the Hampton Inn. A breakfast buffet that included eggs, sausage, grits, biscuits, fruit salad, yogurt, muffins, bagels, sweet rolls, cereals, and three kinds of juice make the Hampton Inn breakfast a crowd pleaser! Full and awake we headed out to The Pink Palace Crafts Festival in Audubon Park. There were 205 artists selling things like blown glass, ceramics, woven rugs and wood carving, so there was always someone doing a demonstration. With 40 food vendors, music, and dance, it all added up to a lively good time. Hey, I even found some chai tea.

After two enjoyable hours we headed toward The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located on the original studio site, at 926 E. McLemore Avenue. This museum is a shrine with over 2,000 artifacts and exhibits honoring the music of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, and dozens of other Stax recording artists. There is also a section honoring the Hi and Goldwax soul labels. The Hall of Records - a hallway with all the singles and albums of the Stax label on display on both sides of a walkway is a total wonder. The display of the knee-high platform boots/shorts and cape outfit that Rufus Thomas wore in the Watts/Stax film is almost worth the price of admission! There were also two temporary photo exhibits that were really well done and of great interest to me. The first was a collection of photos titled "Otis Redding- from Macon to Memphis," an exhibit from the private collection of Zelma Redding, Otis’ widow. The second was a collection of photos by Howard Morehead of Ray Charles called "I Shot Ray Charles." Both sets of photos were outstanding. The Stax Museum is a must see spot on the music lovers list when you visit Memphis.

While we were at the Stax Museum, we saw a map that showed what people lived in the neighborhood near Stax, and it showed Royal Recording Service just four or five blocks away. Royal is the studio where most of the great Hi Records recordings were made. Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, and many others made their legendary records at this studio. The great musician, bandleader, and producer, Willie Mitchell, who produced most of the Hi records sessions owns the studio, and Royal is very much an active studio today. The address is 1320 Lauderdale. The four blocks going from McLemore Avenue, past the studio to South Parkway has now been renamed Willie Mitchell Boulevard. Nancy took pictures and we paid homage to the birthplace of some of the sweetest soul sounds around.

We took our ride back to our motel to freshen up, then to downtown Memphis for dinner and some music. We went to the Rendezvous for ribs. This world famous eatery is located in an alley and downstairs justthree blocks from Beale Street. The food is so good I refer to the Rendezvous as “a basement of pure culinary pleasure.” We both had the ribs. After our incredible meal we headed to actor Morgan Freeman’s juke joint, the Ground Zero Blues Club, just one block over from Beale Street. There we heard the much heralded Memphis guitar man Preston Shannon. Mister Shannon’s band was a tight six piece ensemble that played original blues, covers and Memphis R&B, songs like Eddie Floyds "634-5789" and Otis Clay’s "Tryin to Live My Life Without You." I dug the sounds and I got to chat a minute with Preston Shannon. He seemed to be a real nice fellow. I hope the Northwest folks can hear him live sometime.

After two sets at Ground Zero we hit the streets and cruised down Beale Street, which was packed. We stopped in to A. Schwab's, a store that’s been on Beale Street since 1876. Originally an old fashioned general store, now A. Schwab's sells mostly souvenirs and knick-knacks. There are things there that you won’t find anyplace else. The place is a gas. After 30 to 40 minutes tripping around A. Schwab's, it was time to get some sleep. We took the short drive on I-55 and I-240 to our room, looking forward to another day in the home of the blues, the center of Soul, and the birthplace of rock and roll, Memphis, Tennessee.

Day 3 - Sunday, October 5th

After we finished eating breakfast at the Hampton Inn, we went back downtown, took a monorail to Mud Island River Park and went to the Mississippi River Museum. The museum is a fantastic study in the history of the river from the time of the early American natives, to the Spanish explorers, and the development of shipping and commerce up and down the river from Minnesota to New Orleans. There is a substantial section devoted to the Civil War and another that shows the blues and its influence along the mighty Mississippi. The exhibit ends with a great view of the river. If you go to Memphis, I would highly recommend the Mississippi River Museum. Right at the museum is a shop that rents bikes, canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats. Nancy and I rented two bikes at $10.00 each for two hours. We cruised around the park and then to a large neighborhood on the island called Harbor Town. We rode along this very lengthy park that runs along the river for about a mile and a half. We had lunch at a deli and grocery where we both had a very good Greek salad. Then we drove our mountain bikes back to the rental shop.

We left the island and walked thru downtown. Almost right away we heard it - live music, very good live music! We found the group at a park in the heart of downtown Memphis. As we were listening I realized we were checking out the classic Memphis group The Bo-Keys. The Bo-Keys are an eight piece band that plays the Memphis sound to a tee. Skip Pitts on guitar is the man who played the wah-wah guitar on Isaac Hayes’ opus “Shaft." One of the two trumpet players is Ben Cauley, former member of the Bar-Keys and the only man to survive the Otis Redding plane crash in 1967. The bass player is Scott Bomar, the extraordinary bass player who put together the soundtrack for the film “Black Snake Moan" with Samuel A. Jackson and Christina Ricci. The Bo-Keys played a nice 20 minutes, and then they were joined by vocalist John Gary Williams, former singer with the Stax recording group, The Mad Lads. Mister Williams belted out “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd and “Dock on the Bay” by Otis Redding. Then Ben Cauley joined Mister Williams in a Sam and Dave medley. It was mighty good. It was hard to tell it wasn’t the legendary soul duo just by listening. They all played at least 2 hours and it was some of the finest music I’ve heard in awhile. It turned out to be a get-out-the vote event. What a marvelous accident!

We headed to 143 Beale Street and B.B. King's Blues Club for a little BBQ and some boogie. B.B. Kings is a funky, large club that has good views from the ground floor and the balcony too. We were given a balcony table with an excellent view of the stage. We ordered the B.B. King nachos and instead of salsa, it came with BBQ sauce. I liked it fine, but Nancy didn’t care for it. I ordered the BBQ chicken and Nancy the Caesar salad. It was a tasty meal. The music was the rock/blues guitar playing and singing of Corey Osborn. The rest of the group consisted of a bass player, drummer and a Hammond organ player. We caught a lengthy set and then went back to our room. A real hoot about B.B. King's is there was a rest room attendant. When you wash your hands the gentleman gives you a shot of soap and then a towel. He also had cigarettes, gum, chicklets, and cigars for sale too. A throw back to an earlier time, for sure - what a trip!

Day 4- Monday, October 6th

Right after breakfast we went right to Sun Studio located at 706 Union Avenue, not too far from the heart of downtown Memphis. We had about a 30 minute wait until the next tour, but the gift store is a fun place to hang out and check out all the souvenirs, including t-shirts, CDs, and books available for purchase. The gift shop is where the tour begins and in the early days it was a café where all the studio participants would hang out and grab a bite to eat. The tour begins in a small museum upstairs with lots of memorabilia and a complete rundown on the studio's history. The young lady who was our tour guide did a great job and had a great sense of humor. Sun Studio opened on January 3rd, 1950, under the name of the Memphis Recording Service. Sun is well known for the early recordings of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but before them, Sam Phillips recorded early sides for B.B. King, Little Milton, Howlin' Wolf, and Rufus Thomas to name a few. "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats featuring a very young Ike Turner on piano, the song many people consider the first rock and roll tune, was recorded at Sun in 1951. The tour ends in the actual studio and the tour guide gave us more history and more tidbits of great interest. The tour of Sun Studios is a must for any American music fan. Sun Studios is another shrine in the musical Mecca of Memphis, Tennessee.

The Man, the Myth, the Legend - John Lee!

We headed back to the heart of downtown, parked our rental car and hopped on the Riverfront trolley which travels on a loop along the Mississippi River and then thru the heart of downtown by way of Main street, going thru the Pinch District and the historic South Main District where the Civil Rights Museum is located. The Civil Rights Museum is housed in the Lorraine Hotel and Motel where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. We didn’t take in the museum this trip, we did two years ago, but it is a moving and emotional experience that gives you a great understanding of the civil rights struggles in the middle of twentieth century America. I highly recommend it.

After a nice ride on the trolley we developed an appetite and stopped at the Arcade Restaurant right on the trolley line at South Main. The Arcade is a Memphis institution with a great past. Opened in 1919 and owned by the same family for three generations, the Arcade has an eclectic menu that features down home breakfasts with specialty items like sweet potato pancakes and lunch items like pizza. I had a salad and a side of hash browns. Nancy had a small pizza and a side salad. The Arcade also features ham and biscuits, salads-with nice gourmet greens, and Elvis’ favorite, the peanut butter and banana grilled sandwich. Both Elvis and R&B/soul legend, Rufus Thomas frequented the café and each has a booth named in their honor at this cool and funky classic diner styled eatery. Scenes from many major motion pictures were filmed here including "Mystery Train," "Walk the Line," "21 Grams," "The Firm," and "The Client." I really dig the Arcade, it’s a great spot to catch a delicious and reasonably priced breakfast or lunch in downtown Memphis.

Filled up, we hit the streets and headed to the heart of downtown. We ended up at the majestic and beautiful Peabody Hotel. The original Peabody was built in 1869 but closed in 1923. In 1925 the Peabody was resurrected in its present location on Union Avenue. Just like Memphis itself, the hotel was very much a part of music history. In the late '20s and early '30s, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, and Tommy Johnson made their first recordings at the Peabody for record labels like Paramount and Vocalion. In the 30s and '40s The Peabody was one of only three live radio sites to broadcast the likes of Harry James, Paul Whiteman, and Tommy Dorsey to a dance craving nation.

We ordered a drink and settled in to check out the Duck March. Let me tell you about the Peabody Hotel and the ducks. In 1933, the hotel’s general manager, Frank Schott and a close friend were duck hunting in Arkansas, and, as legend goes, the two were feeling no pain from a fair amount of Lynchburg, Tennessee's finest, Jack Daniels! They came back to Memphis and to the lobby of The Peabody to put a number of live decoy ducks in the fountain. Live decoy ducks were legal at that time, and the patrons of the hotel thought this was great fun. To this very day ducks are in the Peabody’s fountain seven days a week. At 11:00 AM, the ducks that live on the roof are escorted into the elevator, transported to the ground floor, out of the lift, down a red carpet, and into the ornate fountain in the grand hotel’s lobby. The ducks frolic there, until 5:00 PM, when they are led back down the red carpet, into the elevator, and back to their home on the roof. We went to the roof after the ducks and took in the spectacular view of Memphis and the Mississippi River with our drinks in hand. It’s things like this that can make this life so much fun.

We walked back to our car by way of Beale Street and said our goodbyes to downtown Memphis for this trip. We drove back to our room, and when we got into the lobby, we found that the Hampton Inn had put out a complementary spread of quesadillas, tortilla chips, salsa, and soft drinks. Very nice! The day before, I had asked the front desk for a cloth to clean my shoes, and they were so impressed that I didn’t just use a wash cloth that the management gave me a coupon for a free film and microwave popcorn. We picked the delightful Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson movie, "Bucket List," a nice kicked-back thing to do on our last night in Memphis.

Day 5 - Tuesday, October 7th

We had our last complimentary breakfast at The Hampton Inn, checked out of our room, and took our ride out of Memphis and into Mississippi, the land of the Delta blues in the pouring down rain. A half hour into our trip, we stopped at a visitor center and picked up a lot of info on some of the places we wanted to visit like Greenwood, Indianola, Leland, Clarksdale, and Greenville, Mississippi. We made a stop in Greenwood, about 120 miles from Memphis, the home town of guitar great Hubert Sumlin and the burial site of Delta blues legend Robert Johnson. (we didn’t visit Mr. Johnson’s resting place this trip) and the location of Mattie’s soul food restaurant where we ate two years ago. Mattie’s is no longer in business, but we did find a BBQ and delta cooking spot called Steve’s that has great food. We both had black eyed peas and turnip greens. I had ribs and Nancy had chicken. Most definitely very good food!

While we were finishing up our lunch, the owner came by and gave Nancy a piece of chocolate cake on the house. I took a pass. You've got to cut back somewhere, sometime. As we were leaving, we struck up a conversation with Steve and some regulars. They were good old boys and much different than a lot of the folks you run into in the Northwest. We hit it off with Steve and he gave Nancy and I both a Steve’s BBQ t-shirt. Cool. We said our goodbyes and got in our ride - next stop Indianola and The B.B. King Museum. If you ever find yourself in Greenwood, Mississippi and your hungry, do yourself a favor and eat at Steve’s. It is most definitely good eats!

We cruised down Highway 82 about 30 miles and stopped to check into our motel, the Best Western-Blues Traveler Inn. We freshened up and went to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center about eight blocks away, a few blocks off the main highway. The museum is not only a testament to the man born Riley B. King, but also a glowing tribute to the great American art form known as the Blues! The museum took us on the incredible journey of B.B. King from his life as a sharecropper in Indianola (B.B was born and raised in the area) his musical education in Memphis, his rise to super stardom, and his place as the world’s ambassador of the blues. The museum is a wonderful experience with 100s of pieces of memorabilia illustrating Mr. King’s influence and the many contemporaries who shared his journey like Bobby Bland and Rufus Thomas. This is a new addition to the list of great American musical shrines that should not be missed by the true music fan. We spent two enjoyable hours at the museum and both Nancy and I were getting hungry.

We left the museum and drove down Highway 82 which cuts right thru the heart of Indianola. We found a nice Mexican restaurant called the Guadalajara with good eats and excellent salsa. On the way back to our room we stopped at the Sunflower Market to pick up some laundry detergent and a 12-pack of Barq’s root beer. We needed to do laundry and I dig root beer. Then we caught a much needed good night’s sleep. Having so much fun can be exhausting!

Day 6 - Wednesday, October 8th

We started the day with a complimentary breakfast provided by the Best Western. It was just OK - nothing compared to the spread at the Hampton Inn in Memphis. The weather had turned beautiful once again. The day before was overcast and raining, and it was dusk and too dark when we got out of the B.B. King Museum to get some pictures of some of the blues sites around Indianola. So we set out to get some photos, and then check out the towns of Leland and Greenville, Mississippi. First up, we checked out the well known juke joint, Club Ebony, which has been providing great music and good food since 1945. Over the years, Club Ebony has been a regular road stop for many great musicians like Count Basie, Ray Charles, James Brown, Willie Clayton, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, Ike Turner, Bobby Bland, and B.B. King. Mary Shepard owned and operated the legendary club for the last 30 years, but recently sold it to B.B. King.

We next headed just a few blocks from Club Ebony to the corner of Church Street and Second that is the spot where B.B. King would play when he was as young as 17. This spot is highlighted by a Mississippi Blues trail marker (Club Ebony also) that commemorates and honors places and people of importance in Mississippi blues history. There will over 120 Blues trail markers when the project in complete. According to Steve Cheseborough, country blues musician and author of the must have "Blues Traveling-The Holy Sites of Delta Blues" guide book, B.B. King began playing church songs at this corner and folks would smile and were friendly, but when he played the blues, they gave money. It didn’t take the young Riley B. King long to figure out which side of the bread was buttered! We also stopped by a park named for Mr. King, and then drove down highway 82 toward Leland, Mississippi and the Highway 61 Blues Museum.

This part of the Delta is flat and filled with many cotton fields and catfish farms. As we entered the Leland city limits we were greeted by a sign that stated "Welcome to Leland Mississippi-Birth place of Kermit the Frog." Muppet creator Jim Henson was born and raised in this area. The visitor center houses a small Jim Henson Muppet museum. We dug on some Muppet history and found directions to the Highway 61 Blues Museum (Leland is at the junction of Highways 61 and 82). The museum highlights, with cool and funky exhibits, many of the great blues musician that are from the area such as Jimmy Reed, Willie Foster, Son Thomas, Charlie Patton, Eddie Cusic, Little Milton, Honey Boy Edwards, Eddie Taylor, and Tyrone Davis. Johnny and Edgar Winter were born in Leland, and though they moved to Texas with their parents, they would come back every summer and visit their grandparents. They are also featured at the museum. We spent about an hour checking out this heartfelt space and ran into three women from Washington, DC and Patrick Thomas, son of the legendary Son Thomas played some blues on his electric guitar. We had a very nice time.

We hit the streets and checked out the four music murals that dot the small downtown. My favorite was the Jimmy Reed mural. We hit the road and drove down Highway 82 to the Delta’s largest town, Greenville Mississippi, home to blues players T-Model Ford, Lil’ Dave Thompson, and piano wizard Eden Brent. We cruised around town, but saw nothing in particular. I guess we were letting the heat take a little wind out of our sails. The temperature had been between 80 and 88 degrees everyday and we were getting hungry. We had seen a billboard that was advertising a show by the great soul/blues singer Willie Clayton on Saturday October 11th at Harlow’s Casino. One thing I’ve learned is Mississippi casinos have great buffets. So we drove about 10 miles and had some of the best Delta cooking I’ve ever experienced. Ribs, fried chicken, two kinds of catfish, fried and baked ham, turnip greens, cooked carrots, mashed potatoes, gravy, red beans, rice, a huge salad bar with lots of fresh fruit, and a large selection of desserts that included peach cobbler, bananas foster and ice cream. Man, this was top shelve cuisine - damn good eats!! At $9.00 for all you could eat, we most definitely filled up.

With our hunger in check, we drove back to Indianola and our hotel to do a couple of loads of laundry. While we were waiting for our laundry to complete their cycles, we watched "Dream Girls" on HBO with Beyonce, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Jennifer Hudson. This was a fictional telling of the story of the Motown super group, The Supremes. Not a bad film. I really thought Eddie Murphy was a standout as an authentic, very fragile, R&B singer. Hey, with the late lunch we had, we didn’t need dinner. The next day we would drive to our new digs in Clarksdale, Mississippi and partake in the Arkansas Blues Festival in Helena and the Pinetop Perkins homecoming at the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale. I’ll be back soon to tell you all about it.

Note: I would like to give a nod to the book "Blues Traveling-The Holy Sites of Delta Blues" by Steve Cheseborough, whose fine writing and historic information was an invaluable resource for some of this content. Thanks, Steve.

Quotes of the Month

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music has a very cool phrase on their brochure that I really like, "Nothing against the Louvre, but you can’t dance to Davinci.”

Some of the lyrics to Son Thomas’ Beef Steak Blues are the finest of the genre:

“Give me beefsteak when I’m hungry,
Whiskey when I’m dry,
Pretty women when I’m living,
Heaven when I die...”

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.