SPREADIN’ THE BLUES
By Deborah Fagan Carpenter
Otha Turner’s Barn
Their Mississippi roots run deep, and their Mississippi musical roots run even deeper. They’re the North Mississippi Allstars, and with a style heavily influenced by those roots, but uniquely their own, they’re spreading the story of Mississippi hill music all over the world.
Their musical stimulus was established at birth. Sons of well-known musician and producer, Jim Dickinson, Luther and Cody Dickinson were dropped squarely into the middle of the Memphis and north Mississippi music worlds. Among his notable musical accomplishments, Jim Dickinson played piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” and played piano and pump organ on Bob Dylan’s 1998 Grammy winning “Time Out of Mind” album. As a producer, Dickinson’s reputation was legendary, producing memorable songs like The Replacements’, “Pleased to Meet Me.” Dickinson was also founder of the “notorious” Memphis band, Mud Boy and the Neutrons, and today Cody and Luther are among the surviving sons of that group, who now frequently appear as Sons of Mudboy, joining the only living member of the original group, Jimmy Crosthwait. (See: http://porchscene.com/2013/07/15/julys-featured-artist-the-world-of-jimmy/)From an early age the young musicians were afforded plenty of studio experience with their musician/producer father, learning the recording business while playing with well-established performers.
As teens the Dickinson brothers sat at the feet of blues masters R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough after the family made its move from Memphis to the north Mississippi hill country. Frequenting the local juke joints and learning from those third and fourth generation blues greats solidified their “electric blues” inspiration, but the earthy element that would become their hallmark likely came from their relationship with Otha Turner. The Dickinson family were regulars at the Center for Southern Folklore’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, (See: http://porchscene.com/2014/07/17/when-cultures-collide-by-deborah-fagan-carpenter/ ) where they got to know Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and soon Luther and Cody were regulars at Turner’s annual Labor Day goat barbeque picnic.
Luther Dickinson on guitar and Cody Dickinson on washboard
A promising association was formed between Luther, Cody and Memphis bassist, Paul “Snowflake” Taylor, and as DDT, they had a successful run, opening for established bands and eventually recording a DIY CD, Live at the World Famous Antenna Club. Simultaneously, the brothers were playing and touring with other groups, further expanding their horizons and honing in on what would become their well-known sound.
Cody and Luther became more and more engrossed in hill country blues, which was having a substantial impact on their musical style, and both were expanding artistically in numerous directions. When they debuted as the North Mississippi Allstars at Dixie Fried ‘96, they were an instant hit, but the trend toward the hill blues wasn’t the focus Taylor wanted to pursue, so he subsequently left the group. At that time, Cody and Luther brought on their high school friend, Chris Chew as bassist, and the North Mississippi Allstars began playing regularly on Beale Street, where they began to gain national notice. When dad Jim brought the group in to play on an album that he was producing for John Hiatt, Hiatt was impressed enough to take the North Mississippi Allstars on the road, where they were the opening act, as well as his back-up band. They have gone on to record an impressive number of albums of their own, including three that were nominated for Grammys: Shake Hands with Shorty, 51 Phantom and Electric Blue Watermelon. The group also won a Blues Music Award for “Best New Artist Debut” in 2001.
The Allstars have had many modifications in their line-up since the beginning, including the incorporation of a variety of visiting artists. Sharde’ Thomas, Otha Turner’s granddaughter often joins the group, playing fife, keyboards and percussion and signing vocals, and Lightnin’ Malcom is often on bass. But the foundation of the group remains Cody Dickinson on drums, washboard and guitar, and Luther Dickinson on guitar and vocals.
Collectively the group is smokin’, and individually, the brothers are on fire! Cody, founding drummer of the Allstars, has a 2013 Blues Music Awards nomination in the ‘Best Instrumentalist/Drums’ category. As a producer he has two albums which were nominated for ‘Best Contemporary Blues Album’ at the annual Blues Music Awards. He also has an impressive résumé of contributions to soundtracks for film, but he’s achieving a substantial reputation as a film maker as well. Footage he shot of the group’s performances over the years was incorporated as a significant feature in the video for the group’s World Boogie is Coming album. Take Me to the River, a Cody Dickinson produced award winning documentary, brings together Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians doing what they do best—creating music. Cody also co-produced the soundtrack for the Take Me to the River video, and is currently working on a Take me to the River production in New Orleans.
Luther Dickinson is on a never ending whirlwind of performing, writing and producing. Touring with the Black Crowes, he worked on their album, Warpaint, and he once again backed up John Hiatt, playing on Hiatt’s album Same Old Man. Shortly after the death of Jim Dickinson, Luther led a musical tribute to his father, which included family, friends and other musicians recording at the family’s Mississippi studio. The resulting album, Onward & Upward, was released under the group name Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy. In 2012 Luther released his first solo album, Hambone’s Meditations, a second album with the South Memphis String Band, Old Times There…, and Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here, featuring his new band the Wandering, which includes: Valerie June, Amy LaVere, Sharde’ Thomas, and Shannon McNally. All three albums were released on the same day. Just released in early February of 2016 was his album, Blues and Ballads – A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II.
The North Mississippi Allstar’s most recent collective album, World Boogie is Coming was recorded live in 2013 in the recording studio/barn at the Zebra Ranch, the Dickinson family’s north Mississippi home, and the band’s home base. The name of the album was derived from their father’s favorite sign-off— “world boogie is coming.” The album perhaps best exemplifies what the group is all about—bringing the southern roots music to the world through the collaboration of the brother’s genius. And where better to record it than in the heart of the place that gave them their beginning, the place they’re sharing with the world through their rock ‘n roll/blues music. When outsiders label the North Mississippi Allstars a ‘blues band,’ Luther remarks, “I think we’re just a rock ‘n roll band, but Mississippi rock ‘n roll IS the blues.”
The North Mississippi Allstarswill appear onApr 24, 2016 at 9:00 PM at The Joy Theater in New Orleans, LA, and will join the “Wheels of Soul Tour” supporting Tedeschi Trucks Band & Los Lobos, July 8 through Aug 5.
Albums by the North Mississippi Allstars:
- Shake Hands With Shorty (2000)
- 51 Phantom (2001)
- Polaris (2003)
- Hill Country Revue: Live at Bonnaroo (2004)
- Electric Blue Watermelon (2005)
- Hernando (2008)
- Do It Like We Used to Do (2009)
- Keys to the Kingdom (2011)
- World Boogie Is Coming (2013)
For more information:
All photos except the World Boogie album cover are by Deborah Fagan Carpenter
Banner at Graceland…Memphis, TN 2015
Here is the first of a probable series of short pieces offering you snippets of information and confidently presented checklists for those readers who have current collections of Elvis tunes and want to update the ‘50s section.
Elvis Presley, dead or alive, still has us dancing in the streets. In the 1950s, Elvis was very much alive and, some say he still is. It certainly seems like it in Memphis. When we are celebrating his birthday in January or mourning his alleged demise in steamy August, Memphis is very much an Elvis kind of town, with toe-tapping Elvis music blaring from doorways, loudspeakers and cell phones. At those times, there are thousands of Elvis worshippers and impersonators sharing themselves with us residents and with each other. It would be difficult to recognize Elvis if, indeed, he was strolling down the street with Colonel Parker doing good deeds and, like the rest of us, looking his age (which would be close to the same as mine).
Memphis Residents visiting Graceland, 2015
One time, not realizing how an Elvis Day could clog downtown Memphis, I found myself walking along Beale Street. ‘Lo and behold, right there wedged among the rest of us was a shirtless man with a much larger than life Elvis face tattooed right on his rather nice shaved chest. It is not likely that it was Elvis himself redundantly defacing his chest with his own face. I do not know this for sure because while I stood there suppressing a drool, he kept walking and, before I could do any closer research and perhaps get a quote from him or a shirtless interview to share – maybe with pictures – he was gone from me and I haven’t seen him since. However, while a shirtless Elvis impersonator story could be very interesting here, it is not happening just yet.
I’ll be taking you on a tour of Early Elvis, mostly in the 1950s and, for you dedicated Elvis fans, giving you a fairly good checklist of the tunes and albums that you have in your own collection, or that you may want to rush out and buy so you can pretend you had them all along.
“It’s Good to be The King” Art Opening at LRoss Gallery,www.LRossGallery.com Aug 7, 2015
To help you sound like a real Elvis fan, even if you are just getting started, I am going to give you lists of songs that you can mention when you find yourself among seasoned Elvis experts and it is your turn to talk. Believe me, if you ever come to Memphis, that is going to happen to you and you are going to thank me. So go ahead and print out this list and subsequent lists of songs and put them in your pocket. Then, when you are feeling Elvis-impaired at a Memphis gathering, you can excuse yourself and review the tune titles in the restroom.
Elvis Aaron Presley had a phenomenal rise to fame. In less than two years he went from truck driver to singing sensation. Not bad for a Memphis boy born in a two-room farm house outside the little northeast Mississippi town of Tupelo. He was born January 8, 1935 and transplanted to the low-rent district of north Memphis in 1948 when he was an adolescent.
Four dollars is what it cost to produce Elvis’ first record. It was a birthday present for his mother, Gladys. He paid for it out of the forty dollars a week paycheck he was getting for driving a truck – his first job out of high school. He paid Sun Records for two home recordings: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.”
Photograph of Mixed Media piece,”Blue Suede Shoes”by Megan Hurdle at L Ross Gallery, www.LRossGallery.com
Sam Phillips of Sun Records said that something about Elvis “stuck in the mind” of his office manager, Marian Keisker, and a year later she talked him into calling Elvis to come back and record something for them. That first attempt, a recording of a song called “Without Love” did not click with Phillips. It did not have the aboriginal sound of what Phillips referred to as the singer with the white face and black voice.
The first official Elvis song release was “That’s All Right, Mama.” It was a mildly shocking, stormy, creatively daring (for the time) sound. On the flip side was “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Both sides of the record became hits – an unusual accomplishment in the record business.
The second sensation was thrown to an eager, growing group of Elvis fans and record grabbers. It was “Good Rockin’ Tonight” with an old favorite with a new sound on the back: “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine.” What followed grew exponentially. Here is a start:
1953 (Elvis recordings for his mother)
“My Happiness” and “That’s when Your Heartaches Begin”
1954: (Elvis Sun Records releases)
“Without Love” (not released at the time)
“That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”
“Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine”
1955 (Elvis Sun Records releases)
“Milkcow Blues Boogie” and “You’re a Heartbreaker”
“I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” and “Baby, Let’s Play House”
“Mystery Train” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”
1955 (RCA Victor releases)
“Mystery Train” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”
“That’s All Right, Mama” and Blue Moon of Kentucky”
“Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine”
“Milkcow Blues Boogie” and “You’re a Heartbreaker”
“I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” and “Baby Let’s Play House”
Circa 1955 UNPUBLISHED
“Blue Suede Shoes” Elvis with Carl Perkins
1956-1960 (more coming soon in “It’s About Early Elvis, Part II)
Selling a piece of Elvis at Graceland, Aug 6, 2015
Elvis business picked up and fan clubs increased in 1955 when Sam Phillips at Sun Records sold Elvis to RCA Victor. The rest is history and some lists of tunes that we will throw out to you in “It’s About Early Elvis, Part II.” After the 1950s, Elvis Presley had an unprecedented musical and personal journey until his sudden death at the age of forty-two. Many of his ardent fans were not even born in 1977.
Just look at the thousands of people from nine to ninety years old, from all over the world, moving around town during Elvis Week in Memphis.
George Klein signing recently purchased guitar for Mr. Israel at Graceland, Aug 6, 2015
One Elvis fan and close friend, George “GK” Klein, showed up at Graceland signing a guitar for one of his own fans (see picture). GK was born in Memphis exactly nine months after Elvis was born in Tupelo. They met at Humes High School in Memphis and remained close friends from then until now. Thirty-eight years after Elvis’ death, Klein still celebrates his late good friend weekly on Elvis Radio, Sirius XM channel 19, and on WLFP FM. Talk about dedication.
That Elvis has still got it!
(These bits and pieces are offered to you with thanks to the late Paul McLeod, of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Paul was kind enough, back about 1980, to introduce me to his wife and his son Elvis and to give me a tour of his home. His home then was a shrine to the late Elvis Presley. There were piles of records, newspapers, books, magazines, artifacts. The furnishing and decorations in the house copied, as best as they could, the furnishings and decorations at Graceland, including Elvis’ bedroom which, at Graceland, is not always open to the public. Some of the information offered here came from Paul and his collection. Also, I offer thanks to a newspaper that no longer is in business: The Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Some bits are from an article in their November 11, 1957 edition.)
Elvis Week 2015, Memphis, TennesseeFriday, August 7 – Sunday, August 16
Mona Sides Smith is a regular contributor to Porchscene. With sardonic humor, she shares her tongue-in-cheek views on a variety of topics.
Photos: Deborah Fagan Carpenter, shot at Graceland on August 6, 2015, Gallery shots taken at L Ross Gallery, www.LRossGallery.com at her opening “It’s Good to be The King” on August 7, 2015, Show on view through August 29, 2015.
We have all experienced a sense of déjà vu triggered by some sensory stimuli. It could be the smell of burning leaves or the sound of a train moving through the night. Just for an instant, we are transported to some event in our past, as if we were actually there again. I experienced this as I descended into the basement of Mike Stern’s Atlanta home. By the time I had made the last step, I was back in the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Walls shelves and tables were covered in the merchandise of the sixties and seventies pop culture.
The decade of the sixties started with the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam, and ended with the election of Richard M. Nixon. To a great extent, these two events defined the decade and propelled the United States on a trajectory of change. By the end of the decade, the culture, social structure, and politics of our world had been turned up-side-down.
The popular culture of the country met with a sudden and lasting epiphany on February 9, 1964. The Beatles made their U.S. debut on the Ed Sullivan TV show, and American music was never the same. Elvis was still King to many of us, but the British invasion had started.
The British invasion had started!
Housed in Mike’s basement was a treasure trove of Beatle mania. Mike Stern is a leading authority on Beatle memorabilia. He has been a collector for over forty years, and is the author of two editions of leading reference books and price guides. He has amassed one of the largest private collections of Beatle related products and a number of signed Beatle documents. If a licensed Beatles’ product was manufactured, it is very likely in Mike’s basement.
There were overnight cases, ceramic dolls, holders for 45 RPM records and lunch boxes. As I explored the countless shelves devoted to the Beatles, I found every conceivable creation a teen might have bought in 1965. In addition to the Beatle artifacts, there was a strong representation of items licensed by Apple, the
Beatles’ record company, the most interesting of which was a fuzzy Apple radio with the signature worm. The extensive collection followed the Fab Four from the release of Rubber Soul in late 1965, through Sgt. Pepper in November of 1966, the White Album in 1968 and Yellow Submarine in 1969.
By the time Yellow Submarine was released, the Beatles were coming apart as a group. Their final united appearance took place in late 1969 on the roof top of Apple’s London office, and during that session the group signed four individual squares of paper as a gift for a friend. These four squares are in Mike’s collection and are thought to be the final autographs before the group split up.
Just as the Beatles were fading from prominence, another seminal event in American music took place on a dairy farm in rural New York State. The 1967 Summer of Love featured the folk and protest music building around the anti-war movement, then in 1969 Woodstock gave the genre its bully pulpit. Originally, the festival was scheduled for a site near Woodstock, NY, but local officials refused to agree. An alternate site near Wallkill, NY was arranged, and the promoters had posters printed announcing the event.
The festival poster was the first item in the Peace & Protest section of Mike’s basement. Mike explained that the poster was one of the most difficult pieces of Woodstock memorabilia to locate, for a couple of reasons. Even though thousands of copies were printed, only a few were ever posted. Once the city fathers of Wallkill realized the scope of the event, they bowed to public pressure and decided that the port-a-potties rented for the festival didn’t meet their code, and so refused to issue the needed permits.
In a last minute scramble, the organizers were able to secure a site on Max Yasgur’s farm near Bethel, NY. Bethel officials were assured that no more than 50,000 people would be in attendance, in spite of the promoter’s knowledge that 186,000 tickets had already been sold. The county government bought into the farce, and permits were issued. The promoters rushed to install the necessary fencing that would allow them to control admission and to erect the stage for the performers.
The fencing never happened. On the Wednesday prior to the Friday opening, tens of thousands of young people began gathering at the site. They soon overwhelmed the concept of charging admission, and Woodstock became a giant free festival. Ultimately over 400,000 people showed up. Included in the lineup of performers on the original poster however, were some entertainers who were no-shows.
Hundreds of items related to Woodstock share space in Mike’s collection, but along with the original poster, the most interesting one is an album of photographs taken by an unknown attendee. Random and completely un-posed shots by the anonymous photographer convey the excitement and total disorganization of Woodstock better than any of the professional accounts of the festival.
Along with the breakup of the Beatles and Woodstock, another pivotal event took place in 1969. Richard Millhouse Nixon was elected President to succeed Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson had bet his second elected term on a victory in Viet Nam, and by 1968 it was clear that there would be no such victory. In the face of a poor showing in the first primary, he announced that he would not be a candidate for re-election. Nixon defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey and third party candidate George Wallace in an electoral landslide.
The Nixon presidency oversaw the US withdrawal from the war in Southeast Asia, the beginning of a healing process domestically — following the antiwar unrest— and the opening of relations with China. Unfortunately, all of Nixon’s accomplishments would be overshadowed by the Watergate Scandal. The third major section of Mike’s collection chronicles the Nixon years, complete with hundreds of Watergate related items.
When viewed as a whole, Mike’s collection allows the visitor to experience the popular culture of the sixties and seventies. This is particularly poignant to those of us who were just getting started with adulthood at the time. We knew the performers and loved the music. We used the products and laughed at the jokes. We were truly a part of the era.
When the seventies came to an end the Beatles were all pursuing separate careers and would never perform as a group again. Woodstock was a memory, and no music festival ever came close to rivaling it. The Woodstock line up of performers read like the roster of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Richard Nixon became the first President in our history to resign from office, and Watergate still defines his legacy.
The world has moved on and nothing has brought it home like a conversation I recently witnessed. I was standing in the checkout line at Kroger, and there were two teenage girls ahead of me. I could not help but overhear their conversation. They were discussing the music on their I-Pods and one of them turned to the other and said,
“Did you know that Paul McCartney was in another group before Wings?”
Talk about the end of an era!
Mike Stern is a financial broker in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Give him a call if you have interesting stuff to sell.
Poster image courtesy Mike Stern
All other images from Creative Commons
Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of William “Bill” Morris’ article, “Rufus McKay: The Singer, The Person, My Friend”. Please continue reading after this article for a first-hand account of Mr. McKay’s funeral written by Bill Harvey.At Home in Mississippi As with most singers, Rufus seemed to do better when he was performing for a live audience than when he was recording in a studio. The Millsaps Arts and Lecture series wanted to present Rufus McKay in a live performance on February 10, 2005 at the Ford Academic Complex Recital Hall and they asked me to introduce him. This was good opportunity to record him one last time. We obtained a live recording of Rufus, accompanied by the Ben Shaw Band, singing many of his favorite songs as well as getting a wonderful rendition of “Danny Boy”. The next morning a doctor who had been in the audience called me and said that he wanted to write Rufus a check for $1,000 and asked my assistance with delivering it to him. Rufus was elated. Rufus had diabetes but it appeared that he also had something else going on medically. He told me that he was going to the VA hospital to get checked out. I was very concerned and wondered if it was something serious. I wrote an e-mail to many friends, including my dear friend Robert Johnson who has a music blog with hundreds of followers. His frequent messages are always accompanied by a song recording from the 50s or 60s. Upon receiving my e-mail, Robert forwarded it to his readers. My message essentially said that I thought that Rufus was perhaps approaching a dire health situation and I encouraged anyone who wanted to send a check or note of appreciation to Rufus to send them to me and I would see that he received them. I thought that we might raise a few hundred dollars, but by the time we were through we raised over $6,000 as well as over 50 letters and cards. On a cold, rainy day my daughter Kathryn and I drove to Vicksburg to give Rufus a large envelope containing the many cards, letters and various monetary gifts people had so generously given. Fortunately, Rufus had been checked out and given a bit of a medical reprieve. After receiving all of this love and affirmation Rufus called me with tears in his eyes and his voice cracking as he said “Bill, I just didn’t know how much everybody cared about me. I had no idea. ” I replied “I’ve been trying to tell you Rufus.” Our friendship grew deeper. He would start missing me and would call me at home or at my office just to talk. When he would reach my office and I was not available my compassionate and caring assistant Sarah Morgan would take the time and interest to talk with him. It was important that he had someone to call, and he knew that he would always get a warm response from our office. Rufus was very close to his sister Elizabeth with whom he was living at that time. She was several years older than Rufus and her health was failing. About three years ago she left this earthly existence. Rufus was now alone with the exception of his daughter Carol who greatly loved him. It was at that time that I got to know Carol as she recognized the friendship that Rufus and I maintained. From time to time she would call me to let me know of his situation which was getting worse, emotionally and physically. In August 2013, my dear friend and fellow principal at our firm, Chris Walters and I went to Vicksburg and spent three hours with Rufus doing a video recording/documentary of his life. He led us through his memorabilia albums starting with the formation of the Red Tops and going through his worldly travels with Morgan Stanley’s Ink Spots. He was pretty alert that day and could recall quite clearly many of the experiences he had had over the years. It was the last time that I found him to have that level of mental clarity. We were all pretty exhausted when we finished. But one humorous thing he told us related to the following: I asked Rufus if the band had ever experienced any racial problems. It was during the time the Red Tops were so popular that Mississippi was becoming unsettled as far as race relations were concerned. He said “No, Bill, the only thing I remember is that one time there were two carloads of us going up to perform at a dance in Greenwood and we were pulled over by the highway patrol.” He said he wasn’t sure why they were pulled over, but when the highway patrol understood that they were the Red Tops and were late to the dance, the officer said “Come on, follow me!” The patrolman turned on his siren and the flashing lights and led them all the way into Greenwood getting them to their venue on time. They were held in high esteem by the people of this state. The Red Tops all appeared to be gentle in spirit; their countenances shone with the confidence that they were doing something very special and unique, blessing people at each performance. The magnitude of their music in our lives birthed an indelible and permanent place in our hearts. Recently on a Friday night at the Mayflower Café in downtown Jackson, Dr. Noel Toler came up to me and said “Thank you for what you did with Rufus McKay, I read about it in the paper. I have a story I’ll tell you about sometime.” I said “No, tell me about it now.” He said “I remember when I went to a Red Tops dance at the Country Club of Jackson on Clinton Boulevard, there was a girl named Grace who was dancing with another guy (at that time we could tap the guy on the shoulder to ‘cut in’ and start dancing with the girl) and I broke in, and Rufus began singing “Danny Boy”. That was the beginning of the marriage between Noel and Grace Toler.” That story could probably be told many times over by hundreds of other like experiences of romance involving Rufus McKay and the Red Tops. In the waning days of his life, in 2014, Carol would call me and let me know how he was doing. He was now in a nursing home for no one could adequately care for him at his home. I knew something was going awry when a few months before we received a desperate call at the office. I could hear my assistant Sarah saying “Oh, no, oh no, let me go tell Bill right now.” A couple of months prior to this we had bought Rufus a television and subscribed to cable for him. Watching TV was really all he could do; his eyesight was not good so reading was not an easy option. Rufus was supposed to send me the cable bills as they came in but he did not do so and they stacked up at his table at home. Before long, as he was watching one of his favorite programs, the cable people showed up at his home with orders to disconnect his service. Alarmed, he called us. We were able to call the company and reconcile the situation. Now that he was in a nursing home his mind became more and more inadequate. When we would talk he would fade into the distance. The last call that I received from him was on Father’s Day, June 15, 2014. I was taking an afternoon nap when my wife Camille woke me and said that Carol, Rufus’ daughter was on the line. I feared that she was calling with bad news. To my relief she said “Mr. Morris, I have Dad here and he wants you to sing that song to him.” So with a groggy voice I belted out “Hello, is That You? Baby This is You Know Who!” He chuckled a bit but didn’t respond as I tried to engage him in conversation. It was apparent to me that his time was very near. I knew that from this point forward all I would have would be the memories of a very dear friendship. On Monday, July 21, 2014 Carol called and said “Daddy’s gone”. As we talked she told me that he died peacefully in the early morning hours. We prayed and gave thanks to God that he was no longer limited to this earthly body. He joined countless singers that I loved, whom I will someday join in the heavenly choir. It was an honor to be his friend and to be asked to sit with his family at the funeral in Vicksburg the following Saturday. I shared a few words hoping to bless the ears and hearts of those attending. And, as I promised him I would do at his funeral, I sang “Hello, Is That You? This is Baby You Know Who.”
The Legend Begins
Rufus McKay was first ushered into my life around 1954, when I was entering the seventh grade at Bailey Junior High in Jackson, Mississippi. My classmates and I were learning to dance the Foxtrot, the Waltz, and the Bop at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio on North State Street. An invitation arrived in the mail addressed to me enclosed with a card naming the young lady I was to escort to the dance. The night of the dance, I wore a white sport coat and a red boutonniere and my mother drove me to pick up my date. The girls seemed to take to dance more easily than the boys but somehow we all made it through these awkward moments.
I vividly recall going to the King Edward Hotel’s second floor ballroom and seeing Rufus McKay. There he was on center stage singing with his mellow tenor voice accompanied by ten or eleven black musicians adorned with red coats and black formal pants with satin stripes down the sides. The played songs of those days – “I’m in the Mood for Love”, “Stardust” and some of the more up-tempo songs like “Brazil”. The girls wore semi-formal dresses with multiple starched petticoats and beautiful corsages. Many memories were formed as I entered this transition of life.
My junior and senior high school years were filled with magnificent Red Tops dances. It was then that I most fondly recall the stellar performances not only of the orchestra but especially the magic moment when Rufus McKay would sing his signature song – “Danny Boy”. Most couples would stop dancing and the guy would embrace his girl, wrap his arms around her, and together they would stand in awe and eager expectation. The mellow notes flowed from Rufus’ mouth as he sang “And come ye back when summer’s in the meadow, or when the valley is hushed and white with snow, ‘tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow, oh Danny Boy oh Danny Boy I love you so”. He moved smoothly through the lyrics and ascended to the crescendo in three falsetto steps. If tears had not already filled our eyes, it would happen then. To my knowledge, no one has ever performed a more beautiful rendition of this immortal song than the beloved Rufus McKay.
After high school I entered college at Ole Miss, and my classmates likewise entered fine universities throughout the south and the nation. Occasionally we would have the opportunity to hear this exceptional orchestra and Rufus again, but somewhere the genre of music began to change. With the invasion of the British and rock sounds this great music began to be replaced by new songs which could not equal the quality of the lyrics or the beauty of sound of the music we had experienced just a few years before.
In the late 1960s Rufus just disappeared from our lives. We didn’t know where he had gone. We just knew that he was no longer part of our experiences, and lived only in our memories. I recall asking friends in the 70s and 80s if they knew where Rufus was living. Some told me that they thought he was singing with the Ink Spots in Las Vegas. Then someone else would say that they heard him overseas in some faraway place like Jakarta Indonesia. My heart yearned to hear him again.
On November 7, 1998 there was a celebration held in Vicksburg at the Southern Cultural Heritage Complex’s Auditorium honoring several of the surviving members of the original Red Tops orchestra including Louis Spencer, Jr. saxophone player, Willard Tyler trumpet player, Walter Osborne, the band manager and drummer and Jesse Hayes guitar player and most of all, our hero, Rufus. It was a grand evening that I was blessed to experience. It was an exhilarating moment when he came out to sing. He was wearing a white suit and his voice was still magnificent as he regaled us with his songs, especially when he sang “Danny Boy”. Just like more than forty years before, people stopped out of reverence for this man and his music. The men wrapped their arms around their dates and listened as he took us back to those precious days.
The Friendship Begins
We were nearing the millennial year and Rufus was living in Carson City, Nevada. My 40th Murrah High School class reunion was approaching and I explored the idea of getting Rufus back to Jackson to perform. Most of the original Red Tops had gone to their heavenly destination so I enlisted Ben Shaw and his band from Vicksburg to provide the music while Rufus did the vocals. It occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to do a studio recording of Rufus singing “Danny Boy” since a professional recording of his signature song did not exist. After assembling a group of professional musicians to lay down the tracks we utilized an arrangement that we thought was Rufus singing “Danny Boy”. After listening to the rendition, Rufus said that this recording was not made by him or the Red Tops. He was not sure who had sung that version of “Danny Boy”. It was slower than his normal rendition, and as we began to record the song at Malaco Studios I knew something was not right. It did not showcase the best of what he had to offer. He could hit the high notes with ease, but he could not achieve the lower notes with the smoothness and beauty that was typical of his performance of the song. We did our utmost to get it in the best shape possible but it was not done totally to our satisfaction.
About this time I began encouraging Rufus to consider moving back to Mississippi. He had been away for many years but it was apparent to me that he had very few strong connections in Nevada. I began to tell him how much people in Mississippi loved him and yearned to see him again. He had no idea how much people cared for him. His sister Elizabeth Harper lived in Vicksburg as did his daughter Carol Williams. Ultimately he decided to come home. I don’t know if it was due to my encouragement or his instinctive understanding that it was time or both.
On a stormy, snowy night he left Nevada with all of his possessions. It took him seven days to reach Mississippi. He almost died along the way due to complications with his diabetes and the cold, wintery weather. When he finally reached Vicksburg he went directly to the hospital and was there for nearly a week. I knew that he had left Carson City and was on his way to Vicksburg so I called Elizabeth to check on his travels. It may have been Christmas Eve when I called her. She told me he was in the hospital, and I asked if I could call him. She gave me the number and I called. When I heard his weakened voice I sang to him as I had so many times before – “Hello, Is That You? Well Baby This is You Know Who”. This is a song that he and the Red Tops recorded on the flip side of Swanee River Rock which became a national hit. These songs were recorded through Sky Records in Greenville, Mississippi. He chuckled and said how happy he was to hear from me and that he was home. Rufus recovered and we stayed in close touch in the following years with me always greeting him with “Hello, Is That You?”
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Bill Morris’ upcoming memoir about his time spent with some of Mississippi’s best musicians. This article will continue Thursday with Part II.
MAY 6, 2014
I am a dropout from the senior citizens piano lessons class. I didn’t exactly drop out. I was dropped out. Not for my inability to learn how to play the piano, but for my ability to play piano, rather poorly I might say, in a style not compatible with what the class was going to be taught.
Being set adrift, I set out to follow leads on how and where I could find someone willing to build on the significantly limited keyboard abilities of an eighty-year-old woman.
It may not surprise you that there were no takers. Even my piano tuner, who can play piano-bar and blues style, was not willing to show me how he does it. Muttered something about not teaching anymore, too much tuning business. Yeah. Sure. The group piano teacher who ousted me from the learners group tried to convince a local music store teacher to take me on. Nothing. He wouldn’t return my phone calls. She probably told him that I was eighty years old and could play chords loudly while singing “Trouble in Mind I’m Blue.”
I stopped by the piano class one day, asked the ladies how they were doing. Fine, they said. I asked if they had a name for their group when they took their show on the road. No, they said. I suggested “The Tinkling Grannies.” They did not consider it as hilarious as I had hoped. So I bade them farewell and moved on.
Not one to give up easily, I pressed on.
Improving my piano skills (I use the term “skills” loosely) was my New Year’s resolution. Each year I make a resolution to learn something new or to improve on something I already can do. Through the years, I have had varying levels of success with my resolutions, ranging from significantly improving my knowledge of plants, to significantly failing at Tai Chi. I will say in my behalf that I bought the book and struck a couple of poses now and then before the year rushed to an end. But I digress.
My daughter Elaine, after listening to my whining about music lessons, reminded me about a system called Play Piano Today that might be just what I was looking for. Yes, I exclaimed! I saw that guy on public television one time.
I immediately sat down at my laptop, Googled Play Piano Today and voila! There it was. I put sixty dollars on my Visa card, figuring that would be just about the refund I would get on the month of piano lessons for old people that I had paid for before being dropped out.
I could hardly wait, and meanwhile, I was given a password by the kind folks at Play Piano Today so I could begin lessons on line before the DVDs and graphically illustrated book arrived. I began at once, with my laptop on a stool beside the piano, pounding away at chords and singing along at the top of my lungs, as was suggested by the invisible man attached to the hands on the keyboard in the video.
After two days, the video refused to play and my illustrated training aids were not scheduled to arrive for another three days, so I went to the website and sent a message to Play Piano Today telling them that my free interim lessons had disappeared. Surprise. Surprise. I got an answer the next day asking if I had tried the password again.
I answered as follows:
“Thank you for your reply. Yes. I got the password information you gave me, logged on, and worked with it for a couple of days – up to the point where my show stopper was ‘Home on the Range.’ Then the video stopped working. I was promised at least a week of lessons while anxiously awaiting my DVDs. But my free lessons could not be accessed. I re-connected, entered the password, said a couple of words that I would rather not repeat and tried everything again a few times, expecting different results. Then, I gave up. My email from the U.S. Postal Service said that the package had been shipped by Priority Mail, so I spent the weekend talking with my CPA, cooking for visitors, etc., hoping that my piano lessons would arrive on Monday. They DID!!! I am now happy and ready to continue.
“By the way, [I continued] FYI, each New Year, I make a resolution to learn something new. This year, I turned eighty years old and my plan is to resume piano lessons that I stopped when hurricane Camille hit my home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and my piano floated away. I can read music, spell chords and make some noise on the replacement piano I have had for forty years or so here in Memphis. This year I hope to improve my skills.
“Thank you for what looks like a great technique. This evening I will be moving along to “Greensleeves” and beyond using the DVDs and the illustrated booklet. [signed] Mona Sides-Smith.
Meanwhile, back at the piano. My life is complete. Already, with the year not half gone, I have progressed farther with my piano lessons than I did during my whole year of Tai Chi.
In 1964 The Surgeon General of The United States issued a report stating that smoking is bad for you. James “Hoppy” Bennett took that as an opportunity to write a the song “Smoking is Bad for You”. Hoppy Bennett and The Esquires went to Bob McRee’s recording studio on Ellis Avenue , Jackson, MS and recorded the song as a 45 rpm. The flip side of the record was entitled “Nicotine Fit”.
It was an instant hit locally and they appeared on the WJTV morning news program lip-syncing the song. The song was videotaped and sent to Mike Wallace at CBS Morning News in New York and shown on national television.
Life magazine called and wanted a group picture of the band for a feature article. Photographer Jimmy Lucas met the band at local radio station WRBC one Sunday Night and took the picture. They were scheduled to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show;, The Beatles arrived in the U. S. and the segment was dropped. Life magazine dropped their article in favor of one on The Beatles. The band drifted apart after that.
Members of the band: included James “Hoppy” Bennett, Keyboard; Lane Dinkins, Drums; Bennett Jennings, Bass; Odie Kelly, Guitar; Jay Stricker, Saxophone; and Arnold Richardson, Trumpet. Hoppy sang lead and Bennett Jennings sang the low part (“The doctors all say it puts the hurt on you”).
I want to thank James “Hoppy” Bennett, Lane Dinkins and Jay Stricker for verifying the accuracy of these details.
Each year, thousands of people make the pilgrimage down Highway 280 to Auburn, Alabama for school and sport. Though it’s known for its dining and shopping in the Birmingham area, once you pass Childersburg there’s not much to catch the eye on that long stretch of road – even the Auburn turnoff is easily overlooked if you aren’t paying close attention, its only landmark a tiny gas station.
A few miles north of Auburn stands a sign that simply reads Waverly, with an arrow directing you down a narrow two-lane road that almost immediately disappears into the woods. Having lived my whole life in Alabama, I’m familiar with those small towns that rest far from main thoroughfares. I assumed the small – no, tiny – town of Waverly, home to only about 150 residents, was just one of the many quiet, sleepy places I passed on my drives from Auburn to Birmingham and back. For most days out of the year I’m sure that’s true but, every third Saturday in April, people flock from far and wide to Waverly’s Old 280 Boogie music festival.
Back in 2000, the Alabama Department of Transportation decided to widen Highway 280, but doing so through the center of Waverly would have destroyed the town. Ultimately, the road was diverted to the south and Waverly was spared. 2001 marked the first Old 280 Boogie, an outdoor concert celebrating the highway’s diversion. The event has evolved from a small community event into a national drawing that supports approximately 1500 attendees, including musicians, music lovers, artists, and entrepreneurs, to enjoy and be inspired by this historic town.
The crowd gathers for the Boogie in an open lawn ringed by historic buildings and large shade trees, lounging in lawn chairs or sprawled on towels and blankets as bands perform on a custom stage erected between the buildings that features a historic billboard from the Heart of Dixie motel, once a landmark on Highway 280, now repurposed as a new kind of landmark. During breaks in the music, people are invited to venture into the cemetery across the road and read the gravestones belonging to people born in the 18th century, or they can purchase food or crafts from local businesses that operate in historic buildings or commercial districts that help Waverly maintain their economy.
The 14th annual Old 280 Boogie takes place on April 19, 2014; the gates open at 11 AM and the music starts at noon with performances by Junior Brown; Lydia Loveless; Pine Hill Haints; Rayland Baxter; Have Gun, Will Travel; and Shivering Timbers.
Purchase tickets at the gate for $25 dollars, or online for $20. Kids under 14 get in free! For more information, or to purchase tickets, check out https://standarddeluxe.ticketbud.com/waverlyboogie
From the back cover of the album “Mississippi Fred McDowell…I do not play no rock’n’roll” Fred introduces himself and his music with these words: ” My name is Fred McDowell. They call me Mississippi Fred McDowell. But my home’s in Rossville, Tennessee. But it don’t make any different. It sound good to me, and I seem like I’m home there when I’m in Mississippi….and I do not play no rock and roll, y’all. I just play straight ‘n’ natchel blue.”
Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson and Tommy Couch of MALACO Records were reminded of Fred when they recorded another blues singer. When they were students at Ole Miss in the 1960’s, they would call the Stuckey’s in Como, Mississippi and ask to speak to Fred who worked there as a custodian. They invited him to come to Ole Miss to play at their Sunday afternoon “teas” at their fraternity house. They thought since the sororities could have teas they should be able to do the same and they were successful.
Fred’s first experience in a recording studio was in the late 1960’s when Stephenson and Couch called the Stuckey’s and asked Fred to come to Jackson and make a record. Prior to that, Fred had only been recorded by guys who traveled around recording blues singers on their front porches and subsequently releasing their songs on 45 RPM records. Stephenson and Couch leased the album “Mississippi Fred McDowell…I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll” to Capital Records and it was nominated for a Grammy in 1969.
Editor’s Note: Johnny Sumrall writes about Mississippi’s Rock-n-Roll history.
I first learned about Fuzzy Buffer when interviewing Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson for my book, Classic Magnolia Rock. Wolf was one of the owners of the then MALACO recording studio located on Northside Drive in Jackson, Mississippi. Wolf and his partner Tommy Couch began recording artists for other recording labels.
It so happened that Will Hegman and Jimmy Wright from Greenville came to Wolf’s nightspot The Zodiac Club located in Mart 51 on Terry Road in Jackson to perform. Will had a dream of being a record producer and songwriter. Jimmy Wright could sing and write songs. They formed a partnership and thus “Fuzzy Buffer” was born.
Their first record which was recorded at MALACO included the following songs: “Hard Times” and “Lovin’ Eyes”. They released it on a 45rpm record on the Reject label in 1975; an album followed that same year.
The album was entitled “Copesetic,” which means completely satisfactory. It was recorded in two sleepless days and nights. One of the songs on the album “Midnight in the Delta” was about the town of Midnight which is located in the Mississippi Delta. This album featured James K. Wright on guitar and vocals, Vernie Robbins on bass, James Stroud on drums, Carson Whitsett on keyboard, Mickey Davis on fiddle, and Billy Dear on steel. There were minimal sales of the album. Will’s dream of being a successful songwriter and producer and Jimmy’s dream of being a successful songwriter ended with this album. In my humble opinion, it is a great album and it should have been a big hit for them.
MALACO recorded all genres of music and this particular record and album were considered “Country” at the time of their release.
I was struck by her beauty from the first moment I saw her; my attraction instant and electric. Her magnificent contours, splendid curves, smooth texture all conspired to seduce me and at that point I knew upon my first caress that she would become my mistress.
A gift from my wife for my 28th birthday, as soon as I unwrapped her, struck her steely strings and heard her sing I was hopelessly lost in her charms. Her voice so rich and beautiful; musical phrases magnificent in their eloquent simplicity. I have since seized every possible moment to escape to her peaceful sweet solitude. She has power like no other to channel my spirit and carry me away to a beautiful enchanted musical realm. These wonderful life interludes between my guitar and me now number in the thousands and the songs they have conceived are, to me, like our mystical conversations.
An evening on a beach front balcony, the gentle whisper of the ocean surf and a good cabernet were the perfect catalysts to inspire one such conversation some years ago. Out of infatuation with the creative result of this particular musical tryst, I later recorded the conversation in a friend’s home studio. At the risk of betraying the purity of my guitar mistresses’ message, I embellished the recording with other instruments. My hope was to enhance the listening experience for any stranger in the future who may take a moment and listen. I entitled the song “Perdido”, named after the marvelous place in which it was born.
The conversations continue between my mistress and me. It is my goal for the future to record as many of them as I possibly can, but should I fail; I at the very least swear to her that as long as I am able to embrace her she will never stop singing.
Although Mississippi is noted for Blues music, there are many firsts in Rock and Roll music from the Magnolia State.
The first rock and roll record to be released world-wide was a song by the original Rolling Stones from Mississippi. The group was formed at Mississippi State College (later named Mississippi State University) in the mid-1950’s and consisted of Andy Anderson, William “Cuz” Covington, Joe Tubb, Bobby Lyon and Roy Estes. In the summer of 1957 the Rolling Stones entered the Mid-South Talent Contest in Memphis, TN. The prize was a recording contract with London Records who wanted to branch out into rock and roll music after being well known for their classical recordings. The Rolling Stones won the contest and went to Bradley Recording Studio in Nashville to record “Johnny Valentine.” When they arrived, the band members were told they couldn’t be on the record because they weren’t members of the musicians’ union; instead, studio musicians were used to back Andy Anderson, lead singer. Other people on the record in were Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland, lead guitar; Bobby Moore, bass; Buddy Holland, drums; and back-up singers, The Jordanaires. The record was released world-wide on the Felsted label and was a big hit. The band members were upset that they did not get to play on the record and severed all ties with London Records. They did not copyright the name “Rolling Stones” – London Records kept the name, discovered Mick Jagger, and the rest is history.
Another Mississippi first was by a group comprised of siblings, Cliff, Ed and Barbara Thomas. While returning to Jackson, MS from college classes at Notre Dame, a song came to Ed. When he got home Ed and Cliff “worked it up” – developed the words and wrote the music. They went to Sun Studios in Memphis and played it for Sam Phillips who liked it and put it out on the Phillips International Label. The name of the song was “I’m On My Way Home.” This record was a hit and they became the first Mississippians to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. At the time, ABC television did not have an affiliate station in Jackson, MS. Their parents were able to see the TV show by taking a television set to the telephone building’s basement and getting a direct feed from New York.
Cliff Thomas’ release “Sorry I Lied” was the first time a B-3 organ was used on a rock and roll record. This song featured Ed Thomas as the organist. Up until this record, pianos were the only keyboard instrument used.
One of the first known echo chambers used in a recording studio, was by Bob McRee, also of Jackson, MS. He converted his family garage into a recording studio in 1958. Garages in this period had dirt floors and Bob dug a pit to make the echo chamber and nailed egg cartons to the walls to improve the acoustics. Flashlights were used for lighting. The first group to use this “echo chamber” was the “Midnighters,” an opening act for the “Red Tops”, a popular group from Vicksburg, MS. The “Midnighters” were discovered by Tim Whitsett. There was another group known as “Hank Ballard and The Midnighters” so Tim changed the “Midnighters” name to “The Vels.” During the recording of their first song, “Please Be Mine”, the lead singer was afraid to go into the echo chamber because it was so dark. Bob gave him a flashlight and the recording session began. Today this record is a collector’s item.
Bob McRee was also the first person to use a synthesizer or sound creator on a record. He did this by recording the actual cutting of a piece of wood with a saw which you can hear it at the beginning of the Buddy Rogers’ song “Waiting For The Sun To Go Down” right before Buddy sings the lyric, “I saw the log.”
In 1967 Tim Whitsett and The Imperial Show Band of Jackson, MS became one of the first integrated bands to tour the country. Tommy Tate, an African-American from Pickens, MS, was the lead singer. While on tour, their engagement in Reno, Nevada was cancelled because of the group’s mixed race make-up; however, they were allowed to play in Las Vegas and the remainder of the tour. The irony is the group was widely accepted in segregated Mississippi.
Editor’s note: This is the second of Johnny Sumrall’s two-part series on early Rock and Roll bands in Mississippi. His comprehensive book,Classic Magnolia Rock—History of Original Mississippi Rock and Roll 1952-1970, is available in our on-line store.
Among the huge crowds drawn by Andy Anderson and The Rolling Stones in Jackson at the American Legion Hut, Jackson Country Club and The National Guard Armory were Tim Whitsett, Cliff Thomas and a host of other future rock stars standing in awe of their role models. Their performances in those heady days inspired Tim Whitsett, at the tender age of 16, to launch his career in 1957.
He had written a couple of songs and was dying to make a record. His problem was that he didn’t have a band. He heard about a recording studio on the coast and gave them a call. He talked with Prof. Marion Carpenter of Singing River Studios who had told him that for $100 he could rent the studio and make a master tape. That was a lot of money for a 16-year-old in 1957, but undaunted, Tim earned the money selling Christmas cards and put his first band together—The Imperial Show Band composed of Lane Cameron, lead guitar, Buddy Meyers, drums, Lee Graham, bass, Chuck Stapleton, piano and Tim, trumpet.
They talked Lane’s mother into driving them the 200 miles to the coast to make the tape. Out of this recording session came “Jive Harp” and “Pipe Dreams”. The next step was to find someone to put up the money to have the record pressed. Luckily, Tim heard that a local jeweler, George Trebotich, might be interested in getting into the record business. George agreed to have the record pressed using the Trebco label and it became an instant hit on the local scene. The record was also released on the Imperial label, which recorded greats like Rick Nelson and Fats Domino.
Tim went on to record many more songs and to write and produce songs for other local artists. On one song, “Lovers’ Holiday”, recorded by Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson and which sold a million copies. Tim played the trumpet and hit a wrong note at the end of the song. He begged the producer, Bob McRee, to redo the song, but Bob told him not to worry, that nobody would notice it. But every time Tim hears the song, he hears the wrong note.
Tim’s most amusing recollection of his career in rock and roll was his effort to get his songs played on a certain radio station here in Jackson, MS. He kept taking his new releases to the Program Director of the radio station, who, in turn, kept telling Tim that he liked the song and would play it. Tim kept listening, but he never heard any of his songs played. After several times of this, Tim finally asked the man why he wasn’t playing his songs, the man told him, “You have to be nice to me”. Tim thought to himself, “I thought I was being nice. I’m polite and well mannered”. But then the light came on in his head—payola! But he didn’t have the $50 or $75 the record promoters were paying to get their songs on the air. So he thought of the next best thing. He went across the river to the bootlegger (The State of Mississippi was dry during this period—no liquor sold) purchased a fifth of Ezra Brooks and took it to the Program Director. His current release, then “Mashville”, ironically became the opening and closing song for each show with numerous dedications in between to Ezra Brooks.
The next names to take their place in Mississippi’s rock and roll history were Cliff Thomas, his brother Ed and his sister Barbara, who emerged on the Jackson music scene in 1958. On one of his trips home from college, Ed got an idea for a song. Cliff and Barbara liked it and they decided to take it to Memphis. At the Sun Recording Studios, they met Sam Phillips, who liked the song and released it on his Phillips International label. With Ed on piano, Cliff on guitar and Barbara as back-up singer, “I’m On My Way Home” became an instant hit and landed the group on American Bandstand. This group became the first Mississippians to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Later Cliff and Ed along with Bob McRee, a local record producer, formed The Grits and Gravy Recording Studio in Clinton, MS. They bought the old Hill Top Movie Theater and converted it into a recording studio with the help of Huey Meaux, a record producer from New Orleans. There they wrote and recorded many artists from across the country. The first big hit to come out of this studio was the million seller “Lovers’ Holiday” by Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson. Peggy and Jo Jo went on to record a song written by Cliff, Ed and Bob, “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries”, which earned them a Grammy nomination.
Doing the research for my book Classic Magnolia Rock-History of Original Mississippi Rock and Roll 1953-1970 brought back a lot of memories. Other popular groups and singers of the day included: Buddy Rogers, Murray Kellum, Bubba Jordan and Mary Ann Mobley just to name a few. You can find out more in my book “Classic Magnolia Rock-History of Original Mississippi Rock and Roll 1953-1970”.
Editor's Note: This is the first of two posts on Mississippi's rock history by Mr. Sumrall. This post takes you back to the heady days of the most successful local band of the time, Andy Anderson and the Rolling Stones.
When you think of the history of rock and roll in Mississippi, the first thing that comes to your mind is, naturally, Elvis, The King of Rock and Roll. While Elvis left the state to make his claim to fame, a number of Mississippians stayed home to make it big here, playing what the fans wanted to hear.
One such group was The Rolling Stones—not Mick Jagger and company---but a group who thrilled the South in the 1950’s. It all began at Mississippi State College (later Mississippi State University) in 1953 where three freshmen—Andy Anderson, William “Cuz” Covington and Joe Tubb—got together for jam session in their dorm. The sessions prompted more than one reprimand from the Dean of Students, but history was not to be denied. Bobby Lyon, James Aldridge and Roy Estes joined Andy, Cuz and Joe to form a group that began playing around the campus and then moved to other college campuses and neighboring towns. As Joe Tubb is quick to point out, the band was “gathering no moss”, just experience and fans—thus the name, The Rolling Stones.
After winning the Mid-South Talent Contest in Memphis in 1957, the Rolling Stones signed a recording contract with Felsted Records, the rock and roll subsidiary of London Records, and soon pressed their record, “Johnny Valentine” and “I-I-I Love You”.
But that record didn’t come easy. When the band arrived at the Bradley Studios in Nashville, they were told that studio musicians would have to be used because the band members did not belong to the musicians’ union. Andy could sing, but wasn’t allowed to play rhythm guitar.
The record holds a unique place in musical history—it was the first rock and roll record to be distributed world-wide. And Mississippians did not fail to take notice. The release of “Johnny Valentine” in Jackson marked the first time a rock and roll band had been honored with a parade down Capital Street. An autograph party followed at Wright Music Company and the day ended with a performance at The Rock House in North Jackson.
This launched the band to regular performances in Jackson. They were in heavy demand at the American Legion Hut on Woodrow Wilson, Jackson Country Club on Clinton Boulevard, and The National Guard Armory on Northwest Street. The fans were wild about the band and when Andy would drop a guitar pick a mob would scramble to get it, most of the time breaking it.
Certain of those fans went on to become Rock and Roll Stars in their own right and will be the subject of my next post. - Johnny Sumrall
“the culture behind the music…”
Look closely. At first glance, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue in Clarksdale, Mississippi appears to be a store where one can purchase Blues CDs, books about the Blues, and Blues related folk art. Indeed one can pick up all of those items, along with a fountain of information about the Blues, delivered by the store’s owner, Roger Stolle. But the foundation of the operation, and what Stolle is truly hawking, is the “culture behind the music.”
Admittedly, he “didn’t know one Delta town from the other.” Roger Stolle was a successful advertising executive, traveling the world and living the good life, when an obsession with the Blues took him on a trip to Mississippi in 1995 to hear the musical form performed where it was born. He landed at Junior’s Place in Holly Springs, an authentic “Juke Joint,” and there he had an evening listening to live Blues that literally changed his life. Subsequent trips to Mississippi were the result of that life changing night, and in 2002 Roger moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi and directed his promotional skills toward telling the story of “what makes the Blues the Blues.”
“what makes the Blues the Blues…”
Downtown Clarksdale, like many small towns, was dying on the vine. Stolle’s relocation to the small Delta town, and the energy surrounding the Blues that he brought with him, helped to inject badly needed vitality into the struggling community. Teaming with local developer Bubba O’Keefe, the two collaborated on any number of projects aimed at rebirth of Clarksdale, including the creation of The Juke Joint Festival in 2004. The festival, along with endeavors by others determined to bringing a dying downtown Clarksdale back to life, brought the Blues to center stage in the town of slightly less than 20,000. Although in the early stages, some residents were opposed to making the Blues such an important focus in the revitalization of the downtown area, today even “little ole ladies donning hats” can be seen wearing festival arm bands and traveling from “joint to joint” during the event!
Ten years ago the average stay for a tourist in Clarksdale was two hours, and there was live music typically only on Friday and Saturday nights. Today there is live music seven nights a week, and the town boasts tourists from at least 28 foreign countries and 46 U.S. States, plus D.C., some of whom spend a night or two in one of the charming boutique hotels. In addition to the Juke Joint Festival, there are eight smaller festivals a year, with a Film Festival filling the slower winter months.
“authenticity of the Blues…”
Roger Stolle’s love of Blues and for the people who make it is palpable. He has dedicated his life to presenting the authenticity of the Blues, and Cat Head is headquarters for that intent. The charming store is packed with everything imaginable about the music form—CDs, vinyl albums, tapes, photos, books, art, tee shirts, and folk art, and a vast array of knowledge about anything Blues related to be imparted to visitors just for the asking. If there’s a Blues event happening anywhere in the Delta, you can be relatively certain of uncovering complete details from the “pusher of the Blues” at Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. The store was listed by Paste Magazine as one of the “17 coolest record stores in America,” was named in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, (Workman Publishing) and received a Keeping the Blues Alive award, from the Blues Foundation. A stop by the store and an introduction to its charismatic owner should be on the top of the list for anyone visiting the Mississippi Delta—especially for anyone interested in the Blues.
In addition to his participation in the organization of the Juke Joint Festival, owning Cat Head Delta Blues, and Folk Art, Inc., and a Music and Tourism business, Roger Stolle has written a book about the Blues, Hidden History of Mississippi Blues, co-produced the award winning film M for Mississippi: a Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues and has produced several critically acclaimed Blues CDs/DVDs. In his “spare time” he is a magazine columnist for Blues Review, WROX deejay, XM/Sirius radio correspondent and Ground Zero Blues Club music coordinator.
Photos by Deborah Fagan Carpenter